I happen to catch actor/comedian Maz Jabroni when he has a cold. Or I think it’s a cold. You can never tell nowadays. You can’t even have a cold without feeling like you’ve got coronavirus. But a year into the Western World’s most deadly pandemic ever, I finally feel a little calm, a little at ease, like we’re getting somewhere and making progress with the Biden Administration. And Maz feels it too.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen under the Biden administration, but I’m happy to be able to wake up in the morning and not have to be worried about a bunch of unnecessary tweets about Rosie O’Donnell, and little Rocket Man [North Korea’s Kim Jong Un], and whatever it is and actually have to like worry about real things,” says the Iranian-American Jobrani. “So you wake up and you go, we have Global Warming, and you’re like yes! Let’s talk about it or you know we have a pandemic. Thank god we can talk about the pandemic! So it’s nice, it’s nice.”
You’ve seen Maz Jobrani before, his face all too familiar in the comedy world. He was part of the “Axis of Evil” comedy group in 2005. The tour featured four Middle Eastern comedians and came about after President George W. Bush gave a speech in which he designated Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the “axis of evil” during the United States’ War on Terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The group was given a Comedy Central Special and profiled by media outlets like CNN, NPR and The New York Times. Jobrani has appeared in films like The Interpreter (2005) with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, Friday After Next (2002) opposite Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, and Dragonfly (2002) with Kevin Costner. You can catch him nowadays on his podcast, Back to School with Maz Jobrani, where “professors, experts and successful people from all walks of life come in to educate Maz on a variety of subjects while Maz and his team make the lessons funny.” You can find it on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. His new standup comedy special Pandemic Warrior is now available for streaming on PeacockTV.
“As comedians, I think our job is to say what we mean, that’s the whole point, that you have to have a point of view,” insists Jobrani. “ Hopefully you don’t have any boundaries. The boundary that i do have for myself i would say I try as a comedian to never punch down. I try not to make fun of people who let’s say have physical disabilities or actual mental disabilities. I try to be the champion of those people. And I try to punch up. And that’s why under Trump I got in trouble a lot, because I would try and punch up and his followers became highly sensitive.”
Before Trump was president, Jobrani would perform a few innocuous Trump jokes about his hair, or his reality show The Apprentice, and people would chuckle and life would go on. But as soon as Trump started using racist and misogynistic rhetoric, suddenly his voters/fans took offense to jokes about him as if you were making fun of their mother or grandmother.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘Wait a minute we live in America,’ where you’re supposed to make fun of your leaders! Whether it’s Donald Trump, or Joe Biden, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, it doesn’t matter who it is. We are a Western country that is supposed to encourage us to be critical of our leaders. And we are not those totalitarian states you see in the Middle East or in Asian countries or in some other places in the world. And where did we lose ourselves?”
In retrospect for Jobrani, Trump was “a way for people to say I have racist thoughts and I don’t have to say them because the president is saying them for me. And I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. What do you mean it’s the greatest thing that he is saying what’s on his mind? That doesn’t mean that that’s what he’s saying on his mind isn’t necessarily a good thing. He’s saying a lot of bad things. But a lot of his supporters loved him because he was saying what’s on his mind. He’s not a politician. He’s an outsider. So I remember hearing my mom say he’s interesting ‘says what’s on his mind.’ And I was like, ‘You’re falling for this crap?’”
Relentlessly touring, Maz’s resume includes multiple standup comedy specials like Immigrant filmed at the Kennedy Center and is a Netflix Original, as well as solo specials on Showtime: Brown And Friendly, I Come In Peace, and I’m Not A Terrorist, But I’ve Played One On TV which was also a 2015 Los Angeles Times best-seller.
Jobrani left Iran when he was six in late 1978 and still calls himself Iranian-American, having his heart with the people of Iran. He only went back once in the late ‘90s. His father had moved back, before he passed away, and he visited him. “I felt for the people because the people are good. The people are welcoming. It’s a great culture. It’s a great group, it’s a great country, the people, itself. And yet they are oppressed under this regime. And it’s a totalitarian state. It’s a state that oppressed women, LGBTQ, bisexuals, a lot of the young people lack opportunity. So my heart goes out to them.”
Jobrani cites 2009 as a year in which he thought real change was coming to Iran. Ahmadinejad was accused of voter fraud and the Iranian people thought that was going to be it, there would be change, but it didn’t happen and then in the recent past we’ve seen certain protests but it’s such a complicated situation. “I don’t know what the best solution is. I personally thought that the Iran nuclear deal that Obama had was a good steal. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good in that I thought it would bring the Iranian regime into the fold with the rest of the world, at least financially and economically, and it would give us some clout by saying “Look, this is what it could look like, your economy could start to grow, if you don’t violate a lot of these laws.
“So here we are under Biden and my heart just breaks for the people of Iran,” says Jobrani. “I really feel like one thing that Trump did with his travel ban was, again heartbreaking, because a lot of the young people in Iran were suffering under the regime and then at least before the travel ban, were able to come to the United States to study to better their lives. All of a sudden they couldn’t come because of that either so at least Biden has lifted that and we’ll see how it goes into implementation. But yeah, I don’t know what the solution is for Iran. I really just hope that the country has freedom in its future.”
From leaving a country in political turmoil in the late 70s to arriving in the Bay area in search of a new opportunity, Jobrani’s life is not short of inspiration and drive. He started acting when he was 12 doing musicals in junior high school. At the age of 10 he fell in love with comedy, with Eddie Murphy specifically, and wanted to be like him, memorizing his self-titled standup tape, Eddie Murphy, before Murphy’s hit show Delirious would blow up the comedy world in 1983. He would listen to those tapes and his parents kept saying “you got to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer,” kept pushing him in that direction. But he continued to pursue it and by his mid-20’s he was doing commercials here and there and guesting on sitcoms like Malcom in the Middle with Bryan Cranston pre-Breaking Bad fame. In between Jobrani would work a day job and do stand-up at night, auditions. It wasn’t until he did the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour in 2005 that the decent money started rolling in.
“That’s when my standup started paying for my acting career. So it was, they’ve always complimented each other. I’m always open to more and more acting. Doing that movie with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, the Sydney Pollack movie The Interpreter, was amazing, an 80 million dollar movie and I got to live in New York for a few months. I got to play a secret service agent!” Jobrani laughs.
But he does see the West “normalizing” their view of Middle Eastern people as well as people with an Indian background. He’s done two TEDTalks that were based around the idea of being a comedian with a Middle Eastern background, and how his hope is that the world, especially the West, will start seeing them differently.
“And I think it’s happening in general,” Jobrani insists. “I think we’ve got guys like Ramy Youssef and others who are doing shows. Even Mindy Kaling, who’s not Middle Eastern, but has an Indian background. I think the world is starting to, or moreso the West is starting to see us in a more normalized way. So to see that happening is fantastic.”
If Jobrani was ever going to give another motivational speech (TEDTalk anyone?) he would talk to people about finding their passion and going for it. It took him a while fighting his parents to let him be who he wants to be but he remained adamant and his passion won. When he got a chance to give the commencement speech at UC Berkeley, one of the things he said was all anyone needs to know:
“Don’t listen to your parents cause they don’t know shit…. do what you want to do. Find what you want to do and do it… you will realize you live once, so you gotta live for yourself. And if you live for yourself and you find that happiness and that peace, then you can bring happiness to others around you.”