Nasim Pedrad On 'Chad' And Finding The Balance Between Cringe And Comedy
“Whether or not you're an immigrant kid, anyone can relate to the notion of just wanting to belong.”
Mild spoilers for the first season of Chad below.
For many, adolescence is a scary, borderline horrifying time. Between raging hormones, parental strife, and any number of identity crises, your teenage years can often be some of the most agonizing. For people who are different — in terms of sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, race, or ethnicity — this period can even be worse. Trying to fit in with your peers is hard enough; trying to do so when you already feel like an outsider can feel like an impossible feat.
Chad, a new TBS cringe comedy, understands this perfectly. Premiering tonight, the new series follows a Middle Eastern Muslim high school freshman who wants for nothing more than to be perceived as a normal boy by his American peers. Played by Saturday Night Live veteran Nasim Pedrad — who also created, wrote, and executive produced the series — the titular Chad is deliberately maladjusted but shameless in his pursuit to be accepted. Painfully awkward with a distressing inability to read social cues, Chad spends the eight-episode first season doing everything in his power to fit in with the “cool kids” on campus. His best friend, the sweet and nerdy Peter (Eighth Grade’s Jake Ryan), is inexplicably loyal, standing by Chad’s side no matter how embarrassing he may act. Yet, when it comes down to it, the image-obsessed Chad is far more interested in joining the inner circle of popular jock Reid (Big Time Adolescence’s Thomas Barbusca).
With the 39-year-old Pedrad throwing on a choppy wig and comically oversized clothing to effectively transform into a 14-year-old boy, it’s easy to compare Chad to Hulu’s breakout comedy Pen15, which similarly found 33-year-old stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing adolescents surrounded by a cast of actual adolescents. (Chad’s high school classmates are also played by real teenagers.) But as it’s written, Chad (which has been in development, in one form or another, for the past five years) is considerably more willing to plumb the most awful depths of teenagedom. Refreshingly, Chad’s high school doesn’t have bullies, but Chad himself is so relentlessly clueless about how he comes off that, at times, watching Chad can be wince-inducing. For every moment of tender sincerity in Pen15, Chad doubles down on the cringe aspect of “cringe comedy.” Fortunately, as excruciating as it is to watch Chad squirm through every interaction — both at school and at home, where even his mother, Naz (Saba Homayoon), is quite aware that Chad’s younger sister, Niki (Ella Mika), is significantly more adjusted than her eldest son — Pedrad finds a way to break through with something still undeniably hilarious.
Ahead of tonight’s premiere of Chad, NYLON hopped on the phone with Nasim Pedrad to talk about the real-life experiences that inspired the show, finding the balance between “cringe” and “comedy,” the fetishization of Black culture, the “blessing” of acting opposite actual teenagers, and what she learned about adolescence by revisiting that period of her life decades later.
Where did the idea for Chad come from?
I have a development deal where I could create, write, and star in my own show, and I knew I really wanted to create a character that I’d have a lot of fun playing. The kernel, for me, was this prospect of experimenting with what we know to be a traditional coming-of-age story. I thought it would be so interesting to tell a coming-of-age story where the teenager at the center is played by an adult who’s in on the joke of why teenagers are so funny. Teenagers don't know what's so funny about being a teenager because they're in the middle of living out that nightmare.
So I thought it would be really cool if Chad were played by an adult who could bring that perspective and nuance to the performance. I thought you could get away with so much more and could push the comedy so much further if you have an adult playing Chad, because you're not sitting there laughing at an actual Iranian child. You're laughing at an adult who you know has some distance from those horrifying teenage years. That was the origin story, I would say.
How did you decide to center this coming-of-age story on an awkward Persian boy who’s desperate to be accepted as this “regular American” teenager?
