Sunday, June 16

UCLA alumna follows comedic talent to niche on ‘Saturday Night Live’

Former Bruin Nasim Pedrad reflects on the beginnings of her comedic career

"Saturday Night Live" cast members Kristen Wiig, Nasim Pedrad, Abby Elliott and Jenny Slate perform with host James Franco in the Dec. 20, 2009 episode.

NBC UNIVERSAL "Saturday Night Live" cast members Kristen Wiig, Nasim Pedrad, Abby Elliott and Jenny Slate perform with host James Franco in the Dec. 20, 2009 episode. Teresa Jue / Daily Bruin

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misquoted Pedrad. She said, ”It’s like my new college because it’s super fun, and I know it won’t last forever, and everything after “˜SNL’ will probably be boring.”

Nasim Pedrad recalled pumping gas in a “Dora the Explorer” outfit after a stint working a children’s birthday party as one of her first jobs out of college. These days, Pedrad can be seen on television every Saturday as a featured player on NBC’s sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”

“At that moment, I realized, “˜I can’t believe I have a college degree, and I’m doing this right now,’” said Pedrad, who graduated from UCLA in 2003, of her job impersonating the bowl-haired cartoon traveler. “But of course I’m grateful for those experiences. Now I can look back and laugh at them.”

Pedrad has come a long way from her days as Dora to her current job yukking it up on the set of “Saturday Night Live.”

Growing up, Pedrad looked up to the show’s greats such as Tina Fey and Cheri Oteri. And it was Fey who recommended Pedrad to audition after catching part of her one-woman show, “Me, Myself and Iran,” which showcased her Iranian culture through smart, quippy humor.

“I got my first audition, and a week or so later, I found out I got a second audition, and I wrote my own material for each audition. It is pretty nerve-racking,” Pedrad said. “You do a combination of characters and impressions, and you’re just trying to show your range, and it’s definitely been a dream come true.”

Pedrad’s enthusiasm for the stage was evident throughout her time at UCLA. Born in Tehran, Iran, and raised in Irvine, where she nurtured her niche in theater, she spent her college years participating in UCLA’s talent show, Spring Sing, and performing in theater shows that vacillated from classics to contemporary dramas. It was in her second year at UCLA that Pedrad decided to focus on comedy.

“The great thing about my time at UCLA was the network of creative people that it gave me and classmates and friends of mine that I was able to collaborate with and jump into the industry with once we graduated,” Pedrad said. “We produced a lot of our own productions while we were studying theater at UCLA, and by sophomore year, I knew I specifically wanted to do comedy.”

Pedrad noted that it was her family that supported her interest in theater. UCLA theater professor Gary Gardner said he enjoyed meeting Pedrad’s father at an event for prospective theater students when he was undergraduate chairman, sparring over Gardner’s fondness for the Italian film, “Life is Beautiful.”

“Nasim’s father didn’t like it at all and told me why,” Gardner said. “And Nasim comes up, and she’s like “˜Daddy, he’s the chair of the undergraduate committee!’ It was so funny. Ever since, I told Nasim the only reason she got into college was because I liked her father.”

Jokes aside, Gardner said he knew Pedrad was a talent early on and noticed her innate sense of performing while she was in his class.

“She’s one of those students who’s very bright, and she was a lady, and she knew how to have fun.” Gardner said. “She had her eye on improv and performance, and she wasn’t afraid to make a fool out of herself. It was so endearing.”

Pedrad had stints in shows such as “Gilmore Girls” and “E.R.” while participating in comedy shows at The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where she gained more experience in improv and writing her own pieces.

UCLA theater alumnus Mitch Silpa, a cast member and teacher at The Groundlings who taught Pedrad in one of his advanced classes, saw that she stood out right away.

“Nasim is very pretty, but she’s also very, very funny, and she’s not afraid to look silly to be funny,” Silpa said. “She also had that strong Iranian heritage that I think gave her a strong depth, and her mom and dad would be at all her shows and be the loudest ones there, cheering her on.”

Seth Morris, who worked with Pedrad while he was the artistic director at Los Angeles’ Upright Citizen’s Brigade, remembered the cohesiveness of “Me, Myself and Iran,” which Pedrad wrote herself.

“Her show was very fluid because of the Iranian connection, that through lines that connected one character to another,” Morris said. “Her show was really smart and showed things that funny people think are funny.”

The humor in Pedrad’s show has translated into her performances on “Saturday Night Live.” Pedrad soaked in the fast-paced energy of the show, writing and acting out some of her impressions that have ranged from one of her very first impressions on the show as Kathy Griffin, which she had to do at a last-minute skit change, to a flawlessly vapid Kim Kardashian. Pedrad has grown close to her castmates, especially fellow featured player Jenny Slate, with whom she is grateful to share the “Saturday Night Life” experience.

“The energy here at “˜SNL’ is so exciting. We get to do a live show every week, and it just happens to broadcast to millions of people,” Pedrad said. “Everyone here is so incredibly supportive and kind to one another and rooting for each other. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had.”

The camaraderie and excitement at “Saturday Night Live” has also created a new sense of community for Pedrad.

“I feel like “˜SNL’ is my new UCLA. It’s like my new college because it’s super fun, and I know it won’t last forever, and everything after “˜SNL’ will probably be boring,” Pedrad said.

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