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.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>