Throughout his 20 years performing standup, Maz Jobrani (author of the best-selling I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV and current star of Superior Donuts on CBS) has always been heavily influenced by current personal circumstance. After being given the comedy class homework of writing jokes about the statement “It’s hard being Iranian in America,” he learned early on that audiences would connect with him quicker and more deeply if he focused on being himself. Truly being himself onstage has led Jobrani to open up about his life as an Iranian immigrant. His family immigrated from Tehran to the U.S. when he was six years old, so at this point he has nearly 40 years of hilarious, moving, and politically relevant stories to pull from. His brand new comedy special Immigrant, filmed at the Kennedy Center, dropped today on Netflix. I talked to Jobrani about how he found his perspective early, what caused him to get more political in his act, and how humor can change minds and open hearts.
When you first started standup were you as outspoken about your position as an immigrant in America as you are now?
What happened was I took a standup comedy class when I first started. One of the things they would tell you is to talk about what makes you different, what makes you unique. They went around the class and would say, “Complete this sentence: ‘It’s hard being _______.’” So for example, a lady would say, “It’s hard being a single woman in Los Angeles,” that kind of thing. For me, when it came around I said, “It’s hard being Iranian.” They would say, “More specific.” “It’s hard being Iranian in America.” “More specific!” “It’s hard growing up Iranian in America.” “Great, now go come up with some jokes around that.” The ethnic thing I did talk about early on because I’m an expert in being Iranian in America. I was there with it in terms of my own immigrant background, but I don’t think I set out right away to be political about it. I think I might have gotten more political once Bush was in power and I saw what I thought was hypocrisy in that we had been attacked by Al-Qaeda and yet we were finding a reason to go to Iraq. Or how the people that hijacked the planes were from Saudi Arabia and they had done the Axis of Evil and put Iran in there. I started talking about the hypocrisy I was seeing there and that’s what got me talking more about political stuff.
A lot of comedians would say, “Don’t take a standup class. No one can teach you to do standup.” But in this case it seems like that class propelled you toward what you would become much quicker.
My take on the whole class thing is “whatever works for you.” I’ve always been someone who works better with deadlines. When I had a class it helped me because they would say, “Come back with five new jokes.” I think the classes are like open mics except you’re actually getting feedback. As you know, at an open mic all the comedians are in the back and no one is watching you. In a class they give you feedback. More importantly it wasn’t just the class – if I had just taken the class and said, “That’s all I need,” I would not have progressed as I have. One of the main things I learned from the classes is that you should get up onstage as much as you can and write as much as you can. Beyond what you learn in the class you learn a lot more onstage. Some of my best growing moments were when I was in front of three people at 1:30 in the morning and I had to abandon my set to just talk to them about who I was and where I was. The closer you become onstage to who you are offstage, I think that’s the evolution of a comedian. Those hard moments you find at open mic nights at 1:30 in the morning, those are the things that make you a good standup.
You got a lot of attention from your book I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV and then the special of the same name that followed the release of the book. I think that even people who don’t agree with you politically or socially we’re intrigued by that project. I think someone who disagrees could read the book and it would have a sympathizing effect. Have you ever received any feedback from someone who had their mind changed or opened by your comedy?
I stopped reading the comments. When YouTube first came out I had a video up. Somebody underneath said, “I love this guy.” The second guy says, “I’m a fan.” A third guy goes, “This guy sucks.” Then all three of them started arguing. I was like, “Oh my God, this is negative energy,” and stopped reading the comments. But from time to time someone will bring a comment to my attention. The first time I realized that what I’m doing is helping change some people’s minds about people from that part of the world is when we did the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which came out in 2007 on Comedy Central. Back then I remember getting emails from people saying things along the lines of, “After September 11th I thought I hated all Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, and Middle Easterners. Seeing you guys do comedy and seeing people from those backgrounds in the audience laughing made me realize there are good people from those places.” Recently somebody sent me a couple of screengrabs from when I did a TED Talk in Doha, Qatar. Beyond what I’m saying from the stage, there are shots of the audience, Arabs and Muslims, laughing. Some of the comments were, “Wow, I never realized that Middle Eastern people laugh. I’m ashamed I thought the way I thought.” It’s very easy to fall into that trap. I’m an Iranian American. I know that Iranians laugh. I know that Iranians celebrate life. I’ve always been surrounded by Iranians who are throwing a party, laughing, singing. I’ve always seen that. When you’re not around any of that, unfortunately the only thing you hold on to is what you see on the news or what you hear Donald Trump say. You think all these people are out to get you and want to implement Sharia law in America. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
You have to break through the culture of fear. People fear what they don’t know. Sometimes people are genuinely hateful, but to be fair I think a lot of it comes from basic ignorance, laziness, or people who are just so busy with their own lives, trying to make it, trying to provide for themselves and their families, worried about their health and money to the point that they don’t spend a lot of time looking into other cultures outside of their own. Oftentimes their only exposure is when they’re presented with inaccurate information from the media, political figures, or entertainment. They’re like, “Well, somebody smarter or more famous than me said it so I guess I’ll just believe that.”
Absolutely. Like with the whole travel ban. It was amazing to me because when I first heard of the travel ban and the countries that were in there…you can make the argument that no one from those countries has actually done an act of terror in America. Logically speaking this doesn’t make sense. I went to those protests and saw that American people understood what a joke it was. But then I went home and was listening to the radio and they said that the majority of Americans still support the travel ban. My jaw dropped. “How could they support the travel ban? Don’t they see the lack of logic here?” It’s exactly what you just said. I realize that people have busy lives and nowadays with social media people are just walking around looking at Instagram and Snapchat, not paying attention to the intricacies. They just see, “This travel ban will keep America safe and terrorists out,” and are like, “Okay, I can get behind that.” But they’re not breaking it down. It’s hard to reach people in these busy lives that we all have. You need those tidbits of humanization, and I think comedy provides that.