Ever bowled with a Muslim? Why not? Negin Farsad wants to know. The comedian and filmmaker’s new documentary The Muslims Are Coming! follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they travel through Middle America setting up street actions — Hug a Muslim, Bowl with a Muslim, Ask a Muslim — skewering stereotypes and turning Islamophobia into Muslim love. Now on the last leg of her tour promoting the US theatrical launch of the film, Farsad tells the TED Blog how her lifelong passion for social justice led her from working as an intern for Hillary Clinton to a job as a policy advisor for the city of New York — to creating shows for Comedy Central, filming rapping nerds and making sure everyone has hugged a Muslim.
After your first TED conference in 2013, you wrote a hilarious piece about the experience, how you felt alienated from it. Why?
It’s so big, so lofty, and there’s so much innovation — and I am a comedian. Someone else’s “innovations in mummification processes” is my fart jokes. I mean, social justice comedy is my main thing. So, I guess I understand why I was selected for a TED Fellowship. Being the only stand-up comedian in the TED Fellows among so many other fields is one of the most interesting things about the process so far.
Above: Negin Farsad performs at Standup NY.
Tell me about yourself. Did you wake up one morning when you were a kid, and say, “I want to be a comedian”?
No, I woke up one day as a kid and I was like, “I’m going to be President of the United States! I’m going to end the racial divide, and I’m going to make healthcare available for everybody.” That’s what I said, when I was eleven. I’m an Iranian-American Muslim lady, and I grew up in Palm Springs, in the desert of Southern California. My parents emigrated from Iran before I was born, and severe allergies on my part as a baby are what enabled them to stay in the United States. Just a random side note. They have one of those classic immigration stories: they came with nothing, blah blah blah, learned the language, built a life, etcetera. You know, just really traumatic stuff. Stuff I don’t have to do because they did it. So identity became a really large part of my life.
In high school I was a drama geek, but also president of the debate club. I went to Cornell for undergrad, and I was a double major in government and theater. Then I joined a campus sketch comedy troupe. I really started to identify with the black struggle, the Latino struggle, with race politics and policy in general. So my commitment to public policy and public services has been around forever. I moved to New York, and I started another sketch comedy troupe, and I began excelling in comedy. Even still, I thought this was just a hobby I’d outgrow. “You must outgrow it, because you have to be a public servant.” So I went to grad school for African American studies and public policy as a dual degree at Columbia.
I ended up interning for Charles Rangel and Hillary Clinton. I really believed in, and still do believe in, that kind of work. It was valuable seeing people firsthand who are doing really good work, and I became even more emotionally committed to it. Once I graduated from grad school, I got a job with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and I would run numbers and talk about leveling the playing field for candidates and so on. It’s a really great program, and an example for what campaign finance can really be nationally.
But I had this nagging, horrible feeling like I just didn’t want to do it. Meanwhile, I was performing stand-up every night. By day, I’d go to city council meetings, dealing with really serious public servants. At a certain point, it just felt inappropriate, you know what I mean?
Is the passion for policy still there?
The passion’s still there, but I couldn’t be a part of the execution from a policy end. And I thought that’s what I always wanted to do — that I wanted to run for office. Then I realized, I think my skills are better used in a different way, which is to fold those things into my comedy.
And so began the Era of Parental Disappointment — my comedy career, a field that is horribly unstable and that half the time people don’t even view as a real art. It’s just one of these things where people are like, “Well you just go up there and wing it, right? It’s no big deal.” No, this takes years and years and years of boot-camp style, in-the-field training. And you’re never done training, because you always have to develop new material, you always have to test it and you always have to put yourself through the wringer. It can be seriously demoralizing. And then half the time you don’t get paid.
Trial by humiliation.
