A Comedy About Comedy: "How to Make White People Laugh"
By Leeron Hoory
Negin Farsad’s hilarious and groundbreaking debut, How to Make White People Laugh is a memoir about growing up as an Iranian-American. Farsad, who’s a professional comedian, uses humor to break down the stereotypes she's been subjected to throughout her life and tells a new story about her hyphenated identity.
This genre-bending book is part memoir, part comedy, part data-driven research. Drawing on her background as an advocate for social justice, and her master's degree in public policy and African-American studies, Farsad critically tackles important subjects like Islamophobia, race, and immigration. She also proposes compelling initiatives for social change along the way.
The book begins with Farsad's childhood in California. In a personable and engaging tone, she jokes about her confused identity growing up. “Here’s the thing: I used to feel black,” she writes in one of her opening lines. She then goes on to illustrate how ethnic and religious iconography can play a critical role in shaping identity, and how the negative icons she was exposed to caused her to discredit her own heritage.
Farsad uses her own experiences as a platform to launch into more wide standing social and political issues. How to Make White People Laugh is about the power of comedy to put forth thought provoking ideas, particularly issues of social justice. In one chapter, Farsad talks about the campaign she created in response to posters in the New York City subway that promoted hatred of Muslims in 2014. She writes about the project and how she organized a campaign of her own, hilarious, posters.
The book illustrates what happens when one person tries to engage with social justice: from how she initially became inspired, the challenges that arise, what effective campaigns look like, and how political engagement plays out in personal life.
One of the more compelling aspects of this book is Farsad’s narrative voice, and the way she’s able to combine information and the anecdotal.
Her book is filled with sidebars of information meant to inform the reader, though some might appear oversimplified, such as, “Iranians and Arabs, Two Different Things.” Yet, her conversational voice makes it possible for her to reach a wide audience.
Farsad also uses her humor to shed light on aspects of Iranian culture in an engaging funny way. She describes the concept of tarof, or the Persian art of etiquette, in a script-like format between the host and guest. “That’s tarof. Sometimes it turns into a psychological thriller, but mostly Iranians want to make sure they treat you real nice and that you’re stuffed by the time you leave.”
She goes into depth about body image, the wage gap, and her experiences with both. In Chapter 6, “My Lady Parts and My Comedy Parts,” Farsad writes about her involvement with her college sketch comedy group and how she initially resisted the actual writing of comedy. “Here’s why: I was one of two women in a group of about twelve guys,” she explains. “I was convinced that I wasn’t smart. I’m still not entirely convinced otherwise, but now I recognize that it’s stupid to think that you’re stupid.”
It might seem like Farsad handles these topics lightly, but she uses this voice as a vehicle to describe the intersection of institutional policies and their psychological effects on individuals: “So the lacking confidence in your head meets the actual crappy statistics in real life — the “craptistics” — and then voilà!”
Her voice ranges from comedic to darker and more serious, even urgent. Her book is comprehensive in that she doesn't shy away from deeper challenges that arise from her career as a comedian. In the chapter, “My Own People Don’t Like Me Very Much” she describes performing for an Iranian audience which ends up being appalled by her openness. The language she’s using is rejected from the very culture she’s trying to describe and connect with, a painful intersection of gender and culture.
If the book reads as a mishmash between creative policies, social justice projects, narrative, and comedy, it might be because for Farsad, her life is so integrated with her work, her values, and ideas that they’re difficult to separate.
The book also tackles the question of what it means to have a hyphenated identity. She calls people with more than one identity in the US the Third Thing and the idea of being alienated from many conversations about race as a result of not fitting in neatly to a category. In one chapter she brings up the limitations of the census, and how Middle Easterners are considered white: “We have five categories, but why not 105 categories? Is there any rule that says that more than five categories in the census is gauche? Do we not want to embarrass ourselves in front of other, skinnier census forms?”
In How to Make White People Laugh Farsad carves out a new space to talk about cultural and political identity. Farsad goes back and forth from the personal to the political, blurring the boundaries between them. Yet she also shows how those boundaries are impossible.