Nasim Pedrad finds her inner boy as "Chad": "It’s such a universal notion to just want to belong"

The "SNL" alum appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss finding the humor in playing the "agony" of a teenager

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 6, 2021 9:19PM (UTC)
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Nasim Pedrad attends the 2019 Glamour Women Of The Year Awards at Alice Tully Hall on November 11, 2019 in New York City. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour)

The idea of the new high school-centered comedy "Chad" is almost as old as the title character himself. Created by and starring "Saturday Night Live," "Scream Queens" and "New Girl" alum Nasim Pedrad, the show was first announced back in the winter of 2016. Following a string of fits and starts and network shifts, the series is finally debuting on TBS.

"Chad" follows the misadventures of an awkward Iranian-American teenager navigating an eternal quest to climb the social ladder. And the lying, crying boy at the center of the action is played by the 39-year-old Pedrad herself. The writer, actor, director and producer appeared on "Salon Talks" recently to discuss the long road to the show's arrival, and how she found her inner Chad. You can watch the interview here or read a transcript of it below.

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The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

We're going to get into the journey that this show has been on, but first let's just talk about Chad. Who is Chad?

Chad is a very awkward 14-year-old Persian American boy navigating his freshman year of high school, on a mission to become popular. 

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And yeah, this project has been a real labor of love. It's basically been the last few years of my life. This is the first thing that I created entirely on my own, as the writer, performer, producer. Usually I get to be a guest in someone else's project. So in taking that on, I wanted to create a character that was really, really fun to play. I feel like I've certainly found that with this rather unhinged young man.

He's a young boy who just wants to fit in and wants to feel like he belongs. From his perspective, everything in his life seems to be conspiring against that. I would say that's at the core of what's happening to him.

This is a show that has been in the works since two presidents ago, that predates the #MeToo movement. It missed the entire Trump administration, and the Muslim ban four years ago. Everything is different from when you first conceived of this project. How has it evolved? Has it changed?  

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The character, or at least the pathology of the character, has remained pretty consistent from when I first cracked him and figured out who he was, what drove him and how he saw the world. But it did go from a traditional network where it was originally set up to a cable network, and I feel like it's found the perfect home at TBS. They've really championed the project and have believed in it. To live in a cable space also gave me a lot of creative freedom and creative license to do things that maybe I wouldn't have been able to get away with on network television, certainly in the pilot, and what transpires.

I'm not sure I would have been able to do that if it were at Fox or 20th. I'm able to really push the envelope and push the comedy in a direction that I feel like is a good tonal fit for the show. In terms of the content, the show is largely inspired by my life, but we are setting it in present day. It was important to get that right, although we don't address the pandemic. In fact, we had shot all but two episodes before the pandemic. When it was safe enough to go back, we were able to pick up the last two.

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It seems like that was never off the table, that you would be Chad. Tell me about that.

You're like, "Why?"

Yeah, why?

That's an important question. You're asking people to suspend their disbelief enough to accept that I'm this character and I'm happy to be able to share why. For me, that was the whole DNA of the show. That was the show, the concept of an adult playing this teenage boy. The reason for that is, actual teenagers don't know what's so funny about being a teenager, the way that adults who have perspective distance from it do. We can reflect on how horrifying the adolescent years were now that we're on the other side of it. I thought it would be an interesting experiment.

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Again, this is a few years ago, but to have the teenager at the center of this coming-of-age story, to be an adult who's in on the joke. I felt like you could just get away with a lot more comedically and just push the comedy a lot further, because funny moments can be funnier and less sad since you're not sitting there laughing at an actual Iranian child going through some of these situations. You're laughing at an adult who has some distance from it. That, to me, was the show. It certainly is a bit of a swing, but I just felt like if I could get people on board for that buying in, then they're just hopefully on this journey with a character who gets himself into a lot of trouble.

Watching it, I was really struck that having Chad played by an adult woman gives permission for him to have a vulnerability that we don't often get to see in real adolescent boys. Even though that vulnerability exists, we don't see a scene of a teenage boy crying in the bathroom like we do on this show. I wonder if that's part of it, that this really does open doors to a side of teenage boyhood that we may not otherwise be comfortable as an audience looking at.

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The show touches on messy things. There's so much messiness in adolescents and there's so much discomfort and pain and agony, and it's a little, maybe easier to digest knowing that it's an adult and we're all in on this joke, so to speak, together. That was the intent anyway. Having that perspective an adult sometimes can maybe bring more specificity to a performance, more nuance to a performance. Because I'm not an actual teenager, every aspect of the performance is quite deliberate and intentional rather than us just capturing the actual awkwardness of a teen actor. Because you understand on some level, it's a deliberate performance and not just us exploiting the real awkwardness of a teen actor, it's easier to look at sometimes.

It invoked for me a lot of what Louie Anderson does in "Baskets," where that character is not played as a joke, is not played broad. That character is played as a vulnerable person. That's what you're doing here. It's not a gimmick, the way that it's done in the show.