That’s totally what it is, I think. It’s unlike other art forms, where you work on something, and maybe you get, you know, notes from a discrete circle of your friends. Then you unveil it to the public. With stand-up, from the very beginning, you unveil something to the public that is half-baked. And you just suffer through the iterations until you get it right. The iterations can be really lonely and quiet and there’s tumbleweed blowing in the room, and it’s just crickets. And then it can be exhilarating and awesome, and there’s just uproarious laughter, and you’re like, “holy shit! I landed on something!”
What subjects do you take on in your comedy?
I’ll talk about anything. I talk about dating, food, Facebook. It doesn’t matter. But I also talk about international diplomacy. And I’ll talk about the Arab Spring, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A lot of people refer to me as a political comic, and I’m not. I’m a social justice comic. It’s not about being partisan, but about looking at things from a social justice angle. So, for example, I’ve never written an Obama joke.
How did the filmmaking start?
The truth about comedy is that to earn money, you have to travel a lot, and tour a lot. I did that for the first couple of years, and it was really tiring. Then I started getting a little work here and there writing and directing. I never went to film school, so in the beginning I felt like a big fraud. I was like, “What do you need? You need a web series? Yeah, yeah yeah. No problem. I got it, I got it.” Literally, it’d be me calling a friend going, “How do you use a camera?” I just figured it out as I was doing it, and it turned out to be the best form of film school for me. Having exhausted all of my graduate school funding resources on two other graduate degrees, I had no choice.
But I am interested in every form of entertainment. It sort of felt natural for me to go into directing and writing. So I wrote for some networks, did some directing. Then I just weirdly happened into a Comedy Central web series. I’d worked with a couple of guys who were in the process of pitching a show. They were like, “Well we don’t know how to make a show.” I was like, “Oh, I can make a show.” That was my first big lie — professional lie. But it worked out. We made Watch List, and it ended up being one of the most well-trafficked shows on Comedy Central, so they gave us a pilot.
I was in the process of writing a musical called The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy. It started out as a short, kind of one-act type piece. Now it’s in development as a full-length musical. I was writing that with musical theater writer Gaby Alter, who was also active in a nerdcore band. I said, “nerdcore — what’s that? Oh, it’s nerds rapping. Interesting.” And I thought, someone should make a documentary about that. I didn’t mean for it to be me. But I thought if I could make a documentary about this, I can make it into a comedy. And you rarely see documentaries that are actually intended to be comedies. Not mockumentaries — no one’s being made fun of. This isn’t a Borat situation; this is like, how can we make a real-life thing funny, without being funny at people’s expense? That was sort of my goal with the movie. So I literally went out and raised money and bought some cameras, and I just made it happen.
How did you know how to use these cameras?
I had my friend come over for a tutorial. And since then, it’s been a process — I learned how to edit by watching another friend use keystrokes. I just internalized enough of those things that I learned how to edit.
So I made the movie. Simultaneously I was making the show for Comedy Central, which led to another job at MTV, developing and writing for shows, and that led to other jobs for PBS, NIckelodeon, BBC, IFC. All the while, I was doing standup at nights, but it made it so that I didn’t have to travel as much. It also made it so that I worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. I have to figure out how to make life a little bit more normal. That’s my biggest challenge. I basically maintain three careers. Not well or anything, but I do it.
Then, once I got the bug in me to make movies, I couldn’t stop. I made one with TED Fellow Andrew Mendelson, called A Cricket in the Court of Akbar, which documents his journey to India to study sitar. Then, with Dean Obeidallah and again Andrew Mendelson, I started making The Muslims Are Coming, which was just released nationwide in US theaters.
Tell us about that.
It follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they go on the road, do shows, meet locals and set up street actions. For example, we would set up an “Ask A Muslim” booth in the middle of the town square. People could come up and ask us ridiculous questions. Or we would set up a “Bowl With The Muslim” event. Bowl with some Muslims! What’s the big deal, you know what I mean? Have some pizza! We did a lot of weird things like that, and the whole goal was to find people who’ve basically never met a Muslim — and to be the first Muslims that they meet.
