Earlier this year, I profiled three women who identified themselves as Muslim-American comedians. I was fascinated by their individual stories, motivations and widely different comedic styles, which ranged from quirky to absolutely filthy stuff. I urge you to check out their material on Youtube whenever you get a chance.
Negin Farsad held the microphone with both her hands, clutching it close to her chest. She wore a black sleeveless dress, bright red lipstick and large round silver earrings, her short, black hair parted to the side. It’s a look that stood out amongst the often drab and colorless wardrobe of New York City comics. It also gave the 33-year-old comedian a coquettish, little-girl vibe. Her colorful presence was in stark contrast to the rust brick wall that served as the backdrop to the stage at Standup New York, an Upper West Side comedy club.
Against this background, Farsad looked tiny, her high-pitched voice adding to her diminutive stature. With a slight quiver, she began her set, telling the audience she was now going to discuss her “areas.”
“I recently had to get an STD test because …I was a raging slut for a period of my life…that ended last week.” said Farsad. Her punchlines rolled out deliberately after every pause, each revelation raunchier than the last.
As the crowd responded with a mixture of gasps and guffaws, Farsad continued, “The good news is that my vagina is closed and disease free, until marriage! Or you know…until someone takes me out to dinner at a restaurant with a Zagat rating of at least eight out of 30.”
That kind of raunchy humor might be standard fare in the New York comedy scene. But the person performing it doesn’t fit the mold at all. Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American woman who identifies herself as a Muslim. She is, in her words, “totally screwed.”
At Rutgers University, New Jersey, Maysoon Zayid, a 36-year-old Palestinian-American comic, walked with a slight limp to the middle of the stage and sat down on a black stool. When she performs standup, she always sits down. As she began to tell her jokes, you could hear a slight slurring of her words and see that the left side of her face had a noticeable sag. It is a condition her stand-up comedy teacher told her to address within the first thirty seconds of her performance. She promptly did.
“For those of you who don’t know me, I am not wasted!” she said. “But the doctor who delivered me was.”
And then she delivered the kicker. “As a result, I am a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey and if you don’t feel good about yourself, maybe you fucking should.”
Zayid might have to modify that line since she recently got married.
Sex features in both Farsad’s and Zayid’s material, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Farsad joked about having to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, Zayid quipped in her set, “I am a virgin by choice…my father’s choice.”
The mere mention of sex is taboo in most Muslim cultures. One can imagine how two Muslim female comics joking about it is an invitation for outrage and slut-shaming. But Farsad and Zayid aren’t trying to be subversive or opposed to Islam. They claim they’re representing its new face. They are embracing their Muslim identity and with their image and presence in these comedy clubs, they are challenging widely held beliefs and stereotypes about Muslims and Muslim women. Significantly, they’ve been able to do that while maintaining credibility as comedians. Both Farsad and Zayid were recently included in The Huffington Post’s list of the 53 funniest female comics.
“When people think of Muslims, they immediately think of extremely hardcore, conservative, practicing Muslims. There’s no gray area,” said Farsad. “I think it’s very useful for people to see Muslims that don’t cover up, that we exist, we’re out there and this is what we look like.”
Born in 1978 to immigrant Iranian parents, Farsad grew up in Palm Springs, California. Even as a child, she was painfully aware of being different. Farsad didn’t speak any English at home, instead conversing with her family in Farsi and Azeri, a regional Turkic language. Her parents, didn’t impose religion on her, but they came from a culturally Muslim background that meant there were restrictions on what she could do.
“All I wanted to do was go to Jenny’s house on a Friday night and eat Sloppy Joe’s because that’s what Americans did,” she said. “I remember when I was 11-years-old, this kid in school came up to me and said ‘Your legs are so hairy!’ Of course it’s Palm Springs where people wear shorts all year round and I’m not allowed to shave my legs because I’m Iranian and we have all these strict rules.”
Her brother, 13 years her senior, fulfilled her immigrant parent’s dream by becoming a doctor. She said this left her free to choose her vocation at Cornell University, where she majored in both theater and government. “The adult side of me was going to go into politics,” she said. “I was eventually going to run for Congress in my district, end up in the White House and end the racial divide.”
