Sauntering on stage in a cocktail dress and bright-red lipstick, Negin Farsad greets an almost entirely Caucasian audience this way: “I’m an Iranian-American Muslim female, just like all of you!” Pausing for laughs, she continues: “I’m also a social justice comedian, something I insist is an actual job.”
Born in New Haven to Iranian parents and raised in Palm Springs, Farsad crafts a kind of comedy that’s witty, aggressively cheerful, and all about the “other.” As she explains in an essay she wrote while she was a TED Fellow, “Islam doesn’t explain me, Iranian poetry doesn’t explain me, and apple pie doesn’t explain me.” Existing outside these neat categories, for the comedian, “means you complain about your identity and defend it in equal parts.” Her jokes thrive on the tension that comes from inhabiting disparate worlds; drawing from her graduate work in public policy and African-American studies, she highlights irony, difference, and injustices—and, often, where they coincide. Farsad makes people think while they laugh, in part by telling little-thought-of truths about Muslims—that they’re in possession of great frittata recipes, for instance, or that they hate telemarketers and“when the deli guy doesn’t put enough shmear on the bagel.” (Just like all of you.)
“We twist ourselves into knots convincing people that Islam is peaceful and varied before we realize that, wait a second, you can be a Muslim while also recognizing that Islam doesn’t even explain half of your behaviors!” says Farsad, who does no such twisting for the benefit of her audiences. Instead, she unwinds tired narratives about Islamic conservatism. She compares Iran’s alcohol ban to the strictures of Prohibition-era America, talks about the awkwardness of waiting for STD test results while maintaining an image of chaste Muslim femininity around her parents, and, once, she made a romantic comedy about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Totalitarianism, misogyny, and Islamophobia, in other words, aren’t just the butt of her jokes; they are the jokes themselves.
Named one of the Funniest Women of 2015 by the Huffington Post, Farsad is also the writer, director, and star of the uproarious documentary The Muslims Are Coming!; the host of Fake the Nation, a politics podcast; and the author of How to Make White People Laugh, a memoir in essays. She lives in New York City.
—Gemma de Choisy for Guernica
Guernica: In The Muslims Are Coming!, you call yourself a social justice comedian. What does that mean?
Negin Farsad: People kept referring to me as a political comedian, but I don’t feel like a political comedian because I don’t do jokes about Obama and Congress or whatever. I mean, I will in my Twitter feed, but in stand-up, I wasn’t doing that kind of stuff. I mostly want to highlight things that feel like an injustice, and that’s not really political. No one is going to—or should—say that bigotry toward Muslims is partisan. It’s a matter of being just or not being just. So that’s why I started calling myself a social justice comedian.
Guernica: So what characterizes social justice stand-up comedy?
Negin Farsad: Social justice comedy is nonpartisan. It’s funny, but it’s sneaky. The [thing] about social justice comedy—which I don’t necessarily think about political comedy—is that social justice comedy is welcoming. It mocks shitty ideas more than it mocks people who have shitty ideas, and it wants everyone to feel in on the joke, you know? It makes people feel like they’re in a hot tub full of puppies. There’s something about political comedy that sometimes closes people off, and my general goal is to open people right up.
Guernica: When did you start to think that comedy could be a tool to open people up—to change or broaden people’s minds?
Negin Farsad: I wouldn’t say it was right off the bat. In college I started doing sketch comedy, and I really wanted to use that to—I really wanted to fit in with the boys. It was always me and, like, twelve guys or whatever in a comedy group. I was just like, “I’ll do video game sketches! And jokes about my penis!” And then eventually I started to think, Oh, I don’t actually have to do that. At all. I actually have a legitimate point of view. I think every young comic goes through that phase where they’re parroting other people. But when you’re a woman, the only people around you are men, so that’s who you parrot.
For me, at a certain point, the political environment just started to shift so dramatically. After 9/11 I moved to New York, and it seemed like we started hardcore demonizing Muslims, and Iran, North Korea, and Iraq were being called members of this new Axis of Evil. So we were talking about people in these kind of crude terms, as if they were fully definitive, as if it explained everything about a group of people. So I started feeling… yuck. I had to counter that narrative.
I also have a background in public policy. I was a policy advisor for the City of New York before I was a comedian. I mean, I was doing comedy the whole time. I got a master’s degree in public policy and another master’s degree in African-American studies. I was always interested in social justice and in how policy can improve lives and level the playing field. So I think what ended up happening was that, when comedy took over [my life], I had to bring that other stuff with me.
I one hundred percent recognize that comedy is a more narcissistic profession and that I cannot directly improve people’s lives the way I could if I had stayed in the policy world. But the trade-off is that I’m happier doing jokes.
