Comedian Negin Farsad Talks About “How to Make White People Laugh”

When the book How To Make White People Laugh landed on my desk, it fulfilled its promise immediately. The book’s bright yellow cover and bold title made me crack up. Iranian-American comedian Negin Farsad is the brains behind the new book, which turns out to be a breezy memoir about a bunch of different things: comedy, identity, TED Talks, and random funny stories about dating, family, and mixed drinks.

Farsad is known for her work on a subversive poster campaign countering Islamophobic ads put up in the NYC subway system in 2014. The ads for the American Freedom Defense Initiative (a right-wing group run by blogger Pamela Geller), compared Palestinians to “savages.” Farsad and friends launched a “Fight-Bigotry-With-Delightful-Posters Campaign” and—after two years of legal battles—won the right to put up posters mocking Islamophobia. Responding to bigotry with sarcasm is Farsad’s style—she’s also the director of 2013 film The Muslims Are Coming, which follows a group of Muslim comedians as they tour the United States doing stand-up.

I got the chance to talk with Farsad recently about her new book, being a patriotic teen, and the perils of mixing sex ed with driver’s ed.

SARAH MIRK: In your book, you talk a lot about media—who makes our media and what stories media tells. I was hoping to talk to you about—you have this chapter in the book called “Do Immigrants Spit Out More Patriotic Babies?” You start out with a story of going to summer camp at Yale when you were in high school. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about that story for people that haven't read your book. You were somehow a super patriotic and super nerdy kid.

NEGIN FARSAD: Yeah, well just to put that into context, I was president of the debate team and vice president of the theater club. So I was a very special crossover dork, and I reveled in debating and doing plays. And anyways, I was just very nerdy. The summer after my junior year of high school, I ended up going to a summer camp at Yale, which—where basically we wrote term papers for fun! That's the kind of camp it was. It was a camp where you wrote term papers. I was there with one of my best friends, who's a Romanian immigrant, Anca. My roommate that was assigned to me there was this Indian-American girl named Kiran. Kiran and I were talking about how we didn't have an American flag in our dorm room, but we both had American flags in our bedrooms at home. We were like, Oh, you know, just to spruce up the place, we should try and get our hands on an American flag, and we couldn't really find one. There aren't that many flag stores on the streets. So we decided to staple a bunch of pieces of paper together and then draw an American flag. We put it up in the dorm room, and we had the Romanian immigrant take a picture of the Irani-American Muslim and the Indian-American pledging allegiance to this really actually hideous flag, ‘cause we were not very good at drawing it. And it just is one of those things that you sort of do as a teenager, but we were uber-patriotic teenagers, really followed the American political system, the news, the elections, all of that stuff, as teenagers and really cared about all of the outcomes. And when we debated—[we] kind of did these debates that had no real consequence ‘cause we were in high school, and nobody cares what a 16-year-old has to say. But we were just so entrenched and heated about it. I think that part of it is because our parents were immigrants who were always teaching us that, like, “Hey, this country you're in? We didn't get to grow up here. You better appreciate it.” And we did. It's something that I think is instilled in a lot of first-generation kids who are children of immigrants.

I think that's so interesting because there's this conception that people have an attachment to the United States because of their history here, because your family spans back generations. But the story that you tell there frames it totally differently. Why do you feel like you have such an attachment to America and patriotism when your family had only been here for a couple decades?

Well, I also had lots to compare it to. We would go back to Iran for summers and stuff like that, and I knew my entire extended family is in Iran. We were the only ones in the United States. And I was the only one who had been born in the United States. So I kind of reserved this very strange position in a larger family of the American cousin. I would go back to Iran and have a wonderful time, and I talk about what it's like to go back to Iran in How to Make White People Laugh. But one of the things that happens, I think, when you go back to a country that might be in the throes of war, as Iran was in the '80s, or might be just not as economically stable as the United States, or may be repressive as Iran is with the Islamic regime, you compare your life constantly. I just thought, Oh my gawd, I really lucked out. By just being born in this one country, my life is gonna turn out with—I'm gonna have a thousand more opportunities than my cousin. That's not fair, and it made me feel very guilty and also extraordinarily grateful. I think because you can constantly make that comparison, it makes you just hold on to the country you have so much tighter and with that much more love.

It's also interesting, your background and your experiencesI mean, you're not like a jingoistic patriot who's voting for Trump, not by a long shot.

[Laughs]  no.

You have a master’s degree in African-American studies and another one in public policy. So I'm wondering, when you were that super-patriotic teenager, what was your conception of American history? Did you remember learning about American history, and were you critical of the country then? Or did your criticism and your critical eye on our history come later?

Well, I mean, one of my favorite classes was American history in, I think it was our junior year of high school, or our senior year. I double-majored in government and theater as an undergrad before getting those master’s degrees, which, like all these degrees for a comedian, they're a requirement. I think in high school, I definitely went through lots of identity confusion. I was in a high school that had a really large Mexican population, and I longed to be a part of the Mexican-Americans. They had people like César Chávez, and they had ranchero music, and they had issues and icons, and all the teachers could pronounce their names. Teachers would go down the attendance list like: “Aurelia Rodrígo!” And they would roll their Rs. There was whole, extreme recognition of this ethnic group, and I longed for that. Because when it came to me, they just didn't know what to do with me. They'd be like, “Megin, Megreen.” They couldn't pronounce my name. One teacher called me “Noodle.”

Noodle?!

And then she laughed and laughed. She thought it was so funny, and I was just like, “That's the wrong— We're a rice-based people. It doesn't even make sense.” She ended up calling me “NF” for the rest of the semester, which was actually also traumatizing, ‘cause she was just like, “I just can't pronounce your name!,” and that was that.

