In just the past few weeks, Maz Jobrani has been profiled by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, Mother Jones and NPR. For the past fifteen years, the Iranian American comedian has been profiled by casting directors and airport officials all over the world who tend to see him as a terrorist. For those of us with less funny hearts, this would be a problem. For Maz, it’s material. And sometimes cause for self-doubt. As he said in one of two TED talks he’s given, “Part of me thinks I should have a nuclear program. The other part of me doesn’t trust me with one.”
Maz, who will appear at Chicago’s UP Comedy Club from February 26 to February 28 (details below), is touring the U.S. with a new show to promote his just released memoir, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV. If you’re self-conscious about laughing uncontrollably in public, you may need to read it at home, although not while a family member is trying to watch a movie in the same room because you will be asked to laugh more quietly.
In 1978, Maz, then six years-old, immigrated with his family from Iran to the San Francisco Bay area. His is a fish-out-of-water story about how children of immigrants can feel like fish out of water everywhere. His exuberantly loving family and their traditions set him apart from his friends in California. But returning to Tehran for a visit, he felt conspicuously American.
And while immigrants are often fish out of water, families of Middle Eastern descent can face particularly turbulent seas. As the Iranian Revolution raged thousands of miles away, school bullies enjoyed holding Maz responsible for the American hostage crisis and the small group of American Iranian boys in suburban Tiburon changed their Persian names to “Tony” so they could pass as Italian. (In an unexpected development, the bully-in-chief became Jimmy Fallon’s brother-in-law, but that’s just one great story in a book full of great stories.)
Later, adults proved to harbor the same monolithic stereotypes. If Maz had wanted, he could have had a nonstop career playing a terrorist in Chuck Norris movies (a role he reluctantly accepted as he was starting out) and in blockbusters like United 93 (by the time that role was offered, he had vowed never again). Even Mitzi Shore, famed owner of L.A.’s The Comedy Store, wanted him to perform in a turban. Maz believes she had his best interests at heart, but he had a much different vision for his career. He later became a regular at The Comedy Store — as himself. As he said during a 2013 interview on the podcast Ahjeel, the “biggest support group is you mentally knowing you want to do it.” And so he did.
He has since become one of the world’s most groundbreaking comedians, poking fun at cultural quirks and stereotypes in a spirit of genuine interest and friendship, always emphasizing that “there are good people everywhere” and resisting the human tendency to view others as “others.”
In 2005, with Mitzi Shore’s encouragement, he founded and headlined the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” with fellow comedians Aron Kader, Ahmed Ahmed and other comedians of Middle Eastern and Korean descent. The group was featured on Comedy Central and traveled across the country and overseas where the humor crossed borders more easily than Maz did (he has a very funny bit about the suspicion his Tehran birthplace aroused at the Kuwaiti border).
He continues to perform internationally, including in Sweden, Norway, Australia, Dubai, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Jordan where he joked about his Jordanian distribution deal, “which is when one Jordanian buys it and everyone else sees it.” His Jordanian audiences have included King Abdullah and Queen Rania.
Speaking of fans in high places, he attended the White House Christmas party at the invite of President Obama, although “being the paranoid Middle Easterner that I am, I thought maybe it was a ploy to get me there and arrest me for something I must have done, or was about to do.”
Married and the father of two, he is also known for his parenting humor. He likens the stress of supervising toddlers to being the secret service agent to a suicidal president. His podcast Minivan Men included frank and funny discussions with other comedians about parenting and comedy. His wife, who is Indian American (“not casino Indian, computer Indian”) and an attorney, figures prominently in his comedy, too.
Maz is also a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and wrote and stars in the movie Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, which he describes as “the Pink Panther meets Borat.” In 2014, Jimmy Vestvood was a featured selection at the Austin Film Festival where it won both the Audience and the Jury/Comedy Vanguard awards.
His many television credits include Curb Your Enthusiasm, Better Off Ted, 24, True Blood and Shameless. He has brought his comedy to Comedy Central, Showtime, The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show and The Late, Late Show. You’ll also recognize him from the films Friday After Next, 13 Going On 30 and The Interpreter, to name a few. This summer he will be the voice of Jafar (from Aladdin) in Disney’s The Descendants.
His comedy specials, I Come in Peace and Brown and Friendly are available on DVD and iTunes. As of this writing, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV is headed towards bestseller status on the Amazon charts.
Maz is also known for being very responsive to his fans and kindly took time out for the following email exchange:
Q: How does being a comedian influence your parenting? (I envision comedians being less tense parents who raise less tense children.)
A: Ha! I wish that were the case, but I think that we’re just as tense as anyone else. As much as you want to be an easy going parent, if you spend enough time with these kids they drive you nuts. I once heard someone say that if you’re not yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them. That said, I love them and they provide me with plenty of material. I guess as a comedian I have to stop and smile when they say something that might be a bit off. Normal parents might get upset or worried. I’m thinking, “that’s gonna kill on stage!”
