Politically-minded comedians working in the Trump era have found the job fraught with more scrutiny than at any other time in memory. Iranian-born comic Maz Jobrani has found a way to toe the line brilliantly, never resorting to anger or insults and fighting for his point of view with joy. It’s an approach that’s bringing together both sides—at least at his shows.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
Robert Irvine Magazine: Anti-immigrant sentiment in the US is high right now. You were born in Iran and day in and day out, you get to hear how your homeland, not just its government but its people, are our enemies. Obviously, the travel ban affected Iran, and you have chosen to address this with humor. There’s power in that, but as the situation worsens, do you ever think, “Hey, this power of laughter stuff isn’t so powerful.”?
Maz Jobrani: Well, I didn’t get into comedy to necessarily solve the world’s problems. I think with comedians, our number one goal is just to be funny and get laughs, and we get into it because we love it. So I think that’s why anybody gets into anything that they do, hopefully. If you’re lucky enough to find something you love, then you do it.
When I first started doing this about 21 years ago, there weren’t that many people from a Middle Eastern background doing stand-up comedy. And so just by doing what we’re doing, I think we show a different side of how we’ve been depicted. Looking at African-Americans or Latinos or Asians, they weren’t well-represented in comedy for a while and for the longest time they were the villains of every movie. And then eventually, when you see a comedian from that background, whether it’s Cheech and Chong or Margaret Cho or Richard Pryor or whoever, you go, “Oh, they actually are funny too. They like to laugh.”
The first tour I did was called the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, and it was me and a few other Middle Eastern-American comedians, and it came out on Comedy Central, but I always say it’s not just about us performing onstage, it’s also about the audience. In the special, when they do a cut-away to the audience, you see people from all these different backgrounds laughing. I think it helps change people’s minds about us in general. And as a matter of fact, I remember being in some chat room online, and when that special did come out, somebody had written someone else saying, “I never knew these people laughed,” and that’s the truth. If you look at the depiction of Middle Easterners or Arabs or Muslims throughout American cinematic history, for the longest time, they were always the villains and always terrorists. And so, to show us on TV laughing, I think, was something new.
I think what we do chisels away at something. It’s not the only solution. And unfortunately, I think we live in a world right now that’s just super polarized, and there’s a lot of fear mongering, and there’s a lot of blaming immigrants for all of our problems when, if you look at the statistics, we see that that’s not the case. I was telling somebody the other day that the biggest threat to Americans are Americans.
We just keep doing our thing. We do our part. The truth is, when you come to my live shows, you see a pretty diverse audience and we’re all laughing together.
The only time there might be some divisions nowadays is when I do any of my Trump jokes. Some Trump supporters really take it personally, which to me is pretty mind boggling because the whole point of living in America is that we can make fun of our leaders, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. And our late-night comedy show hosts are making fun of our leaders all the time. So it always throws me a little bit what somebody gets offended at any Trump jokes, but that’s the only time I find any kind of slight division within my audiences. So again, the good news is I think that we’re laughing together, and I don’t know what the statistics are in terms of the increasing divisions or the increasing hatred towards immigrants or not, but I’m just trying to do my part over here.
RI: Your tone is almost joyful. You might make a Trump joke, and with any heavy material, you’re able to keep things on this tonal level that’s civil for lack of a better word. Maybe you’re angry or frustrated, but those things are not coming through. Other comedians dealing with the same material, it’s easy to confuse them as activists first and comedians second. Was it a conscious decision to present this way?
MJ: Every comedian can live and die by the way they choose to present themselves. Some comics, their personalities are just a little more aggressive and they go with it. And I’ve always been somebody who, even in high school, my friends were all different; I was friends with the athletes, I was friends with the drama club kids, I was friends with the stoners, I’ve always been friends with everybody. I also will say that I, as a kid, when I first came to America and the hostage crisis happened, back then they would call us effing Iranians and they would bully you, and so from a young age, I’ve always been someone who has always tried to stand up for the underdog and always tried to see the hypocrisy in anything coming from people in power.
