(Based on the book: Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas)
What: Mohammed Sayed Kazem Jazayeri has taken a job with an oil company and moved his entire family from Tehran to Newport Beach, CA. This fish has jumped out of the water!
Who: Looking back, daughter Firoozeh, age 13 at the time, was resourceful and observant:
Adult Firoozeh: (V.O.) Look at us. In a town where everyone was blond and sailed, we stood out like a living oil spill.
Eager to assimilate, out of necessity each family member (with the exception of Firoozeh) Americanizes his or her first name. Father Mohammed Sayed Kazem becomes Kaz; mother Nazireh became Nancy after a brief disastrous trial as Nazi; and teenage brother Farshid, the football team’s equipment manager, became Chip as soon as he realized how many bodily functions could be made to sound like Farshid.
Television and fast food were the touchstones of the Jazayeri family’s understanding of America.
Nancy: Please set up the trays. You know it’s Bowling for Bucks night and your father will be home any minute.
Firoozeh takes five TV trays from a closet and puts them in a row in front of the television. As she sets them:
Adult Firoozeh: (V.O.) TV was my family’s campfire. Every night we’d bask in its comforting glow. And with each game show, sitcom, and bologna commercial, we understood America just a little more.
SFX: The refrigerator shudders and groans loudly.
Chip: What’s wrong with the refrigerator?
Nancy: Same thing that is wrong with the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner. Your father refuses to buy anything new. It’s all second-hand junk from garage sales…Sometimes I think your father would be happier if he’d bought me half price from a family that was about to move.
Kaz and his jovial younger brother, Uncle Mansoor (early 30’s), enter with a bucket of KFC and all the fixins.
Kaz: Look what your Uncle Mo and I brought. Kentucky Fried Chicken!
Uncle Mo: Yes sir. They say it is licking finger good and they do not lie.
Adult Firoozeh: (V.O.) That’s my Uncle Mansoor, Uncle Mo. He came for a three-week visit. Six months ago.
Nancy: But we just had fried chicken on Sonny and Cher night.
Uncle Mo: That was the Colonel’s Original recipe. This is extra crispy, (like commercial) with fourteen secret herbs and spices cooked to crispy perfection.
And though each member of the family had his or her own favorite television program – from “Happy Days,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “The Six Million Dollar Man” to “The Carol Burnett Show,” nothing quite resonated like “Bowling for Bucks,” as it was Kaz’s Holy Grail to be chosen as a contestant – his bowling team didn’t call him Kaz the Jazz for nothing!
Disaster struck, as it was destined to do with garage sale merchandise, and the television finally blew up.
Adult Firoozeh: (V.O.) TV was our link to American culture, our Rosetta Stone. There was more sadness that night than back in Iran when my Mom’s third cousin got dragged away by the secret police.
Kaz: Don’t worry. This weekend, Uncle Mo and I will go to garage sales until we find a brand new used TV.
The family rebelled against Kaz and demanded a brand new television – a Zenith like that owned by their next door neighbors the Applebys. Kaz, however, dug in his heels for he was, after all, the king of this realm and he swore never to buy retail.
Everyone reacts. This open defiance is unusual for Nancy.
Kaz: What do you mean, “no”?
Nancy: I mean no more used anything. Everyone says, “You pay for what you get.”
Chip: It’s “You get what you pay for.”
Nancy: That also makes sense. Let’s do that.
Kaz: I will never pay retail. Never.
Nancy: But you have a good job. You can afford it.
Kaz: I can afford it because I save for the days that rain. What if I can’t work any more because my arms and legs suddenly fall off?
Nancy: Why? Did you buy them at a garage sale?
Kaz: Listen, I once built my own radio and it only cost me twenty-five cents. A new TV probably costs ten dollars to make, but they charge an arm and a leg –
Firoozeh: Which might fall off.
Nancy: But the used junk doesn’t work! (waves TV Guide) And this is the week Mr. Grant moves into Rhoda’s old apartment. We are getting a new TV.
And with the demise of the used television came the dawning of a whole new era; one that saw the blossoming of Nancy into a more independent woman, one whose sewing talent is instantly recognized at The House of Cloth fabric store.
