Nasim Pedrad joins our Zoom call in a rush, explaining that she’ll have to do our interview sans camera because of a spotty internet connection. Frankly, after over a year of prepping to look my on-camera best from the waist up, conversations that allow me to sprawl out in my sweatpants have become my new favorite thing. Besides, from her roles in New Girl and People of Earth to her characters on Saturday Night Live, Pedrad has always seemed like one of comedy’s most beautiful cool girls to me. But at the same time, she can still pull off the Lucille Ball–esque awkwardness necessary to fit right into some of TV’s funniest shows. Whether she’s swooping in to play the chill girlfriend, a campy villain or a hardened detective among aliens, Pedrad’s ability to adapt to a range of comedic tones seems effortless while she maintains her signature appeal.
Those roles are a far cry from Pedrad’s new show, Chad, which she co-created and stars in as a 14-year-old Persian boy navigating the difficulties of high school, puberty, and popularity. As far as Chad may seem from the 39-year-old Pedrad’s history of playing sorority girls and love interests, it’s the role that she says resonates most closely with who she truly is. “Graduating from theater school and not finding roles available to me that I was excited to play, a lot of the representation of Middle Easterners on TV and film at the time was predominantly negative, very centered around themes of terrorism,” Pedrad says. After graduating from UCLA, she wrote her own one-woman show, Me, Myself & Iran, centered around a variety of Middle Eastern characters. “Since the parts I would have been excited to play weren’t available to me, I just started writing them myself,” she explains. After Tina Fey saw the show, Pedrad was invited to the 2007 HBO Comedy Festival, which launched her acting career.
Pedrad displayed an incredible ability to bring the oddest characters to life, which would eventually get her on Saturday Night Live. On SNL, she was given a lot of standard characters like Kim Kardashian or “woman on a date,” but she really shined when it came to weirdos like Shallon or a small, sensitive little boy. When she came up with Chad, she knew she wanted to take on the challenge of playing the show’s main character. “One of the reasons I decided to portray a 14-year-old boy and not a girl was I felt like it would be really helpful to my performance to really disappear into a character that felt furthest away from myself, an adult female actress,” she says.
As Pedrad and I cozied up over the phone (I imagine she was also in sweatpants, but I did not confirm), it’s Chad’s excitement and eagerness that I hear in her voice. With Chad, Pedrad has created a character that showcases her comedic physicality. “I was really excited to tell the coming-of-age story where the teenager at the center of it was played by an adult who’s in on the joke. I felt like the funny moments can be funnier and less sad if you’re watching Chad through an adult who has some distance from their adolescent years and is on the other side of it.”
On Chad, Pedrad doesn’t just have the opportunity to bring a flailing and hilariously neurotic character she co-created to life, she’s also the show’s executive producer, fully responsible for crafting the odd little world Chad exists within. She originally wrote the pilot for Fox in 2016, but the network passed and the show landed at TBS. “I wrote a completely new pilot story for the TBS version,” says Pedrad, who also leads the show’s writers’ room. “When we started the room, we spent the first few weeks kind of dissecting Chad’s pathology and making sure we were all on the same page about what felt within the lines of something his character would or wouldn’t do.”
This attention to detail pays off. In the show’s opening scene, Chad gets his braces taken off and immediately begins tearing into his orthodontist about how he should choose a new profession for the years of painful treatment Chad has had to endure. Immediately, you understand he is both insecure and a know-it-all teenage boy brimming with unearned confidence. The show’s funniest and hardest to watch moments come when that confidence is stripped away and we see how unsure of himself Chad really is. “I got really lucky and had a room of incredibly talented people that were able to quickly emulate his voice and the tone of the show,” Pedrad says.
Chad is made up almost entirely of cringe humor and sincerity. Chad’s biggest enemy is himself, with most of the show’s characters trying their best to support him no matter how irritating he gets. You want Chad to stop everything he’s doing as much as you want to see him succeed. Pedrad’s portrayal of Chad is more on par with the strange comedic tones of some of the most off-putting characters from Nathan Fielder and Tim Robinson. Yet in Pedrad’s hands, Chad also somehow becomes relatable, rather than just hard to watch. “He doesn’t have the tools to get people to accept him because he’s not yet at a place where he accepts himself,” she says. “The show deals a lot with the concept of identity, and he’s so desperately in search of his identity.”
Pedrad’s portrayal of a teenage boy is part of what makes the show funny, but Chad’s ability to win over your sympathy gives the show its heart. Comparisons to the equally enjoyable Pen15 (where adults Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play tweens) seem inevitable, but centering the show around a Persian boy equips Pedrad with a different narrative and sense of agency. Chad sways between being a confident know-it-all who reprimands the adults around him to being an immature baby, crying in his little sister’s arms. “I definitely wanted to explore the uncompromising pressure to ‘be a bro’ that young boys today face and, especially, for a character who is caught between childhood and adolescence, this precarious age. The stakes of anything feels so life and death,” says Pedrad.
As much as Chad is a coming-of-age story, Pedrad’s gender-crossing performance raises interesting questions about modern masculinity. Chad is in search of a mentor and friends, but rejects the women who surround him. In the episode “Whiskey Slaps,” Chad finally realizes his little sister, Niki (played by Ella Mika), is far more mature than him. When a group of young girls at a party push Chad to play a game where they take shots and slap each other, he pretends to know what he’s doing only to end up with a bloody nose. Rather than ridicule Chad for lying or being embarrassing, the episode turns into a bonding moment between the siblings. Niki offers Chad help and sincere advice, perfectly capturing the show’s tender and cringey tones.
“Chad’s relationship with his sister is loosely based on my own younger sister,” Pedrad says. “It seemed like she never possessed any of the social anxiety or problems with popularity that I feel like my childhood was riddled with. She just like, effortlessly always had friends and a social grace that I truly envy even though I was the older sister.” It’s hard for me to imagine Pedrad lacking social grace or friends, but I have to believe this might be another factor that helped her bring Chad to life. That the show sat in TV purgatory for 5 years points to an industry that wasn’t exactly eager to see one of its sitcom queens turn into an awkward, gangly teenage boy. There are also few Middle Eastern women who have had the opportunity to write, produce, develop and create their own series. Pedrad’s drive to create the stories and characters she wants to see in an industry that sought to typecast her certainly mimics some of Chad’s confidence. In the world of Chad, however, outsiders aren’t met with derision, but the support all of us weirdos wish we’d been granted growing up. Pedrad’s vision for the show has paid off, with the series earning a second season.
“I made a decision to sort of lean away from the tropes of the teenager at the center of the story being actively bullied by the mean kids,” she says. “I just felt like I had seen that before. I thought it would be funny to explore a dynamic between Chad and the popular kids where the popular kids aren’t unkind! They’re generally nice and accepting, they just don’t notice Chad, which to him is even worse. It’s really Chad that spins out and gets in his own way more than anyone. That’s sort of what’s tragic about him and the engine of the comedy.”
It’s a decision that pays off. The show’s first season finale sets up incredibly promising stakes. Chad finally gets everything he ever wanted in the worst possible way. Pedrad describes it as a “house of cards” that will inevitably come crashing down. Over the phone, she gets so excited listing potential ideas for season two, I start to hear Chad’s nerdy enthusiasm again. Maybe Chad will look for his father. Maybe he’ll get a girlfriend. Maybe he’ll face consequences for the messes he created. I’m sure Nasim Pedrad has a world of possibilities up her sleeve for how he could pull it off.