Muslim Comedian Negin Farsad On How To Make White People Laugh

Photography by Jordan Matter.
An Iranian-American Muslim female comedian with a master’s degree in African-American studies walks into a café. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke; it’s the beginning of a profile on Negin Farsad.

Farsad knows her unusual comedic background, which includes two master’s degrees from Columbia University, one in the aforementioned discipline and another in public policy from the School of International and Public Affairs, is always good for a laugh. That’s probably why she jokes about it any chance she gets.
During her 2013 TED Talk on the lack of icons for those, like her, who identify themselves as multi-hyphenates, she introduced herself by saying, “Like most comedians, I have a master’s degree in African-American studies.” The crowd laughed. “Very typical, you’ve heard it before.”

But, what Farsad is trying to do with her comedy is no laughing matter. She is what she likes to call a “social justice comedian,” which means she’s looking to start an all-inclusive conversation about the social issues the world is facing. When Farsad sits down for brunch at Café Orlin in New York's East Village, wearing a bright-yellow swing coat, a navy-blue polka dot dress, and a pair of red glasses that perfectly match her lipstick, she shares with me the rules for being a social justice comedian.
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“If you’re trying to take on the dominant culture, your job is to really address white people,” Farsad explains. “And as a comedian, my job is to really make white people laugh and change their minds.”

Comedian Dean Obeidallah is of Palestinian and Italian descent and worked with Farsad on a 2012 documentary called The Muslims Are Coming!, which finds Muslim-American comedians traveling through Middle America to combat Islamophobia with humor. He believes Farsad’s approach to comedy is “funny in a smart way.” It’s comedy that gets people thinking, whether they like it or not.

“That’s really important,” Obeidallah told Refinery29 over the phone. “Sometimes that means that everything isn’t funny. That it’s not 100% hilarious every time. But as long as you’re missing trying to be smart and clever and thinking things through, that’s better. She understands that.”

That’s the other thing about social justice comedy: it’s sneaky. Farsad isn’t interested in lecturing audiences about why we need new icons, but you may find yourself thinking about how many nonwhite actors you see on TV as you laugh at one of her jokes — that may or may not include a reference to semen.
Photography by Negin Farsad.
“You can have a treatise on income inequality but encased in a really sophisticated dick joke,” Farsad says sounding very convincing. “That’s kind of the pinnacle of what social justice comedy is, really great dick jokes.”

When Farsad was growing up in Palm Springs with a Southern accent, the result of an early childhood spent living in Virginia, she wasn’t worried about telling jokes with a purpose. She was much more focused on becoming president.

“I remember at 11, I just had a flash, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be president of the United States,’” Farsad says. “Like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what it is.’ I went and told my parents and they were like” — she says in an Iranian accent — “‘Okay, go do your homework.’”

While Farsad was focused on being POTUS, she always had a passion for performing. Thanks to some color-blind and gender-blind casting at her high school, she was able to nab starring roles in plays that were written for white men. “I sort of didn’t realize it was special. I was just like, ‘I’m getting great parts! This is great,’” Farsad says with a laugh about her drama teacher’s enlightened casting choices. “I loved [performing] and I think like, there’s something that happened to me in taking command of the audience. I realized they were listening.”
But, Farsad says you can’t accuse her of not trying to go the straight-and-narrow route. While at Columbia, she interned with New York Congressman Charles Rangel and then Senator Hillary Clinton. While interning with Clinton, Farsad told us later via email, she mostly stuffed envelopes and only “managed to say hello and goodbye to [Clinton] some number of times, there's no reason for her to remember me.” What Farsad does remember, though, is that “whenever [Clinton] walked in the room, I got the feeling that her staff loved her. That she created a calm in the room — like Hillary is here and she knows exactly how to steer the ship… It also seemed like she had a reasoned and thoughtful answer to every question. She struck me as the kind of person who could handle anything.”

In her book, Farsad explains her early mind-set in one very honest statement: “I used to feel Black.” Not because she actually was Black, but because, as she writes, “There’s a kind of Blackness that is defined by its opposition to whiteness.” While she struggled quietly with the lack of Iranian or Muslim representation in the media during the '90s, she watched the Black struggle get national attention. This struggle didn’t include any Iranians, but, as Farsad writes in her book, she thought “close enough. That’s what a lot of hyphenated Americans say to themselves when they glom onto the larger minority groups: close enough.”

But now, Farsad takes more of a Brandy approach to ethnic representation: almost doesn’t count. Though the struggles of being a minority group in America are similar, they’re not the same. In this post-9/11 world, she and other Muslim performers need to be out there to show that Muslims are all different, that they aren’t the “hook-nosed terrorist” stereotypes that are too often seen on TV. (Farsad calls herself “culturally Muslim” because she is lapse in the religion department.)

This is something that becomes clear to Farsad any time she takes the stage outside of New York City. “There’s always this assumption that I’m going to be like very clean or very safe,” Farsad says, chalking this up to being billed as a Muslim comedian. Thanks to her penchant for dick jokes, though, she’s not any of those things, and she can often tell the exact moment when a crowd realizes this. It usually involves them covering their mouths with their hands in utter shock. “Like, Japanese schoolchildren or something. It’s really weird. Like, they all become 5-year-old girls suddenly,” Farsad says. “And that’s when you’re like, ‘Oh, you thought I wasn’t capable of saying something that mattered.’”

