Wrestling with Culture
Khan was born in Las Vegas and raised in Hawaii, where she was surrounded by diversity—if not a Persian community. “My mom would have all the different spices and stuff she used for cooking shipped in from family from the mainland,” Khan recalls. Iranian-Americans were just as scarce on TV. “There was really no representation of any Middle Eastern culture, so [for me and my brother] growing up, our hero was Iron Sheik—a character in WWF wrestling…. He was from Iran, and he was always the underdog to, like, Hulk Hogan. Everybody was booing, but we were super cheering for him!”
Growing up in an immigrant home, Khan didn’t consider comedy writing as a potential career. “My parents certainly didn’t understand TV comedy,” she says. “They wouldn’t turn on Married…With Children and laugh.” But later, in high school, Khan discovered the joy of writing through the school paper. “I wrote ‘funny’ columns that I’m sure were terrible. They were about whatever I was going through, like getting my driver’s license or going to junior prom. But kids would come up to me in the hallway like, ‘Oh my God, that was funny! I loved your article!’ That was sort of a lightbulb moment for me.” She went on to enroll in the University of Southern California’s film-school writing program, where her confidence grew.
Life at Disney
There’s nothing more iconically American than Disney, which is where Khan took her first job. There she was able to push boundaries while writing for the animated kids’ show Pepper Ann. “[Creator] Sue Rose wanted to do this show about this 12-year-old girl raised by a single mom and who had this really active fantasy life,” Khan recalls. “At the time, that had never been done before. The fact that we were able to get that show through—and do 65 half hours of it—was great. I don’t think we really realized back then how rare that was.”
Expanding the Sitcom Genre
While Fresh Off the Boat centers on a Taiwanese-American family, Khan’s background helps ensure that anyone with an immigrant experience can relate. “So much of the show is about that bridge generation, where you’re trying to explain things to your parents—and conversely trying to explain your parents to your friends. You’re translating a lot, going back and forth between that outside world and that world at home. When you approach stories from that perspective, it allows you to tell them in a different way.”