Jul 4, 2022 Film & TV
In 2019, while eating noodles, comedian Pax Assadi’s manager asked, “If you could make one show, what would it be?” Assadi replied it would be his version of Everybody Hates Chris, Chris Rock’s sitcom inspired by his own teenage years, and a favourite of Assadi when he was 15.
As conversation and noodles continued, the pair decided to pitch to production company Kevin & Co, which quickly came on board, and a pilot script for Raised by Refugees was written. Incredibly, that script was enough for Sky to want it immediately, no pilot necessary, unlike the usual process for television. “It was awesome the way they believed in the vision real fast,” Assadi says over Zoom.
Over six episodes, Raised by Refugees takes us into the lives of the Pakistani-Iranian Assadi whānau, including 12-year-old Pax Assadi (played by Kenus Binu), dad Afnan (played by Assadi himself), Dr Phil-quoting mum Safia (Kalyani Nagarajan) and stand-out younger-yet-wiser brother Mahan (Adam Lobo). If coming of age as a brown kid on Auckland’s North Shore wasn’t enough to worry about, at the end of the first episode the family are fixed to their telly as news about 9/11 beams in.
Overnight, Assadi goes from being the “mysterious kooky ethnic kid”, for whom stereotypes like Apu from The Simpsons “are not great but they’re not that harmful”, to the villain of a new global war. “You become the bad guy from a 007 movie but in real life — it’s not fake any more, these bad guys exist, they did a bad thing, and you are one of them.”
In The Girl from Revolution Road, Iranian author and Raised by Refugees additional writer Ghazaleh Golbakhsh remembers the instantaneous racism of 9/11. “It is as if for people of my generation, there was a normal before and a different normal after 9/11.” Assadi’s experience is similar: “I don’t think there’s been many events in the history of mankind that have changed the perception of an entire race of people almost overnight.”
While Raised by Refugees isn’t about 9/11, the attacks do become the backdrop to the Assadis navigating life in New Zealand. It wasn’t until revisiting this time that Assadi truly realised the impact 9/11 had on his life and the life of his family. “I’ve gone through a lot of my life thinking it wasn’t that bad. I would think back to that time and be like, ‘Yeah, 9/11 happened but it was fine’.” But having to mine his life reminded him of the creeping feeling of not being fully accepted — a feeling we watch the full family experience in their own ways on the show.
“Even to this day,” Assadi tells me, “my parents will deny that it had any impact on us, when the impacts still manifest themselves in my parents today.” However, getting into the character of his dad made him appreciate his parents so much more, “even outside of the context of 9/11 — that they’re people who have come to a different world that they don’t fully understand, and they had to fight through that”. His parents will be watching the show in real time with the rest of New Zealand; while his mum is super excited, his dad is very nervous. “A lot of the things I touch on are things they would rather forget, and I’ve dug deep down and pulled them out for New Zealand’s entertainment.”
Raised by Refugees is not afraid to get serious, but it’s not bleak by any means. Assadi made sure that “every scene has a joke in it”. “I’m a stand-up at the end of the day, so the thing I care about the most is people laughing.” Stand-up comedy was Assadi’s first love, a path he decided for himself aged only 16 or 17. When he told his parents, however, his mum hit him and cried. To his parents, a career in comedy meant he wanted to be a clown. “You want to go to the circus?” Assadi’s dad would ask him.
While stand-up is something Assadi plans never to stop doing, television was always a part of the career he envisioned for himself. He hopes it will stay a feature of his work. Assadi shares this love of television with his dad, who still sits down in front of the telly when he gets home from work.
I wonder if the move to television has helped his dad to see value in his comedic genius. “No,” Assadi says. “He sees value in my work when I get big paycheques.” When he told his dad that he was getting his own sitcom, the first question his dad asked was, “How much are they paying you?” Says Assadi: “The numero-uno priority is money, which is completely understandable when you take into account the context of their background and what they went through.”
When I talk to Assadi, he’s calling in from the Mackenzie Basin, something of a natural wonder, directly underneath Aoraki/Mt Cook, where he’s hosting a “hybrid nature documentary-comedy”. Although this is also a step out of his wheelhouse, he admits that it’s something comedians need to do in New Zealand if they want to pay their mortgage and buy their kids iPads, or to just make money.
Maybe there are traces there of an immigrant-kid desire to provide for their own kids. Just as Assadi watched his parents do for him, his work ethic now mirrors that of his dad. “As much as I would like to think that my childhood as a son of refugees who couldn’t afford a lot for a long time hasn’t affected me, it totally has.”
Assadi finishes our Zoom call with four final words: “Watch the show, please.” Raised by Refugees is the culmination of 12 years in the industry. Assadi says that he’s never cared more about a project than this one — an admission of concern and passion that rubs against the nonchalant facade most local creatives put on. Assadi gets that. Even though he was born and raised here, he tells me, laughing before he continues, “I’m also the son of refugees”.
Watch Raised by Refugees now on Prime (Freeview channel 10, Sky channel 4), Sky Go, and Neon.