Q: What is the future of the wonderful Minivan Men?
A: You know, we all got very busy and stopped doing it. I hope that we can find time to start again. I’ve also been thinking of podcasts I could maybe do on my own. Stay tuned!
Q: What is your favorite Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me experience so far? (Congratulations on the win on February 7!)
A: Thanks. I enjoy doing “Wait Wait” a lot. The live shows are so much better than the recorded version that people listen to because we go for much longer. Anytime we’ve been able to riff on a subject for a while I’ve really enjoyed it. Always fun to be on a panel with Paula who makes me laugh. For me, it’s always fun to sneak in an accent or two that I know Peter Sagal is going to get letters for.
Q: What were the experiences that first inspired you to use comedy to break down stereotypes?
A: I got into comedy because I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy’s. I never thought I would be consciously trying to break down stereotypes. I still don’t think it’s a conscious effort on my part as much as it’s just a Middle Eastern born person doing stand up comedy. There have been more and more people from that part of the world getting into the comedy world. It’s great to see that.
I do know that after Bush took us into Iraq I felt there was a place for comedy to criticize what our government was doing and also maybe address some of the stereotypes that existed about people from that part of the world.
Q: To what do you attribute your ability for turning difficult issues into comedy and into comedy that connects people?
A: Probably the fact that I’ve been doing this for 17 years. Comedians get on stage about 5-10 times a week and we write a lot. I write by getting on stage and riffing on a topic that interests me. I record that and hone it over time. When you do that over and over again, hopefully you get good at it. I talk about subjects that interest me and I’ve learned to make some serious subjects funny.
Q: How do you know how far to go with making fun of different groups? Has anyone ever been offended?
A: I try to come from a place of friendship when I have fun with people from different backgrounds. I never say, “I’m better than you,” or “your people suck!” It’s always, I’ve been to your country and here’s what I observed.
There have been times when there were older people in the crowd who thought I was insulting them. I just gotta smile and tell them to take it with a grain of salt. If they’re big people who are offended I try to duck out the back before they punch me in the face.
Q: What are some cultural differences you have seen in comedy and how have you had to adjust your comedy in different countries?
A: Sometimes when you perform in the Middle East the promoters have told us to avoid sex, religion and politics. I think that they’re worried that the local audiences will be offended or that word will get out that someone made fun of a leader and we will get in trouble.
The good news is that I don’t know too much about local politics when I go to a country and so it’s easy for me to steer clear of that. There’s always a fun way to get into local cultures and tell them how you view them from a fish-out-of-water standpoint.
Q: What was your best and worst comedy experience so far?
A: There’s been a lot of both. The best ones are when you come up with a new bit that you love or if you perform one night and the crowd totally gets you. That’s happened to me in DC, Stockholm, LA and many other places. The worst ones are when you do a corporate event and no one is listening. The whole time you’re thinking that you just want to finish your 20-30 minutes and get off stage for a stiff drink.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that Americans have about the Middle East?
A: Many Americans think that the whole Middle East is one big place with Isis and kidnappers, etc. In reality there are so many countries out there and there are so many nuances that Americans don’t know about. It’s also very safe in some of these countries to travel, but not a lot of Americans tend to want to go out there to see for themselves.
Q: Is Iran’s comedy scene like its film scene where it thrives despite limitations?
A: I honestly don’t know much about Iran’s comedy scene. I haven’t heard of any stand ups from out there. I grew up in the US since I was 6 years old and have been back once about 15 years ago for a two week period. I think it would be hard to do stand up in Iran because you could get in trouble for saying the wrong things.
Q: Are you able to bring your show to Iran?
A: I haven’t tried. I know I’ve done jokes in the past that made fun of the leadership. I’m not sure if the government would welcome me there. Also, I do my shows in English so not sure if there’s a big enough English speaking population there to get my jokes.
A: Just that I’ve got my book out I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV. I think they’ll enjoy it. It’s my autobiography told in a fun way. I look forward to being out there later this month at UP Comedy club and Chicago is becoming one of my favorite cities to perform in.
Maz Jobrani will appear at the UP Comedy Club, from Thursday, February 26 – Saturday February 28. Tickets are $38 – $68 and include a copy of I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV.
The UP Comedy Club is located at Piper’s Alley, 230 W. North Ave., Chicago. For tickets and more information, go to http://upcomedyclub.com/event.cfm?id=357505&
For more about Maz’s comedy, visit www.mazjobrani.com. You can also find him on Facebook and twitter: @MazJobrani.
The show also features Amir K and Azhar Usman and will be hosted by Chris Bader.