Nasim Pedrad’s Journey From SNL’s Kim Kardashian Back to High School in ‘Chad’
The “SNL” alum wanted to prove that Middle Eastern women could be funny, flawed, and complicated. So she created her own star vehicle: playing an awkward teenage boy named Chad.
Like most of us, Nasim Pedrad did not peak in high school. From her current vantage point, the actress, comedian, TV creator, and Saturday Night Live alum sees herself as better for it, like most of us do. Like none of us, however, she has chosen to relive the trauma, humiliation, and gargantuan, unmanageable feelings. And this time, she’s doing it as a boy.
Pedrad is the creator and star of Chad, which launches Tuesday on TBS. The comedy centers around a 14-year-old boy from a Persian immigrant family who, fresh out of his braces-removal appointment and armed with a lethal combination of ambition to be popular and absolutely no self-awareness, is determined to fit in with the cool kids in high school.
With her hair styled into an unfortunate bowl cut, a pair of aggressive ungroomed eyebrows, and hunched shoulders contorting her body into adolescent awkwardness, Pedrad plays Chad, despite being about 25 years removed from the sweaty horrors and combustible emotions of high school. Of course, as Pedrad—and anyone who watches Chad—knows, it doesn’t take much to be triggered from that formative, and traumatizing, time.
“It’s just a time in your life when the stakes are so high, and the smallest thing can feel like life and death,” Pedrad said in one of two interviews with The Daily Beast, one pre-pandemic when the show was still in production and again the week before the series premiere.
Like any teenager, the idea of being different is the worst fate Chad can imagine. In his eyes, being from an immigrant family is a burden his scrawny frame can barely shoulder, a liability in his eyes when it comes to social currency. (He legally changed his name to Chad from his harder-to-pronounce Persian name in order to fit in.)
But it’s his deluded, bumbling attempts at impressing his classmates that end up being his biggest roadblocks to acceptance. Case in point: when he lies about having had sex in the first episode, despite being so inexperienced he can barely even describe the act.
He’s a person who can’t read a room. He’s blind to normal social cues, painfully unaware when he’s digging himself into a hole or is about to deep-throat his own foot. If he’s in a conversation and his ovations to the popular crowd aren’t working, he just triples down and charges along. Suffice it to say, Chad is a cringe comedy; one of the biggest references for Pedrad while making it was Lisa Kudrow’s performance in The Comeback.
After five seasons on Saturday Night Live, Pedrad, who also appeared in Disney’s Aladdin remake, had a development deal to create her own show, and wanted to write something about the awkwardness of adolescence that also felt authentic to her experience growing up as an immigrant kid caught between two cultures.
“It’s such a funny time because you’re transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and different kids transition in different phases and different times,” Pedrad said. “Chad is a bit of a late bloomer, but he feels pressure to keep up with his peers, which he’s very conflicted over. He’s a little bit in over his head.”
Like with Hulu’s PEN15, on which creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves weathering the emotional warfare of their middle-school years in the ’90s, watching Chad instantly connects viewers to the turbulence of surviving their own childhoods.
Reopening those wounds can be traumatizing, even as you laugh at Chad’s foiled attempts at grand gestures to fit in. But for Pedrad, reliving that pain while writing and acting in the show was actually cathartic.
“It honestly felt weirdly therapeutic because now I was able to do it, not from a place of debilitating fear, but from a place of exploring it through the lens of comedy and having enough distance from it to now be able to laugh at it,” she said. “I think that anyone who survives the agonizing terror of adolescence has an appreciation once they come out on the other side and realize not only did they survive it, but maybe the adversity they experienced was additive to their life. For me, it certainly was.”
Pedrad is the first to admit that she did not thrive in high school. Looking back now, she’s grateful for that—as awful as it might have seemed in the moment to be on the outside.
“I wasn’t popular. I was very awkward,” she said. “I didn’t have those traditional markers of what it is to be cool. I didn’t have a lot going for me.” She laughs: “But that actually helped me develop other skills that I’m thankful for today.”
Being the creator of Chad also meant having the opportunity to work through some of those painful past experiences through the prism of the show. In one episode, for example, there’s a flashback to when Chad was younger, devastated and embarrassed at an amusement park souvenir shop that sold license plates with names on them. There wasn’t one with his given Iranian name.