Farsad pursued that goal with two graduate degrees from Columbia University (one in race relations and the other in urban planning) and landed a job as a policy advisor for the City of New York.
It was during this time that she started performing at open-mic nights and comedy clubs, paying her dues in the often unforgiving world New York standup comedy. Now she found that instead of it just being a hobby, it was something taking up more and more of her time. “It went from being an 8-hours-week hobby to a 40-hours-a-week hobby, just escalating into something that became so important to me,” she said. “I would present something to the City Council in the day, then at night I’d be doing standup and at one point it became wildly inappropriate.”
Farsad said her friends began to “stage interventions,” telling her she needed to become a full time comedian, but she was reluctant to give up her career in government. “I told myself that [comedy] was a horrible life and it’s just such an uncertain path to choose,” she said. Slowly, Farsad made the transition by carving out a comedic niche for herself where she was able to marry the public policy issues she was so passionate about with her comedy. Along with performing standup and improv comedy in the flourishing East Village comedy scene, she founded her own video production company, “Vaguely Qualified Productions.”
Through this, she earned her chops has a filmmaker, writer and producer. It is also her main source of income. She produces a variety of films and web videos, including advertisements, public service messages and awareness campaigns for organizations such as MoveOn.org and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). All her films have a humorous bent to them, with a serious message embedded in the comedy. For example, a short film she produced for Healthy Americans Against Reforming Medicine (HAARM) depicts an increasingly absurd situation. A woman whose foot is on fire isn’t rescued because the firm she works for (portrayed by several evil corporate types) have hired a private firefighting company. Since her insurance only covers “fire on her upper thigh”, the firefighter claims he is powerless to put out the flames.
Farsad was also recently commissioned by Queen Rania of Jordan to produce a short video highlighting the stereotypes people have about Arabs. The film is a montage of people of Arab descent telling the camera the funniest or the most offensive things that have been said to them, ranging from “You’re Arab? That’s great, I love hummus.” to “You’re Arab? Can you tell me when the next terrorist attack is going to happen?”
However, it is her standup act that provokes the most extreme reactions. Farsad remembered the first time she realized her material was offensive to people, especially her own. She had been doing standup in New York for a year when she got called out to do a show at Northwestern University by the school’s Iranian Student Association. Members of the local Iranian community were also invited. By Farsad’s account, it was a total disaster. “They thought I was a disgusting, disgusting human being,” she said. “I had been performing out in New York and white people didn’t seem to mind but now I found I was disgusting to my own people.”
While performing on the “Muslims Are Coming” tour in Tucson, Arizona, about 20 Muslims in the audience walked out in the middle of Farsad’s performance, offended by her racy material. The “ring leader” was a woman who felt that Farsad was saying things that a Muslim woman absolutely shouldn’t be saying.
It might seem naïve to think she wouldn’t offend the people of her own faith and culture, but Farsad is adamant that she was genuinely surprised. “I get a lot of hate-mail from my own people, a lot of them call me a whore,” she said. “I thought, ‘Have we not been living in the same country all this time?’ Because most of this stuff is fine by American standards!”
The negative reaction didn’t discourage Farsad. “It made me angry and it furthered my resolve to have a two-fold mission, to dispel stereotypes about any immigrant to the mainstream American population and to get rid of the patriarchal tendencies that my own people have,” she said.
The taking of offense isn’t just limited to Muslims. She was accused of being anti-Semitic when she made jokes about dating Jewish men. “I was like, you don’t understand, I like them so much I have sex with them,” she said.
In his standup routine, fellow comedian Dean Obeidallah likes to say he didn’t feel Arab until after 9/11. “Before 9/11, I was a white guy, living a white guy’s life. I didn’t have any Arab friends. All my friends had names like Monica, Joey, Chandler, Rachel and Ross,” said Obeidallah.
That wasn’t the case with Farsad. She said she was always aware of her identity in Palm Springs because she stood out so much with her jet black hair and the ‘weird’ lunches she would bring to school. “I lived in a town where you were either white or Mexican and I was neither of those things,” she said.