Candice Smiley: I hope you don’t think I was eavesdropping, but I was. Are you a professional seamstress?
Nancy: Not really. I learned to sew back in my country.
Candice Smiley: And where are you from?
Candice Smiley: Hmm. Never heard of it.
Nancy: It’s between Iraq and Afghanistan.
Candice Smiley: Hmm. Never heard of them.
Nancy: You make a left turn at Asia.
Candice Smiley: Oh. Listen, I want to lay it all out. Straight up, thimbles off. I’m Candice Smiley, the manager. You obviously have a gift and I’d like you to unwrap it right here.
It’s a brave new world in the Jazayeri household for now Nancy will have the means to buy the family a brand new TV.
Kaz: How could you take a job without consulting me? What is happening? Where is the woman I married?
Nancy: She’s in America now. And here women work.
Kaz: This is all Mary Tyler Moore’s fault!
Nancy: You should be happy. Now I can buy a new TV with my money.
Kaz: If anyone is going to provide a new TV for this family, it will be me. I’m the man of the house.
Nancy: Okay. Then go buy a new TV.
Kaz: No. Only I can tell me what to do. And I’m telling me not to listen to you. You know what this is? This is the battle of the sexes. I am Bobby Riggs and you are Billie Jean King.
Firoozeh: You do know Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, right?
Kaz: We’ll just see about that!
But history does repeat itself and eventually the family does get that brand new TV when Kaz learns from his sophisticated neighbor, Paul Appleby, that Big Jimmy’s Appliance Barn has an after 4th of July half price sale on TVs, including the Zenith model his family so craves. Life is good in America, especially on Independence Day when Kaz learned that “Americans honor their country by slashing prices.”
No Meaner Place: One of the two or three best half hours written for this season, “Funny in Farsi” landed at the network that hit the bulls eye last year with “Modern Family” and “The Middle;” both family friendly comedies. “Funny in Farsi” should have fit right in – a slightly off- kilter family values experience celebrating what it’s like to be American. Rather than lead with strength and what could have been a brand in family entertainment, ABC chose to go the route of the rom-com singles relationship comedy – choosing what I consider to be inferior product. I wonder how that’s going to work out for them (and in case you missed the tone, I’m dripping with sarcasm)? Dibai and Hodes have written a laugh-out-loud classic. This is the immigrant’s story at its best – in the tradition of Leo Rosten’s famous New Yorker short stories about Hyman Kaplan. Sharp dialogue, unusually deep character development and 100s of stories. Someone really goofed on this and it wasn’t Dibai and Hodes.
Life Lessons for Writers: “We may never meet again, on that bumpy road to love but I’ll always keep the memory of the way your smile just beams; the way you sing off key; the way you haunt my dreams. No they can’t take that away from me.”
Neely: Clearly I’m a fan. How did you come across the underlying work?
Nastaran: I’m Iranian and one of my cousins told me I had to read the book. And when I read it, it was like reading about my own life and family. I moved here in the 70s just like the author of the book, Firoozeh Dumas, and the father in the book was literally my Dad. Jeffrey related to it mainly because he had heard all of my stories. Am I right about that?
Jeffrey: Nastaran and I have been married for 20 years now and her family is my family. So, I was there for some family history and some of these things I had heard through family stories; but it’s still the classic immigrant tale.
Neely: That it is. I’m going to have to read the book.
Jeffrey: I highly recommend it…
Nastaran: …It’s a really great book. Anyway, Jeffrey had not only heard my stories but when he read the book he kept saying, “Oh my God! This is your Dad!” Just like Kazem in the book, my Dad was deeply patriotic and unbelievably cheap. My Dad was a guy who would take us on road trips and stop at every rest area just to marvel at the fact that they’d built a rest stop for weary travelers. And he would exclaim how any country that would do that for its citizens was a great country. It’s not like he didn’t appreciate the great achievements like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, but it was the simple things that amazed him. Like going to a department store and getting excited because they had everything in one store, or the fact that public places like restaurants and gas stations had clean bathrooms, or that Johnny Carson could tell jokes about the president every night and no one would drag him away and torture him.