“That’s such a simple and specific memory of my childhood and just never being able to find ‘Nasim’ on anything,” Pedrad said. “That in and of itself at a time when you’re so desperately trying to feel like you belong and that you’re accepted by your peers is just another reminder of the reality that you’re different.”
“Teenagers are already struggling to feel accepted by their peers, then, as immigrants, it’s just this extra obstacle to get through in your effort to fit in,” she continued. “Having a unique name, while it’s really cool now that I’m an adult and I know myself and am comfortable with who I am, in those formative years, it just felt extra horrifying. No one knew how to pronounce my name. It was just one extra thing that made me feel different.”
Chad, the character, may be an awkward freshman, but Chad the series is a five-year senior—boasting the swagger and confidence of that stereotype, though far more intelligence and grit than the label might suggest.
The series was originally sold to Fox in 2016, titled Chad: An American Boy, but the pilot wasn’t picked up. TBS then rescued the series and even released its first trailer in spring 2019. Pedrad and the show’s creative team promoted the series at the January 2020 Television Critics Association press conferences, where she first sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss its long journey to air. But then the pandemic threw a wrench into things.
“I knew that it would feel like a big swing to some people, especially with the conceit of me playing Chad,” Pedrad said at the time. “But I also knew it could work, so I wasn’t willing to give up until I had exhausted every opportunity to find a home for it.”
The first season was nearing the end of shooting when the pandemic shutdown halted production. Pedrad kept the gears going during lockdown by working remotely on edits of what had already been shot, and when production was safe again, the cast filmed two more episodes to bring the season total to eight. In line with what seems to have been a five-year mandate that work on Chad never really ends, the writers’ room for season two begins at the end of the month.
“I wouldn’t have stuck with it for so many years if I didn’t believe in it,” Pedrad laughed.
Chad’s long road to air is also the rare case in television where a creator has distance from what they made before it’s seen by the public. Broadcast TV series typically air episodes weeks after they’re filmed. When Pedrad was on Saturday Night Live, a sketch written at 9 p.m. might then go live at 11:30.
That is to say, in the five years since that first pilot order, she’s had a long time to reflect on this 14-year-old boy and this unusual conceit—that she would play him. When she first pitched the show, the network was baffled by her desire to star as Chad. They wanted her to play the mom.
For the Iranian-born actress, the tenacity, she quickly learned, was a necessity. She is a woman of Middle Eastern descent, and wanted to play Middle Eastern characters who were funny, flawed, and complicated. Because of Hollywood’s myopia, casting directors’ opinions of what kind of characters she could or should play, and the myriad offensive stereotypes embedded in pop culture, meant she was going to have to create that kind of character herself.
“There’s that saying, ‘They’re gonna cancel your show anyway, so make the show you want to make,’” she laughed. “That does give me a lot of peace of mind.”
It goes without saying that Pedrad did not grow up with a television comedy centered around a Middle Eastern family that she could recognize her own life in. The representation she saw were the characters working to foil Jack Bauer’s mission on episodes of 24. She’s a devout believer in the maxim that the only thing worse than no representation is bad representation.
It’s only recently with series like Ramy Youssef’s Ramy on Hulu and, now, Chad, that the diversity of the Muslim-American experience has been portrayed on television with any kind of humanity and depth.
“You make that representation that we all celebrate happen by creating characters that have nuance, specificity, and even have flaws,” she said. “Flaws that are really beautiful. You don’t want to overcorrect and just create a character that’s two-dimensional by being too perfect either.”
Chad himself is fairly agnostic about religion, but his identity is inextricable from who he is. It was important to Pedrad to explore that facet of the Muslim-American experience, just as it was important to her that a character like Chad not be perfect. He is a desperate person, which causes endless trouble and emotional trauma for him. But it’s rooted in a relatable desire to be accepted by his peers. There’s something universal about that, which allows the show to get away with more in its comedy.
Before the pandemic, Pedrad would travel to colleges and perform a comedy set live, followed by a question-and-answer session. She was struck by how often, especially in areas of the country that weren’t populated by people who are minorities, let alone Iranian people, students from immigrant families would be eager to connect with her and let her know how much it’s meant to them to see her on TV and movie screens—and see her be funny.
“I vividly remember being their age and feeling like an outsider,” she said. “And feeling like nobody on TV looked like me, and that the people who did look like me were being boxed into this very negative, specific portrayal. So every once in a while someone will come up to me and comment on how it’s exciting for them to see someone in the media who is Iranian and gets to be funny. That to me means more than anything.”