Of Cookies and Nukes: An Interview with Comedian Maz Jobrani
Posted by Khatchig Mouradian on March 6, 2012
BOSTON, Mass. (A.W.)—Comedian Maz Jobrani liked calling Iran “the Paris Hilton of countries” back when Paris Hilton was the Iran of celebrities. “Every time they show us on TV they always show the crazy guy burning the flag going, ‘Death to America!’” he said in one of his more recent stand-up performances. “Just once, I wish they would show us baking a cookie! Because I’ve been to Iran, and we have cookies!”
With Tehran’s nuclear program currently dominating the airwaves, Iran couldn’t be further from an association with cookies. But the country did make headlines recently for the film “A Separation,” which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Jobrani was ecstatic. “I was so happy when they won. What a film! Anyone who hasn’t seen it should go out and see it. I was gripped by the film for two solid hours and I would have been very upset if it hadn’t won,” he told me. “I was a bit worried that politics might have caused the Academy to not vote for it, but in the end it could not be denied. And what a wonderful speech by the director! It was a proud moment for Iranians all over the world!”
Stereotypes and acting
Jobrani was a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which started off with a bang (no pun intended) in the U.S., followed by sold-out performances in the Middle East. I asked him whether the negative stereotypes of Iranians—and Middle Easterners, in general—have become less dominant in the media.
“The overall negative stereotypes continue to exist,” he said. “I think as long as the West knows us more for the turmoil in the region and some of the zealous religious leaders, it will be a hard image to shake off.”
These stereotypes have created a market for Middle Eastern actors—to play terrorists. “A lot of the roles that come out are the negative roles, where we could play terrorists or other backwards religious zealots,” said Jobrani, who has guest starred in shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue,” and “ER,” and had recurring roles on “The Knights of Prosperity” and “Better off Ted.”
In the critically acclaimed movie “David” (2011), Jobrani plays the Imam of a Brooklyn mosque whose son, Daud, befriends a Jewish boy, Yoav.
“There are some positive roles that come out now and then, but they are rare,” he said. “Naturally there are more positive roles in independent projects that allow us to show the other side of Middle Easterners.”
Stand up and customize
I asked Jobrani about his audience at his stand-up shows. “I’m lucky that most are attended by my fans. This is usually the case when you’re headlining. So it’s not a random audience that’s walked in off the street to just see a comedy show. They are specifically there to see you. That makes it so that most nights are pretty magical!”
He said his favorite places to perform are in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm, and Sydney. “The way I try to customize the show is to speak a little bit about my experience in these places at the top of my set and then go into my act from there,” he added.
Boundaries and inspirations
I asked him about the issues he avoids tackling and how far a comedian can go with ethnic humor. “I don’t know if there are boundaries to ethnic humor,” he said. “I try not to be degrading to anyone. Usually I will point out a fun trait about another ethnicity and make sure the person who I’m speaking to in the audience doesn’t feel like I am saying I’m better than them in any way. I think the fact that I do some self-deprecating material helps people loosen their guard and laugh with me.”
Jobrani started acting at an early age and studied theatre in high school. At the time, “Eddie Murphy was the man! He was my first inspiration into comedy.” Jobrani earned his bachelor’s in political science at UC Berkley and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UCLA before leaving academia and embracing acting. “I think I was just a big fan of comedy growing up. I believe the reason I do it today is because I was a fan then,” he said.
“Once I became a comedian I started to study Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby more. There are a lot of great comedians out there.” These days, he’s a fan of Lewis Black and JB Smoove, among others.
Iranians and Armenians
Jobrani had Armenian friends growing up in northern California, and more when he moved to LA after college. “I’ve always known Armenians to be a celebratory people. I know more of the Persian-Armenians and I know most Persians are celebratory anyway. I feel like we have so much in common that I really love having Armenian crowds at my shows. We’ve all got the parents with the thick accents, we all love driving BMWs and Mercedes Benz’s, we all have parents that want us to be doctors and lawyers.”
Sure, there are differences between Armenians and Iranians, but nothing that can’t be resolved by coming together. “The big difference is that Persians are in Westwood and Armenians are in Glendale. We should all just have a meeting and buy up the rest of Los Angeles. Just a matter of time before we do.”
For a complete listing of his upcoming shows, go to http://www.mazjobrani.com.