Washington — Negin Farsad is an industry unto herself. A smart, funny industry.
“I sort of think of myself as someone who will do anything in entertainment,” she said.
The Iranian American, who lives in New York, is a moviemaker and a comedy writer for television as well as a stand-up comedian. She is going to the famed Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe Festival in August to star in not one but two shows: a showcase of ethnic stand-up comics called The Dirty Immigrant Collective and a two-person romantic musical comedy based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Farsad, 30, took an improbable path to this improbable career. She grew up in Palm Springs, California, and majored in theater arts and government at Cornell University in New York state. She said she is a driven overachiever: “I think it would have been shameful for me not to get a graduate degree.”
So she got two degrees from Columbia University in New York — one in race relations, and one in public policy. She was going to go into politics to help run a city and eventually hold high office. And so she began working for New York City as a senior policy adviser.
She had two problems, though. First, she found that she “did not enjoy the process” of government and politics. “I was not having fun.”
Second, the part of her life that she did enjoy was comedy. She had been part of a sketch comedy group at Cornell University — “12 white dudes and me,” she said — and her comedy hobby expanded in New York City.
“I was leading a double life, and a really exhausting double life,” she said. “I really tried to ignore comedy for a really long time. I said, ‘No, no, no, it’s just a 40-hour-a-week hobby. It’s not that important.’”
Finally, a friend pointed out that she obviously preferred comedy to public policy and told her that she should make it her career. So in 2006, once she had found that she could more or less earn a living by making people laugh, she gave up the policy job.
Farsad has not abandoned her politics for entertainment: Her comedy has a political edge to it, and some of her paychecks come from groups, such as labor unions, with which she is sympathetic. “There’s this niche of progressive organizations that need stand-up comedians or video content that is funny and supports those progressive issues,” she said.
Much of her work is as a comedy writer. And she was a cultural consultant recently for the first season of a planned animated children’s series, 1,001 Nights; the producers wanted to develop the program with people who would be aware of the cultures involved.
That’s unusual, Farsad said. Comedy writing in the United States is a small industry, not very diverse ethnically and overwhelmingly male, she said.
(Production on 1,001 Nights is continuing, and producer Shabnam Rezaei said it could begin airing in late 2010.)
Farsad’s movie career has been a bit of a surprise to her. She was a producer on a television series, The Watch List, which featured Iranian-American and Arab-American comedians, and for a documentary about a young American sitar player who competes in a music festival in India. Then she produced and directed Nerdcore Rising, a feature-length comic documentary about a hip-hop group on tour. “I sort of ruined my life for three years making Nerdcore Rising,” Farsad said. But having done it once, she is trying again: She was asked to produce and edit a feature-length comic documentary on a politically progressive children’s summer camp.
“The problem with making comedies out of documentaries is that you have to shoot three times as much footage because people are not funny,” she said.
The stand-up comedy portion of her work can be just as laborious. Farsad has a sharp wit, but she said she has to rewrite her monologues and experiment on the delivery over weeks and weeks to make them work reliably. “It’s very much a craft that needs to be perfected,” she said. And once she has part of her routine perfected, she doesn’t want to use it all the time. “I want to put my best foot forward, but I also don’t want to be bored by my foot,” she said.
Stepping onstage, though, has not become boring. “I really, really love performing, and I get really, really nervous before every show,” she said.
Farsad draws on her life — her love life, her political life, her extended family’s life — for the material she shares with all those strangers. “My last boyfriend was really upset when he found himself in a joke,” she said. Her reaction was less than sympathetic: “As long as it’s funny, who cares?” The boyfriend did not last.
“It’s a really all-consuming lifestyle,” Farsad said. “You don’t check it at the door.”