Iran Chat: Interview with Comedian Maz Jobrani

Our latest Iran Chat is with comedian and actor, Maz Jobrani.  A founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, his comedy covers a wide-range of issues, but often focuses on race and the ways that Middle Easterners are misunderstood in the U.S.  He performs stand-up live around the world, including in the Middle East.  Recently he published a book about his experiences,  I'm Not a Terrorist But I've Played One On TV.  He also co-wrote, produced and starred as the title character in the award-winning indie comedy film, Jimmy Vestvood - Amerikan Hero.  Maz Jobrani regularly guest stars on popular television shows and appears as a panelist on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.  You can find more about Maz, including upcoming tour dates, on his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @Mazjobrani.

Some highlights from our conversation:

On Actors taking Terrorist Roles

"It’s a tough position to be in.  When you’re of Middle Eastern descent, that’s the kind of part you’re going to see a lot of.  I wanted to work, and wanted to build my resume, so I accepted those parts… but I quickly realized I didn’t like playing [them] so I told my agent, “No more terrorist parts.”...  That was 15, 16 years ago and I’ve been able to continue to act without them. There are other parts where I’ve had to wear a turban or play the owner of a falafel store or a cab driver, but I’m not as upset about those, because when I’m in NYC I see a lot of Middle Eastern cab drivers, and when I'm in LA the falafel shop owner is a Lebanese guy.  So I don't mind playing those parts.  Terrorist parts are what was really upsetting me because I feel it is a minority of the people from that part of the world that are terrorists, and yet if you look at the percentage of parts that are available that are terrorists, it would be a majority."

On the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

"We got the title [for the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour] from George Bush’s speech where he put Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an “Axis of Evil” and we decided to lampoon that title by putting the comedy tour name behind it…  Eventually we were able to sell that show as a comedy special on Comedy Central.  We got a lot of press; a lot of attention...  It was the first time you had all these Middle Easterners on a TV show where we didn’t all get killed.

We toured from 2005 until the end of 2007 and then I started touring solo.  When you start performing solo you start doing an hour, so I had to come up with more material.. and that’s where my act [grew].  I tell people nowadays I talk about political issues, social issues and my kids.”

On using stereotypes in comedy

"On stage you talk about your experiences.  A lot of my material comes from real life so if I’m talking about something that may seem stereotypical it is probably something that I experienced.  For example, here is an innocuous stereotype: “Iranians love Mercedes Benz.”  A lot of Iranians I know have had Mercedes Benz’s, including my mom now, and my dad when I was younger.  So, I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s coming from your reality. So I think it’s okay to talk about that."

"When I talk to audience members I try to do material where we’re laughing together, I’m laughing with you;  I’m never laughing at you... I think there are certain stereotypes you can tap into and have fun with, but I try never to make it a demeaning thing.  I try never to be someone who says I am better than you.

That’s another stereotype. I see a lot of Iranians who feel they are better than their Arab neighbors for whatever reason. And I won’t say all Iranians. But there are some Iranians that are like this, and that bothers me...  I feel it’s okay to call people out on that. You can’t just take a whole group of people and say we’re better than that group of people.  Because you’re not."  

On going to Iran

"I’ve basically performed in the Middle East in seven countries, but never in Iran. There are two reasons. Number one, I’ve done jokes that make fun of the leadership, so I don’t want to go there and have someone put me in Evin prison because they call me a spy, which seems the modus operandi these days of part of the regime.  So I wouldn’t want to risk that.

And then the second reason I think that I haven’t been able to perform in Iran is because when I perform, I do shows in English. And you need to find an audience that speaks English well enough to get the jokes… In Iran I know there are a lot of people who speak English well, but the question is, are there enough to do a show in front of 1000 people who are going to come and get your jokes.  And I think nowadays there probably are enough. But you still need to find a promoter to get those people together.  And then the question becomes in Iran, are you allowed to do a public show like that or are you going to have to be underground?  So yeah it does sadden me.

I would love to visit Iran. I would love to see Iran; I would like to take my kids to Iran to experience it.  I know Iran has a lot of beauty, and it’s a shame I can’t go right now because of the current political state of affairs."

On Iran’s Image

"For the longest time Iran has been touted as Public Enemy No. 1 or 2.  It’s always been up there, no matter what administration.... But if people open their eyes, they will see Iran has a lot else that it offers.  Iranian cinema is amazing, Iranian artists.  Athletes.  So I think it is kind of like what we had with the Soviet Union; sports and arts can bring us together."

"Anthony Bourdain had a good Parts Unknown in Iran, which I think showed a good side of Iran; his show revolves around food.  But the question is, does the greater American population see that or no?  I feel like a lot of people probably see this, but then you get a candidate like Trump running for president and all of his followers coming out and yelling anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim stuff and you go, “Wow - there are a lot of people who aren’t opening their eyes and seeing these programs or don’t have friends from Iran or the Middle East.” … So I think we could use as much help as we can get. Media, yes.  Educators, yes.  Social media outreach.  Even Iranian restaurants.  If you’re able to get people to come to your Iranian restaurant in the middle of Memphis, Tennessee, you’re doing a great job of closing the gap and bringing peace to the world."

On Trump

"The thing with Trump is that I thought we lived in a country where there was more tolerance, and once Trump came out it feels like he made it okay for every racist to come out and spew their ideas and express their racism.  It is scary in a way that these people exist.  And I really feel that if there was a magic wand or a way to implement a program where you took all these people and got them on planes and flew them to Iran or flew them to one of the Arab countries… just to go visit.. a lot of them would come back and go “wow that was not at all what I expected,” and it’s unfortunate that isn’t going to happen.  So many are caught up in their patriotism it’s blinded them.  I think we’re at a new level of Anti-Muslim sentiment; Anti-Iranian sentiment... The Trump candidacy has definitely added fuel to the flame."