That was really important to me. I knew that it had to feel real and grounded and it couldn't be silly the way you get to be silly in the sketch for example on a show like "SNL." A half-hour comedy that is supposed to sustain your interest for an entire series where you're with the same characters, that's a different objective, right? With that, you want people to feel invested emotionally. You want them to care about him, even if that means they're pissed at the character if he's more of an anti-hero. In order for people to be invested, it has to feel grounded and honest and real. Definitely, the intention is not to play the joke of me playing a boy. By saying that we're all in on this joke, I mean, we're all in on this conceit. This, "What if we could really buy that this grown woman is playing this teenage boy?" If we can all buy into that, how does that change our ability to take in the performance and also the world?

So how do you do that? Obviously you are a skilled, experienced, comedic actor, but you are playing a teenage boy and you do have to sell it. You can't just put on pants and then go out. You really become this person and just your posture, your way of speaking, it's clear hat you did the work on this. What does that work look like? Did you read particular books? Who did you study?

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I know this is alarming because I didn't obviously grow up as a 14-year-old boy, but it is so based on my own childhood. I happened to also be a complete tomboy who wasn't interested in girlier things until much later in life. I felt like Chad in a lot of ways. I don't think I went nearly to the extent that he does when it comes to certain things, but the character and the want of the character was very much pulled from my own life. 

When it comes to the performance, that was very inspired by just playing with it. Once I had written the character and I knew who he was, I would just begin improvising as him. That's when I found his little idiosyncrasies or his speech patterns or the way that he would stumble over certain words.

That was happening in conjunction with designing the wig and landing on that, figuring out what the eyebrows looked like, the binder I wear under his polo shirts, the posture. All of that came together at the same time. Because I was playing a little boy, I really felt like I could disappear into the character and get as far away from myself, the actor, which obviously is imperative if you're trying to play someone that different than who you are organically.

Did you take notes from your cast members? From the other boys around you? 

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Yes, that was also so important to me to help ground the character and make him feel as real as possible. It was to populate the school with actual teenagers, most of whom were exactly around that age. They're engaging with Chad completely earnestly, as if he really is a real 14-year-old boy, which in turn completely helped my performance. I would absolutely be observing them, even just in between takes, figuring out what kids are talking about these days. Because while the show is extremely personal to me, it is also set in present day and I'm not a teenager today. Luckily my cast actually provided a lot of critical research as well.

You have said in the past that coming to this country as a very young child, you just wanted to be a normal American kid. That is something that Chad really has in him very deeply as well. Do you think that's the story of immigrants and first generation kids in general, or does it feel really unique at this particular moment where we are in our culture and in our country?

I would imagine a lot of immigrant kids can relate to that notion. I'm sure there are plenty that are like, "I got this." I've had a lot of other people telling me, even from other cultures obviously, "I can really identify with that." I think teenagers are already struggling to identify their identities and fit in. When you're from this other culture and you're an immigrant kid, it's just one extra thing to overcome in your effort to feel like you belong. I don't think the show is just for immigrant kids or people that can speak to that experience. It's such a universal notion to just want to belong. Anyone can identify with that.

Most people went to high school and most people remember what it was like to just want to be able to keep your head above water and get through it. It's an especially precarious time in our lives because the stakes of everything feel so high. As an adult, when you're reflecting on it, you realize, "Oh my God, that was such a trivial thing that I was like completely losing my mind over or was making me spin out." But at the time it just feels like the stakes are so high and everything has life or death circumstances.

There are these little things about, "Am I going to be invited to this thing?" or "How do I cover up for this lie that's now spun out of control?" But the show also really takes on very, very big, very, very serious issues about family and about being different and about sex and about masculinity. You don't shy away from really challenging stuff as well.

I wanted the show to be about things. I didn't want to just be like, "Chad's at the mall now." I think because I felt like I really understood who the character was, it became interesting to tackle something like racism or sexuality, or in episode to episode and be like, "Well, how would the pathology of Chad intersect with that? How would he handle that? What would his take be? How would he navigate that?" That became a really fun aspect, especially when I was in the writers room and we were actually crafting the stories.

It becomes this moving and very dark, in a funny way, story about growing up in America.

I mean, Chad's not always making the best decisions. In fact, he's his own worst enemy. He's not actively being bullied at school. His peers are generally very kind and tolerant. He gets in his own way more than anyone, but you know that it's coming from such a desperate place that hopefully you can, you can empathize with him and laugh, hopefully, at how ridiculous he is.

As you think about this character who you've spent so many years of your life with now, what do you think Chad would be doing through the pandemic right now?

I think he'd be deep into TikTok and just trying to amp up that social media presence as much as possible. If he can't garner popularity in real life, he'll definitely try to do it online.

"Chad" premieres on Tuesday, April 6 at 10:30 p.m. on TBS. 


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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