So, I do get pretty passionate about the stuff that I see. I can very specifically point to the travel ban that happened and the way that it was implemented and the way that it affected people from all the countries that were on that travel ban. I was getting emails from people saying, “Hey, my parents flew in from the Middle East. They landed, they had their Visa and they were coaxed into signing away their rights and put back on a plane and sent back to the Middle East.” I had people telling me that they had dying relatives that they had planned to come to see and they had the Visas and they were revoked. So it was this big mess. I saw firsthand what was happening. Something like that really gets me passionate. It gets me upset. And so maybe I’ll take to social media and get angry a little bit. I always ultimately try to be funny, but at times you’re passionate and you just express yourself that way.
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All of that led to me trying to go a little deeper onstage. I wouldn’t call it anger, but I was just trying to analyze a little bit as to why I’m so upset by Trump and his policies, and I was digging deeper about Trump and trying to discover my problem with him. I will say that that led to a couple of times getting into arguments with some of the audience members who were hardcore Trump supporters. And that’s when I stepped back and realized, “Okay, you know what? I can’t lose myself to this.” And that’s one of the reasons I called the tour The Peaceful Warrior tour.
Recently at Flappers in Burbank there was this drunk lady who started yelling at me when I did my Trump jokes. And I just handled it with a smile. I said, “Hey, it’s okay. You know, you have your opinion, and I have mine so you don’t have to stay here. It’s okay.” (You can see the full clip HERE.)
One of my pet peeves is when people would say, “You’re a comedian, you shouldn’t be talking about politics.” And I go, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” You know, you’re an accountant, so you shouldn’t talk about politics either, only politicians should talk about politics? No, I have an opinion. I’m expressing my opinion and my job is to hopefully do it with laughs.
RI: Is there anything funny to you about the fact that we’re so sharply divided and no one listens to each other? Forget policy: He’s a monster to one side and the second coming to the other, and there’s no in between. The absurdity of the time we live in: is that in itself funny to you?
Maz: I mean, it’s absurd. It’s unfortunate because I was talking to a friend of mine about this, about how there was a time where at least we could agree on the facts, and we could go from there. Now we live in a very strange time because, I keep referring to this one, which was with the whole Pizzagate thing where it came out that Hillary Clinton and Jonathan Podesta were running a child sex ring in a pizza restaurant in Washington DC.
Now, just hearing that it’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard in my entire life. It’s so outlandish and yet there was a group of the population that believed it. So when you hear that, you’re just kind of shaking your head going, “Oh my God, how am I going to get through to anybody if this is where we’re at?”
I always just feel the best way to have hope in any of this stuff is to just continue to express myself the best way I can in the hopes that I encounter people that might have opposing opinions and even if they necessarily don’t have to see it my way, they’re at least open minded to what I’m saying.
Recently I was in West Palm Beach doing stand up, and my wife said, “I have an old high school friend who wants to come.” And she came with her husband and they were hardcore Trump supporters and they saw my show and after they were hugging me and high fiving me and saying, “We had a great time!” And I was a little bit like taken aback like, “Wait a minute, did they hear the show? Did they hear the jokes I did about Trump?” So I think that they might have just connected with me, my energy and just my, like you said, smiling on stage. And that’s a little bit of hope, that’s a little bit of like, “Oh, we can be different in opinions and yet get along.”
RI: You’re on Twitter. I feel like the platform used to be a whole lot more fun. Now I’m wincing as I open the app because I’m wondering, what’s the torch and pitchfork moment going to be today? Who are we trying to get rid of? Cancel culture is the term that’s being used for that. Have you ever self-censored because you didn’t want to deal with the grief that might come with a joke?
Maz: Oh, absolutely. We live in a very hypersensitive time. And look, there’s been times when I’ve been texting a friend of mine back and forth and decided to stop texting and call them because of the misinterpretation that happens with the written word, right? So there have been many times I’ve sat there and been like, “Nah, I’m not going to put that out there.” Because part of it is like, “Why am I even putting it out there?”
I did my podcast yesterday and I had this guy who was an expert on the internet and the usage of our data that these companies get from us. And one of the things we were talking about was the feeling you get when you post something or you check your phone and the endorphins that you get in your brain and how it feels good. And so you have to ask, “Is it worth that? Is it worth my putting this joke out there just to kind of get a little kick of positivity for myself, knowing that it’s definitely going to be causing some kind of havoc online?”
