Q&A: Maz Jobrani
Maz Jobrani parlayed his stint with the mid- to late-2000s Axis of Evil Comedy Tour into Showtime and Netflix specials, film roles and sitcoms. The Iranian-born comic, who appears at the Tropicana’s Laugh Factory June 30 and July 1, shifted his emphasis from political humor to being-a-dad comedy during his career, but, as he tells Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, the new administration’s antics is bringing him back to his roots.
It looks like you have a busy stand-up schedule for the rest of the year.
Yeah, man. Back on tour. I slowed it down a little bit because of the TV show, Superior Donuts, and then once taping finished I got on the road. Then once the show didn’t get picked up (for a third season) I stayed on the road, although I come home. I come home in between. But, you know, we’re stand-ups. We’ve gotta be back and doing what we do.
Do you start to get pent-up energy when you’re away from stand-up because you’re involved in a production?
The good thing is I live in LA, so there’s the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory on Sunset. So what I tend to do if I am on a show is I will try and go to the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory over the weekend. During the week I get up less because I have to be up early for TV. On the weekends I can still bang out two shows a night Friday, two shows a night Saturday. Get more in for the week at the clubs, and just keep working stuff out. So for the most part even when I was on the TV shows it’s not like I stopped doing stand-up. I continued to do it. I just wasn’t on the road as much, which is actually … having young kids, it was nice. Now that I’m back on the road I just need to navigate it so I can be away for as little as possible.
Do you have anything in film or television lined up between breaks?
Not specifically. I’m pitching five different projects. In the meantime I’m being considered for an independent film that I have to meet with the director about, so there’s nothing really penciled in yet. Being a comedian you’ve gotta be an entrepreneur in a way. You’ve gotta keep working, so you need to keep many irons in the fire whether it’s just you’re touring or it’s TV or film or animation or whatever.
How has being a comedian changed for you in the Trump era? You must have tweeted 12 times on June 8, and more than half of them were related to him.
It’s funny, I do a bit onstage where people ask me if Trump is good for comedy, and I tell them he’s not. The reason I say he’s not is because as comedians we need time to write our material. He doesn’t give us time. He just keeps saying so much crazy stuff every day. I don’t know where he gets the energy to tweet so much and I don’t know if it’s a staff or what. Whatever it is, it sounds like it’s really in his voice, and it’s pretty exhausting. I try to lay off most of the time, and then every once in a while I’ll be reading an article that’ll say he said this, that and the other. So then I’ll look at that tweet and I feel I’ve gotta respond. Not that I’ve got to. It’s not like I’m doing it because anyone’s asking. My opinions are so different that I want to express myself. I try whenever I can to make it funny and not just screaming back. I don’t recall there being as many flammable tweets coming out of Obama. I think Trump has really mastered the art of tweeting things that are inflammatory. Whether you’re for him or against him, I think that he’s … he’s not as diplomatic, I would say. I agreed more with the policies under Obama than under Trump. I understand people have different points of view, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, and I appreciate that. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but I think it’s also the way in which he does it that drives you nuts sometimes. Whenever I’m inspired or I need to say something that’s either funny or I need to get it off my chest, I try and put it out there.
I imagine you could get twinges of anxiety when you see him tweeting something that reinforces stereotypes.
Oh, I’m 100 percent convinced that social media has increased the anxiety of the world in general. Used to be there was a time when you and I might have different opinions, but I wouldn’t have to encounter it unless I ended up at a coffee shop, having a random conversation with you, and now we’re screaming at each other. Listen, I’m guilty of it. If someone tweets something at me that is almost an attack of sorts, I’m tempted to respond. I could be out there playing with my kids. I could be out on a run. I could be relaxing somewhere and I read it and then I’m going, “I’m going to get this guy.” What I’ve learned to do is step away from it for 24 hours and let it go because what happens is 24 hours later you want to forget about it, or you realize it’s just some guy with five Twitter followers who’s on there to troll me. Definitely causes anxiety. Then when you go to Trump who’s got like 15 million followers and is the president of the United States, that makes it even more intense.
You came to prominence as a comedian in the truthiness era, the post-9/11 years, strongly identifying as an American of Iranian heritage as part of the Axis of Evil Tour. Then you focused more on your family experience and being a dad during much of the time Obama was in office. Have things come full circle for you? Are you going in more of a political direction?
