NOVEMBER 24, 2016
NEGIN FARSAD has been making people laugh for nearly a decade with her piercing comic routines on politics, sex, and navigating the world as an Iranian-American Muslim woman. In 2011, the Huffington Post named her one of the “53 Funniest Women.” She has given a TED Talk on social justice comedy, and has performed in the musical The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy and her own solo show, Bootleg Islam; she has also produced, directed, and performed shows for MTV and Comedy Central. As a filmmaker, she directed and produced Nerdcore Rising and The Muslims Are Coming! — and it was the latter project that first made me a fan. I met Farsad last October at a 2015 Austin Film Festival screening for 3rd Street Blackout, which she directed and produced, and in which she starred. How To Make White People Laugh is her first book, a compilation of essays about growing up as an Iranian American in Southern California. It features moving accounts of her longing to be African American or Mexican, and reflections on being Muslim in a post-9/11 world. We spoke by phone while she was in Seattle on a book tour, just days after the mass shooting at an Orlando gay night club — an event that ominously underscored the seriousness of her work in combating racism, stereotyping, and exclusion.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Your 2013 TED Talk on social justice comedy was titled “How to Make White People Laugh.” Was that the impetus for the book?
NEGIN FARSAD: I always wanted to write a book, and there’s this thing about admitting to the world that you want to write a book. You’re like, “Hey guys, I have enough stuff to say to fill a whole book,” which feels ridiculous. I always felt like I’d have to be in a different place in my career to write a book. Before The Muslims Are Coming! came out, I got the TED fellowship and an agent caught wind of it and was like, “I think you have a book in you. Have you ever thought about writing a book?”
I was like, “Oh my god! Yes, I’ve been embarrassed to admit it, and here is what I would do…” It took this external force to get me to be able to admit that.
The thing about writing a book, for me, was that there’d be no rules. So I was excited to write as many footnotes as my heart desired, as many side bars and whatever crazy tangents, and make up fake graphs, and that’s what made that form of expression so alluring to me.
Do you see your work in social justice comedy as being mainstream?
I still don’t think I’m considered mainstream, and it’s just because of my identity, not because of the actual method of communication. There’s a graph in the book about millionaires and snacks! If anything in this world is accessible, it’s snacks! It’s me talking about bunions! These are things that are not highly political. They’re not divisive, but I think that my identity politicizes things for no reason.
A comedian’s job at the end of the day is to take a concept and boil it down to basic essentials and communicate that back to the world in a funny way. So just as a professional job description, I’ve been trying to make things accessible from the very beginning. The only reason I haven’t been considered mainstream is because I am an Iranian-American Muslim female, not because my material is inaccessible.
The first movie I did was a documentary called Nerdcore Rising. It was about nerds and it’s very nerdy, and my goal was to make a movie about nerds where we laugh with them, not at them. I always want everyone to feel like they’re under this warm blanket with me. I want to be funny and still edgy and questionable and racy and all of those things, but I still want everyone to feel like they’re under the warm blanket. And I think with nerds — they are also this otherized group — I feel this wealth of empathy for them and for any kind of group, whatever story they have, I feel like I can view them in a boat with me.
Speaking of “otherness,” you titled your introduction: “I Used to be Black.” Later on in the book, you were Mexican. So I thought you might have some insight to help us understand the whole Rachel Dolezal thing.
Yeah! It’s funny, because there’s a footnote in the book where I say: This isn’t a Rachel Dolezal situation. I knew I wasn’t black, and I made it clear that I knew that I wasn’t black, based on a list of life criteria.
The Rachel Dolezal thing is really interesting to me because, for me and other people of color, we gravitate to larger minority groups because our group isn’t large enough to be recognized, and that’s how I’ve always viewed it. For someone like Rachel Dolezal, there’s maybe the allure of feeling like you have this energy and there’s this injustice in the world and you need to be in there fighting for it. I get that. Because shit is bad, and it’s bad for African Americans, and I understand that feeling — wanting to be part of doing something about it. But considering yourself to be, like you are a member, that’s too hard for me to understand. I don’t understand that, but also I am a member of a minority group already, so I really didn’t feel the need to sort of actively pretend to be, physically be, a hundred percent, another minority. So I don’t know what that feeling is, but I do understand that kind of draw — to want to fight for something.
