04 December 2003

Iranian American Comic Delivers Truths Wrapped in Humor

Maz Jobrani draws laughs from stereotypes of Middle Easterners

Maz Jobrani

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Los Angeles -- Important truths are often best delivered wrapped in humor. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States, where night club comics often make their audiences laugh by confronting them with difficult truths about society, politics and human relationships.

With the increasingly multi-cultural society that has proven one of the United States' greatest strengths, it should come as no surprise that one of its most noted young comics is originally from Iran, and often forces his American audiences to look at their preconceived ideas about Middle Eastern cultures, dissolving those stereotypes even while he points them out.

Maziyar Jobrani, born in Tehran, raised from childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area and now living in Los Angeles, has become a prominent figure in the comedy scene in Southern California, the nation's entertainment capital, where he often headlines the program at such hot spots as The Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory on Hollywood's fabled Sunset Strip.

Jobrani said in a recent interview that much of the perspective that shapes his humor comes from living in two cultures at once: "Comedy comes from what you know. Being an Iranian in America you get both cultures. Outside of school you hang out with your American friends, do the sorts of things they do. Then you go home to your Iranian family and live as they do. You're both inside the culture and outside of it at the same time."

A couple of jokes from his nightclub act illustrates the point. "People think I'm an expert on the region, just because I was born in Iran. My American friends are always asking me, ˜Maz, what's up with gas prices?' I tell them that I don't know. I pay the same prices as them. It's not as though I have a special pump at the gas station. I don't walk in and say, ˜Hey, Hassan, discount pump for me. Thank you, my fellow countryman.'"

"Iranians in Los Angeles are so rich that we've bought up (the wealthy suburb of) Westwood. We tell the Americans, ˜You take our oil, we take your land.'"

The road to a show business career has not been straight or easy. He jokes that, though the stage was an early passion, "most Iranian parents nearly have a heart attack if you tell them that you want to be an actor." Instead he studied political science at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, he entered a doctoral program in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. Once in Los Angeles, however, he did some acting in his spare time and realized that this was where his heart was. Inspired in part by the comedian and actor Eddie Murphy, he decided to drop the Ph.D. program and go into show business. He hasn't looked back.

Though comedy remains the center of his increasingly diverse show business career and the venue for widening the cultural horizons of his American audiences, Maz Jobrani has branched out into acting, becoming a frequent guest star on a number of television dramas, such as "NYPD Blue," "ER," and has appeared in several movies.

As one of the country's most prominent comedians of Middle Eastern descent, he has also appeared in the national news media, including stories in "Newsweek," "The Wall Street Journal," the "CBS Morning Show," and on CNN. Especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he has become a noted voice in reminding Americans of the positive contributions made by the vast majority of Muslim Americans. He does this, in part, by poking fun at stereotypes that are often based on fear, such as in the following joke.

"A lot of my Iranian friends go around now pretending to be Italian. You will be at a party and one will want to introduce some girl to all his friends. He'll say, ˜These are my friends - Hassan, Hussein, Ali, Reza, Mohammad ... and I'm Tony. Yes, they are Iranian -- I am Italian.'"

The material can challenge American audiences by getting laughs out of controversial situations. Commenting on the effectiveness of a law passed in the wake of 9/11 that requires many permanent foreign residents to register with the Department of Homeland Security, Jobrani imagines a would-be terrorist saying to himself, "Let's see, I've got the bomb, the map. Is there anything I've forgotten?" he slaps himself in the forehead, "I forgot to go down and register!"

The culturally-based material Jobrani writes finds its reflection in the multicultural audiences in the United States. "The good thing here," he says, "is that it's all a mix of cultures. People come here (from overseas) to work and to live and become part of the culture. In fact, all of these ˜other' cultures are the culture."

Iranian culture has added much to the United States, Jobrani insists. "Poetry is so important to us -- all of the arts. The way we bend over backwards to be hospitable to other people, to be respectful. In the rest of American culture, things are very individualistic," he says.

His background in political science has helped him shape his comedy, Jobrani says. "It gave me an education in politics and in history. Lots of comedians never went to university. They can only talk about their own experiences. Middle Eastern men are interested in politics and like to debate. With an education, you can take that broader view onstage."

He enjoys nightclub comedy for the chance to talk about serious topics, but also simply for the thrill of a successful show. "It's all yours," he says, unlike most stage or movie work, which is collaborative. "If something goes wrong, you're on your own." Jobrani compares the comic's job to that of a high wire artists working without a net but says that this is part of its reward.

Not all of the work is exciting. "Other people who don't work in the business, think that it's a lot more glamorous than it really is," Jobrani says. "If you go see a movie, what you're seeing are the highlights" of the actor's labors. "It might take thirty, sixty days of hard work to film what will go into two hours. It's long, hard work. It can be stressful. But it's fun. I wouldn't do anything else."

Like anyone who commits himself wholeheartedly to his work, he finds it meaningful. "What I do is try and get across the point that Middle Easterners are not always like we're shown on the news, which tends to be negative, because of the nature of news. We're doctors, teachers, artists, family members. That's what I'm trying to get at onstage."

"People accept that message," Jobrani says, his voice serious, emphatic. "They'll say ˜I relate to that.' They'll say that they have an Iranian friend or someone else from another ethnic group, and ˜I relate to that.' It's cool when someone says that. You know then that it's not just a job."

Jobrani has just finished a successful run of a stage play in Los Angeles, is booked for a major Iranian-American cultural event in Washington, DC, looks forward to the release of a new movie, and continues to work steadily at the best of the comic nightclubs. It is a hectic, demanding schedule but as he works to establish understanding and break down stereotypes he takes great satisfaction from that fact, that, as he says, "it's not just a job."

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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