Negin Farsad Knows How to Make White People Laugh

The Iranian-American comedian talks about her new book, film, and why Muslim-American comedy isn't a thing.

Negin Farsad is a former public policy adviser with two master's degrees from Columbia University, so her ethnic background is only a small part of what distinguishes her from most comedians.

The Iranian-American filmmaker-actor-writer is multitasking on the road, promoting her book How to Make White People Laugh (Grand Central, 248 pages, $26) and her film 3rd Street Blackout, a romcom about a techy couple who get separated during the Hurricane Sandy blackout in New York City.

After noticing that telling jokes was more fun than reading her book out loud, Farsad turned her book tour into a comedy tour. Before her show at Powell's Books, she talked with WW about over-hyphenation, Homeland and becoming the second Muslim-American president.

WW: Have you visited Portland before?

Negin Farsad: My best friend lives in PDX, and I visit her, so I'm familiar with the blend of very liberal, progressive attitudes here, as well as the fact there aren't many black people. She's black, so when my friend shows me around Portland, we are the diversity wherever we go.

With more diversity on comedy club marquees, are you seeing a more multiracial audience?

It's interesting seeing how other states respond to booking their first Muslim-American act. Recently, I was in North Carolina, and everyone kept asking me, "Is this weird for you?" I said, "Uh, I grew up in SoCal. Nothing different is going to happen at this show. I know more about flip-flops than sleeper cells."

With the rise of "call-out culture," do you find that Muslims are a part of this conversation about cultural integrity?

I think that, because the word "Muslim" is such a polarizing term, one that people can use on the campaign trail to rile people up, that people have a hard time associating Muslim people with anything positive. Even shows like Homeland show one-dimensional images of Muslims as terrorists. We used to see buck-toothed, cross-eyed Oriental characters in movies, but that would never happen now. We just haven't gotten there yet for Muslims.

Do you ever get exhausted by hyphens?

When people ask me why I identify as something other than American, I tell them that I spoke multiple languages at home, ate different food and had different rules in my home, so why should I erase all that?

People identify themselves as Patriots fans or bookworms. Many comedians start sets with, "I'm from Boston." I don't think we should care.

You said you want to run for office in New York City?

This isn't really out of the blue; it would be finishing my dream as an 11-year-old. I grew up wanting to be the first Muslim president. Barack Obama beat me to it.

Your book is called How to Make White People Laugh. Is that different from what makes Muslim-Americans laugh?

What makes Muslim-Americans laugh is what makes the rest of Americans laugh. That's the secret.

Go: Negin Farsad appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 503-228-4651. 4 pm Saturday, June 11. Free.

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