FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Abdullah Saeed, Media Mogul in the Making

FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Abdullah Saeed, Media Mogul in the Making

Abdullah Saeed is a Pakistani American producer, writer, actor and musician based in Los Angeles. He previously worked at VICE Media, where he hosted and produced the popular series “Bong Appetit.” Most recently, the pilot of his comedy television show “Deli Boys” has been taken on by Onyx Collective and Hulu.  

Abdullah is literally my oldest friend in the world. We often joke that since our grandfathers knew each other, our friendship predates either of our existences. He was the first person I ever made music with and our dads are still quite close to this day. I’m really lucky to have an friend like him out there in the world, constantly inspiring me to keep pushing — especially when things get tough and I’m plagued by self-doubt. Abdullah has literally seen me at some of my lowest lows and been there to help me celebrate my dreams coming true. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have him as my guest this week.

(Abdullah’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

I think that South Asians and Pakistanis in America are at a point where we’re now more visible in the culture and people want to see a more diverse, nuanced depiction of us.

Shahjehan: What is “Deli Boys” and why did you write this show?

Abdullah: “Deli Boys” is a comedy TV show that I created. It is in pilot currently, hopefully going to series with Onyx Collective andHulu. It’s about two Pakistani American brothers who lose their father, inherit his business empire and realize that they are now in a criminal underworld. 

I initially wrote this as a sample trying to get staff jobs in writers’ rooms. I was trying to write something a little more grounded than my usual stuff, which is kind of high-concept things. … [I think] it struck such a chord because I think that South Asians and Pakistanis in America are at a point where we’re now more visible in the culture and people want to see a more diverse, nuanced depiction of us. …I was in the right place at the right time. 

And also, I like to think that it’s funny.

Shahjehan: I’ve been reading drafts of the show since the very beginning and it’s amazing for me to see this dream come true for you. When you started shooting, what was one of the first times when you were like “Oh my God, this is really happening!”?

Abdullah: We had like six or seven days of shooting. It was pretty quick.  And [on day two] we were shooting Iqbal Theba doing the Baba video that starts the pilot, where it’s like a video to investors and you kind of get to know him, and he’s being a real salesman. And seeing [him] do that was pretty crazy because he was definitely the residual image that I pictured in my mind, playing that role. Not because I expected to get him, but [he’s] one of the only older South Asian dudes I’ve ever seen on TV consistently, you know what I mean? And he’s Pakistani and I knew that … if I got lucky, I would end up seeing his tape for this. … I feel like when you see a South Asian role for an older dad type figure, he’s one of a handful of guys that gets that call. 

Yeah, that was pretty amazing. … That blew my mind.

Shahjehan: How does your musical background inform your screenwriting?

Abdullah: I definitely put songs into my scripts. In early drafts, I’ll start saying, “Oh, this song is playing when this scene is happening, or when this opens, or when this transition happens.” … I am … just addicted to the combination of the visual and the audio. … I have a much deeper, better understanding of the audio because I have a background in music. I’m not the most visual person. I was in a color session for “Deli Boys” yesterday, and it looks amazing, like the DP [(director of photography)] had gone through it, but I couldn’t really tell what exactly was different about it. I was just like, “It just fucking looks good,” you know? 

I’ve composed the theme songs to a lot of the media that I’ve made — “Bong Appetit,” “Great Moments in Weed History.” And I also composed the current theme song for “Deli Boys” (granted it doesn’t offend anyone between here and potentially when this thing is on TV). 

… I’ve written characters that are musicians also because it’s something I can relate to. And I think that it says something about a person in a lot of ways. Like, I’ve written a character that plays bass because it seems to say something about a person, right? Because I grew up being in bands, I understand people in bands. I have hardly ever been on a scripted film or TV set. … It’s really just a handful of times that I have — it’s not really my world. I understand musicians and music much better, but yeah, there’s a lot of crossover between the two things.