Because the Muslims you’ve met, they’re on TV, they’ve got dusty faces, and they’re holding AK-47s. And that is not the Muslim that most Muslim people are. We wanted to shatter the links in mainstream American consciousness with Muslims as violent people, and some of their ladies wear blankets. We wanted to come up with new stereotypes — such as Muslims are all hilarious and they’re really bad at bowling.
We were really lucky to get some really awesome people in it, like Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, and Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, Colin Quinn, Aasif Mandvi. I think what’s really important to note about kind of having this level of comedic celebrity in the movie is it kind of legitimizes the notion that it’s okay to like be friendly with Muslims, because look, Jon Stewart’s even doing it, and he’s beloved! Right? We strategically wanted there to be allies like that. It makes the job of kind of making us appear fluffy and adorable all the easier.
What will the distribution be?
It’s getting the classic art house, indie film treatment. It’ll open in all the cities that don’t really need it, right? New York, LA, Seattle, Boston, Chicago. But we also have a plan to get the movie into places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Gainesville, Florida, where we shot the movie, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Tucson, Arizona — places where immigrant rights issues and Islamophobia rear their heads more frequently and more intensely.
That said, I make entertainment. At the end of the day, even if you don’t like the social justice message of the movie, you’ll hopefully have a good time. It has to work as a piece of entertainment first and foremost for it to resonate on a social justice level.
Then it’ll open on cable and video-on-demand, on digital platforms at the end of September. The point is that the message is, like, love, and like, you know, “Dude, bros! Be cool with your Muslim” — that message has to sweep the nation. We’ll also have online and digital distribution in the UK, where it will open in London and maybe Edinburgh. I think countries like the UK, Australia, France and Germany, which have significant Muslim populations, could benefit from a dose of something other than AK-47–wielding Muslims.
Have you received any flak from working on a politically hot topic? It’s a long way between a film about rapping nerds and challenging people on their Islamophobia.
When you’re working on a Muslim movie, your website’s going to get hacked, and you’re going to face really intense legal challenges. What’s really interesting about it is that I’m going to be attacked from two ends. One is the right, which pushes Islamaphobia as a white issue, galvanizing people against people. Then there are the conservative sub-sects of the Muslim population in the United States, or in the diaspora in general. They’re not super into this kind of secular message that I’m peddling, you know? They don’t like that I talk about dating and sex on stage. And I totally get that. I’m an equal-opportunity offender. So I also get messages that say, “You’re a shameful slut.”
Do you ever actually feel under threat? Or is it just demoralizing?
I don’t think I can travel to Iran. I think what’s really useful is that when it comes to attacking a woman in the United States — especially one that looks like a cartoon character — it’s harder to do it to her face. At every turn, I try not to escalate. How can we keep this fun and friendly, even if it’s really ugly? So if I’m being told to go back to my country by a dude in Salt Lake City — actually, it happened in multiple cities — it can’t escalate. I think if your focus is on non-escalation, then you’re not really in danger. And I think I’m naive in thinking that I have the power to influence these people.
But a Christian conservative is going to want to turn me off as much as a Muslim conservative. I’m trying to get Islam to be viewed in the same way that we view Christianity and Judaism. You know, I’m a type of Christian that only goes to church once a year, or I’m the type of a Jew that’s Woody Allen. You know? Those things have been normalized for us. The Jews have managed to do it so well, even though their numbers are small — 4 or 5 percent of the population — normalizing their religion in mainstream American consciousness. And they’ve done it through media, through these cultural shifts.
So we need more content creators in our midst that will do that. It’s not just about Islamophobia, either. It really is about immigrant rights, homophobia, xenophobia of all kinds. Because if you’re going to hate one group, likely you hate other groups. Isn’t that usually the case? It’s never, “Look, I really hate the Muslims, but I’m great with the gays!” That’s not how it works; we’re all in the same boat. So if we can work together on all of these groups getting a better deal out of this bargain we call America, it’s going to help everyone.