Conversely, she said, this made her less aware of the societal pressures and judgment that came from the Iranian immigrant community. “I didn’t grow up around a lot of Persians, but if you go to places like Los Angeles, the Persian community there is very judgmental. They keep their activities secret and they’re very good about hiding their real lives. I didn’t grow up knowing that I was ever supposed to do that,” she said.
The “secret activities” Farsad is referring to are acts expressly forbidden in Islam. These include pre-marital sex, drinking, wearing skirts and eating pork, all of which she makes no secret about enjoying. “I’m confused that people don’t recognize that there are hybrid versions of Muslims who are ensconced in American culture. In my case, that means it is a very secular representation,” she said. Farsad gives the example of how there is a wide range of people who call themselves Jews and are completely accepted, from those who are Orthodox to those who “totally eat bacon, at sundown, on a Friday.” She said that kind of tolerance should be a real goal for the Muslim community.
Despite her provocative work, Farsad said she gets grudging support from her parents. They have concerns, but they aren’t the typical ones. Most of their objections come from Farsad’s jokes about visiting Iran. “Their concern is ‘Why don’t you say any nice things about Iran” said Farsad. Her parents also have a very real fear of someone attacking her or the Iranian government taking action against her when she visits Iran now that her work is in the public sphere. “Iranians are paranoid, but the way things go in the country, they have good reason to be,” she said. Her parents have asked her not to travel there any more.
Farsad’s father has never seen her act but her mother has. She doesn’t quite comprehend the jokes since the material has a lot of pop-culture references that need to be explained. Farsad said she wished her parents could “get” her work, but she realizes they aren’t her target audience. “I know they wish I wasn’t so edgy, which is funny because compared to other female comedians I’m really not. It’s this stupid Iranian thing that makes it edgy,” she said.
Four years ago, Tissa Hami was invited to perform standup at a university in Colorado. Hami, a 39-year-old Iranian-American comedian said she couldn’t do the show that year due to scheduling conflicts, but would love to do it the next year. When she approached the university the following year, they told her they had booked Negin Farsad in her place last year and they didn’t want to go for another Iranian woman two years in a row. “I just thought, Negin and I are so different but we’ve just been lumped together. Would you ever say, ‘Oh we just had a white male comic last year so we won’t have one again this year?” she said.
Farsad and Hami are very different but their similarities are striking. Both are in their late thirties, with immigrant Iranian parents and they both have multiple degrees from Ivy League universities.
“We’re all really different, we have different approaches and we might even disagree with each other, but there’s a kernel there that we all have in common, we’re all trying to fight stereotypes,” said Hami about female comedians in the Muslim world.
She would know, she’s been performing standup for almost ten years now. While Hami now lives in San Francisco, she got her start on the East Coast, the year after 9/11. Hami grew up in suburban Boston and attended Brown University for her Bachelors degree and obtained a masters degree in international and public affairs from Columbia University.
Hami said her venture into standup comedy was driven by her desire to combat what people were saying about Middle Eastern women. “I hated that everyone thought of us as repressed and I hated the fact that all these so called Middle Eastern experts on TV were middle aged white guys,” she said. “Had 9/11 not happened, I probably wouldn’t have gone into comedy, I would probably still be at my job on Wall Street.”
After taking a six week long course in performing standup, Hami and her fellow students “graduated” by performing in front of a live audience for the first time at a Boston comedy club. “I was absolutely terrified, I didn’t know what was going to happen, whether I was going to get booed or if they were going to throw bottles at me,” she said. The reaction was better than she could have imagined. “I got multiple applause breaks in my set. The club booked me on the spot,” she said.
Hami remained grounded about how much her efforts or the efforts of fellow comedians could make an impact. “Hopefully it’s making a difference by changing minds among a handful of people at every show,” she said. “But the world in its history has not figured out how to create peace, I’m not going to be able to do it with a few jokes.”
Hami’s material is more of what you’d expect to hear from a Muslim comedian in America, compared to the offbeat and provocative content of Farsad and the personal stories of Zayid.