RI: That’s certainly wise on Twitter, but has it ever affected your routine?
Maz: Well with my routine, part of it is knowing yourself and knowing your audience. So my audiences tend to not be raunchy and they’re not super conservative. So there’ve been times when I’ve come up with a joke and I’ve said, “Eh, this ain’t quite going to work, this is a little too either edgy or is a little too esoteric for my audience.” You know what I’m saying?
So I kind of know what my audience is and I know where I can go with it. So that’s when I will say, “Eh, not going to do it.” Or if I have a friend of mine who it might fit better, I might go, “Hey, here’s a joke I came up with. I don’t think I can do it, but you can do it.” But it hasn’t necessarily been a PC type thing.
You hear a lot of comedians nowadays complaining going, “Yeah people are so sensitive and you can’t say this, can’t say that.” I’m like, “You should maybe check what you’re saying and see if some of the stuff that you’re saying might be offensive. And if it is, then maybe you need to evolve with the times and change your language.”
That said, yes there are still people that are going to get upset with you about things that might not be offensive, but they’re going to take a word you said totally out of context and just say, “Oh, you said that word. How dare you say the word handicap?” When they don’t listen to the whole joke where the guy says, “Well, you know, my, whatever, growing up my brother was handicapped and we had to do X, Y and Z.”
There’s middle ground there, so yeah, I self-censor but not that much. I probably self-censored stuff in the past 21 years, like three or four jokes.
RI: You tell your audiences right up front, “I was born in Iran and this was my upbringing. And so this is how I see things.” And for the purposes of the show you do, I see the utility of that. Your audience is now aware of the angle from which you’ll be approaching this material. But identity politics can go hand in hand with some of the stuff we were just talking about. Do you see a point at which some of that can get out of hand?
Because I’m on Twitter and I see some profiles and everyone feels a need to put their sexual orientation, gender identity, and pronouns out there. Fair enough, but I wonder at what point we’ve moved past celebrating one another’s differences and we start to emphasize them. Because identity is now used as a cudgel where, “Well, you can’t speak on this because you’re white. You can’t speak on this because you’re male. You can’t talk about this because you’re cisgendered.” And you sit back and say, “But wait, I thought I was a citizen and I still have an opinion.”
Maz: I agree with you. I mean, growing up I had friends with different backgrounds; I had straight friends, gay friends, you know, all that stuff. And you talk to them in a way that you talk to anybody and you give your opinion. And I agree.
Again, I always feel like it’s up to that individual to do a little bit of self-assessment about intentions. I’ve heard actual comedians say this, “why is it that black communities can make fun of white people and white people can’t make fun of black people?” And I go, “First of all, there are white comedians that make jokes about black people, but in a way that it comes from a place of love.” If you watch Bill Burr, Bill Burr’s wife is black, so he’s talking about his relationship with her and some of the stuff that they run into.
Watch Maz’s Netflix special, Immigrant, HERE.
But when you have a guy complaining about, “Why can’t I make fun of black people?” I can hear the subtext of his voice and this dude has some probably racist idea that he wants to put out in the world. And he’s upset about it. And I’m like, “Dude, you look in the mirror and check yourself. Or, as a comedian, go for it, go on stage, try it, see how it comes out.
You have to ask, “What’s the intention behind the joke?” So I feel that if I’m of Middle Eastern descent, I should be able to talk about any ethnicity or race or sexuality or whatever that I want to, as long as I’m coming from a place that’s well-intentioned. I mean some comedians might come at it from more of a derogatory place. But I’m all about making inclusive places.
So it’s like if you’re at my show, I talk about the LGBTQ community in my special and how from my background it’s a little bit taboo. But what’s my point of view? Let people be who they want to be. My point of view is supporting that community. But I know what you’re saying. Especially because I think the younger generations are more and more sensitive to anything that is on the border. It used to be there was a time when you would do the accent of somebody that you were talking about and people would be there with you. Now when you do it, I think a younger generation is sometimes like, “Why is he doing that accent?” And it’s like, “Well that’s because that’s how my mother talks or that’s how my friend talks.” I’m just tying to do the best I can to sound like that person.
There is a heightened hypersensitivity at times. It’s a little bit of a tightrope walk nowadays. It’s not as loose.