Comedy against conformity
Catching up with Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani
Iranian born American comedian Maz Jobrani has gained international recognition for his work in film, television, and stand-up comedy. A founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, Jobrani has travelled throughout North America, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia using his comedic talents to talk about life as a Middle Eastern American — particularly, anecdotes from his family and from observations of his own ethnic group.
Jobrani was born in Tehran and moved with his family to California at the age of six. After studying Political Science and Italian at UC Berkeley and UCLA, he later decided to pursue his childhood ambition of acting. He has performed internationally in the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and on his solo tour, “Brown and Friendly,” and held many roles in television and film — including movies such as The Interpreter, Friday After Next, and 13 Going on 30.
I had the opportunity to chat with Maz about his comedy, accomplishments thus far and upcoming plans for 2011.
Nina Sinatra: What makes you laugh?
Maz Jobrani: My 2 1/2 year old. But he also makes me cry.
NS: As a comedian, you are able to use humor to communicate with your audience about complex cultural themes. In your experience, how have the social roles of Middle Eastern-Americans changed over the past few years?
MJ: I think that we are making some progress. It seems like every minority or ethnicity goes through a period of being demonized. It takes some time for people to get comfortable with the unfamiliar. But the more people interact with Middle Eastern-Americans or if they see them in positive circumstances, they begin to see that these people are normal and good people. Unfortunately, it only takes the actions of one person to set us back, but it feels like we have been making some progress lately.
NS: What do you feel is the most exciting implication that your work may have?
MJ: Exciting? I don’t know…I guess if I were to be a part of a group of Middle Eastern-Americans who helped change the image of Middle Easterners from a negative one to a positive one. I think the best example in my field would be someone like Richard Pryor, who helped change the image of black society and brought it into the mainstream. He and Cosby would be two I would love to emulate.
NS: Passion and originality are an important part of life at MIT. What advice could you give to university students about integrating creativity into everyday life? Is there someone that you consider to be a comedic or personal mentor?
MJ: I would say that you should do whatever you love doing in life. If you look at the most successful people in the world they pursued their hobbies and turned them into their careers. We have a lot of pressure from our parents to become doctors or lawyer or engineers. But if that’s not what we want to do then we won’t be happy and we might not excel in these fields. Of course there are those who love these professions, and they’re the ones you see out there being creative and setting the standard. Just go with your heart and do what you love to do. The rest will fall into place.
As for my mentor? I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy as a kid, but that’s just because he was the biggest superstar back then. As I got into standup more, I began to watch Pryor and the social/political things he was talking about.
Today I enjoy watching The Daily Show, Lewis Black and anyone else who’s talking about issues in their comedy. That said, the person who inspired me to go after my dreams and be creative in my life is a gentleman by the name of Joe Rein. He was a producer at an advertising agency where I had a day job in my 20s. He knew I wanted to act and do comedy. He asked me if I’d considered trying it professionally. I told him I was going to wait till my 30s to give it a try. He took me into his office and told me, “Look, I’m in my 60s. When I was in my 20s there were some things I wanted to do. I never got around to doing them. So if you really wanna do it, do it now!”
NS: As a comedian and actor, you have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. Which have been your most memorable? Your most challenging?
MJ: I love being on stage and I love being on set. It feels right for me and I feel alive when I’m on a project. I really enjoyed working on a short lived TV show called “The Knights of Prosperity,” which was on ABC a few years ago. It was about a bunch of down and out people who decide to rob Mick Jagger. That was also very challenging because it was an ensemble cast so we were usually in all the scenes together. Which meant 14-16 hour days 5 days a week. It got pretty exhausting. The film “Friday After Next” was a lot of fun to work on. But I truly do love being on a set and working on most everything. As for standup, I love doing shows in big theaters in cities around the world. The energy is amazing. But I’ve got to say that sometimes doing a set at the Comedy Store in LA late night in front of 10 people can be fun too. They’ve just gotta get you and come on your journey with you.
NS: Your work has brought you to many exciting locations and cultures — can you remember any especially interesting or unexpected moments from your performances with the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour or your solo tour?
MJ: I’d say when the King of Jordan showed up at our first Axis of Evil show in Amman it was quite an amazing feeling. I’d never had a King at a show. And he invited us to the Palace the next day for a meet and greet. What a nice man! On my solo tour, I remember doing a show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, outdoors, near an animal preserve. It hadn’t rained in almost 2 years and that night the rains came. I was like “The Rainmaker.” We waited in tents with 1000 people (500 in each tent) till the rains stopped and the show went on!
NS: What are your plans for this year? Are you working on any new projects?
MJ: I’ve co-written a film with my friend, Amir Ohebsion, called “Jimmy Vestvood; Amerikan Hero.” It’s sort of like a Middle Eastern “Pink Panther.”
Jimmy is a Persian guy living in Westwood with his mother and working at a rug store. He’s always wanted to be an American hero and he kind of bumbles his way to solving a major crime. The tagline for the film is “You don’t have to be Amerikan to be an Amerikan hero.” I’m also on tour again with my new tour “Browner and Friendlier.”
Jobrani is currently on tour within the United States, and will be performing at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on March 11.