Neely: Who owns the option?
Jeffrey: The book was originally optioned by ABC, specifically at the request of Samie Falvey who’s Senior Vice President of comedy. She had come across the book and snatched up the rights…
Nastaran: …Samie didn’t snatch up the rights; she liked the book and wanted to snatch up the rights.
Jeffrey: …Well ultimately they had the rights. At that point, Firoozeh Dumas, the author, had been approached by several different writing entities but when Nastaran and I were set up to meet with her, we all hit it off because of Nastaran’s background and my familiarity with it; we also hit it off personally and are still friends to this day. That’s when we moved forward with it.
Neely: How did the finished pilot look? Was there anything you would have changed? How satisfied with it were you?
Nastaran: Honestly, I think I’ll be able to answer this more objectively a year from now, once we’ve had some time away from it. Right now we’re still reeling a bit. I would say that it looks different from anything you’ve seen on TV. It was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, so it has a visual style all its own – that has everything to do with Barry and little to do with us. Also, it’s a period piece, which isn’t something you see a lot of on TV - unless you’re on AMC and you’re “Mad Men” (which is a show that we love and admire). Add to that the fact that it’s a cast of foreigners speaking in accents, and it’s not the most likely candidate to get on network TV. We always knew it was a long shot.
Jeffrey: You know most writers have horror stories about their pilots. They got noted to death until the script disintegrated or they didn’t get along with the director or they weren’t on the same page with the network about casting. But even at this point, we’re able to look at it objectively and say – it’s not perfect but it’s what we wrote, it’s what we meant, and it definitely has the feel that we were shooting for. So it’s boring to say, but it was a very happy experience and I think it shows in the final product.
Nastaran: We liked it. But look, are there things we would change? Absolutely. We were just talking about this today. It would have been great to have another day to shoot so that we had had more material to choose from in editing. Also we had a huge challenge in terms of casting. On a regular pilot you have a large casting pool and audition for weeks. We wanted to try to get Iranian actors for the parts, but we ran through all of those in about an hour. So we had to start seeing other ethnicities, but it’s a challenge to find someone who can handle a regular series role when their experience has mostly been playing Terrorist #1 and Terrorist #2. I will say that we were very lucky with our leads, because I think we got the two best actors for the part and they were actually Iranian. Maz Jobrani, who played Kaz, the dad, is not only a great comedian, but a skilled comic actor. And I think everyone at ABC recognized that from the start. We found an actress in New York, Marjan Neshat, who was wonderful and played the mother. But casting the kids and the uncle was a challenge because we were casting from a very shallow pool. Right now you’re hearing about all these pilots that are reshooting and recasting. I’m not really sure they could have done that with ours because let’s say they didn’t like some of the casting, this was all we had. We brought the best we saw. I’m specifically talking about the supporting cast -- there just weren’t a lot of different ways to go for us. I must say again that the two leads were awesome.
Neely: That’s fair and quite complimentary of everyone. Did you shoot single camera or multi?
Neely: There is quite a long tradition in comic writing about the immigrant experience. Were there other similar works out there (either books, film or television) that helped shape this for you?
Jeffrey: One of the reasons that ABC was interested in bringing us in was that we had worked on ABC shows before, so they knew us and they knew Nastaran was Iranian. Also, we had previously written a spec pilot called “My America” based on Nastaran’s experiences. We had no knowledge of the book at that point; we just felt that the immigrant experience was something that hadn’t really been written about for TV.
Nastaran: You know, to this day, I’m not sure that ABC ever read that spec pilot, but there were many things in “Funny in Farsi” that we used from it. The story of Nancy (the mother) getting a job and Kaz (the father) not being okay with it was from that spec pilot. We used bits and pieces of material from the book but in order to bring it together and form this family we had to bring in other elements. For example, in the book the mother character is almost non-existent. Firoozeh wrote mainly about her father. So, for the purposes of doing a series, we had to create a strong female character who could go up against this outsized male character week after week. We decided to base her on my Mom. I mean, Nancy works at a fabric store - my Mom came here and got a job at a fabric store. Nancy starts to find her voice and place in America and the same thing happened with my mother. Even though my dad was always the loudest, we all knew my mother was the one with the real power. It was the quiet dignity. So, the husband/wife dynamic came mostly from my parents, but the book had a lot of moments that are in the pilot that I think give the pilot its depth. If anything helped us it was that we had already tried to write this before and we had some personal material to draw on. It was just fortuitous that so many of my past experiences were similar to Firoozeh’s.