Guernica: In a short video for PBS, you mentioned that as a kid you grew up in Palm Springs with an American flag up in your bedroom. You called yourself an “über-dorky patriot.” What was that kid-patriot Negin like?
Negin Farsad: Oh, my God! I was so embarrassingly patriotic. One of my earliest memories is going to [the naturalization ceremony of my parents and my brother], who were not natural-born citizens. I remember they gave me a flag, and I sat and I watched my parents do the Pledge of Allegiance and I remember waving this flag. And I kept it! I kept this little, ridiculous flag. I still have it. I’ve had it since I was four.
I also remember that in sixth grade my social studies teacher gave us each a pocket Constitution—not unlike the pocket Constitution Khizr Khan held up at the Democratic National Convention—and I held onto that thing. It was in my backpack for fifteen years or something. I was just that invested. I really thought I was going to be the first Muslim president of the United States. And then, you know, Barack Obama beat me to it.
Guernica: What about the US won you over so zealously?
Negin Farsad: I think, at a subconscious level, that I must have been comparing Iran to the United States. We used to go to Iran for summers, and as a kid-kid, I didn’t have to cover up. But once I hit puberty, I did. And this is such a completely unsophisticated, stupid twelve-year-old analysis of covering up or wearing a hijab or burqa, but I just remember thinking, This is bullshit! This doesn’t happen in America! The privilege of being in the US—I took that very seriously. My cousins and my aunts and uncles, I mean everyone else was in Iran. I was the only cousin who was born here. So I have dozens and dozens of family members who don’t get to live this life, and I could see the difference.
For example, my uncle in Tehran had glaucoma, but the medication he needed was so prohibitively expensive as a proportion of a typical Iranian’s income that he just couldn’t afford it. It was cheaper for my parents to buy the stuff and take it with them when they went back to visit. Meanwhile, a lot of my relatives just couldn’t find work, no matter how well educated they were. Everywhere I looked, I could see the difference in possibility, I could see the difference in levels of oppression, I could see the difference in income and potential for income. And I also could see how difficult it was for my parents to leave their own families. That can’t be easy. So as a kid I guess all of that was working on a subconscious level, and now as an adult I think I have a very serious responsibility to my parents to fucking appreciate this shit, you know what I mean?
Guernica: I do. Let’s go back to what you were saying about women who cover up—
Negin Farsad: Well, it’s funny because, as I said, my analysis of covering up as a kid was so stupid because covering up is not actually the biggest fucking problem Muslim women have. It’s very symbolic and we talk about it as the end-all-be-all sum total of the Middle East’s faults, because it’s so visible. But if you talk to most Iranian women, it’s not at all the problem they’re experiencing or seeing that’s foremost on their minds.
Guernica: What is foremost on their minds?
Negin Farsad: Everyone’s got their own shit, but in general? Like, “It’s the economy, stupid!” It really comes down to that. There’s staggeringly little growth and opportunity, so a typical mom, say, is way more concerned about having a job and her husband having a job than she is about what she might have to wear to work. It’s not that different from the US in that it’s the nuts and bolts of family finances that concern most women. And, like, everyone else, too.
So when someone else criticizes [the Middle East] with the “they cover their women” argument, I’m like, “How dare you? You don’t know the first thing!” But then, obviously, I complain about it too. I guess I compartmentalize. Who doesn’t, right? But also, I can talk shit about my family, but you can’t talk shit about my family—it’s just that rule.
Guernica: Abrahamic faiths aren’t great when it comes to gender.
Negin Farsad: Oh, God, no, they’re all messed up. There’s a scene in The Muslims Are Coming! where we played a game called “Name That Religion!” We would read a verse from either the Quran, the Old Testament, or the New Testament, and people on the street would have to guess which book it was from. And the super violent ones everyone just assumed were from the Quran, but they were from the Old Testament. And even the New Testament! Religion can seem fucking crazy. It can. Especially if you take passages literally. But people—literalists—will say, “Oh, but that one’s a parable. Everything else, yes, take literally. But that especially crazy Old Testament verse about killing your daughter for cutting her hair? No, no, that’s a parable.” We’re always going to be cherry-picking to make religion make sense. Especially in the modern context.
Guernica: Do you have to cherry-pick in order to make your comedy jibe with your feminism? You have a lot of ironic jokes about your sexuality and sex life in the context of being a Muslim woman.
Negin Farsad: I have never felt inclined to censor myself. If I’d grown up around a lot of Muslims, I may have developed a particular sense of what is and isn’t a faux pas—like admitting to drinking or having sex. But I grew up with two really weird parents. My grandparents lived with us for a time, but they never said I should or shouldn’t do this or that. I just didn’t have that kind of peer pressure. So when I moved to New York City and I started doing stand-up, I spoke about my experiences without censoring only to realize much later that that—joking about booze and sex—is too much for some Muslims.
