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Negin Farsad Isn’t Just the Only Comedian TED Fellow, She’s Also A Filmmaker and An Author (Springboard)

Negin Farsad Isn't Just the Only Comedian TED Fellow, She's Also A Filmmaker and An Author (Springboard)

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

Negin Farsad is having a very busy May. The filmmaker, who previously turned her personal experience into the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!,” is debuting both a new film and a new book this month, a process she likens to a “2-year rectal exam,” albeit one she is very thankful for. Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf each pull quadruple duty on “3rd Street Blackout” (the pair star in the film, which they also wrote, directed and produced together), a rom-com ripped from current events and current obsessions. The duo play a couple who find their world upended by Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent blackout, and are forced to contend with what happens when they don’t have all their technology around to distract them.

Farsad was inspired by her own experience during the hurricane and blackout, and the film is a funny and frisky look at a world and a relationship suddenly made very different. Personal experiences are also at the root of her new book, “How to Make White People Laugh,” a combination of memoir and social comedy that Farsad has long worked into her standup act, a unique blend of humor and insight that helped land her a TED Fellowship. 

Indiewire recently sat down with (the obviously very funny) Farsad to talk about her new film, her new book and why she’s the only TED Fellow who lists “comedian” as her profession. Read her own words below.

I live on 3rd Street, so that was ripped out of real life. I was actually housing evacuees from Avenues C and D. There was a sublet situation, a room in my apartment that opened up. We had evacuees from Lower Manhattan, in the financial district. Their building was messed up. We housed them for 2 months. 

The lights went out. I had this boyfriend [at the time]. We can’t binge watch a thing, which is what we would have done like assholes who pretend like binge watching a thing is actually quality time. It’s totally not. We were like, “Okay. Candles. How do you? What do we?” The only entertainment we had was my piano.That’s what we started doing, and then checking in on neighbors. Then the next 5 days was like a neighbor-tastic fun festival. We were really engaging with them and really cared. 

Hurricane Sandy brought damage and destruction on so many places and there are so many stories that are left to be told for that. I really await those films. What we wanted to do was tell this little tiny story that came out of this one corner of New York where the blackout brought people closer together. Where there was this strange silver lining.

READ MORE: Facing the Bigots: Here’s What It’s Like to Screen ‘The Muslims Are Coming!’ Around the Country

Robert Putnam, he’s a theorist at Harvard who talks about the decline in social capital, wrote this really tremendous book that meant the world to me called “Bowling Alone” where he talks about civic bonds fraying. It was 2001 when he wrote this book, it was because of the 4H club and the Elks Club and those were dying organizations. We no longer had a place where you would go and have a town hall dance. There was nowhere a cotillion would have been, or whatever. Stuff like that. The kind of things that make a community a community. The bowling leagues. 

Those things, he argued, had started fraying, which lead to fringe identities, which leads to the kind of thinking that “hating Muslims is okay.” “Hating Mexicans is okay.” “Everyone is a rapist.” Those are fringe ideologies that are given more weight and movement because we have this fraying social capital. The bonds of our community are disintegrating. What was important for me was to get just a snapshot of a community that, for a moment, had a resurgence of that. Where people actually cared. If you meet your neighbors, it’s really hard to hate them.

After the blackout, it was thinkpiece after thinkpiece of “I had to spent time with my children because their iPads weren’t working.” Everyone was talking about what it means to not have electricity and internet because it’s so unusual for us now. I think it’s better and I want there to be a national blackout holiday where we’re forced to not have electricity. That would help with global warming, am I right?

I met Jeremy randomly in Minneapolis. I was doing stand up at this conference and he was attending this conference as a member of SAG-AFTRA. We hadn’t worked together before but we met at this thing. Jokes were exchanged. Hilarity ensued as friends. Then we worked on a couple little things together. He was shooting a pilot presentation. I was looking for a voiceover artist. He’s done a lot of that. 

I wanted to make something that was sort of like you can throw it
together and it’s a 21-day shoot and who cares. 
It’s fun and it’s funny. I grew up loving romantic comedies. I had these romantic shenanigans with this guy during the blackout, it felt like a great premise for the movie. That relationship didn’t work out, by the way, but he gave me a delightful little movie in his wake.

The movie came together rather quickly. We got Janeane Garofalo. She was the first person that agreed, so it made our job easier after that. People were like, “If she’s willing and the script is funny.” We were sort of, “We are going to pay dirt. What do you think of being in this movie?”

I was nominated by the director of the Brooklyn Museum, this wonderful woman named Anne Pasternak, to be a TED Fellow. She had seen me do stand up. She was approached and asked to nominate someone for the TED Fellows program. She asked me if I’d be interested but I was like, “Yeah, but I’m a comedian. Wouldn’t you be nominating visual artists?” To be honest, I might be the only TED Fellow who’s a comedian.

I think what they were interested in was that I use comedy for social justice. That I would go to Washington Square and ask people if they were a Muslim, and if they said “No,” I would force them to eat from a cold pile of bacon for a Move On video. I went to the Cayman Islands to investigate offshore banking and tried to open an offshore bank account with my disposable income of $8.27. Security got called multiple times. Those are the things I try to do with comedy and that I will go back to doing with filmmaking.

READ MORE: Here’s What ‘American Sniper’ Says About America

Why did I do these things at the same time? It wasn’t my choice. It felt like a 2-year long rectal exam, to be honest. But workload-wise, I’m so privileged. I’m so lucky. This is a dream. I was broke for multiple years, trying to get to the point where anyone would pay me to do comedy.

The book is called “How to Make White People Laugh.” It’s a memoir meets social comedy manifesto. Just another book in that genre. Clogging up that category. I talk about my life, but I also talk about being an Iranian American and a Muslim. I also talk about having the race discussion. The race discussion is always on a white-black binary.

I have a Masters degree in African American studies, because I was like “I understand the Black struggle.” It’s not that I did understand the Black struggle. I wasn’t Rachel Dolezal. I was completely clear on what ethnicity I was. There is no discourse around being Iranian American. It is not an iconic status. Nobody gives a fuck. Nobody talks about it. There’s no TV show I can watch, but I grew up on “A Different World” and shit like that. It felt revolutionary to me. It felt like something I could identify with. When you’re a part of an underpopulated ethnic group, when you’re Filipino or Botswanan American, you don’t have a discourse for you.

I try not to read comments anymore. Sometimes I sneak some in and every time, I have to recover. It’s not like you can read ten people telling you that you should die or be raped and you can just be on with the day. I’m far better a person when I don’t read them.

“3rd Street Blackout” is currently playing in limited release. “How to Make White People Laugh” hits shelves on May 24.

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