Neely: I could really identify with the characters. My experience as part of a first generation (my mother was Romanian raised in Paris) has informed much of what I’ve done as a parent – trying to make sure that I didn’t make the same mistakes. You would have thought that growing up in Paris might have shaped my mother’s fashion sense in a positive way, but I’m here to tell you that her choices for me screamed Romanian and not Parisian; although I must admit that she was 30 years ahead of her time when she squeezed my pear shaped little body into black stretch pants. Nastaran, I can only imagine, but your mother’s choices must have been shaped by what she knew from the old country.
Nastaran: Yeah. It’s funny because my mom’s been here for a long, long time now, but essentially she’s still the same person she was when we first moved here. A lot of the things we used in the pilot, the malapropisms, they’re all out of my parents’ mouths. To this day, my sister and I will tell her, “Mom, that’s not how you say it.” And she gets mad at us because we’re always correcting her. I think teenagers are always embarrassed by their parents anyway; but that’s particularly true when you’re from an immigrant family. You just want to fit in with the “regular” people. I longed to be like my blond friend who had the perfect American family and lived across the street in a nice house that wasn’t cluttered with a mishmash of garage sale stuff. All I ever wanted was that; but no matter what we did, we always stood out. We stood out like a living oil spill.
Neely: To be fair to Jeffrey, every child, including your perfect neighbor across the street, has that very same feeling about sticking out and being embarrassed by their parents. How about you Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Listen, if I came from a healthy, functional family, I wouldn’t be doing this for a living. I always envied people who worked in banks. I imagined they must have had much happier families than I did because they didn’t feel the need to go into show business.
Neely: Very well put. You’ve shared some of the experiences without even changing the names to protect the innocent. Want to share a couple of more experiences growing up that you would eventually have put in the series?
Nastaran: Like the shortening of the family’s names in the pilot; we did it because we didn’t want the American audience to have to learn these really complicated names, but it happened in my family. My sister, for example, her name was Nazila. One day she came home from school and announced that she shortened her name to Nazi. She was five so she totally did not know what a Nazi was; but after a couple of years of going by that name, she announced that she was changing her name again. “What are you talking about?” we asked her. “Everybody tells me that this is a bad name.” It so happened that Firoozeh’s mother’s name was Nazireh, so it just fit in perfectly with my experience. And in the book, Firoozeh had a whole chapter about shortening names. I believe that’s a common immigrant thing – another way of trying to assimilate. One of the things Firoozeh noted when she read our first draft was that even though we didn’t use the book exclusively, we captured the feeling of her book. She had heard that once you give up your book for adaptation, be prepared to have it raped. But I believe she’s still very happy with what we did because we captured the essence of her work.
Jeffrey: I think that when you’re adapting a book, capturing the essence really is key. The details from the book are important, but just as important is conveying the tone; we really tried to find the heart of those universal immigrant experiences. We actually broke six episodes in case we got on the air and some of those stories were inspired by tidbits from the book. That proved to Nastaran and me that we could take the spirit of the book and move forward with it.
Neely: I’ve had some pretty heated discussions about adaptations but I’ve got to tell you that I still believe that adaptation is a delicate art.
Jeffrey: It’s about being able to read the mind of the book you’re adapting. There’s a great example in the film adaptation of John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.” In the movie there’s a scene that doesn’t exist in the book where a plane flies into a house that Garp and his wife are looking at buying. The plane destroys the house and Garp says, “The chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. It’s been pre-disastered. We’re safe here.” It’s not in the book but really captures the book’s mood of hopefulness and disaster being so close together. I feel that when you’re adapting a book it’s not about being a slave to it, it’s about expanding its spirit.