I love writing about the awkwardness of adolescence in general, but I wanted to write something that felt really honest and authentic to my experience growing up as a child of immigrants. I hadn't seen that before in a half-hour comedy. In fact, most of the Middle Eastern representation that I grew up watching — or that even existed when I graduated from college — was predominantly negative. So first and foremost, I wanted to write a Middle Eastern character that came from an empathetic place, with humanity and depth, who was relatable, had flaws, and had flaws that were relatable. Chad is by no means perfect, but he's coming from such a desperate place that you can hopefully empathize with him and laugh at how ridiculous he's being. It was exciting to represent my culture in a way that demonstrated humanity and relatability.
Then, more specifically, I wanted to speak to the truth of my upbringing as it pertained to feeling caught between two cultures. Teenagers are already struggling to find their identity and feel accepted by their peers. But as an immigrant kid, you're also caught between two cultures and it's almost like the foreignness is this extra obstacle to get through in your effort to fit in. Whether or not you're an immigrant kid, anyone can relate to the notion of just wanting to belong, especially at that age. Now, I'm old enough to embrace my Persian heritage in a very hardcore way. I love it so much — I insist my parents speak to me in Persian so that I don't lose the language and all of that. But as a kid, you're really trying to just seem as normal and “American” as possible. There's this internal conflict — yes, you love your parents, you love your heritage. But there's a part of you that's also embarrassed by it — or embarrassed by the "otherness" of feeling foreign in the eyes of your American peers.
Chad is a cringe comedy in the truest sense. In fact, I was shocked sometimes at how willing you were to go to the most uncomfortable place imaginable. When you were writing, how did you manage to find the balance between intense cringe and humor?
Listen, I think we definitely walked a razor-thin line when it comes to the fun experiment of cringe comedy. Many people would probably think we even crossed that line at times. But to me, that was my reality. There are so many moments in my childhood where I'm like, "Read the room, bitch. No one is feeling comfortable by what's happening, and you're still in this conversation. What are you doing?" But that was a fun thing to explore because, at that age, you also don't have all the social queues you develop later on in life. So there are moments where we can see the slow-motion car accident that's happening to Chad, but he's not totally aware of it or is literally in such an aggressive spin-out mentally that he can't see what's actually happening. There are times when he walks away from a conversation but it's not until he's debriefing with Peter that it even dawns on him the extent to which he blew it.
To me, that was definitely part of the show’s DNA. There were times on set where we'd try stuff and immediately be like, "Okay, that's definitely too far. We can't do that." But that's what's also really fun about playing a part that I can really sink my teeth into. I know Chad so well, I understand his motivations so well. I'm comfortable enough in the performance to be able to play around on set and try things. Chad is not like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where it's just story points mapped out. We have an actual script. But being able to open up takes and just go completely off script to find something in the moment… [It was nice] to see how the kids around me reacted too.
That was another blessing — I just really lucked out with this insanely talented cast. The teenagers around Chad are actual teenagers; these aren't Disney performances. I wanted them to feel grounded and real, not at all heightened. Chad's sort of the heightened one with his manic desperation, but everyone around him is pretty even and grounded, which was really helpful to my performance. When we would open up takes, they were just so great at being able to play off of him. Their performances, I would say, really helped my performance.
I was going to ask about that because I quickly noticed how much this show was interested in upending these classic high school tropes. Like, when it comes to Reid and the other “cool kids,” you’d expect them to be these mean bullies — especially to someone like Chad. But playing off Chad, they seem so normal and grounded and not at all mean. Sure, they may sometimes struggle to hide how uncomfortable Chad makes them feel, but overall, they're not bad people. They're just moving through the day.
I wish you could understand how seen I feel by you right now because you literally took the words out of my mouth. That was exactly it. I was like, "We've seen the bullying thing. What if his classmates were totally progressive and woke?” They're not bullying him. Chad's not cool, but he's not actively being bullied. He's just sort of unremarkable. The cool kids are generally nice and accepting; they just don't notice him, which, to him, is even worse. That was something I hadn't seen before — and it really helped with the comedy. It's Chad that spins out and gets in his own way. He's his own worst enemy, but he doesn't have the tools to understand that yet. We're watching this character absolutely get his ass handed to him every episode, but by his own doing. Then, a lot of the humor comes from the fact that, while he keeps screwing up, he doesn't lose hope that tomorrow could be different. You’re just like, "Oh my God. Here we go again."
