Why you should care

Because humor trumps fear just about every time.

Bespectacled, fast-talking comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad developed a keen sense of prejudice early on. Her parents emigrated from Iran around the same time as the hostage crisis, at the height of anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S. And she was one of only two Iranian students in her Palm Springs, California, high school.

A “super-duper nerd,” she dreamed of becoming the first female Muslim president, earned impeccable grades and was painfully shy to boot — until she starred as a kitchen wench in a class production of The Princess and the Pea. “That’s what changed my life,” she says. “The sort of freedom you get in a creative zone opens you up in a different way.”

So began Farsad’s standup career, or as she calls it, the Era of Parental Disappointment.

But Farsad held fast to her political aspirations. After earning a dual master’s degree in African-American studies and public policy from Columbia University, she landed a job as a public policy advisor for the City of New York. She treated comedy as a hobby, performing in festivals and revues at night. Yet she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that comedy was her true calling. And then, almost magically, she got laid off from her government job.

So began Farsad’s standup career, or as she calls it, the Era of Parental Disappointment. She crawled though the trenches of constantly crafting and refining material. “The iterations can be really lonely … and it’s just crickets,” she says. “And then it can be exhilarating and awesome, and there’s just uproarious laughter, and you’re like, ‘Holy shit! I landed on something!’”

I’m not sure if I’ve changed their minds, but I know that at least I did something.

But life on the road left her exhausted, so she started writing for MTV and PBS, among others. She then wrote, directed and produced Nerdcore Rising, a documentary about a hip-hop subgenre whose subject matter ranges from Star Wars to computers.

Meanwhile, the 2008 presidential election — and Islamophobia — were in full swing. Farsad recalls how Republican politicians used scare tactics in an attempt to derail Obama’s campaign, such as alleging that he secretly followed Islam. At the same time, hate crimes against Muslims rose by a whopping 50 percent in 2010. “It was bothering me that being a Muslim became an accusation,” she says.

Negin holding up a sign

Source Blair Johnson

So Farsad assembled a diverse group of Muslim comics — from half-Sicilian Dean Obeidallah to Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy — to introduce Middle America to a wider spectrum of Islam. She and Obeidallah co-directed the filming of the tour and edited the footage into a documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, screening now at universities and available for download. The film, which also features interviews with the likes of Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Austin Film Festival late last year, taking home the Comedy Vanguard Audience Award. Farsad and friends toured Georgia, Kentucky, Utah and other red states, staging free standup comedy shows followed by Q&A sessions. They also set up an “Ask a Muslim” booth, hosted a “Bowling With a Muslim” event and even held up “Hug a Muslim” signs.

They encountered the occasional drive-by epithet and nasty Internet comment. But Farsad also learned that most people weren’t “going around hating Muslims.” Although their questions often sounded bigoted at first, they emerged from ignorance, not malice. “I’m not sure if I’ve changed their minds, but I know that at least I did something,” she says.

I wish I had more support from some subsets of the Muslim community, but I’m not addressing those people…

During the tour, Farsad opened her Tuscon set with a confession: “I recently had to get an STD test because I was a raging slut for a period of my life … that ended last week.” She recalled struggling to tell her mother about the test before launching into an impression of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doing a PSA about safe sex. Halfway through the set, a group of hijab-wearing women stood up and left.

“Did it hurt my feelings? Absolutely,” Farsad says. “I wish I had more support from some subsets of the Muslim community … but I’m not addressing those people … and I don’t want to lie about myself.”

While Farsad’s bawdy humor aims to demonstrate that, as with any religious group, Muslims have varying levels of observance and can’t be thought of in monolithic terms, some scholars argue that comedy alone isn’t enough to overturn Muslim stereotypes. “While comedy can have social impact, the legal structures have to be altered to make equality and inclusivity the norm,” says UC Berkeley Near Eastern studies professor Hatem Bazian. He adds that Muslim-American comedians who portray themselves as people who drink, party and date — like most other Americans — risk further marginalizing Muslims who don’t identify with mainstream American culture.

Bazian adds that some audience members’ expectations for Farsad to uphold Islamic principles reflect a misunderstanding of her role as a comedian: “to highlight contradictions and push things that aren’t comfortable.” But he notes that Farsad and other Muslim-American comics “might create a distinction between ‘us — we’re normal, we drink alcohol and do the same things you do,’ and ‘the other group that doesn’t act like us,’ who are seen as strange, violent and ultraconservative. It becomes a double-edged sword.”

It’s a delicate balancing act — one that only motivates Farsad, who’s currently working on her next feature film, Third Street Blackout, a comedy about the power outage that resulted from Hurricane Sandy. She also produces satirical Web videos for nonprofit organizations such as MoveOn.org and The Other 98%.

Indeed, Islamophobia is only the first hurdle. “It really is about immigrant rights, homophobia, xenophobia,” Farsad told TED’s blog. “If you’re going to hate one group, you likely hate other groups. 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.”

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