Neely: I think that often times you’re hampered by the original material because you have to find a way to be true to the spirit but at the same time you have to find a new way in and a way out so that you can continue with that 100 episodes.
Jeffrey: Well, you should always build a pilot so it can go 100 episodes. A lot of pilots seem very self-contained, and when you see them, you think: “That’s great. What the hell is episode four?” But in the end, adaptation is about what to leave in and what to leave out. If nobody Iranian had been involved, it probably wouldn’t have been as faithful to the tone. We really had a lot to draw on from Nastaran’s experiences.
Nastaran: In some ways it was hard and in some ways it was easy because if you read the book, it’s a series of short stories. As a TV writer you’re tempted to think that every one of the stories is an episode, but they’re not really. They’re more like scenes or moments that can inspire a whole story. For example, in the book there’s a chapter about the father, who fancies himself an expert bowler because he’s been watching it on TV, going on “Bowling for Dollars.” But he chokes and only ends up winning a dollar. That story always stood out for me because every immigrant I know, whether they’re Iranian or Indian or whatever, comes here and the first thing they think about is going on a game show. My Mom has been sending postcards into “The Price is Right” for over 40 years now. It’s a totally American phenomenon – you can go on a game show and win all this money just by using certain skills, or sometimes no skills. It’s the epitome of what this country symbolizes – Easy money.
Jeffrey: And that’s why there’s a line in the pilot where Kaz, the father, says “I tell you, game shows are the solution to all our problems.” This is a very American thing. We’re in a major recession and lottery ticket sales have never been higher. I hope we took that idea and nailed it – the desire to get rich quick with very little effort.
Nastaran: We read the book, then we went through it and looked for the things that really jumped out at us as memorable. Jeffrey and I thought we might only have the pilot, so we tried to figure out how many of these memorable moments we could fit into the pilot and still keep it a cohesive story. The Bowling for Bucks story was in the book, and a lot of other little things. Also, everything about the uncle was from the book. In the book, the uncle character really stood out because he was the ultimate consumer. And every time we went to a meeting everyone always commented on how funny the uncle character was.
Jeffrey: I’m not really sure we captured that on film as well as we could have, to be quite honest…
Nastaran: …yeah, I think we had a bit of miscasting, not because of the actor who played the part, because he was really good, but because it was really a part that was written for a roly-poly tag along. But we cast this guy who, in reality, is not fat and is pretty good looking. He was very committed, so he put on weight before we started shooting, but I’m not sure his character landed the way it did in the book.
Jeffrey: That was an element in the book that I don’t think we captured successfully.
Neely: In so many ways, I felt you were channeling the late great Jean Shepherd at times. Not just from “Christmas Story” based on his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, but also “The Great American Fourth of July and other disasters.” The father isn’t an immigrant but it certainly falls into the category of all parents are “alien” in one way or another.
Jeffrey: Well, we think of immigrants as being aliens in this country, but whether we like it or not, they are us and they have been from the start. The country literally was built by immigrants; our most iconic landmarks, our greatest public works. We’re in an ideological civil war right now where everyone seems to be arguing about who’s more American; who’s got America’s best interests at heart; who’s a real patriot. It’s bullshit. I still believe the best things about America are the melting pot ingredients: our differences are a richness we’re not exploiting enough for the greater good. So, one of the things we were hoping to convey if this had gone to series is that the immigrant experience is part of the deep fabric of the country. Immigrants love, love, love this country and they see it with an outsider’s eye. So they see it more clearly. They love it for what it is.
Nastaran: That’s another thing we really really liked about the book: it was neither political nor religious. We wanted to do a show about an immigrant family – specifically a Middle Eastern family -- that had nothing to do with religion or politics. That was one of the main reasons we set it in the 70s. Back then, this country was pretty innocent regarding the Middle East. At least that was my experience and I believe it was Firoozeh’s as well.
