Awkward Phase

Seena Ghaznavi and Justin Williams talk Fraudsters, Bryan Adams, and stand-up

"There's just this persistence of scammers that's really incredible."

Seena Ghaznavi and Justin Williams know what it takes to be a great scam artist.

They're the hosts of Fraudsters, a new true-crime podcast on Spotify, a deep-dive into the schemes of con artists like '90s TV psychic Miss Cleo, televangelist Jim Bakker, and far-right conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl.

"It's a lack of emotion, a real lack of empathy," Ghaznavi says of the common thread between their subjects. "You have to really not feel the anguish of another person when you commit these kinds of scams and frauds."

"The gall of that, to keep lying and get so many people involved and keep it going for so long. There's just this persistence of scammers that's really incredible," adds Williams.

Inverse spoke with Williams and Ghaznavi about their early days in stand-up comedy, creeps of the '90s internet, and the world of 2030.

What kind of kid were you?

Williams: I was always a nerd. I played basketball, though, and I was part of the Space Club. I could tell you about all the Apollo rockets.

Ghaznavi: I like to think I was a funny kid. I used it as a kind of self-defense thing, because I was the only Iranian kid growing up. I was always trying to be cool, but I was a secret nerd. I love video games. I love computers. I love trying to tinker with things. I was always trying to do projects and filming myself doing different characters.

What was your favorite band when you were 15?

Williams: Soundgarden!

Ghaznavi: I was a big Stone Temple Pilots kid, then around my early teens I started listening to hip-hop. I was really into Biggie and Tupac in those days.

What piece of clothing did you wear too often in high school?

Williams: I had a FUBU racing jacket that I would still wear, since it's now made its way back into being cool again. You know the ones with the cities on the front? I had the one with Queens on it. Hadn't even been to Queens yet.

Ghaznavi: I almost don't want to answer this because it's so embarrassing. I wore pleated khaki pants constantly. I've got Persian parents they wanted me to dress like a nice boy all the time. But I would wear those freakin' khaki pants and I would have like, a Doors t-shirt or a Led Zeppelin t-shirt with it. I had to get my edge in there. Boy, I'll never live that down. It upsets me to this day.

Ghaznavi and his dog Rumi ride out the quarantine.

What’s your first memory of the internet?

Williams: I used to pretend to be the Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne on AOL messenger. We had a screen name called DeepSpazeN9ne. That was just so cool to open up a chat room and talk to people, but now that's a very dangerous to be doing.

Ghaznavi: Before AOL, there was a thing that Apple had called eWorld, with chat rooms and stuff. Looking back on it now, this would have been like something on Dateline, but I was talking to some much older guy in Alaska. I was probably 12, and we were just having like a normal conversation. He was just like, "hey, you're a cool kid." What if he'd wanted to meet up?!

What’s a truth about love you believed when you were 15?

Williams: I didn't know that basically all movies were a lie. I'm married, and more movies should show people actually working out things. In the movies, you meet the right somebody and that's it. Like, no, you gotta figure out like who's gonna pay the water bill and wash the dishes.

Ghaznavi: I was a hormonal teenager, and I said "I love you" to far too many women. I'm sure I made them uncomfortable and I apologize for that. But I was 14 or whatever and I just had no idea. I thought I needed to profess my love. In seventh grade, you don't realize that just because Kevin Costner Robin Hood had that Bryan Adams theme song, it doesn't mean a girl wants to hear you'd die for her.

What high-school teacher did you like the most and why?

Williams: My IB history teacher. His class was full of pop culture references, he was a huge Soundgarden fan. He was a young guy, long hair, drove a stick shift. He assigned Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States in like a fairly conservative suburb of Kansas City. I was like, "this guy is the coolest dude in the world."

Ghaznavi: My homeroom and AP English teacher senior year. You could talk to her like a person and we actually went through a lot together. We watched 911 in that classroom, which was really a seminal moment in my life. With all the race stuff that ended up happening, she was super supportive of me when I had worries about my own identity. When your nickname is Persia in a generally all-white high school, and 911 happens, that nickname isn't so cool anymore.

Williams during stand-up set.Katherine Clark Photography

What do you consider your first professional big break and why?

Williams: I was in a spread called "Fall guys of style" of Men's Health in 2012, where they make you over. They basically show why all your real clothes are shit and then they dress you up in a bunch of stuff that you can't afford. They wouldn't let us keep the clothes. I was the one "regular person" and everyone else was a Ford model.

Ghaznavi: I was acting while I was in college, and I got cast in a fake documentary about the assassination of President Bush called Death of a President. I was the accused assassin, they put me in jail, and I was doing my fake interview from a fake prison cell. Then it ended up winning at the Toronto Film Festival. That was my big credit.

What was your first professional failure?

Williams: When you're doing stand-up? All of it! I was doing a show at a sports bar in East Elmhurst, Queens. It was what we call an ambush show, where a comedian just knows the bar owner, but the clientele isn't really there for comedy. It's only like, hardcore alcoholic types. The stage was in front of the dartboard, so your head's right in the middle of it, and then they just refused to turn off the Yankee game. It was one of those things that made me wonder, is this a gig? Or is this a candid camera humiliation type of thing?

Ghaznavi: My first time doing state of comedy was at Mike's Mambo Room in DC, and it was similar to Justin's setup — there was just a row of alcoholics at the bar. So the host brings me up and reads my name off a yellow post-it note — I'll never forget this — and he just goes, "very funny guy, good friend of mine, Seena Gaz...? Gaza... Gaza— aw, who gives a fuck!" That's when I knew I'd made the best choice of my life.

Miss Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network are the focus of a three-episode arc in Fraudsters.

What’s your can’t-miss prediction for 2030 and why?

Williams: Hopefully the world's gonna be around in 2030, and the word "United" will still be part of the United States of America.

Ghaznavi: Hopefully by 2030 we flip the criminal justice system in a way where violent offenders and these kinds of fraudsters are at the top, and petty criminals — like possession charges — are at the bottom. I hope we're really rethinking the way public safety works. 10 years is a good amount of time to try to figure that out.

What would your 15-year-old self say about your latest project?

Williams: Hey, what the hell is a podcast?

Ghaznavi: Why do you sound so nasally? Actually, I would probably just be so excited that someone let me talk to a microphone for an hour.

Awkward Phase is an Inverse series with interesting people talking about the most relatable period in their life. The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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