"Bush and Ahmadinejad actually have a lot in common and they're both playing the same card. They're both millennialists, they're both highly religious, and they're both on the extreme."
– Maz Jobrani
Guy MacPherson: When did you move to the States?
Maz Jobrani: I moved to the States when I was six. It was late '78 and the revolution was just starting to happen over there in Iran. What's interesting is I actually went back and looked at some old New York Times from that year and no one really knew it was going to lead to what it led to. What was happening was there were protests in the streets and my dad was in business in New York City. Schools let out early that year around Christmas holidays, winter holidays, just because of the protests, I think. So my dad sent for me, my mom and my sister to come out and join him for a couple of weeks. Nowadays I say we basically came out for two weeks and we stayed for 30 years. We actually packed for two weeks. We even left my baby brother back home because we thought we'd be back in two weeks. He came out about six to eight months later. I joke nowadays that that baby brother grew up and he is now President Ahmadinejad. But, uh, that's not the case.
GM: You said Christmas holidays. It's not Christmas, though, is it?
MJ: I was at an international school so we did have Christmas, actually. Most Iranians that I know are very secular. We celebrate, like, Christmas and the Persian New Year and you name it, the Fourth of July or whatever. You name it, we celebrate it.
GM: What was your dad's business?
MJ: My dad had an electric company in Iran. So he was a self-made millionaire. He was very well-connected out there. He wasn't in trouble with the government when the revolution happened. It wasn't that he had been in the government or anything where they wanted him, but at the same time because he had been successful we didn't go back right off the bat because he did have friends in government. So you just never knew at that time what was going to happen or who they were going to execute or what they wanted to do. So Pops kinda had to lay low out here and do his business. He invested out here in real estate of a sort and as it turns out he lost a lot of his money so he went back to Iran several years later. And that's a common story with a lot of Iranian men. They came to America with a lot of money and didn't know how the system works and lost their money and have gone back.
GM: He went back to stay?
MJ: Yeah. The idea was, he had all this property back there that had just been sitting there dormant for about ten, twelve years. So he went back saying "Maybe I can turn that into something." And the process just takes so long when you go back there. All the red tape in the Middle East is ten times worse than the red tape in the west. There's all these kinds of rules. They said stuff like, "Well, you've been gone for ten or twelve years, you have to pay taxes on your property. So you owe back taxes." They go, "Until you pay those taxes, there's this law that you're forbidden to do business or leave the country." So he was kinda stuck. So then he had to find a partner to come and basically take the property that he had and put money towards rebuilding properties there so they could make some money so he could pay his back taxes and do business. And then he's also older, so that lifestyle there is a lot more his pace. Life is a lot slower in Tehran and in Iran where he lives. Whenever he comes out to visit here, we're always running around so he barely even sees us.
GM: Have you been back?
MJ: I went back about ten years ago before I started doing jokes about Ahmadinejad and the government. It was interesting. What was great about it was I hadn't been there in twenty years and one thing I noticed was that your sense of smell and taste are amazing because I walked into my aunt's house and I smelled a smell I hadn't smelled in twenty years but I instantly recognized it, as well as the taste of her food. It was just like instant.
So that part of it was really cool. And seeing family was really cool. And just seeing the kindness of people. If you believe what you see in news and all that stuff you would think that Iranians are savages. Although a lot of news organizations have been covering it better now. But the fact is they're very westernized, they're very hip. There's a big young population there that are into, you know, the internet and movies and all this other stuff. Very much into the western culture and educated. So that part of it was cool. What was kind of depressing to me, though, was with all that said, it doesn't seem like they have a lot of opportunity. I always mention like if you're in California, or Los Angeles even, you look around and there's like ten schools you could go to, whether they're universities or junior colleges or whatever. You could be at some university or somewhere studying. In Iran, they have the University of Tehran and if you don't get into that, you're screwed. So there are all these brains sitting around with nothing to do. So it's depressing in that way.
I had a lot of people coming up to me going, "Can you help me maybe come to America and work there?" And what was depressing about that was that I'm thinking these poor guys, they don't speak the language that well and if they were to even come to America they'd end up driving cabs or something. Or even if they spoke the language, it's coming to America and starting over in a whole new system. It was kinda depressing, really. But at the same time, I always remind people in the west that the people there love America.