Neely: I’m not sure I completely agree with what you thought was the view of the Middle East at the time because America was well aware of the Arab-Israeli conflicts - the 7 days war in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in ’73; the 1973 Arab oil embargo. I would agree we were very “innocent” and naïve about the Shah of Iran since the press always seemed so favorable and he was so pro-American. We were, I must admit, pretty sheltered from the reports of torture and human rights abuses that were such a big part of his regime.
Nastaran: But I really felt when we moved here that people were kind and open. A couple of years ago my sister said something to me that really hit home. She said, “Don’t you wish we could go back to when we first moved here and no one knew where Iran was?” That’s why there’s a line in the pilot where Nancy tries to explain where Iran is and the woman (Candice Smiley) has no idea… we got that all the time. “Is that a new country?” “Where is that?” That was back in the 70s; people weren’t necessarily stupid, they were curious. We wanted to capture a time when people were more embracing; and our characters were embracing the country in return. That was the essence of what we wanted to capture.
Neely: Just an aside – yes, you captured that but, yes, people were stupid and they still are.
Jeffrey: Let me be more specific about the way the Americans are portrayed in the show. For too long, Americans didn’t care or even know about other places, other cultures. They don’t really know their geography; they should know where the Middle East is. But in not knowing, they were also very open and welcoming and curious. “Oh really! What’s that about? That’s so interesting! How do you pronounce that? Tell me about your country.” Now they think eating bratwurst at Epcot is a cultural education.
Nastaran: But also, remember the pilot is told from the point of view of a 12-year old. That was my experience; it wouldn’t necessarily have been my experience if I had been 18. I can tell you that what we wanted to do if the show had gone to series and lasted at least four years (yeah, I’m still an immigrant with big grandiose dreams). We wanted to portray what happened after the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis because that’s when everything changed. Then it was like “You’re Iranian. Go home. You’re a dirty Arab.” I think we could have done that if we’d had four years of an audience getting to know the characters. I agree with you that people are stupid but I also think, and maybe this is just the immigrant in me, that this is still one of the greatest countries in the world. My father, who passed away last year, just loved, loved, loved this country. And even though at one point we moved to Canada because of his job (he was a professor at McGill University), all he would talk about was America, America, America. I get that because now I look at what’s going on in Iran and think “Thank God my parents got me out of there.” Thank God I got to come here and pursue what I want. Who knows where I would be if we’d stayed in Iran.
Jeffrey: You’d be in jail. Or worse.
Neely: I think so too. Elaborating a bit on my gasp-inducing statement, but basically being ignorant is not okay, it can be funny, but it’s still not okay. There was that ignorance from the man on the street because Americans have always been fairly isolationist – but you can bet your bottom dollar that they could find Viet Nam on a map (even if they didn’t know where it was in the early 60s). The attitude has always been, if it doesn’t have anything to do with America, why should we bother learning about it. You may be romanticizing the time period a bit because it wasn’t a lot different than it is now. It was a time of American flag pins and slogans like “America. Love it or leave it.”
Jeffrey: We knew that but again, as Nastaran said, the pilot was told from a 12 year-old’s point of view, which is inherently more innocent. And again, we had a long-term plan for showing how the Americans’ attitudes would’ve changed in the 3rd or 4th seasons and how our family would’ve felt about it. Nastaran and I had a series plan; we never just make or write a pilot without looking down the road. We always go in with “this is how we’re going to do 100 episodes.” But up front, it was important to show how kind and open hearted Americans were; we really wanted to portray that.
Neely: I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance with this one; maybe the next one.
Jeffrey: That’s show business.
Neely: Besides “Funny in Farsi,” what got away from you that still seems to need a finish?
Nastaran: We’ve written a bunch of pilots over the years; pilots that we’ve always felt some kind of connection to. There were a couple of pilots that we’ve written about our relationship that I wish we could revive because there’s such a personal connection. But actually, after doing all of that and doing “Funny in Farsi” which was very personal, I said to Jeffrey “No more trying to do things that we connect to!” Maybe we should do something that we don’t connect to at all and maybe that will work for us. There couldn’t have been anything more personal than “Funny in Farsi.” Except maybe this pilot we wrote a few years ago called “Two Percent Marriage.”