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Wait. When you told that story, I thought it was maybe a substitute teacher. But you're saying that was a teacher for an entire semester?

For an entire semester [chuckles]. The class was driver's ed combined with sex ed. We had both of those classes in the same hour, and so the first 30 minutes would be like, “This is how you do a three-point turnabout.” And then the second half hour would be like, “And now let us turn to the backseat of the car where the boning happens!” So then we all learned about sex. But yeah, it was a full semester of this woman calling me NF. But I think early on, I longed to be Mexican. And then, I think like everybody, I was moved by the history of black Americans, and how could you not be moved? I think in college, that's when—I have the introductory chapter of my book is called “I Used To Be Black” because in college, sometimes I felt black, or sometimes pretty black, or sometimes really black. Other times just Don Cheadle. And then, still other times I was just hungry, and a bag of Cheetos kind of cleared up an identity confusion. I identified with the black struggle, and I wanted to fight for the black struggle and level the playing field. Even though I knew the black struggle was not my struggle, I sort of was like, “Eh. Close enough!” You know what I mean? And I think a lot of underpopulated ethnic minorities do that, because they think, Okay, well that thing isn't my thing. I'm Pakistani, or I'm Indian, or I'm Sri Lankan, or I'm Filipina, or whatever it is. You look at this kind of well-developed minority culture, and you think, That's not my culture, but I'll take it. I think a lot of people like me do that until they sort of figure out what they can do. I think a lot of that had to do with me diving deep into American history and just being jarred by African-American history.

That's something really interesting you point out about how you felt a connection to the black civil rights movement, in part because there wasn't a lot of history that you learned about the history of Iranian-American people in the United States. You didn't have your own icons to look up to who were Iranian-American. You didn't have your own movements to look up to that were Iranian-American.

Yeah.

And that's such an important part of forming identity, your own political identity.

I think that's why it took me many degrees and a lot of stand-up to kind of get to where I am right now, because I didn't have those things. If you grow up on Friends, you're sort of like, “I wish I was Jennifer Aniston!” That doesn't mean—that's not tenable for a little Iranian-American girl. So I think you sort of dip your toe in a lot of different waters because there's just nothing for you to really hold on to for very long.

Well, and that speaks to the importance of having histories that do recognize the significance of different types of people in the United States. If you don't have those role models to look to and that history to look to, it can make you feel like, Well, who am I to aspire to something different?

Yeah, exactly. I think the lack of role models—And the thing is, when the stuff that was available for me was totally off-putting, because you would look in mainstream media—and I went to grad school in the aftermath of 9/11—and you look at mainstream media, you would say, “Okay, there's Muslims. They're dusty dudes wielding AK-47s in the desert. And then there's these women in black shrouds that look like they're just floating.” And then whenever they showed, “Here's a depiction of Islam!,” it's like a mass of people doing a prayer that looks like a CrossFit workout. And it just looks so intense, and it's made to look intense; it's presented as like, “Look at these Muslims. They're so intensely praying!” Like praying is suddenly a very bad thing? And all of the depictions sort of meant nothing to me. They didn't resonate with me at all. I think part of that is that we like to conflate, we like to think of the Middle East as one big, brown violent blob. We don't wanna recognize that there's different countries. We're just sort of like, “Oh, Tunisia? No, thank you. I'll take my hamburger with ketchup please.” You know, we just don't have an understanding of nuance for that part of the world. I think for me, that was what I had to go with, and I think part of being out there and making movies and doing stand-up and whatever is kind of forging an identity for myself. Because I was given nothing really positive to hold on to from the media.

That's something that your book, How to Make White People Laugh, really talks about a lot is: Who's telling the stories in our society? And how do their identities shape the stories that we see? One of the examples that you point out, which is something that comes up a lot in our culture, sadly, is how violent acts are framed immediately in their aftermath by media that's reporting on those violent acts. When an act of political violence is committed by a white person, it's often called—

Violence.

—and “act of violence,” or “tragedy,” something like that. When it's committed by a brown person, the spin, the way it's framed is immediately: “terrorism.”

Terrorism, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's funny because there are plenty of political and religious motivations that go around in these other acts of violence. I list a couple of examples in the book [laughs]. It's funny ‘cause now that we're talking about it, it sounds like it's not a comedy book. But it is even when I talk about violence. So for whatever reason, we have just a different set of rules when it comes to talking about violence that comes from a brown person. The Charleston shootings were motivated by a certain sociopolitical and religious ideology, and we should call that out. But we really don't call that out. But if that had been a brown person, they would've been, “Acting as agents of ISIS!” Even though they have no formal connection, they would've been been like, “Inspired by ISIS for sure,” and we've seen that narrative play out.

You work in so many different mediums—in comedy, in film, in print. Do you feel bolstered by the work that you've done and like, “Yes! Our media climate is getting better, and the representation is getting better?” Or does it feel like you're carving out this little niche, but mostly you're banging your head against a wall?

You know, I think there's something about the entertainment business that's like, they just are weeding people out for years before they give anyone an opportunity. So part of that is just the nature of the business, that you're supposed to bang your head against a wall for a really long time before you get to start banging your head against a soft thing. So that's, I think, partially the business. But also, I think things are getting better. I like to point out that for a long time, we just had Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project. Then we had a 200% increase in brown shows, because then Aziz Ansari had a show.

Ha! You’re right.

Still only two shows! But it's better than nothing. You know what I mean? I'll take it. I think that there is a hunger for it, and now we're even seeing a capitalist imperative. There's money reasons for you to make a show more diverse, just because it makes more money. You should make media that has female leads, like Scandal and Grey's Anatomy. These shows, they make more money than other shows. So even if you just hate the idea of diversity but love the idea of money bags, that should be enough motivation for you to flip the switch.

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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