We’re speaking today on the heels of the mass shooting in Orlando, with conversations in the news again turning to the threat of Islamic extremism in the United States, and you point out in the book that media outlets should stop having you, or other Muslims, come on the air to do “terror-splaining.” As you’ve been making the media rounds for your book, have you been put into that position again?
Yeah, so I did some media yesterday, and the first appearance that I made, the woman pulled me aside and said, “You know, now that this happened, we’re going to have to talk to you about it.” And I was like, “Okay.” I went into the green room and waited for my turn, and then the first interview they had was like the director of Finding Dory or something, and I was like: I wonder if the director of Finding Dory has to talk about the Orlando shootings? Like, I was wondering if people pulled him aside and said like, “Hey, because this happened, you, as the director of this movie, need to talk about it,” because my book had as little to do with the Orlando shootings as Finding Dory.
All I basically said was: What we have done a good job of doing — when it comes to people like Dylann Roof in Charleston or Adam Lanza in Newtown — is that we haven’t taken their actions and used those as representative for large masses of people. The one thing we haven’t done a good job of doing is talking about gun control. So we need to do more of that. But we don’t think all white guys are white supremisists or deranged lunatics who want to kill children, and I think we should do the same here, because this is an individual deranged lunatic who had shown signs of a problem, who was in a relationship with a woman where there was abuse. This is a man who had problems. And just as Dylann Roof was lured by white supremacy and the ideology of that, but had no formal ties — or maybe he did, I don’t remember, but there was no large institution backing his shooting — I think we can look at Omar Mateen in the same light. That’s how we need to be reporting and talking about these things.
I’ve said to producers who bring me on for Muslim stuff, “Hey, I have a master’s degree in public policy, and I was policy analyst for the campaign finance board. We’re in an election season. I would love to come in and talk about campaign finance reform.” Or: “I’d love to come in and talk about Citizens United, or other really critical issues when it comes to elections, so please consider me for that.” And I’m never considered for that. That’s part of the problem — that we pigeonhole. For as much as I’ve done on banks — and I’ve done work on so many things — I’m still pushed into this category of: She’s the Muslim girl, have her talk about Muslim stuff. “Oh, Orlando!”
It appears that producers aren’t very different in their thinking from the teacher you had in school who refused to pronounce Negin and instead called you “Noodle.”
Yeah, and it’s funny, because I look at the careers of people like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling, and whether consciously or unconsciously, what they have done with their careers is spent a really long time doing anything that wasn’t about their ethnicity — which gave them a kind of mainstream position in the comedy world. But it doesn’t matter that you do that, it’s still hard. You have to work four times as hard to convince anyone that you belong in mainstream comedy if you’re a person of color.
I’ve written on shows for MTV and Nickelodeon. I write jokes about Justin Bieber’s abs, and Zac Efron’s abs, and all the abs of One Direction. I mean, really, I’ve maniacally tried to do like three white things for every one brown thing that I do, so that I don’t get pigeonholed — but it doesn’t matter, because I still get pigeonholed. Someone said, “Oh, she’s exploiting her background and trying to capitalize on it to make money.” And my response was, “If capitalizing on your background as an Iranian-American Muslim lady was remotely lucrative, I’d be rich.” [Laughs.] Can you look at my body of work? My first feature film — which took me three years to make — didn’t have anything to do with brown people. All the shows I’ve written on for different Viacom networks have nothing to do with anything brown. If it was remotely lucrative to capitalize on your background, we would turn on the television and see a whole bunch of brown people running around, but we don’t see that, because it doesn’t work.
Which is odd, considering the fact that studies prove diversity works as well in business, which you’ve cited in the book, as it does in television and film. And yet there’s a Rumi biopic in the works with Leonardo DiCaprio on the wish list to star. Filmmakers claim that they want to break the Western stereotype of Muslim people by putting a white guy in the lead role …
Seems like the casting director needs to have a chat with me, because I could do that!
Seriously, have they learned nothing from Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt, the Nina Simone biopic, or any number of films where audiences have rebuked the project for insensitive color casting?