Jeffrey: It was kind of about our marriage but it wasn’t about a writing team because nobody wants to see writers so they were architects. But they were living our life. They are a couple that works together; they’re trying to negotiate the work versus relationship part of that. They have a disabled father, like we did, because Nastaran’s dad was in a wheelchair and they have a special needs child, which we do. We were trying mine the comedy of all that, not the heartbreak of it; just show this couple. We called it “Two Percent Marriage” because I’d say to Nastaran that when the shit’s flying at us from every direction, we have maybe two percent of our marriage left to focus on but I’m going to defend it with my life. So these very personal projects are really viable scripts that are just sitting on a shelf that I still think would be shows people would hopefully find entertaining and relatable. I don’t really know.
Neely: In terms of Funny in Farsi, who owns the rights to the material?
Nastaran: ABC owns the rights because they renewed the option last November; probably because they had the intention of picking it up to pilot at the time. I believe they own it for another year – maybe until this November or a year after the pilot was completed, not sure. They definitely own this script, though. The author of the book has really encouraged us to write a screenplay based on the book and she wants to do it with us, but we can’t really touch the material until the option expires. And I don’t think ABC is going to give it up earlier.
Neely: That definitely answers my question. It would make a very good Indie but I think it would actually make a better stage play.
Nastaran: She’s mentioned that, too. But right now we can’t really touch it and certainly we can’t use anything that’s in the script because ABC owns that.
Jeffrey: A lot of people have asked us if we’re going to redevelop it but we’re sort of done with it for now.
Nastaran: It’s so funny but before the pilot was out -- and we didn’t have anything to do with this -- somebody started a Facebook page of “Funny in Farsi” the TV show. You would not believe the support. Within a month it had over 10,000 fans.
Jeffrey: More than some shows currently on the air.
Nastaran: And we were saying to our representatives that they should let ABC know this; and I think they did. I mean there was already this big built-in audience. The book isn’t just for Iranians. Firoozeh Dumas speaks all over the country and the book is used in many high schools. Anyway, she said when she speaks, it’s not just Iranians who come to see her, it’s all ethnicities. She said everyone always asked her if it was going to be a TV show. And as soon as it was picked up to pilot and a Facebook page was created, it just exploded. Even if you go on the page now, people are just ranting about the fact that the show wasn’t picked up to series and how they wanted to see the finished pilot. Of course we can’t post it, but it had a huge built-in audience and that, in itself, I thought was worth something, but apparently it wasn’t.
Neely: I’m still a great believer of hope springing eternal. Keep that Facebook page alive. I understand why everyone comes to see it because we are all immigrants, one way or another. There are the so-called 400 whose relatives may have come over on the Mayflower and may not be immigrants the way we now define the word, but they’ve probably married immigrants.
Nastaran: I actually think that you have the table draft script. In the original script, we had this opening that was setting a bigger stage for what we were about to see. It started out with a narrator saying we’re all immigrants; we all came from someone who came from somewhere else. It was a CGI opening where the camera was flying across the country and pointing out all the things that were built by immigrants – and then it finally landed on our family on the beach in Newport Beach. Anyway, we were trying to help ABC Studios cut some costs so we agreed to take that opening page and a half out. But the night before we were about to deliver a cut to the network, they called us up and said we had to do something at the beginning. They felt that the show started too abruptly with the family on the beach and that the audience wouldn’t know why we’re telling this family’s story. And they weren’t wrong to be missing it because it used to be there. So, we scrambled with our awesome post-production team and in one nigh we put together a bunch of stock footage using some of the same narration from the original script. We had that in the pilot we delivered, but it was very rough – just a placeholder. We would have redone it if it had gone to series.
Neely: Any other notes?
Jeffrey: We did have notes that helped us clarify, but thankfully we didn’t have to go through a painful development process with this script. We pretty much just wrote what we sold. And look how that turned out.
Neely: Do you want to say anything complimentary about any development executives at ABC that helped shepherd this even though it didn’t go anywhere?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Samie Falvey championed this project from the beginning. She didn’t let go of it; she was behind it all the way. I think she really saw what it could do for ABC, that it was an unlikely but relatable family show. She saw the possibilities for a greater audience, and I have to say that Steve McPherson rolled the dice on the making of a very very unlikely pilot.
