Maz Jobrani is perhaps best known as a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. Born in Iran, his family moved to California when Jobrani was six. He got his standup start at the Comedy Store and has since become known for his bridge-building style of comedy that mines misconceptions about the Middle East. He's appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson and Lopez Tonight, and he's currently got two films in the works: Shirin in Love, which he describes as "the Persian My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, a.k.a. The Persian Pink Panther." He'll be coming to Portland Sunday, March 23 as part of his My Lion is Moist tour. WW caught up with Jobrani while he was driving around L.A., where he lives with his wife and two children.
WW: Much of your act is concerned with educating people about Middle Eastern culture. What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about Middle Easterners, and why do such misconceptions exist?
Maz Jobrani: It's like any ethnic group, really. A lot of the stereotypes come from film and television, and nine times out of ten if you see a Middle Easterner in a show they're about to take someone hostage. That's just the general go-to and something I like to make fun of and joke about. I don't know any terrorists. I've never met one. I haven't gotten a call from someone saying, "Hello. It all goes down at midnight. We will blow this place up. Okay? Okay." Say you're in the Dubai airport—it's an international airport, a very diverse place, so you see people walking around in different ethnic clothing—and you just got done watching hours and hours of Fox News. You'd probably pee your pants and think you were going to be kidnapped just because you saw a guy in a Middle Eastern robe. But that's just how they dress. A robe and a beard doesn't mean the guy's a terrorist.
You've acted in several television shows and films yourself. Have you ever played a stereotypical Middle Eastern character?
First of all, every Middle Eastern actor has probably at some point had the opportunity to play or audition for the role of terrorist. Early in my career I had a couple of parts like that but I didn't like it. I told my agent, no more terrorist parts. I do continue to play other stereotypical roles—the cab driver, the donut shop owner, the stereo store owner, but honestly I don't mind those as much. I know those people. I know Middle Eastern cab drivers. I've talked to Middle Eastern donut shop owners. I've been helped by Middle Eastern dudes at the stereo shop. That's the difference to me. I don't know any terrorists.
Your routines obviously contain a lot of ethnic jokes, including a the bit about your wife who is Indian: "not a casino Indian, a computer Indian." Do you think it's possible to take ethnic-based comedy too far?
I always have a good mix of people in my shows. I work with whites and Asians and Middle Easterners and Latinos. There's a decent mix. Also, we're laughing with each other, not at each other. I'm not an insult comic, so I think it's clear that I'm not up there saying, "Hey, you're inferior to me" or anything like that...I do a lot of shows for people of different ethnicities—I've traveled all around the world—and what I've found is that people want you to talk about them in a funny way. If there's one line I draw, it's that I try not to make fun of the underdog. I don't make jokes about handicapped people or mental illness. And you know, as for the ethnic stuff, if anyone's ever been offended, it's usually because they don't really get comedy.
In your standup you also talk a lot about your family and about how, as a child, you were often embarrassed by your parents, and by your father in particular. You describe how he would show up at the playground to pick you up with the entire clan in the car, including your grandma's rooster. How have your feelings about your status as an immigrant changed over the years? Are you now proud of your roots?
Every kid is embarrassed by their parents, right? It's always, "Mom, Dad, I'm with my friends. Please get out of here." You add to that a thick accent and that embarrassment is escalated. As a kid you just want to blend in, lay low, and that's kind of impossible when you have an ethnic background. But you know, I don't like to say I'm proud of my roots. I'm Iranian. I'm also American. Both countries have done good things and bad things. It doesn't make much sense to me to say, "I'm proud to be from this place."
When you were on Craig Ferguson, you mentioned that when you're in airports you profile yourself. Before a TSA agent can even give you a dirty look you're already feeling suspicious of yourself, simply because you're Iranian. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Right after Sept. 11 I was traveling and I was about to go through the metal detectors. Those things just make you feel guilty. Like automatically. In the back of my mind I was thinking, "Am I carrying a gun?" and I don't even own a gun. It's an interesting dichotomy. I know I'm innocent, but the system is telling me, "Hmm, you might be guilty," because you have a tan.
It's been 13 years since Sept. 11 and the anti-Muslim hysteria has definitely died down, but there's still an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, I think. How have things changed for Muslims in America? Or have they?
All that has to happen is for one person to do one bad thing and, bam, there's a pundit on Fox News saying, "See? I was right all along. I was right about those people." And now we have the Malaysian flight that's gone down and everyone's talking about terrorism. People instantly assume fundamentalist Muslims are behind it. My first thought is, "Please, please let it be anyone else but a Muslim. Please let it be somebody else this time, like a Buddhist or a guy named Jack."
GO: Maz Jobrani is at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 234-9694. 7 pm Sunday, March 23. $39.50-$99.50. Tickets here.