It’s interesting that you say that, and you’re right on it in your observation. During the Bush era and post Sept. 11, there was a lot of political material to talk about, and so that was just naturally what I was interested in talking about. And then I had my son in 2008. That was when Bush was heading out, and any parent will tell you you’re so immersed in their lives that they are what you want to talk about. So it became that, and also under Obama, I would say … I’m left leaning, so there weren’t a lot of political things that were coming to my mind at that point. And then, you’re right, now we’re here again and there’s so much stuff to talk about when it comes to politics under Trump, whether we’re talking about the travel ban or taking kids from their families as part of the immigration thing, or blowing up the Iran nuclear deal, or whatever. It’s relentless. I’m not a comedian that goes and says what the topic is I’m going to talk about. I talk about whatever interests me, so currently if people come to my show they’ll see there’s still a lot of material about my kids and being a dad, and jut getting older. There’s also a lot of material about being an immigrant under Trump. If anyone has seen my Netflix special Immigrant they’ll see a lot of the themes I’m talking about now are similar themes. The material changes because I’m always writing, but the themes are the same stuff.
Do you still get offers to play terrorists?
No, my agents and managers got the message that I didn’t want to do any more terrorist parts. They’ve been pretty good about keeping that away from me. One in a while a movie or a project will come along where it’s got that’s got strong pedigree … I was on a CBS show where I played an Iraqi immigrant. I don’t mind playing parts with accents, but I really don’t want to play any terrorist parts.
Did you discover a knack for acting first, or comedy?
I started doing plays when I was 12 years old in junior high school. We just had the school musicals, so I started doing it then and I fell in love with being onstage from a young age. Then I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy when I was a kid so I wanted to be like him. And then my high school had a really good acting program in Northern California, Marin County. I actually went to Redwood High School, which is where Robin Williams went at the end of his high school years. By the time I was there we had a really great theater company called The Ensemble Theater Company. They would teach us a lot of methods and techniques and stuff. I would say that I was always more comedic than I was a serious actor, but I was still just doing plays. I was actually a little chicken to try and do stand-up because I was afraid if people didn’t laugh they were basically judging me, but then it wasn’t until my 20s that I took a dive into stand-up comedy and that got me back into acting. As someone who comes from an Iranian background my parents had wanted me to be a lawyer, and then I was going to be a professor for a bit. So I kind of got sidetracked for a while, and the finally in my mid-20s got back into it.
Why did your family move to the States during the Iranian Revolution?
We moved in late ’78 just as protests were picking up. I would say nobody really knew the revolution was going to happen, and my father was away on business in New York. He sent for my mother to bring my sister and I to just spend some time with him during our winter break from school. While we were here the protests got more and more, then the revolution happened. I always say, “We packed for two weeks and we stayed for 40 years."
And you were 6.
I was 6 years old, yeah. The reason we left was that my father was a successful businessman, and at the time there was a big fervor of people who were successful under the Shah being persecuted. My father did not have a direct connection with the Shah, but he had friends who were powerful and he had friends who were in the military and what have you. He was pretty well known, so it would have been a risk for him to stay there at that time. We came back to America, then 10 years later, 12 years later, he went back to do some business back in Iran and nobody bothered him in terms of any kind of political connections. What they did bother him about was he had been gone for 12 years, so all the property that he owned he had not been paying taxes on, so they told him, “Until you pay those taxes you can’t do any business. You can’t leave the country.” So he ended up being stuck in Iran for the next 20 years of his life.
That must have been pretty traumatic for you.
I was lucky because I was already in college so I was older, but it was really traumatic on my brothers, who basically thought of our father as God at that point. That’s a common story that happened. My dad came to America with a lot of money and he lost it in bad real estate investments. A lot of people that I know had that experience, and then in the early ’90s Iran opened the door and said, “Listen, if you weren’t directly related to the Shah or something, we won’t bother you. Just come back and do business.” A lot of people did go back and got caught up in that same thing, and my dad was one of those people.
Did you experience discrimination or prejudice?
Yeah. The problem is Iranians that came to America and as soon as we came the government that we fled took Americans hostage. So suddenly we became Public Enemy No. 1. As an immigrant group we came in and we started getting blamed for what we were running away from.
Did you develop a sense of humor as a defense, at least partially?
That might be part of it. I think in looking back I had developed three things. I remember in 4th grade around the time of the hostage crisis, I was good at kickball and soccer. I was a pretty good athlete so that helped me make friends. I also had a pretty good sense of humor and I was also learning through humor, so I would watch all the cartoons but then I would also start watching Saturday Night Live and Evening at the Improv and all that stuff. I was turned onto comedy at a young age and all my friends were the funny guys at school. I do believe that definitely helped defuse some of the aggression focused on you. And then the other thing I learned was I used to come to school with a ton of candy, and I remember handing them out to people who had become my friends. So I learned how to bribe my way into friendships as well.