GM: Not all of them!
MJ: Not all of them, but I'm saying a lot of them do. Just the other day, somebody was telling me, believe it or not, that Ahmadinejad's approval rating is lower thanBush's. Now, I can't confirm that, but I can believe that. See, the thing is, in Iran, like I said, there's all these young people that do want more freedoms, they do want more of their rights. What's happening is this regime that has a tight hold on power just isn't giving it up. But on the streets, or even if you go on the internet right now and enter 'Ahmadinejad', you'll see a bunch of clips of people making fun of him. There were protests at a university he was at. And the reason all this is is because first of all they want more freedoms, the youth. They also want more opportunity. They want their government to do something for them, economy-wise, and they're not.
That's what's been interesting about this whole... sorry if I'm babbling here... nuclear issue and the U.S. sanctioning and all that stuff. What it does is it allows Ahmadinejad and that regime to point to the west and go, "See? They don't want us to have nuclear weapons. See? They're holding us back. See? That's our enemy. So let's not worry about the fact that we're not taking care of the economy and giving you opportunities, let's worry about these guys." And if anybody steps up to protest or criticize the government and say, "Hey, what's up? You're not dealing with the economics" or the reformists when they say, "Let's talk to the west and get this stupid thing over with," these guys come back with, "You're working with the west. You're trying to change people's minds here. So you are part of the enemy." And it helps them, this whole conflict helps them avoid facing their own actual problems.
GM: That sounds very familiar, doesn't it? It's true in the States, too.
MJ: Exactly, yeah.
GM: If you question the government on any of this, you're not patriotic or something.
MJ: Exactly, exactly! When I did my Tonight Show set, I tried to make a point that Bush and Ahmadinejad actually have a lot in common and they're both playing the same card. They're both millennialists, they're both highly religious, and they're both on the extreme. Neither one of them is in the middle, to go, "Hey, let's really figure this thing out and move on with it, with dealing with our own countries and the situations we're in."
"I've had people go, 'Access of Evil? Like a-c-c-e-s-s? Like access?' I'm like, 'No! Remember Axis of Evil? The George Bush speech?' They're like, 'Hmm... nope, don't remember it.'"
– Maz Jobrani
GM: When you're touring with the Axis of Evil comedy tour and travelling by plane, surely you don't say you're with the Axis of Evil tour? You have enough trouble as it is, I bet.
MJ: It's actually interesting because when we first formed the group we had to get a bank account and all this stuff and I was afraid we were going to go to the bank and they'd be like, "Okay, wait here one minute" and come back with guys in suits with shades going, "What's this Axis of Evil thing you're trying to register?" But I've actually been to the bank a few times and we went to a place where I knew a girl that worked there so I was like, "Okay, that's cool, she'll hook it up." But then ever since then I've gone to like deposit stuff for Axis of Evil and people don't even flinch. They're like, "Okay, no problem" and they just do it real quickly.
You know what's interesting to me, actually, now that I think about it? This has been interesting: some people aren't even paying attention to it. I've had people go, "Access of Evil? Like a-c-c-e-s-s? Like access?" I'm like, "No! Remember Axis of Evil? The George Bush speech?" They're like, "Hmm... nope, don't remember it." I'm like, "Really?!" And that's just depressing.
GM: So really, the real Axis of Evil could be operating out in the open and no one would even know.
MJ: Yeah, people have forgotten already.
GM: Who's your North Korean comic on the tour?
MJ: We joked about that always. So when we went to the Middle East, the guy that organized the tour had found this South Korean who had been born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in Jordan. And he sang. He has a good voice. And he speaks Arabic fluently. So he brought him on the tour with us. Ahmed Ahmed would go up and he'd say, "We've been looking for a North Korean. We haven't been able to find one. But we found the next best thing, a South Korean." And this guy would come out and he would start talking to the crowd in Korean first and we'd be like, "We have no idea what you're talking about." And then the next thing you know he'd start belting out music in Arabic and the crowd would go nuts. And then he would start talking to them in Arabic and they would go even nuttier. And the irony of it was here's this Korean and he's the only guy who really spoke Arabic. I mean, Ahmed speaks a little bit of Arabic but Aaron sure doesn't and I don't. I speak Farsi. So he was on tour with us in the Middle East and it was a hit.