Whether she’s telling a joke about the difference between Iranians and Arabs or about the time she struggled with telling her mom about taking an STD test, Farsad makes her jokes count. She’s not interested in pandering to an audience that doesn’t want to accept who she is, which is why she says she isn’t an “ethnic comic.” Her core audience is largely made up of white liberals, and she’s had Muslim women walk out of her performances before, deeming them too offensive.

This actually happened while filming The Muslims Are Coming!, and you see Farsad in the next scene in her hotel room, in tears, talking about what it feels like to have her own people reject her. She says that though the moment was tough to film, it ultimately helped people come around. “I sort of take them to task for not accepting me,” she says. “And so, I feel like I guilted some people into saying, ‘I’ll give her a chance, okay.’”
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Photography by Andrew Walker.
But not everyone is so open-minded when it comes to her brand of comedy. Like any female comedian whose work is on the internet, she’s bombarded by hateful comments from people who hope she dies, kills herself, or gets cancer. These comments usually show up on funny videos like the one she did for MoveOn.org called “The Bacon Test,” which attempted to figure out who was Muslim and who wasn’t by their willingness to consume pork. “I think it’s whenever I take on my identity,” Farsad says, “is when they really want me to die.”

When Farsad visits red states that maybe don’t have a large Muslim population, she gets asked why more Muslims don’t publicly condemn terrorism or how she feels about 9/11. Surprisingly, the latter question is one she gets a lot in her travels — a Florida woman who owns an antique shop even asks her this in The Muslims Are Coming! — but it doesn’t offend Farsad. “I don’t want people to pretend that they don’t have that question. It’s a really honest question, and I don’t fault anyone for having it,” she explains, mentioning that false reports of Muslims cheering on 9/11 don’t help the situation. “I think the fact that she felt comfortable enough to ask it is really the moment where I think things get better. You know what I mean? Not that she would have that question, but just that she’s willing to say it out loud.”

She hopes after reading the book, people will start taking a closer look at the racist propaganda that exists all around them that they don't even notice.

Farsad hopes How to Make White People Laugh will help answer some of the questions people have been too scared to ask. And get you laughing — even if she did a lot of crying while writing it.

The tears that went into the making the book will seem like nothing, though, if it actually gets people thinking. Farsad hopes people read the book and question why Hollywood can’t stop miscasting the limited number of nonwhite roles that exist. Her example being Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, which hired Gael García Bernal to play an Iranian journalist. “I’m not saying Gael García Bernal isn’t Iranian,” Farsad jokes, “but I am saying he’s definitely Mexican.”

She hopes after reading the book people will start taking a closer look at the racist propaganda that exists all around them that they don't even notice. Last year, Farsad took on the MTA for allowing anti-Muslim ads on the subways by creating her own pro-Muslim posters that joked about frittata recipes and really great hugs. It wasn’t easy to get them inside the subways, she got pushback from the MTA for using words like “poo” and “genitals” on the posters and had to eventually take the transit authority to court to prove that her posters weren’t “political” content. But a year of fighting to get them made (the posters can currently be seen in subway stations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn) gave her a look at the resistance people have to expanding how they view minority groups. “Our commitment to viewing America as a white dominant culture and having the discussion be black and white, is really strong,” she says. “Resistance is palpable.”

But that’s really Farsad’s goal in everything she does: to push against that resistance and show that having better representation of what Americans look like now is a good thing. She's doing this with her book and with her new movie, 3rd Street Blackout, a sweet rom-com she starred in and co-directed about a tech-savvy couple who has to deal with their flailing relationship in a blackout. She also plans to eventually run for local office in New York City. “I’m one of those absurdly into the neighborhood people,” Farsad says. “I care very deeply about local businesses in general. I feel a pang when I see a restaurant that’s like failing or something.”

Farsad’s come to learn that this kind of systemic social change can't happen overnight, but it can happen. It will just take time. It was actually her dad who helped her realize that what she was fighting for was important. Years ago, when she was a struggling comedian, Farsad called him on the phone to let him know she wouldn’t be home for the holidays. She didn’t have enough money for a plane ticket from New York to California. She told him she felt like she wasn’t progressing, that she was a disappointment. Her dad, though, had a different take on what she was doing.

“He said,” Farsad remembers, “‘Oh no, it doesn’t matter because artists are like scientists. Scientists work for decades and decades and decades to find a cure or an innovation and they might not even see the fruits of their labor in their own life. But their work becomes the basis for a cure one day. Artists are like that, too. You may not see the fruits of your labor in your lifetime, but you’re doing something important right now.’”

Farsad tells this story with tears in her eyes, saying her family isn’t one for big emotions, but this made her realize that her parents believe her art has merit. “I just thought I was extremely disappointing because so often I couldn’t make ends meet and I had a credit card debt," she says. "And they were always so worried about my financial situation, and I was worried.”

Farsad didn’t get all mushy with her dad. Instead, she responded in the exact way you expect an Iranian-American Muslim female comedian to respond. “I said to my dad, ‘Thanks, but I hope I do experience some fruits before I die.’ I hope this isn’t an exclusively after-your-death thing.”
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