Guernica: What was that realization like?
Negin Farsad: I figured it out the hard way. Like, performing for a brown audience that hated me.
Guernica: How did that feel?
Negin Farsad: Well, I realized that might not be my audience.
Guernica: So do you write your jokes for a white audience?
Negin Farsad: Generally, if you want to have a mainstream career in the United States, then you have to be able to address “mainstream America,” which thinks it’s white. White people control a bunch of stuff. So in order to keep them happy and lubed up, I’ve been trying to make them laugh so they start fewer wars. But what’s also interesting to me is when nonwhite people tell me they feel like they’re reading their own autobiography when they read How to Make White People Laugh. That’s remarkable! We just don’t hear this kind of story of confused identity compounded by a binary concept of race.
Guernica: In How to Make White People Laugh, you write that you wanted to be Mexican when you were a kid because the Mexican kids at your school were your only other nonwhite peers. And then when you went to college, you felt black—not in a creepy Rachel Dolezal way, but because you identified with the anti-white-supremacist struggle—though you didn’t then know how to reconcile that with your own ethnicity. Tell me more about that.
Negin Farsad: You must have heard me say that in a recording of a book reading somewhere—“This is not a Rachel Dolezal situation!” I think I’ve said that, like, seventy-five times.
Guernica: It’s a helpful qualification.
Negin Farsad: I knew that the black struggle wasn’t my struggle. But I felt like it was my-struggle-adjacent, you know? I’ve always said that if you turn the dial in one direction, a Muslim is a Jew is an East Asian person is a Native American and so on. I feel very much that all of these struggles are kind of the same and—Hillary Clinton actually said this recently—when you get rid of one barrier, it opens up the gates for a whole bunch of people you didn’t even know would benefit from it. So not fighting for the black struggle is like not fighting for the Muslim struggle.
Guernica: When you start some of your stand-up routines, you greet the audience by saying, “I’m an Iranian-American Muslim female, just like all of you!” When did you start to feel more rooted in that identity?
Negin Farsad: When I was in grad school [in African-American studies] after 9/11, people were like, “Don’t you have your own thing?” And then George W. Bush kept pushing the Axis of Evil thing. It was sort of like, “You know, yeah, I do have my own thing, I do, I do.” But even then it’s not like anybody could have not known I was Muslim. I wasn’t hiding it or anything. And I also wasn’t like, “Let me recite a bunch of hip-hop so you can know that I’m down.” It was never about that.
Guernica: What has the 2016 presidential election done to your sense of humor?
Negin Farsad: Well, I’ll give an example. I did a video for MoveOn.org called “The Bacon Test” that I [filmed in] Washington Square Park. I’d ask people, “Are you Muslim?” and they’d say, “No,” and I would say, “Prove it!” and they would have to eat from this cold pile of bacon.
Guernica: Very Spanish Inquisition of you.
Negin Farsad: Exactly. If people wouldn’t eat the bacon, then I asked them to sign a Muslim registry, which was actually a bridal registry I’d picked up. Some people were like, “We’re vegan!” And I’d say, “But you’re Muslim to me! If you’re not going to eat the bacon, you’re Muslim.”
So this is the kind of thing I’m doing with [the election], where I’m taking a Trump policy to its logical extreme to see what that could look like. That’s kind of been my MO with this election.
There was a long time—maybe from last summer—where I was feeling a lot of anxiety. I guess that’s another side effect of this election. For everybody. But there were times—especially before the conventions—where [Trump and Clinton’s] poll numbers were neck and neck, so it seemed like, Holy shit, he could be president of the United States.
Guernica: What does the joke-writing process look like when you’re handling this kind of material? How do you take scary shit and turn it into something that calls attention to irony while also making people feel comfortable enough to laugh?
Negin Farsad: In general, I think there are some things that require time before you can talk about them. Some stuff that happened over the summer, for instance—the Philando Castile shooting, Alton Sterling, the police officers in Dallas—there was no room for jokes. But there are, of course, the policies that have given us those events. Now, there’s a lot of room for jokes there. When you’re looking at something difficult to talk about, there’s always a sideways way in that feels a little less personal to people. That’s where the joke lives.
Guernica: When you filmed The Muslims Are Coming!, you and the comedians who toured with you rolled through some dark red states—Alabama, Tennessee, Utah. Was there anything that surprised you about that trip?
Negin Farsad: I think my biggest fear about that trip wasn’t actually any kind of violence, which is funny because everybody else was really worried about that. But, come on, I’m 5 feet 3½ inches and I dress like a cartoon character. I just didn’t feel like I was a ripe target for violence. I’m a lady and I’m so far below most people’s eye level—at most I get ignored.