When Rosewater came out — that’s Jon Stewart’s movie about the Iranian journalist — I wrote a piece about it in IndieWire. Now, I love Jon Stewart, and he did a tremendous solid for me in being in The Muslims Are Coming!, so I’m truly indebted to him forever, and I love the work that he does. However, I was really shocked that he cast Gael García Bernal. I was doing standup at the time, and I would say, “Yeah, there’s this movie about an Iranian journalist starring Gael García Bernal, and I’m not saying Gael isn’t Iranian. I’m just saying he’s definitely Mexican.”
What was interesting to me was that literally no one gave a shit. It wasn’t a Twitter outrage. There weren’t a hundred op-eds written about it. The Nina Simone thing got some real attention, and I was like, is there something about ethnic on ethnic or something? I mean, is Margaret Cho going to play Paula Deen in her biopic? Because if there is no outrage, are we just blind casting, and it’s cool that he’s Mexican because Mexico and Iran are both shit countries, so it’s fine? I don’t know what the rules are now.
The fact of the matter is that a lot of the business works out of fear, and they fear that unless they have someone like Leonardo DiCaprio in bronzer playing an Iranian, the movie’s not going to make any money. But why don’t you try making a good movie, and the movie’ll make money. Shonda Rhimes has taught us that you can put a bunch of people of different colors on a screen and people will watch the show. They don’t even have to be famous. Why aren’t we taking a page out of that playbook? It’s crazy, because she’s the most powerful woman in Hollywood, and she’s proven it over and over and over again.
In terms of social justice comedy, who are the comics who have inspired you?
I feel like I’ve gotten inspiration from weird and disparate sources. In general, I really like the work of Robert Putnam — he’s a social scientist at Harvard. He wrote a book called Bowling Alone. The idea behind his book — building social capital — is one of the major tenets by which I live.
Basically, his argument is that the demise of things like the Key Club and the 4H Club and the Cotillion and all of that stuff has led to the kind of civic disengagement we have now. We don’t have the bowling leagues and we don’t have these moments where people come together, and that has led to the development of a lot of fringe ideologies — and mass murders are an example of that. People are more isolated and develop these crazy ideas, and there’s no civic engagement there to check them.
A very basic, fundamental principle that I have is that it’s really hard to hate people that you know. So your job is to know more people, and to be the community for those people, and not let them fall through the cracks. I think that would have a far-reaching impact on bigotry and on the development of these fringe ideologies that give us such violence. Even in 3rd Street Blackout, there was that theme of community, community, community, and how do we connect, because now we don’t have internet. I feel like that’s a lot of what I’m trying to do.
I also feel like you learn from your peers, and I have a friend who works at MoveOn.org, Justin Krebs, who’s also the founder of an organization called Drinking Liberally. The whole idea of it was to bring progressives around drinks once a week. They started out with one chapter in New York City, and it blossomed into almost 200 chapters around the country. What’s really beautiful about this is that it’s bringing people together and it’s solution-oriented. We spend so much time making people aware of what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, and we don’t have many solutions. Building social capital is a solution. Drinking Liberally, while it might seem to be about fun and drinking beer, is actually a solution, and what it has in common with comedy is that it’s fun.
But even you’ve admitted that the work of social justice comedy is not always fun, that “the fight in being a woman and the fight in being a person of color is the same fight, but being a woman and a person of color just adds twelve extra steps,” like trying to make a turducken for Christmas dinner. And yet you soldier on in spite of it.
The thing that happens with this work is that you’re not going to win every time. You’re almost never gonna win. You’re gonna do the work, and you might see someone laugh, and that might be the end of it for that day. Most of the time I don’t change people’s minds. People were asking me about the MPA poster campaign: “Why are you doing this? Do you really think a poster’s gonna make a difference?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t think a poster’s going to make a difference. What am I, crazy?” But I think it’s part of a continuum. I feel like — and this might sound really cheesy — but I can see someone laugh at a poster. They have a nice chuckle, and then another person has a chuckle, and another person has a chuckle, and over years those chuckles add up to millions, and when they do — that’s when you see some type of cultural shift.
So in that way, it’s kind of heartbreaking work, because I don’t always get to see the fruits of my labor. Because I’m just part of a continuum. So it has to be me and a lot of other people, and me again, and me again, and me again, continuing to do this work — and over a period of time I might get to see the fruits of my labor.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the co-author of Swirling. She is currently writing and producing an independent feature film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, and producing a women in jazz documentary, “…But Can She Play?”