I basically watched the entire season in one sitting.
Oh my god. I’m sorry.
[Laughs] But the more I watched, the more it seemed to tell this quasi antihero origin story. It was like, the more desperate Chad got, the more willing he was to do these increasingly bad-natured things. I still don’t think he’s a bad person, but by the end of the season, he’s gotten himself into some very compromising situations. Was that a trajectory you were trying to establish when you were mapping out the season?
Yes, absolutely. I knew I wanted to build to that finale so I was like, "Okay, what's the ladder you build to that?" There's an innocence in Chad, but there's also this rigid determination. It was really interesting to explore [this idea] of wanting popularity at all costs, like What does that mean? What are you willing to do to get it? You grow to learn there's almost nothing he's not willing to do if he feels like he could gain some sort of social currency. There's a real shameless quality to him. There are moments when he's self-aware, but in most moments, he's not and doesn’t realize how much he's struggling to read the room. He's just so who he is. The desperation creates such a blindness [in him] for the way he's coming off to people.
In the first half of the season, Chad's mom starts dating a Black Muslim man, and Chad immediately becomes obsessed with him — but more specifically, with his Blackness. I was surprised to find that this particular show was willing to explore what is essentially a nuanced conversation about the fetishization of Blackness and how it pertains to this perceived idea of “coolness.” Can you tell me a bit more about what you wanted to say?
I've actually never been asked that question but it’s an important one. Early in the process of developing this character, I sat down with a pen and paper and was like, "Who is this kid? What is his identity?" The truth is, he's very desperate to find his identity, which is compounded by the fact that he lacks a viable male role model in his life. His dad's not really around. The one man in his life is his foreign uncle, [Hamid (Paul Chahidi)], and in Chad's mind, that person is not particularly helpful to him in his quest to fit in and become popular, to belong and assimilate, to be American. So he's lacking this male role model and is desperate to find an identity, which a lot of times, for him, means latching onto someone else's, which he's so transparent about.
With the way Chad perceives culture, in his mind, Black dudes are really cool. He's into hip-hop culture. He's into basketball. The Black culture he's been exposed to is the ultimate sign of coolness. To him, Black men have everything he doesn't when it comes to swagger and confidence. So, yeah, he absolutely fetishizes them. But again, he’s completely unaware of that. He even mentions it at one point. He's like, "No, I'm saying you guys are better than the whites." He's confused why they would even be confused that he has this take. He's like, "Oh, I couldn’t be more clear. I like you guys a lot." He's not understanding the nuance of how he's coming off. Chad is just obsessed with Black culture because of the things he loves and associates with it.
When he finds out that his mom is dating a Muslim dude, his immediate go-to assumption is that it's a Middle Eastern man, which again, to him, is more of the same problem — the problem being that they're Middle Eastern and not fitting in. But when he finds out that Ikrimah is a Black Muslim, he thinks that's the best thing in the world because he's not able to identify any of the struggles of what it means to be Black in America. He's not looking at it from that lens. He's putting them on a pedestal and unintentionally fetishizing them. So he just tries latching on to that, which eventually becomes problematic for the relationship between Ikrimah and Naz.
Is there anything new you learned about adolescence by revisiting it decades later?
Oh my gosh, yes. As painful as it was to suffer through it at the time and to feel the crushing defeat of not feeling like I belonged, I am so incredibly grateful for all of what felt like adversity at the time, because it had a lot of positives. It toughened me up. It gave me my sense of humor. If you can survive adolescence — especially one as bumpy as mine — I understand why the slogan "It Gets Better" exists. Now, I can reflect on that time and be grateful that I didn't peak in high school. It gave me somewhere to go, I'll say that.
Chad premieres on TBS tonight at 10:30pm ET.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.