But by and large, thanks to the Internet, I think, a lot of hate has moved to more anonymous venues. A lot of people get their aggression out that way. Or they do some drive-by hating—you know, where they’re in a car and they yell something stupid out the window at a stoplight and then take off. It’s just not as involved and laborious to be a hater as it used to be. There’s not as much face-to-face interaction. Facebook’s made ’em lazy.
The thing I was most worried about was that we weren’t going to be able to have honest conversations. I was afraid the camera was going to turn people very PC, very worried, very sensitive. But I don’t even think people are being sensitive; I think people are just worried. The people we were talking to are afraid that one thing they say on a camera could ruin everything, that they’ll get fired, that they’ll be known and remembered only for this one thing that reflects badly on them. That’s a constant concern for some people, and it eliminates honest conversation.
So we followed one of my rules for social justice comedy: you make people super, super comfortable. You ply them with pastries. You give them chocolates. You flatter them. You make them feel like you’re with them and they’re with you and everything is cool. And it worked. We were able to break some people down and have a conversation and get them to ask us the questions they couldn’t bring themselves to ask in the first five minutes but could ask after twenty or thirty minutes. Questions like, “Why do you call yourself an Iranian American? Why can’t you just call yourself American?” That’s the kind of question so many white Americans have and don’t ask.
Negin Farsad: Because they’re afraid of being called racist.
Guernica: Is that kind of… pathetic?
Negin Farsad: Maybe, but it’s a legitimate question. And I don’t think it’s born out of racism.
Guernica: So when you approached people on the tour, you did everything you could to convey your good faith.
Negin Farsad: I tried, yeah. And I think the other thing is, I actually love people. I love meeting people, asking questions, hearing their stories. I’m a total extrovert, probably textbook definition. So being around people makes me feel great! I feel like that’s part of it. I happen to actually like the process.
Guernica: Did anything hurtful or scary happen on the trip?
Negin Farsad: Some stuff was depressingly predictable, like people shouting, “Get out of our country!” I think we show that in the movie maybe once, but it happened all the time. But the point of the movie is not to show the assholes of America being assholes. There are movies that have done that. The point of this movie was [to ask]: How can people build a bridge? How can you seek a bond between human beings that you wouldn’t necessarily expect?
Now, there was an incident I talked about [in How to Make White People Laugh] where we were run off the grounds, which was one of the more legitimately scary moments. We were in Decatur, Tennessee, and there was a state or county fair, and behind the fair were bare-knuckle boxing matches. So we had this brilliant idea. Well, most of us were against the idea, but I was like, “Guys, it’s gonna be great! Let’s go and talk to this dude and see if he’ll let us do stand-up comedy between these bare-knuckle boxing matches!” If you’ve never been to a bare-knuckle boxing match, it’s just what it sounds like. They’re boxing without gloves on.
Guernica: So the dudes who do this are—
Negin Farsad: Not into personal safety. There were many men with blood dripping from their hands and broken bottles of beer and snarling dogs. And as soon as I made the ask, I thought, Oh. This feels like a very dangerous situation. Go figure.
And of course the guy in charge came out, and he was shirtless—though in honor of the event, he was wearing a bowtie—and he grabbed a large clubbing-type stick that was just leaning against the wall—you know, the way sticks are—and he started running after us, yelling, “Y’all Muslims better get outta here!” Literally running us out and down this hill, and I was afraid I was going to trip on the hill because I was wearing cute fucking wedge sandals. Anyway. There was that fight-or-flight moment, which for some of us was predictable. For me it was a misjudgment on where it is you can have meaningful conversations.
Guernica: In what sense?
Negin Farsad: In the same sense that it’d be a waste of time to go hang out with a bunch of white nationalists: those dudes are too far gone. I’m not suggesting that people who bare-knuckle box are Klansmen; I’m just saying that you’ve got to pick the right environment. You can’t go into a heated environment—especially a physically violent one—and expect people to be calm and introspective enough to have a meaningful conversation about race.
Guernica: It amazes me that you’re still able to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to moral progress after literally being chased with a big stick. You actually have faith in people. You think, deep down, we can all be good.
Negin Farsad: Well, yeah. God, I hope I don’t wind up all mean and cynical. Then I couldn’t do my job.
Guernica: Why would that stop you from doing what you’ve been doing?
Negin Farsad: Because then I’d be starting from the standpoint that, “Oh, you, reader, or dude in the audience, you’re shitty.” The fundamental truth guiding social justice comedy is that people are not shitty. That sounds cheesy, but that’s how I have to approach it. Everybody has the capacity for change.