In her appearance on The View, she scored with a generic airport joke, “An airport security guard pulled me to the side and said he was going to have to give me a body cavity search. . .something I was saving for my wedding night.”
She also poked fun at American perceptions about Muslim women: “A lot of Americans think we’re oppressed because in the mosque, we have to stand behind the men when we pray. That’s not us being oppressed, that just us checking out the view.”
Hami uses a more direct way of dealing with the Muslim woman stereotype. For many of her early shows, she would take the stage clad in a black hijab or headscarf, a common identifying feature for many Muslim women. Hami said she started doing this when she would travel to remote venues to do shows, places like rural Kentucky and Kansas where people would tell her they had literally never seen a Muslim before.
“Performing in places like that with a hijab has an immediate impact,” she said. Halfway through the set she would take the headscarf off because she wanted people to see the contrast and yet acknowledge that it was only an outward appearance. “I wanted them to see that even though I looked different, I was the exact same person.”
It was at a venue like this where Hami had one of her most memorable performances. In 2007, she traveled to Concordia, Kansas which she accurately described as having a population of about 5000 to 6000 people who were 99.7 percent white and very Republican. However, much like her first standup performance, her fears were unfounded as the 200 people who attended her show gave her a standing ovation.
But for Hami, the most significant reactions came after the show, from the people who came up to talk to her. She said, “I was approached by two women, one of whom was dressed like she had just gone out to dinner in New York and another who was dressed in more casual clothes. They told me they were sisters.” Hami was surprised because the women looked nothing alike. “Then they told me they weren’t actually sisters, but nuns from the convent down the street,” said Hami.
The two women told Hami they could relate to what she was saying about women, Islam, veiling and clothes. People didn’t believe they were nuns since they didn’t wear a habit. “They were saying we’re not lesser nuns just because we don’t wear a habit,” she said.
She was approached by a young girl who was half-white, half Native American. The girl told her “I’m a half-breed, everyone treats me differently here because of that.” She said that hearing Hami’s comedy had given her solace. For Hami, it was encouraging to see that it wasn’t just Muslims who could relate and be affected by her comedy.
The reactions from Muslims to her comedy has generally been positive. “There used to be a lot more criticism early on when I first started,” said Hami. She said that was mainly because she would poke fun at cultural traditions and Islamic practices. Although her jokes were comparatively tame, she said these topics were simply off-limits for some Muslims. These days, she said the audiences are a lot more accepting.
“When I first started out, no one was telling jokes about traveling, no one was telling jokes about being accused of terrorism, especially not women. I honestly thought I was the first one,” said Hami. “Until someone told me about Maysoon Zayid performing in New Jersey.”
Maysoon Zayid’s most striking feature is her long brown hair that almost reaches the top of her waist. She has large, expressive eyes and her voice is low and deliberate. Her disability isn’t immediately apparent, causing some people to have confused reactions when they first see her.
Born and raised in New Jersey to immigrant Palestinian parents, Zayid chose to go to college at Arizona State University.
She joked that they threw money at her to attend because she fit so many of their diversity requirements. Zayid earned her BFA in acting from the university and immediately started looking for work, which she found in soap operas. “It was my dream to be on General Hospital, but I got a part in As The World Turns, where I was basically a glorified piece of furniture,” she said.
Feeling defeated, Zayid turned to her acting coach Tanya Berezin, whose list of clients includes actors Brandon Routh, Bobby Cannevale, Josh Duhamel and Mark Consuelos. Berezin said to her, “You’re a freak, and you need to be a comedian.”
Berezin urged her to follow the example of Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres. “It was all these girls who weren’t beautiful, who weren’t perfect, who weren’t supermodels who made it by making their mark in comedy,” said Zayid.
She followed up her acting classes with standup comedy classes at the famed New York City comedy club, Caroline’s. It was here that her teacher encouraged her to address her cerebral palsy early on in all her standup routines. “Comedy is not funny if you feel like the comedian is nervous, the audience gets unsteady,” said Zayid. “I shake all the time, so if I didn’t tell people what was wrong with me in the first 30 seconds of the set, I would lose them.”
