When you grow up as Maz Jobrani did, as one of the few Iranian American kids in the rich Bay Area town of Tiburon, a kid embarrassed when his dad drove him to school in a Rolls-Royce instead of a Volvo like the other parents — comedy might come naturally. His family moved here from Tehran when he was 6. Out of a culture not known for stand-up, he found his calling, as he details in his book, “I’m Not a Terrorist but I’ve Played One on TV: Memoirs of a Middle Eastern Funny Man,” a career conflation of the personal and the political. He’s playing it for laughs, and against the stereotypes.
What does the dismay at Jon Stewart’s announced departure say about political comedy?
Comedy plays a huge role on serious subjects. There is sanity in what Stewart does. You could say he has a liberal take, but at the same time he attacks the president or anyone else he thinks needs to be lampooned — an equal-opportunity critic. I heard D.L. Hughley say comedy is like giving people their medicine in orange juice — they don’t taste it.
Did the Charlie Hebdo massacre move the line on what’s offensive and what’s funny?
After Charlie Hebdo, we kept hearing that we have to punch up, to make fun of the people above you, the guys in power. Don’t make fun of the people below. One of the jobs of comedy is to expose hypocrisy. When you look at countries like Iran or North Korea that don’t have freedom of speech, we who do should push it as far as we need to.
I’m sure there were comedians who were getting ready to joke about the prophet Muhammad who had second thoughts. That said, I don’t know many comedians in America who talk about Muhammad on stage. The closest I’ll come is maybe making fun of some terrorists and the 72 virgins. What upsets me is when [comedians’ material] starts to go racist in a way that someone who’s watching says, “See, I knew it, they’re all like that.”
You grew up an Americanized kid. Did you have to re-Iranianize yourself?
I don’t consider myself an Iranian comedian; I consider myself a comedian who happens to be of Iranian descent. Iranians say, “Why don’t you do jokes in Farsi?” My Farsi’s good for speaking, but stand-up is different. I tried one time to translate my stand-up into Farsi for an Iranian audience, but Iranians really don’t have irony.
Different cultures have a different sense of humor?
Stand-up comedy is a newer art form. Comedy used to be joke-telling, the Borscht Belt stuff. Since Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, American audiences have caught on to the [newer] rhythm. I’ve done stand-up in several Arab countries with the Axis of Evil tour, [founded by comedians of Arab and Persian descent, including Jobrani] and those audiences are starting to get it, thanks in part to the Internet.
The Comedy Store owner, Mitzi Shore, once expected you to perform in costume.
I owe a lot of my career to her. The Comedy Store is a magical place. When I showcased for her, she said, “I’m going to make you a regular. Have you ever thought about wearing the outfit — the hat, the gown.” It hits me — she wants me to wear a turban and a dishdasha!
The way I got out of it was to say there was an Iranian performer in L.A. who made fun of mullahs and some people threw a rock at one of his events and blinded him. I said, “I’ll gladly wear the outfit but they may come after me, they may come after the Comedy Store.” The booker called and said, “Forget the outfit, we’ll see you Tuesday.”
You started turning down terrorist roles in film and TV.
I played Li’l Abner and Batman in school plays; I wanted to be an actor to play all these different characters. One of my first auditions [in L.A.] was as a security guard in “Chicago Hope,” then as a European terrorist on a TV show. It was early in my career; I wanted out of my day job.
I got a part in a Chuck Norris movie. I didn’t think much about how this part would make me feel. It wasn’t until I got to the wardrobe fitting and the lady said, “Here’s your shirt and pants and turban,” and I thought, “Afghans in America don’t wear turbans. What am I doing?” It was like I’d agreed to go to work for Fox News, thinking I could change their perspective, but knowing deep down that they were just going to use me as a punching bag.
“24" [cast me as] this terrorist who changes his mind halfway through, after he sees some kids playing and tells the other guys, “I don’t want to do this,” so they shoot him. That was a little more nuanced. After that, I said, “I don’t what to do this anymore.”
Are Hollywood portrayals of Muslims getting more nuanced?
A little. [But] what are they going to make a movie about? They’re going to make “American Sniper.” I enjoyed it, but I was listening to an analysis by another sniper who had been there, and he said he thought Arabs again got portrayed as animals who deserve it. These roles are going to continue until someone breaks through with something like the “Everybody Loves Raymond” of Muslims.
Your family thought acting and comedy were only one step up from being a terrorist.
I read in “National Geographic” that Iranians’ biggest pet peeve is when people think they’re Arabs. Their second biggest pet peeve is when people think they’re terrorists. So it’s better to be a terrorist than an Arab almost?
My parents come from that immigrant culture that places a lot of emphasis on doing well scholastically. Being a comedian or an actor is such an American thing. The Iranian culture is not about dreaming. It’s about taking over your father’s business, falling into line.
Have you ever had American troops in your audience?
One show, a Camp Pendleton Marine comes up afterwards and gives [the Axis of Evil troupe] a hug and said, “I was over there and it was traumatic and I never thought I’d laugh about this stuff, but thank you for talking about it.” People don’t give credit to soldiers’ intelligence.
When the Axis of Evil toured, a lady in South Carolina sent us an email saying, “I’m a military wife and I enjoy what you’re doing.” [Another] guy said, “After Sept. 11, I hated all Muslims. Watching you guys changed my mind.”
Perhaps watching political comedy gives people permission to think about things they might be afraid to give voice to otherwise
Even if you take offense at certain things, when you see them through a comedic light, it helps you to see the ridiculousness. That’s the tightrope of comedy.
What about Islamic State? How do you make monsters comedic?
A while ago, I was thinking, I haven’t heard about Al Qaeda in a while, maybe this is all done, and the next thing you know — ISIS. I haven’t done any ISIS jokes yet. I stay away from things like beheading jokes because real people are getting killed.
Someone who criticized me for making a joke about the Boston Marathon bombers wasn’t listening. I was making fun of the media coverage, not the victims. I said my first thought was for the victims, and my second thought was [about the bombers], “Please don’t be Middle Eastern, please don’t be Middle Eastern.”
After 9/11, some comedy outlets went dark for awhile. Are there moments when comedy has nothing to say?
Immediately after major tragedies, it’s really hard. The Comedy Store is open on Christmas, Thanksgiving, you name it, but after Sept. 11, it closed. A few days later it opened. Mitzi Shore said she was worried about the Mideastern comics; she didn’t want to put us on right away. But the comics who were there that weekend said audiences were laughing harder than they’d ever heard them laughing before. It was a stress release, a jab at the terrorists. It’s our way of saying, “I got you back,” disempowering them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.