GM: Where in the Middle East were you?
MJ: We went to Oman, Jordan, Beirut, Kuwait, Egypt, and Dubai. Five countries.
GM: And obviously you're all performing in English.
MJ: Yeah, it was all in English. That was another one of these eye-opening situations. Our tickets started selling out. We sold out 27 shows. For example, even in Egypt, before I even knew where we performing somebody had done a FaceBook thing and people had RSVP'd and everywhere we went was packed. Tickets were hot. I kept joking that we were the David Hasselhoffs of the Middle East. Because you know how Hasselhoff is hot in Germany? And at one point I was like, "Do these people speak English?" I thought maybe they just have money and they're like, "Oh, this is a hot ticket so I'll buy the ticket and go see what the hell this is all about."
But we went there and, again, it was an eye-opener because not only do they all speak English very fluently, they know so much more about the west than the west knows about them. And I kept telling them, "I'm going to tell my friends to come and visit." Because we've been scared into going into any of these places. But there are people living their lives very normally. I mean, Beirut, even though right now it's in a lockdown downtown because of their conflicts and stuff, downtown has an area that looks like you're walking through the streets of Italy or Rome. It's just very European. There are these outdoor shops and restaurants. It's just amazing. That's what it is. And yet people here think like camels and turbans and bombs and terrorists.
GM: And eye-opening for you, too, I guess.
MJ: It was. And what was interesting for me being Iranian, I always defend young Iranians about them being modern and stuff. But I was kind of ashamed of myself that I had not thought that the rest of the Middle East was going to be like that. And there they were exactly like the young Iranians.
GM: That's the media, right? There's a section of Vancouver that gets all sorts of bad press and I know people who are afraid to go there. But it's fine. People live there.
MJ: Yeah, it's crazy. It's all about where you point the camera lens and how many times you show it. There's a book called Reel Bad Arabs by this guy Jack Shahein. He watched, like, I don't know how many thousands of hours of films where they depicted Middle Easterners negatively. He actually made a documentary out of it, too. And he just makes this great point. He goes, "Don't you think that after we've depicted these people like this so much that it makes it easier for us to drop bombs on them?" And it's true. Subconsciously. When I hear people on talk radio going, like, "Why don't we just drop a bomb on 'em and let 'em figure it out?", those people are buying into the fact that there's a bunch of cockroaches living out there.
GM: How long have you been doing standup?
MJ: Ten years.
GM: Have you always had the Iranian angle? Did you start out that way or were you more generic?
MJ: When I first started out I took a class and the lady said talk about what you know. So I was talking about growing up Iranian in America. For me, ever since I came to America, I was a kid when the hostage situation happened and I had a kid calling me a "fucking Iranian" in school and I had no idea why he was doing it. So I've had to deal with it my whole life and I had jokes about stuff and everything. Then September 11th hit and I tried to tone it down a little bit. I thought at first that the world was going to come together and rally around a central cause and then you see that they're leading us into a war with Iraq and there's rights being taken away and falsely accused people and all this other stuff. And you go, "Wait a minute!" It's kind of my job to bring these things to the forefront. So that's kind of inspired me to talk more about those issues.
GM: A lot of ethnic comics are role models whether they want to be or not. Do you get Iranians coming up to you and telling you what you should be talking about?
MJ: I haven't had too much of the negative. The only times I've had any negative comments is usually from people who haven't seen the show. They've just heard a little bit about it. I did a thing on Premium Blend for Comedy Central and the set started out with, "Hi, I'm Maz Jobrani. I'm an American citizen. I grew up in America but I was born in Iran." And then I go on to do my set and I make fun of some things, like people look at me the way they look at me, etc. But all Comedy Central put on their website was that clip. So some Iranian out of England tracked that clip down and he e-mailed me going, "I see you say you're a citizen BUT you were born in Iran. I hope you don't go on to disparage Iran in your material." And I'm like, "Idiot, see the whole thing, see what I stand for." I'm one of the first Iranians, or Middle Easterners, for that matter, to go on stage and talk about my ethnicity openly. For the longest time a lot of Middle Easterners would use other names that sound more gentrified. Is that the right word? Gentrified? But you know what I'm saying. And here I am standing up going, "We're good people." If they don't get the message, I'm not going to get into a debate with them. I'm just going to say you're not seeing what I'm trying to say.
