Negin Farsad Teaches us How to Make White People Laugh

The comedian schools us on her brand of "social justice comedy" while solving our listeners' chatty friend problems and #revolution fatigue.

Each week you send in your questions about how to behave, and to answer them this time around is comedian Negin Farsad. Negin’s degrees in African American Studies and Public Policy naturally led her to a career in comedy, or more specifically, what she calls “social justice comedy” or a way to use humor to push back against Islamophobia in America.

Her 2013 documentary, “The Muslims Are Coming,” earned the Comedy Vanguard Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, and her new book is called “How to Make White People Laugh.”


Brendan Francis Newnam: Welcome, Negin.

Negin Farsad: Hello, white people!

Rico Gagliano: Hi. The title made me laugh. So, in your chapter called “I Used to Be Black,” you say, “The race question in the United States since the beginning of its inception has been Black in relation to white. But what if you don’t fit into that binary?” So, tell us, what is your experience of that?

Negin Farsad: Well, I mean, I grew up sort of, like, feeling Black, like, you know, sometimes kind of Black, sometimes really Black. And, by the way, I wasn’t like Rachel Dolezal-ing. I knew I wasn’t Black. I wasn’t delusional and crazy. It’s just that, like, I was looking at icons, and I was looking to fit myself into something.


Rico Gagliano: Because these were people of color that were in the culture, basically.

Negin Farsad: Exactly, and, you know, I was obsessed with stuff like “A Different World” as a kid, and I saw myself in that, and so, I sort of poured myself into the Black struggle, the Mexican struggle. I grew up around a really significant Mexican-American minority group and really walked around wanting to be Mexican. And so, it was just sort of, like, any minority group that had a mainstream identity is the group that I kind of wanted to glom onto.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, did your Persian identity suffer?

Negin Farsad: Well, my Persian identity is that thing that happens when I go home. And we spoke, by the way, not only Farsi at home, the language of Iran, but also Azerbaijani, which is the language of Azerbaijan naturally.

So, I would go home and speak two other languages, not English, and be Muslim. And then I would go to school and be like, “OK, well, I guess I’m going to try and, like, hang with the Mexicans now and…”

Rico Gagliano: Wow. So, you’re doing major code switching. I mean, back and forth between multiple, different groups.

Negin Farsad: I think a lot of, like, hyphenated Americans, right? — like your Irani-Americans, your Pakistani-Americans, your Sri Lankan-Americans — like, I think a lot of us go through that, if you’ll just allow me to speak on behalf of all of them.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh. Who are we to argue?!?

So, the book is called “How to Make White People Laugh.” At risk of spoiling this whole book, can you give us some pointers? Can you tell us a thing or two on how to make white people laugh?

Negin Farsad: Oh, snap! One of my rules about social justice comedy is that you have to make it inviting and warm like you’re sitting inside of a burrito, right?

Brendan Francis Newnam: The burrito rule.

Negin Farsad: You know, sneak it in, sneak it in. It’s like, if you’re hearing a fart joke, it’s actually about criminal justice reform.

Rico Gagliano: Wow.

Negin Farsad: You know, those were some of my secrets.

Rico Gagliano: I see. That sort of amazing ability to combine those two polar opposite things is just what we want when you’re answering these etiquette questions. Are you ready for these?

Negin Farsad: [Laughs.] I think so.

Fighting #revloution fatigue

Rico Gagliano: All right, here’s something from Hannah via Instagram. Hannah writes, “I have a lot of socially progressive friends, and I consider myself to be pretty caring, but I wonder how to balance caring about everything. How do I explain or explain my way out of friends’ invitations to a different protest/#revolution every day?”

Negin Farsad: Oh, my God, Hannah, me and you have the same friends.

Rico Gagliano: Is that right?

Negin Farsad: Look. I used to be a policy advisor for the City of New York. I interned for C-SPAN, not to brag. And I was out there. I was in the field, holding protest signs. So, I am on absolutely every mailing list, and I get every email that comes that’s patchouli-scented, and it comes with, like, free poster board so you can make your own bespoke protest signs. So, like, I feel this question.

And I think what we need, really, both of us, is like, some bastard capitalist friends. I mean, I think we need to, like, make friends that will just invite us to dinners. And then even, the kind of friend, let’s say, that would even pick up a tab instead of, like, splitting it six ways, and then, with like, artful consideration to who ordered extra French fries. Do you know what I’m saying? Like, we need…

Rico Gagliano: So, get new friends that are not quite so progressive is what you’re saying.

Negin Farsad: Bastard capitalist friends is what we need.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that the opposite of progressive? I didn’t know that. No, that’s great! B.C. friends. All right, there you go.

Rico Gagliano: That’s right. It’s the opposite of P.C., is B.C.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, find those people and order extra French fries.

The best way to shut a chatterbox up

Rico Gagliano: Perfect. Here’s something from Emily in St. Louis. This is a very short question: “How do you handle or tell a friend that they talk way too much?”

Negin Farsad: I think, you know, one of the things that you could do is just sort of have a lot of like, chewy food on hand, like taffy or, like, Sour Patch Kids, or like, something that will occupy someone’s mouth for, like, some solid moments. That’s one option.

The other thing is, like, every time they say something, you could relate it back to someone who has died. So, you know, like, they’re talking about roller coasters, you could be like, “You know, my great-uncle John loved roller coasters. He’s dead now.” And that kind of stops the conversation, I feel like.

This one’s actually for real because we all know people who talk too much. I might be that person in your life. I’m so sorry. Please give me saltwater taffy.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You know, my cousin was killed by someone answering a question very similar to this. So, I’m actually…do you guys mind if we just move on from this?

Rico Gagliano: Way to bring it up.

Am I being paranoid or are multi-linguists being rude?

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, this next question comes from M. in D.C., and M. writes: “My husband and I go out to dinner occasionally with another couple. We’re both native English speakers. One member of the other couple is a non-native English speaker, but her English is excellent. Her husband also speaks her native language, and sometimes at dinner they’ll start speaking to each other in that language. Probably, they are discussing something innocuous, but it always makes me feel self-conscious, like maybe they’re talking about us. Am I just being silly and paranoid, or are they being a little rude?” Good question.

Negin Farsad: OK, that’s some white people shit right there. To, like, not know what’s going on for, like, 25 seconds because another language is being spoken and the fear of it is such… that’s just some monolingual white people shit right there. Maybe because I speak four languages — that’s a language brag — I…

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s one language.

Rico Gagliano: Maybe…maybe you have a different perspective on this question than the rest of us poor, solo English speakers.

Negin Farsad: Exactly. It doesn’t bother me at all, whatsoever. And then, the other thing I would say is: you can never underestimate how little people are thinking about you, even when you’re sitting right in front of your face. They are not talking about you. They are talking about, like, the shrimp cocktail. So, I think that’s really what it comes down to.