Maz Jobrani is the rare comedian and actor who has managed to successfully straddle audiences in the Middle East and North America. And in this period of revolution in the Arab world, the Iranian-American admits to watching and consuming everything coming out of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran with the avidity of an addict and the concern of a citizen.
"I tend to check my BlackBerry, when I have downtime, or have the news on in the background," Jobrani says. "It seems to build and build and build. It’s like being addicted to a soap (opera). It’s hard to tear yourself away from it."
The world has given the Middle Eastern-born, American-bred comedian plenty to work with in the past few months, from the historic upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa, to the hearings in Washington D.C. by Republican Congressman Peter King into the so-called radicalization of American Muslims.
Jobrani, a stand-up comic with a roll call of film and television appearances from 24, to ER, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Interpreter, as well as stand-up performances across both America and the Middle East, likens what is happening in the Arab world to the social and political tumult America faced in the 1960’s. The willingness to laugh publicly and make space for political sarcasm, he says, is part of that change.
"It’s amazing really," he says. "This has all been boiling up in the Middle East and to see it finally come to a head has been awe-inspiring. That said, I’m curious to see how these places will look in six months to a year from now. I hope that they go towards democracy and don’t just replace one harsh leader with another one."
Laughter, Not Gunfire
Jobrani notes the sound of celebration with the fall of these regimes has been punctuated with gunfire. He would rather it was laughter.
"Humor is always important," he says. "There are people who help us deal with difficulty or hardship; from the concentration camps to the court jester, there was a need for humor. As long as these kinds of things exist, with repressive regimes, you need it to deal with the weight of daily life."
Political comedy — especially humor that includes Jobrani’s mission statement of "exposing hypocrisy" — can be an explosive device in the wrong hands, or ears, particularly in a culture where free speech remains an emerging concept.
So the very fact that Jobrani can perform in the Middle East speaks for itself, he says, adding so too is the presence of an audience at a performance designed to make them laugh, but also think.
"I think most people who come to a comedy show get that," he says. "Sometimes, you get people who are too serious and they’re insulted by what you say. This has happened to me both in the U.S. and overseas. I think usually it’s when someone doesn’t hear the full joke and just takes a statement you make out of context that they get offended."
His own comedy performances follow two objectives. The first is to be funny, "because if you’re not funny, you’re dead." The second is more complex: Fulfilling the role of social commentator and go-between for two completely different, yet co-dependent cultures.
"Most comics point out what everyone else is thinking, but hadn’t thought of verbalizing," Jobrani says. "I guess in a way that makes most comics seers. It just depends in what category — some choose to be the seers of relationships, some are seers of racial issues, and some are seers of political issues."
Iran, where his father returned to live for a time, before his death in California in 2009, remains closest to Jobrani’s heart and interest. "I’ve basically grown up in America," he says. "Even if Iran were to change I wouldn’t see myself moving there. That feeling exists for my mother and people of her generation. They say, ‘Hopefully, one day’.
"For people like me who’ve been here our whole lives, what does exist is a feeling of hope, my heart goes out to the people of Iran and especially the youth. The way it feels is as though the government doesn’t provide a lot of opportunity for young people. Every young person I ran into wanted to come to America. When I see these things, it’s not so much nostalgia, but hope.
"I would love to visit and take my wife and kids just to visit. Some of the material I do, I don’t think they would welcome me too well."
Jobrani and his Axis of Evil troupe toured the Middle East in 2007, selling out 27 shows in Egypt, Jordan, Dubai and Beirut. Jordan’s King Abdullah II was in the audience for a show in Amman.
Sheer volume of numbers provided the comics with a readymade audience. Roughly 60% of the Middle East’s population under 30, and most are savvy of the West and cultural punch lines like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. "People know a lot more than you think they know," Jobrani says.
In that respect, the region is experiencing the same growing pains and demographic bubble that was part of American post-war life, and which led to the social, political and artistic revolution of the Sixties, he says. But the comparisons end there.
"The difference is there was a lot of turmoil in America, but it wasn’t as dictatorial as Iran is," he says. "How much maneuverability do Iranians have? I would love for it to lead to a more open and democratic Iran. [The Sixties] were the growing pains America had to go through. You saw people using water hoses to hold back the African-American movement, but in [Iran’s] case you had militias in the street killing left and right."
Adapting To Audiences
For his part, Jobrani, 39, identifies himself as a son of Northern California, liberal and open-minded, and much more inclined to see the world in shades of grey, rather than black and white.
He studied Italian and Political Science as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and was in the first year of doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he felt the pull of the stage. Still, he worked in advertising, before turning full-time to standup in 1998.
Jobrani was at the beginning of his comedy career when the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington occurred. America convulsed. Muslims who had lived, loved and prospered in the country found themselves doubted and reviled, while some saw their parent nations nominated by then-President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address for membership in a so-called "Axis of Evil" — Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Previously, Jobrani and friends had been part of the "Arabian Knights," a group organized by Mitzi Shore, the owner of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, as an alternate and positive voice of commentary on events in the Middle East, particularly regarding Israel and Palestine.
Within three years of 9/11, the Axis of Evil comedy troupe had been established, featuring Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, whose Egyptian parents emigrated with him to the United States a month after he was born, and Aron Keder, born of a Palestinian father and a Mormon-American mother.
They learned to adapt to their audiences, Jobrani says, rather than just unleashing a cascade of one-liners upon them. For a more conservative audience, he explained in a radio interview several years ago, "If the audience doesn’t know you, you really have to massage them into it." And for the audience members offended by his criticism of Bush, he would remind them, "The reason I criticize the government here because I can. I can’t criticize the president of Iran."
Jobrani tours the U.S. constantly. His best nights, he says, are those with a mixed audience — mostly Middle Eastern, but also South Asian "and some whites" — "because you get to educate some people on Middle Eastern culture".
He notes how he describes himself — particularly how he orders the hyphenation of his identity — depends on where he is performing. In the Middle East, Jobrani was American-Iranian. "They embrace us as ‘theirs,’ almost," he says. "Over here, you’re the outsider (Iranian-American), talking about the inside. Over there, ‘I’ve been to the West, and I have stories to tell’."
That extends to how those audiences think of him, as well. "If I were to go to Iran I’m sure they’d say I’m very American. And here some people see me as defined by my Iranian-ness. But I’ve got influences of both. I grew up in America so I’m definitely culturally American. I’m also proud of my Iranian heritage so I talk about that a lot on stage."
A few years ago, Jobrani and his fellow members of the Axis of Evil troupe appeared on a program on Comedy Central, an American cable TV channel. Jobrani went to the chatroom of conservative TV host Sean Hannity for some feedback. "I’ve never seen these people laugh," wrote one commentator.
"Think about it," Jobrani said in a subsequent interview with Q TV. "You’ve never seen us laugh — an evil laugh, maybe. A lot of people don’t know that we have a sense of humor. We [Iranians] do have a great sense of humor. Middle Easterners have a good sense of humor."
As both a crossover comic and dismantler of preconceptions, Jobrani relies on this self-evident truth, that everyone owns a funnybone; it just gets tickled in different ways.
It stands to reason, for one thing, that if an American or Middle Eastern audience has turned up to see him perform, that they’re interested in what he has to say. And then, he says, he walks the line between two cultures, and two sets of expectations.
"You make fun of anything that in my mind deserves to be made fun of," Jobrani says. "First, you have to laugh at yourself. I do a lot of humor about all ethnicities that are at the show — Latinos, Asians, Indians… What I say is, ‘We’re laughing together. I’m laughing with you, not at you.’ Never say, ‘Oh, I’m better than you.’"