GM: You have a message in your comedy, but there's this bigger, more subtle message that you are, and Iranians are, just like anyone else in the west.
MJ: Absolutely. The call we're supposed to have this morning is me and these two guys, Spike Feresten, who's got Talk Show with Spike Feresten on Fox, and this other guy, Chuck Martin, who was a writer on Arrested Development. We've actually pitched and sold a script to CBS about an Iranian living in L.A. who's American but of Iranian descent. The whole gist of it is it's me basically, as you just said, as a regular guy living my life trying to avoid problems and the world is seeing me in a certain way so I end up getting in these situations. But it's exactly as you just said. It's just to show I'm just trying to live my life and, as Al Pacino says inGodfather 3, they keep pulling me back in. It's kind of an Everybody Loves Raymond meets All In The Family.
GM: You do lots of acting. I see that some of the roles are the Arab stereotypes but not all of them.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. I was just talking to someone about this. First of all, I've told my agents, "No more terrorist parts." I've stopped taking those auditions. On Nights of Prosperity I played an Indian cab driver. I don't mind playing that. Or a doughnut shop owner. Because I know these people. When I go to New York I see these people. And here in L.A. you see these people. But the terrorist thing is so negative to me I've said no more. And then you get parts like in The Interpreter where I was playing a secret service agent who just happens to be Middle Eastern and they don't even talk about it except for one scene where the guy says, "I'm on the bus with Mohammed." Throughout the rest of the film they call me Mo. So I want to do more parts like that. I was talking to someone about this. I just want to, like, rob a bank once and just rob it with a gun. Nothing to do with my ethnicity. Which actually happened on Malcolm in the Middle, where I got to rob a store and it's just me talking like this.
GM: So there is hope in Hollywood.
MJ: Definitely. Part of it is just about you kind of maturing in Hollywood and realizing you don't have to take every role. And also for me as a standup it really helps because I'll work with or without the TV show and parts. And the other thing is I'm realizing that the best thing to do is to write your own vehicles. That's really a key that I've learned as well. Define yourself, basically. Don't let them define you.
GM: This show you're doing here with Reza Peyk, do you know much about him?
MJ: He's a nice guy. He's very enthusiastic. He got in touch with me and said he wanted to do this and I said sure. So next thing I know he puts the tickets for sale and it sells out. And I'm like, "Oh wow." So I guess there's a demand. So we added a second show. For me, too, as I do more and more shows, I try as much as I can to give other young comics an opportunity. Obviously I'm leaning towards giving young Middle Easterners a chance to get in front of big audiences. But any young comic. I'm trying to bring other strong comics that are buddies of mine that aren't Iranian, I'm trying to bring them to the shows and expose them to the Middle Eastern audiences, as well... I've gotten great support, knock on wood. I've been to Australia and 1800 people showed up. A big part of it is YouTube. People see this stuff on YouTube. And also the fact that there's a void. There's not a lot of people out there doing this. So I think the community's hungry for it and I think other people that see the world in a different frame are ready for it.
GM: So it's not just geared to other Middle Easterners.
MJ: No, no. I want as many Canadians to come out, I want as many Australians, Americans. And they do. When we were doing the Axis of Evil tour, at a certain point it was like 50 percent white and 50 percent Middle Eastern. But I want as much as I can. I want it to cross over. Because there's a lot of people, I call them the NPR crowd, who want to see what this other voice is. Again, there's been a hunger for it. Timing-wise, it's serendipity. I'm at the right place at the right time.
GM: And there aren't many other Iranian comics.
MJ: Not that many. The only other guy who's at a high level is Omid Jahlili and there's a handful of these young guys like Reza Peyk and a few other guys down here in L.A. that are coming up. But it's great to see. They're hustling and working hard and they're worth supporting.
GM: You're blazing a trail.
MJ: Trying, my man, trying!