Shahjehan: I heard you once say on a podcast that because of your unique upbringing (born to Pakistani parents but raised in Thailand until middle school when you came to the U.S.), you don’t think of home in the same way as a lot of us first-generation South Asian or Muslim American folks. Can you talk a little about how that informs your views, your writing style and the sorts of projects you take on?

Abdullah: That’s a great question. I think I really am a person without a home. I think that’s why I’ve made LA my home for a long time … and now I’m marrying someone who’s a native to this town. I live here and it’s very much a part of my personality now. I don’t plan on leaving, ever. 

I am Pakistani but I grew up in Thailand and I was born in the U.S. I’ve lived all over the U.S. … so I am kind of nomadic [which] informs my work. I think it’s really helped me to be a more expansive thinker. People don’t really see the nuances of American culture when they grow up in [it] that I can see growing up in another country. . … When you come here, you start noticing all the little weirdnesses about it. 

Like when you’re a kid and you watch TV, everyone’s name on an American show is like Mike Johnson and … Rick Jackson or whatever, … like very straightforward names. But when you [actually] come [to America], people have all kinds of weird Slavic and Eastern European last names and it’s like nobody really has that [stereotypical] American name. [That’s]  just a thing that stuck out to me and it has changed the way that I name characters in my stuff. And I don’t think that anybody would notice that if they grew up in America their whole life. It just has made me think bigger, which actually was a real crutch for me as a writer for a long time, because I was much more interested in world-building than in characters. … Now I’m definitely more interested in characters. I still love the world-building stuff, but I’m hyper aware that everything (at least everything that sells) needs to be character driven … So, I always try to invent an interesting world for something. … This is also where my journalism background comes in a little bit. I try to notice and incorporate all of the little details that make something feel real.  

Aaron Sorkin said this thing in his MasterClass where he was talking about jargon, how jargon really makes something feel authentic and real. It really puts you in there and that’s a small detail of how people talk. I just rewatched “Heat” recently and it’s almost incomprehensible … because of the jargon they’re using. But it makes it feel real. It feels like those details are there and that’s a real interest of mine when it comes to screenwriting.

Shahjehan: Who are some current Muslim or Muslim-adjacent creatives that inspire you?

Abdullah: Mohsin Hamid for sure. I thought “Moth Smoke” was interesting. I really liked “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” because … I was really blown away by how real it felt and how familiar it felt, … like this side of Pakistan that I had never really seen as a kid visiting my grandparents or whatever.

I’m really stoked that someone like Riz [Ahmed] exists and is out there … [and]  I’m really stoked that someone like Kumail [Nanjiani] exists and is out there because it’s like they are very unique Pakistani guys. They don’t fit the stereotypes that a lot of people put us in, you know what I mean? Based on our depiction over the last couple of decades. And yet they’re huge fucking stars. And I think that people like that paved the way for people like you and me in a lot of ways, because we’re slightly more outsiders. 

I [recently] met up with Himanshu Suri and that’s a person who I think has just been a really important South Asian American pop culture figure. It’s his artistry, his look. I think it’s so interesting that he’s kind of pan-South-Asian in that he makes as many Muslim references as he does Hindu or Sikh references or whatever. And he … represents the lack of barriers between South Asian Americans. … And I think that right now is a shitty time for inter-South-Asian-American relations because of what’s happening in India. … I think that someone like Himanshu is important for all of us to look to. … He represents the destruction of that wall … between our cultures, because 

… we don’t live there anymore. We live here. And he’s a really special guy for that reason. 

And, he did a version of the “Deli Boys” theme song. He rapped over it and I have it. And he did it real quick. I think he did it without ever reading the script. 

Shahjehan: I wouldn’t be surprised. You’ll have to show that to me in secret.

Abdullah: I’ll send that to you in secret for sure. … I wanna start the mythology of that song right here, right now.

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Abdullah Saeed (@imyourkid) • Instagram photos and videos

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