Nastaran: Actually, everyone at ABC and ABC Studios seemed to have very warm feelings toward this project, but I think if anyone deserves credit for sticking with it from the beginning, it’s Samie. Maybe she’ll never buy anything from us again, maybe she will, but when it came down to this project, she got it, she championed it and she loved it; she loved it as much as we did. She also comes from an immigrant family and I think there was something that she saw in the book that resonated for her. I think that’s one of the reasons she thought it had a universal appeal beyond just Iranians.
Jeffrey: And honestly, our manager Aaron Kaplan and our agent Cori Wellins were devoted to it; this was a passion project for them. This wasn’t just a “we’ve got to get Jeffrey and Nastaran some money from whatever gig.” Aaron Kaplan called me with Cori after the first time ABC killed it. (We were actually in preproduction once before when we lost Barry Sonnenfeld to a prior obligation to Sony and Steve McPherson said “let’s put it on hold.”) Anyway, Aaron and Cori called us up and said “I’m telling you guys you’re going to, at the very least, get this pilot made.” And they had a lot of passion for it; it really wasn’t just another script…
Nastaran: …because they’d represented us before on other things and it’s not that they didn’t like them or weren’t supportive, but when the projects didn’t go, they knew how to move on. If something got passed on they would say “okay, that didn’t go, how about this?” With this, they were like a couple of dogs with bones (I mean that in the most complimentary way). They were really passionate and hooked into the material and just kept saying to us “we’re going to make this happen.”
Jeffrey: That this pilot even got made at all is really something. It had a lot of angels on its shoulders and it would never have been produced if there hadn’t been so many people who believed in it and what kind of show it could introduce to the networks. Believe me, Nastaran and I weren’t the only part of this equation. Of course, it didn’t go the distance, but it’s not for lack of effort on many people’s parts.
Neely: I did mention in the blog I write for Studio System (where I don’t have to be nice) that as far as I was concerned, ABC left the two best half hours on the table.
Nastaran: Are you talking about “It Takes a Village?”
Nastaran: That’s the only other pilot I read that I thought was good.
Jeffrey: We were really rooting for that one. We even met on it.
Neely: Something I was discussing with my husband last night was that ABC had this wonderful opportunity to be branded as the Family Comedy Network. They already have “Modern Family” and “The Middle” from last year; they then had these two fabulous new family comedies in “Funny in Farsi” and “It Takes a Village.” But instead they went the same route that everyone else did by going in the Rom-Com direction with singles relationship “comedy,” most of which were at varying stages of awful.
Nastaran:I read all of them – not just ABC’s -- and I couldn’t tell the difference between the characters.
Neely: Well there wasn’t any. That’s what astonished me. Maybe some of them will have improved in the shooting or with a special cast, but I’m not very optimistic. It can happen. I remember three pilot scripts from a few years ago and liked two of them and really hated the third. Once they were shot, the two that I liked were totally botched and the one that I hated turned out very well, almost watchable; it made it two seasons.
Jeffrey: Casting can be everything. You really don’t know what you have until you’re finished shooting.
Nastaran: You might also watch “Funny in Farsi” and think this is not at all what I thought it would be.
Jeffrey: You might watch the pilot and think it wasn’t any good.
Nastaran: Again, I think when we look at it a year from now we might be able to see what went wrong.
Neely: Keep in mind that maybe nothing went wrong.
Jeffrey: Like William Goldman says, “Nobody knows anything.” That includes us.
Neely: I wanted a different ending for “Funny in Farsi;” one where we continue to follow the adventures of the Jazayeri family. I like to feel, at least in my dreams, that it’s still not dead.
Nastaran: I was actually hoping for the same thing the first time the pilot was put on hold. but when it got picked up the second time, was shot, and didn’t go to series, I realized that I had to let it go.
Jeffrey: I appreciate the fact that you appreciate it.
Neely: I still have so many more questions for the two of you. Let’s extend this conversation and continue it next week. Until then, thanks for spending the time.