If you haven’t heard of Negin Farsad, you are in for a treat because this woman is brilliant. Just like her inspirations, Farsad is unbound by genre. She’s an Iranian American who blends comedy with social justice. Negin is stand-up comedian, sketch writer, documentarian, filmmaker, former policy advisor and Ted Fellow. Her first book, How to Make White People Laugh, a memoir of essays, was recently published and her fourth film, 3rd Street Blackout (co-created with Jeremy Redleaf), premiered at Tribeca Film Festival April 29th.
3rd Street Blackout is based on the five-day-long stretch New York City endured without power following Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. It’s a hilarious, heartwarming story of a tech-savvy couple that have difficulty reconciling when they’re “off the grid.”
I had a chance to speak with Negin Farsad, who shared with me the earliest inklings of her career in comedy, film and social justice that include but are not limited to, a high school musical titled, Once Upon A Mattress.
When did your love for comedy begin?
NF: Television was a big babysitter for me growing up. At a very young age, I remember coming home alone, my parents were working, and I would turn on the TV and I would look for I Love Lucy playing in the afternoon. I think that must’ve done something. It’s funny because I was a perfect student. I was number two in my high school class. Should’ve been number one, we won’t talk about it, I’m not bitter. Point is: I was really good so my parents would let me watch TV, so I watched a lot of television as a kid, and a lot of that was reruns of Three’s Company, the stuff that was on in the afternoons, and weird rerun television.
It tracked back to that, but the truth of the matter is, I remember when I was 11 years old, I walked into the living room to my parents and I was like, I want to be the first Muslim president of the United States, and that was really my goal. I pushed everything academically in that direction, and I was always doing theatre. I was president of the debate team and vice president of the theatre club, which is a very hardcore, cross-over dork category. I really wanted to change the world. I was really into politics from a very young age, but in high school I played not Kitchen Wench #1, not Kitchen Wench #2, but Kitchen Wench #3, in the musical production of Once Upon A Mattress. I got such huge laughs. I was so sold once I did that, and I didn’t know how sold I was, but I was just obsessed. I started auditioning for everything and it went onto college and I double majored in government and theatre. I really did both things for a long time, hoping that my comedy interest would just sort of subside. Even in college, I was in a sketch comedy troupe — it took up more time than my academics. I was so devoted.
And then I moved to New York and I was like, No, I’m going to grad school, I’m an adult, I’m going to wear pantsuits, and I got a masters in African American studies and another one in public policy. I was at Columbia and I was doing “The Thing” to try and be a real person. I got a job as a policy adviser for the city, but I was doing stand-up at night the entire time. In grad school, people would tell me, We’re doing a study group, and I was like, That’s cute. I’ve got a set downtown. It was just ridiculous. At a certain point, my friends staged an intervention and they were like, You want to be a comedian! and I was like, What? No! It was hard for me to be in a field that felt so narcissistic and self-serving. I really wanted to be about public service and that’s why I make stuff like, The Muslims Are Coming because I feel like my work has to be about something or else I’m a terrible person.
So when did you quit your job as a policy advisor and say, “Alright, I’m going to do comedy full time”?
NF : 2007? 2008?
That’s fairly recent!
NF : I was laid off, so they sort of made the decision for me. Living in New York City is — you don’t have money, basically. That’s all that it means. I think having the job made it possible for me to keep doing stuff at night without excelling at the degree that I should have. Once I got laid off, I had this small period of time to figure it out beyond unemployment and figure out how to earn money and stand-up was the first thing that earned me money. Then I had a gig, I was directing, I was supervising a Comedy Central show, I got a writing job for MTV and another one at PBS and I started getting gigs on the road and then the road became really tiring, so that’s kind of how it all began.
That’s pretty fast. Isn’t it the rule for stand-up that you do it for ten years before you “make it”?
NF: I mean, I think I’m still in my ten-year period. I’ve done more things and I have a little bit more attention now, but I still feel like I’m a little man on the totem pole. I’m still fighting — less than I had to in the early days. Part of it is that I’m a stand-up comic and that’s my first identity, but I’m also a filmmaker. This is my fourth film. I took the time to do those movies and tried to keep the stand-up going while I was doing them, but I didn’t excel at stand-up while I was making movies because you have to be out six nights per week and I couldn’t do that when I was filming or working for Comedy Central or whatever. I’ve become very much a person that’s like a stand-up, but also a writer, but also an actor. I haven’t shied away from other genres, other platforms, other media. I wouldn’t be surprised if I came out with a mime show… I would actually be surprised if I came out with a mime show. I feel very unbounded by that and I think that’s maybe part of it.
Who are your influences in comedy and film?
NF : The first movie that I saw that gave me a tingle in my loins to make a movie was Me and You and Everyone We Know, created by Miranda July. I walked out of the theatre, and I just felt like things happened in my heart and I wanted to know how to do that, to feel that way again and be in charge of making other people feel that way. And also it felt like a movie. She is a really inspiring woman, also unbound by genre. She started out as a performance artist, she didn’t give a shit that film isn’t performance art. It doesn’t matter. That you can move and flow between these platforms. And she writes books. She’s just remarkable, and I think that gave me a feeling.
