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Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American-Muslim female comedian who believes that she can change the world through jokes. Although Negin’s career started in politics as a policy advisor for New York City, she quickly realized that she’d rather be doing comedy full-time.
Negin is an author (How To Make White People Laugh), actress and film director (The Muslims Are Coming! starring Jon Stewart and Lewis Black; her newest film is the rom-com 3RD Street Blackout). Negin hosts Fake The Nation, a political comedy podcast, and has been seen on channels including Comedy Central and MTV. She is a TED Fellow for her work in social justice comedy.
Negin was named to 50 Funniest Women by Huffington Post and 10 Best Feminist Comedians by Paper Magazine. Find out why in this interview!
(Published February 2017)
NEGIN’S EXPERIENCE WITH THE ARTS AS A YOUNG PERSON:
In general, with musical theater, the ballet, theater and more, it was this kind of escapism and feeling like you were in some kind of highfaluten world of artsy people.
DID YOU TELL JOKES AS A YOUNG PERSON?:
-No, I was pretty much a mute unit I was 14. I was really weird and awkward.
-I wanted to be President of the U.S. The real goal for me was to run for office, go into public policy and be a public servant but I kept doing all of this arts stuff on the side.
-What brought me out of being basically mute was that my drama teacher cast me as Kitchen Wench #3 in this play called “Once Upon A Mattress.” I feel like I really brought it as Kitchen Wench #3.
-It was the first time in my life onstage. We had this huge auditorium and it was packed for the show. I did my bit and everyone was laughing. I felt in that moment like I could say anything and they would listen because I just made them laugh so hard.
-I think that if you really get the feel of that laughter early on, it becomes like an addiction.
COLLEGE AND GRAD SCHOOL:
-The thing that really stole my heart was the college sketch comedy troupe. It was the most meaningful thing I did those four years. I loved every moment of it. I took it so seriously. It felt like that’s what I should be doing.
-I went to Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and got a Masters in Public Policy and simultaneously got a Masters in African-American Studies.
-When you’re a member of a really small underpopulated ethnic minority, you sort of glom on to the nearest large minority group that you understand. I knew that I wasn’t black. I think there is a particular social struggle in the U.S. that is defined by African-Americans not having a level playing field and, if we can sort that out, it’s going to work for the rest of us. I believed this to the point where I thought: if we can solve that, there will be a residual effect on other brown people. So that was the pull for me. I know that the black struggle isn’t my struggle, but I thought: it’s close enough.
-I went to grad school in a place (New York) where I could still do comedy. Stand-up rose above the rest of the forms because it was the first thing I got paid in.
-Stand-up was really about: show up, test it out in a nonthreatening open mic low status show and see if it works. If it does, turn that into a bit that you could take on the road or perform in better venues.
-It became addictive. I wanted to be up all the time.
-If you have a bad night, you immediately need to go up again so that it can be supplanted by a good night.
-Our memories are really short for when there is a lot of laughter and really long for when there is none.
-I think I can liken comedy to sports. I imagine that if you set a record for yourself and then beat that record, you feel great. Then you set another record for yourself and beat that one, you feel great. I think it’s really similar for comedians. It’s like: I killed it – there was a high density of laughter. Can I do better than that? You’re always kind of trying to beat your own record.
TRANSITIONING FROM POLITICS TO COMEDY:
-I was a policy analyst although I was still doing stand up at night.
-At a certain point, it was clear that though I loved the work of a public servant, I wasn’t happy in that environment.
-The real work of crafting policy that effects people’s lives is very detail oriented. It was just clear that comedy was drawing me in.
-I ended up leaving that job and had to figure out quickly how to sustain myself and earn a leaving as a comedian. In the early days, I was hustling to get whatever I could. I taught myself how to edit, started directing small things…and I didn’t technically know how to do any of these thing but I developed enough skills being a stage performer and writer that I felt I could do these other functions. A lot have cross over skills.
-I’ve always been drawn to various medium. I don’t feel like – oh, I’m a stand-up comic, so I can’t direct movies, or I direct movies so I shouldn’t be an actor or write books…and they are all related. There is a theme that runs through all the work and comedy is a big part of everything.
-The projects that I take on are whatever I’m excited to work on
-Growing up, I was addicted to TV, movies and books and probably deep down saw myself being involved in every aspect of them.
THEME OF NEGIN’S COMEDY:
-One of the things that was really upsetting to me as I decided to leave politics was that the job of a comedian was so narcissistic and self-serving and I didn’t want to be narcissistic and self-serving. I really wanted to try and change the world.
-Early on, I got a job writing at MTV and another one directing and writing at Comedy Central. I have been asked to write jokes about Justin Bieber’s abs and am not sure what my Justin Bieber ab joke is doing for the world or to better the planet.
-In order to sleep at night, I cooked up this notion of social justice comedy to do things that are comedic but helped uncover issues, change the dialogue and raise social awareness about various things.
HOW NEGIN GOT COMICS TO PERFORM IN HER MOVIES:
-I’m still shocked by the star-studded line up of comedians we got to be in “The Muslims Are Coming!” (documentary film).
-The thing that people might not realize about the comedy scene is that you’re a low level comedian walking into a club and performing with people who are at the top of their game. They are nice people and you can just approach them.
THE ADMINISTRATION AND WHAT’S NEXT:
-I think that my most recent film “3rd Street Blackout” is the only romantic comedy that has the distinction of having an Iranian-American-Muslim lady as the lead.
-That’s the kind of movie you really need in a self-care way during this administration.
-I’m going to keep putting out episodes of “Fake The Nation.” Every week we try to tackle this administration and figure out how to talk about it. How do we talk about activism, what is our role as citizens and what can we do? I want to parce the news, distill it and talk about the important stuff.
-I’m going to keep working with organizations like Move On and putting out videos.
-I do these ridiculous street action videos and think I’m going to end up doing a lot more because there are a lot of ridiculous policies. I like to take a policy and test it to its logical limits. What would it really look like? Maybe that way we can see how absurd it is.
-I doubled up for a long time. I worked really long hours, multiple days a week. I tried to compress time so that I could be a professional already.
-You have to spend a lot of time as an amateur until you can graduate into being a professional. It’s almost like pilots who have to do a certain number of hours before they are considered a pilot and it’s a lot of hours.
-When you’re in the arts, you have to do a crazy number of hours until you can be considered a professional and treated as such. You cannot be discouraged when you’re putting in the hours and nothing is happening. You just have to keep putting in the hours.
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