Despite Zayid saying that cerebral palsy is personally the least of her problems, she admits it is what holds her back the most professionally. “I was up for (hosting) a morning show, and there were actual conversations about people’s comments on my YouTube clips,” said Zayid. “They said I was distracting, I was hard to watch, my lip was distracting, they wanted to pull it up to match the other side.”
People will often ask her if she faces prejudice being a Palestinian in a Jewish dominated industry. Zayid said, “I’ve never had someone say to me, ‘I can’t work with you because I’m Jewish’ but I have had people come up to me and say ‘I’m sorry but I can’t work with you because you’re disabled.” They usually justify this by saying it makes the audience feel uncomfortable, said Zayid. “What they don’t realize is that people won’t get comfortable until there are people with disabilities regularly on the TV.”
Thankfully, it isn’t something she had to address in her role as contributor for the (recently cancelled) Current TV political show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. On Countdown, Zayid provided humorous commentary on current political issues, regularly taking on the Republican Party, Bill O’Reilly and other hot button issues of the day. “It’s really interesting that Keith Olbermann chose to do this, because we never explained my disability on the show. If you look at the comments online, people don’t know what the hell is wrong with me and they just guess.”
A political label is something Zayid cannot escape. Being a Palestinian in New York City means she is inevitably a lightning rod for controversy. But it also helped to set her apart. “When I was coming up as a comedian in the clubs, it was basically among a sea of women talking about their periods,” she said. “And then there was me, talking about how I dodged a bullet or how I was frisked at a checkpoint in Gaza.”
It wasn’t without repercussions. The first time Zayid faced serious opposition to her comedy was when members of the Jewish Defense League protested outside one of her shows. “They felt I was a Palestinian apologist because I go there so regularly and talk about the work I do there.” Zayid is talking about “Maysoon’s Kids” an organization she runs in Palestine that helps disabled and orphaned children in refugee camps use art to deal with their experiences. A substantial amount of her earnings from comedy go towards this program.
Zayid is also in the process of adopting a child from the same program. She said it gives her the opportunity for new comedy material. “I make jokes about how excited I am to adopt, this way I can make sure my kid isn’t fugly,” said Zayid.
Zayid said she didn’t mean to be political but for her to say she hadn’t said some very radical things about Israel would be a lie. “I’ve talked about Gaza, I’ve talked about checkpoints and being strip searched in the airports, because it’s part of my life experience,” she said. “I make no apologies for it.”
In Islam, there is a concept of things that are halal (permitted) and things that are haraam (forbidden). Zayid claims her comedy is “99 percent halal” except for the occasional curse word that might slip in. “I’m completely comfortable doing a routine that’s not offensive to anyone.”
That stands in stark contrast to Negin Farsad, who’s material could be classified as mostly haraam. While not looking to offend anyone, she admits there’s a thrill in shocking people with something provocative, especially if they don’t expect you to. “I remember doing a show/presentation in Portland for a labor organization, and when I saw the room filled with these, older white guys, my curse engine immediately turned on,” said Farsad. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna talk about my anus! In a business setting! With PowerPoint!”
She said she gets a thrill out of subverting someone’s expectations of her. “Physically, I’m short, I wear dresses, you might expect something cleaner out of me and that’s part of it,” she said. Having crossed the line so many times, Farsad said it was hard to now know when she was being offensive at all. “You don’t even know when you’re being inappropriate anymore,” she said.
Despite their different approaches, Farsad said she was a fan of Zayid’s work as soon as she saw her. “I thought she was amazing and it was exciting because I hadn’t seen female Muslim woman comic on stage like that” said Farsad. “She does a really good job with pushing the envelope without completely destroying relations with the Muslim community.”
Farsad said Zayid walks the tightrope really well, although she doesn’t believe there should be a tightrope. As a result, Farsad believes she will attract a smaller and less diverse audience than Zayid. “With the kind of stuff I do, my audience is mostly white liberals.” she said. “But performers who are comfortable negotiating the tightrope will get more opportunities to perform at different venues and have larger audiences as well.”