In 3rd Street Blackout, were any of the things your characters endured during the blackout taken from real life, such as bars that were entirely candle-lit?
NF : That happened. I went to a bar on Halloween night and people were in costume during the blackout. I was going these candle lit bars where you had to pay in cash. It was crazy. It was amazing. We were talking to everybody. You’d walk up to someone and ask, Hey, how’s your blackout been? Did anything happen to your apartment building? What’s your deal? Do you know anyone in the blackout that needs help? It was remarkable. I live on 3rd street, so that’s true, and I’m a Ted fellow so that’s also true, but I’m not a neuroscientist, and I had a guy at the time. An hour into a blackout when you’re with a dude, and we actually had a couple other people there — evacuees from avenue D — and we were all looking at each other like, What do we…do? It’s 9pm. We started writing songs on the piano. Ridiculous songs. We wrote so many weird songs during that time. We left notes on buildings and with bodegas. It a was just really lovely. We hung out with our neighbors.
I can’t believe Hurricane Sandy was only four years ago.
NF : And it was five days long. It’s funny because by day three, you’re sort of like, Maybe this is what life is now. What if the power just never came back on? The showers are cold, but it’s cool.
Were these tech-savvy characters based on characters in your life, or was that taken from the experience of living without technology?
NF: Yes! Jeremy has done a bunch of hackathons. My first film was a movie called Nerdcore Rising, and it was about nerds who rap. I spent a considerable amount of time going to these video game conventions and hanging out. That whole world — I’m not a part of it, but it was just eye-opening and fun and ridiculous. There’s so much humor there and love, and an interesting intimacy of just kind of — "You love this game? I love this game! " Nerdcore Rising gave me a great view into that world.
Your book, How to Make White People Laugh — Can you tell me what it was like doing comedy as an Iranian American post 9/11?
NF : My parents came here during the Iran hostage crisis, so shit was weird for them, and we were in a very conservative part of Virginia with a lot of very shitty views and a bunch of racism. Part of why my parents moved to California was to get away from all of that, so I’m very lucky that I didn’t experience the brunt of it. I was a baby when they were going through that, but it was very much a part of my upbringing to know that they had gone through it. Being Iranian, was always an otherizing experience. I always spoke Farsi at home, I had the most strict rules, I think I likened my parents to Guantanamo Bay prison guards in the book. I mean that in a loving way because I think I turned out okay. I had such strict rulesthat were very not in line with my friends who were going to homecoming. I went for so long trying to be Mexican or black in college. In grad school I longed to be a part of these other groups because I felt like, Well, they’re not Iranian but they’re close enough and there’s a struggle that is clearly identified. I understand it, even though it doesn’t address me exactly, but I want to fight for it. I felt like there was a thing that I want to fight for or something. Because there wasn’t a clear discourse on being Iranian American or a Romanian American or being a Sri Lankan American, these are just underpopulated minority groups that kind of get zero chatter on the narrative plane. What happened after 9/11, suddenly there was this group that were called the Muslims and they were evil and it made me think, I will always fight for the Mexican plight, I will always fight for the African American plight, I will always fight for issues but now I’m gonna add the Muslims to that because I am one and the iconic image of Muslims as terrorists is something I don’t understand.
Can you tell me about creating comedy for a white audience, when white culture defines the culture?
NF : From the very beginning, I was performing for white audiences. I think my entire career I’ve spent trying to make white people laugh. We still live in this paradigm where white people control a lot of stuff and in order to shift power and shift the cultural thinking, we need to address them directly. I think that comedy is the best way to do that because it’s like, Here’s something hilarious that’s a fart joke but inside of the fart joke is a discourse on social inequality or income inequality. That’s been my method. I did an ask-me-anything on Reddit yesterday, and a commenter asked, “Why you you hate white people? " It’s funny to me because anyone in the white world is feeling attacked by literally a short girl in the corner who dresses like a cartoon character and provides actually no threat. And the title is really, just funny. It’s something that I’ve had to deal with. You tell me what it’s like to be an Iranian American performing for white people – trying to get mainstream audiences to give a fuck about what you’re saying. That’s all I know. I’m not trying to shove it down anyone’s throat, it’s just my life. You might hear a comedian talk about being catholic, about how their mom lives in Florida. This is all I do is talk about my life and my experience.
Were you always political within your comedy or did you become political?
NF : I was definitely always political, and I’ll tell you why. I think I was always political in general. Like I said, I did a lot of debate, but I separated that from the comedy. Early on I was in a sketch comedy troupe that was mostly men. The pressure to write material that made the men laugh was very strong. In the early days, I would be like, Here’s a sketch about super heroes! Here’s one about video games! What do you think of this fart joke? I really tried to be a dude and to get my comedy chops that way. I think that’s a really common thing that happens to female comedians. It took me a while to realize that I had my own voice and I should write from that voice. I remember writing a sketch back in the day about weapons of mass destruction in 2004 or something and making things more explicitly political but funny. The material is not about being partisan, it’s about justice.
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