When Jasmine Elist wanted to take an improv class as a teenager, her parents weren’t thrilled.
As a first-generation Iranian-American, Elist has worked to change her parent’s perception of her career as a comedy writer, producer, and improv performer, but that all started when she was just a kid. To convince them of the benefits of improv, she made a presentation breaking down the positive impact it can have.
“My very first experience with comedy was as a teen, I took a summer teen class at The Groundlings Theatre,” Elist explained when we met for coffee in West Hollywood late last year after an introduction from one of her frequent writing and producing partners, Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez. “I had always wanted to do comedy, and I loved comedy, but my parents are conservative Iranians, so they didn’t like that for me. I did a presentation to convince them and I was like ‘these are all the benefits of improv comedy, it helps with your self-esteem, it helps with this,’ and so on. So I took that class.”
And even though she connected with performing at an early age, the pressure to pursue something more stable than a Theatre major was strong. Studying improv over the summer is different than studying it full-time at USC, and when Elist began attending college there she chose Creative Writing as a major, splitting the difference by convincing herself there was a different sort of improvisation in journalism. After graduating, Elist even pursued that career path for several years, getting a job writing for The Los Angeles Times before slowly making her way back into the world of Groundlings.
“I started writing for The LA Times and I was there for about four years,” she remembered. “A few years into it, I knew it felt like something was missing. So I started secretly taking classes at Groundlings again. After a few years of that, I could feel how much more connected I was to comedy and comedy writing, performance and improv and sketch and all of that. So I made the transition away from journalism into comedy.”
As she rebuilt her community at Groundlings and beyond, Elist’s interest in writing scripts for TV and film and producing her own concepts began to grow. Working with Rodriguez, who she met during her time at USC, and another college friend, Katey Zouck, Elist co-wrote and co-starred in a digital series called Pushy Riot. “It was sort of the misadventures two best friends get into when they have to move back into my my Persian parent’s house,” Elist explained. “And that got into the Fox Writers Intensive. Ben and I went into that and wrote another TV pilot, and from there it started to gain momentum. I started writing more TV pilots with people and also alone, and filming things with people and also alone, so it kind of just grew.”
After the initial bump from Pushy Riot, which is currently on hiatus after several short episodes and a pilot script, Elist’s projects have begun multiplying. She created another digital series called Hiatus about a set of codependent roommates who have a near death experience that forces them to realize how unhappy they are in life — and then they don’t die and have to actually face that reality. She began working on a character named Farrah, a female Iranian comic who escaped Iran to pursue comedy in Los Angeles.
“And a lot of Farrah’s character was based on my parents’ own story of escaping Iran, combined with my own experience of wanting to do comedy in a culture that doesn’t advocate for women to do comedy,” Elist explained. “She came from this very dark world and culture but still sees the world through rose-colored glasses, and is like experiencing Los Angeles and America for the first time, experiencing renting an apartment for the first time. I love writing and performing a character who is experiencing firsts or is a fish out of water.”
When she’s playing Farrah, Elist performs in a full headscarf, and enjoys playing with and occasionally upending the assumptions people in the audience begin to make when they see a woman dressed like that head to the mic. “I think I like to call the stereotype out, and then try to find a way to turn it on its head,” she said. “ I think people have a certain perception when they see someone dressed in a full headscarf. They’re making a set of assumptions about the world she comes from, the voice she has, the opinions she has. So then to be able to put all of those straight up at the front, to be like ‘this is what you think, and now let’s turn it around,’ felt important to me.”
Though writing and producing have been a major focus, Jasmine also still regularly performs improv and sketch comedy, too. At the end of 2019, Jasmine finished a stint performing at the weekly sketch show The Sunday Company at Groundlings, and has begun two new shows in 2020 — the sketch comedy show called Cool Great Fun at UCB, and a monthly improv show called Haha Bitches with her all-female improv team The Pippa Middletons at The Yard. Additionally, she’s working as a producer for Season 2 of Rodriguez’s digital show, Stoned Breakups, and is writing a feature length script with a friend that she describes as “a Thelma and Louise murder mystery.”
Focusing on telling the stories that resonate with her, and bringing cultural representation to an often overlooked population remains at the heart of what Elist pursues and creates, and she cites the work of Iranian female comic Nasim Pedrad as an important and influential representative in the TV and comedy space, first as a cast member on SNL, and then in her new series Chad, where Pedrad plays a 14-year-old Persian boy. For Elist, writing is the place she gets to tell the stories like that one, the ones she most wants to tell and still rarely gets to see. “Writing is a tool for therapy,” she said. “It’s therapeutic, and it’s great. You get to control the things you want to see and the things you want to play. I’m grateful for it.”