This doesn’t mean Zayid is immune to backlash within her own community. One of the biggest criticisms she got was for agreeing to appear in a movie titled You Don’t Mess With The Zohan with actor Adam Sandler. Sandler plays the titular hero, a superhuman Israeli commando who runs away to New York to become a hairdresser. The movie makes fun of both Israeli and Palestinian culture and stereotypes.
Zayid calls the criticism “stupid” because she felt most people hadn’t even seen the film. “If they did, they would see that yes he’s an Israeli commando but he’s tired of the conflict, he’s tired of the war and he just want to get out of there,” she said. Sandler’s character also ends up marrying a Palestinian girl. Zayid played one of her friends. “I played a Muslim, female character who looked and dressed like me which was great because in most films, Arab women were portrayed either as belly dancers or in a burqa.”
It’s hard enough being a Muslim comedian but being a woman in a largely male dominated industry has its own obstacles. There is a pervasive belief among a lot of men that women, just aren’t funny.
Comedy legend Jerry Lewis famously told an audience at a comedy festival “I don’t like any female comedians.” The late Christopher Hitchens devoted an entire article in Vanity Fair titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Most recently comedian Eddie Brill, longtime comedy booker for Late Night with David Letterman lost his job when he was quoted in a New York Times article as saying “There are a lot less female comics who are authentic, I see a lot of female comics who, to please an audience, will act like men.”
As a frequent collaborator of Zayid and Farsad’s, Dean Obeidallah is quick to refute that idea. “There is a presumption by some that women can’t be good comics which, of course, is absolutely wrong,” said Obeidallah. “I think in general female comedians are scrutinized more by audiences regardless of their faith.”
In addition, both Farsad and Zayid have had to deal with allegations that they are “milking” their gender and ethnicity to get a leg up on the competition. Farsad narrates an incident where she was auditioning to be the host of a comedy clip show and was shortlisted for the job, along with a male comic she knew. Several days later, she bumped into him and he told her he was up against her for the job. He then added “I knew you would get down to the final two because they always call back the ethnic girl.”
Farsad said she couldn’t believe it. “Really? Is that why when you turn on the television it’s overrun with female Muslim Iranian-American comedians right now?” she said. “What is wrong with you that you can’t just go ahead and take the white privilege and enjoy it a little bit without making me feel awful about getting a callback.”
She added, “The notion that you would be milking something so fundamental to your identity is just…gross.”
But with such a wide variety of approaches and beliefs, are these comedians even representing Islam at all? Cyrus McGoldrick, 23, the civil rights manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations-New York (CAIR-NY) is one of the loudest voices to raise concerns about Islamophobia in New York. He believes their representation is more cultural rather than religious. “When we position ourselves as Muslim entertainers, we are representing a religion, not an ethnicity,” said McGoldrick. “A lot of people act as if Islam can also be a secular culture, when there really is no such thing. If you’re not acting like a Muslim then what is Islamic about it?”
McGoldrick said he appreciated the efforts of the comedians in trying to humanize Muslims to the general public but he urged caution in their actions. Referring to the controversial show “All-American Muslim”, McGoldrick said, “They should have renamed it All-American Arab, because that was what they (the featured families) had in common, not Islam. Why have un-Islamic behavior on an Islamic platform? Do we need to debase ourselves in order to humanize ourselves for America?” said McGoldrick.
Farsad responded that her personal relationship with Islam is completely irrelevant. “What I’m mostly concerned with is how Muslims are being integrated into American culture and how they are being represented in the media,” said Farsad.
She said religion is inseparable from cultural practice at this point in the community’s history. “I point back to the Jewish example where as a community, it’s not at all about being religious, it’s really a cultural designation,” she said. ‘In this day and age, for me to call myself a Muslim is a socio-political stance but hopefully it’ll be less politically charged in the future.”
Farsad said the community was following the natural trajectory of most immigrant communities in America. “You’re demonized,” Farsad said. “You make jokes about it, eventually, you get a sitcom.”