The best stand-up comedy always has a point of view, whether it be political, social, or cultural. Comedian Maz Jobrani touches on all of these points on recent stand-up special Brown And Friendly which was recorded live in Hollywood. Maz made his mark with his Brown And Friendly and Axis of Evil comedy tours, TV stints, and in movie roles. He recently got on the phone to talk with us about how he handles the road, cultural stereotypes, a movie he’s trying to get made, and what comedian is in essence Jedi Master Yoda.
The Laugh Button: You play a lot of the serious roles compared to other stand-up comedians, do you do that consciously or is it luck of the draw?
Maz Jobrani: It is all luck of the draw really. I think starting out in acting I was with an agency who had a lot of character actors doing dramatic roles so they would always put me down that path. It actually took me a while before I got my first role in a sitcom of any kind.
TLB: When you began did you want to do stand-up from the start or did you want to do more stage comedy?
MJ: I always wanted to act since I was a kid, I’ve been on stage and stuff doing plays. I wanted to do it professionally a few times, but coming from an immigrant background my family wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor so I went down those paths. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties when I finally decided to go get serious again. I ended up taking improv classes at Acme Comedy Theater” in LA and there I met a lady, Judy Carter, she taught stand-up comedy classes. I always wanted to do stand-up and I actually tried my hand at it before, but I didn’t know quite how to write or what to write about. So I took that class and it really helped me kind of get started in terms of writing and what I should write about. So that is how it came together, from taking a sketch comedy class that led me to a stand-up class.
TLB: Did you have any favorite comedians as a kid or any that influenced your comedy?
MJ: Well I was definitely a big fan of Eddie Murphy as a kid, just because he was the hottest, biggest guy out there, and he was funny as hell. Then once I got serious about it I gravitated more towards Richard Pryor more because some of the social and political things he would talk about. Now I feel like I always wanted to get to Bill Cosby and his storytelling. Because as a comedian you tell a joke and it’s done in like fifteen twenty seconds, where a story can stretch it over ten minutes so that has been something I always wanted to try. I thought, “Wow it would be great to get to that.”
It’s almost like being a Jedi. I think they talk about that in the movie Comedian. I think it was Chris Rock or something who was saying that Bill Cosby is like Yoda and that is a perfect analogy. It’s almost like you have to keep going and grow to that.
TLB: In your comedy do you consider yourself an Iranian comedian who talks about the American experience or an American comedian who talks about the Iranian experience?
MJ: I would definitely go more with the latter because I grew up in America and the comedy that I know is an American artform so I would definitely place myself as an American comic who discusses the Iranian experience of being an Iranian American. So just like a black comedian in America will talk about their experience growing up black, or Latino, or any ethnicity you can put in there. Or even sexuality, like a gay comedian who talks about the gay experience.
TLB: Are you fan of any Iranian comedians, or any Middle Eastern comedians who aren’t based in the country?
MJ: You know it’s funny because growing up there was a Persian comedic actor, he wasn’t a stand-up. He was a Persian comedic actor named Parviz Sayed and he had a character named Samad. His movies were famous in Iran he was this kind of this Pink Panther-y except he wasn’t a detective. He was like a poor farmer and would do funny things and say funny things so I watched some of that growing up. But since I moved to America when I was six, I didn’t get as much exposure as a kid as they do now. Like I have a two-and-half year old and whenever we travel we have a DVD player for him so he sees stuff all the time. When I was a kid, there was just a couple hours of cartoons in the afternoon, so I wasn’t exposed to it as much as kids are these days. So I think the age where I really started paying attention to comedy was when I was older and that was the point when I was already in America. But most of my influences were American, so it would be like Laurel and Hardy, even though they were British weren’t they?
TLB: Yeah I think they were actually.
MJ: Well them, and like The Three Stooges, some Marx Brothers, things like that.
TLB: Do you find the nature of humor is different overseas? Are certain things funnier in front of Middle Eastern audiences than they are in front of Western audiences or do you tweak your act to fit the crowd?
MJ: Yeah I mean you do that anyway, like you would do if you are going to play from one club to the next. Say you are going to perform from Los Angeles to Dallas, you look at it and you think “hmm okay the political make-up of this audience is going to be a little more conservative in Dallas.” So you do that anyway, but when you go to the Middle East one of the things they always tell us is, “no sex, no religion, and no politics.” Jokingly we would always say, “then what is there left to talk about?” But the fact is you can get around a lot of that stuff and talk about certain things. It’s probably a little more conservative in the Middle East because people bring their families. You have kids and stuff in the audience. A lot of it is governmental stuff. That’s the beauty of America, we can talk about the President on a TV show. You can’t do that in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
TLB: That can be difficult…
MJ: But actually when I did my first Premium Blend I used to have a joke where I would just mention certain products and they came back and they said, “you can’t mention Mercedes Benz or 7-11. You can mention Bentley and you can mention like Quik-E-Mart.” I would ask them why they said because these guys might be sponsors. And I wasn’t even joking about those things, I was just mentioning them so they are very sensitive to it and I was like “OK.” I learned that Bill Mahr, he was canceled from Politically Incorrect after Tide started pulling their commercials. So it’s like in the Middle East God is God and in the West Tide is God.
TLB: What is it like going into the more conservative clubs around the country, especially in more remote places in the South and the Midwest?
MJ: I don’t usually go that deep. I have done Atlanta or Dallas. The one thing that happens a lot for me is I was fortunate enough after the Axis of Evil comedy tour my fanbase started to grow. I never had to go leave for a week to do three dates in the deep South and live out of a car. With the Axis of Evil tour it immediately launched me to the point where I can do shows and my fanbases would show up. So because of that, when I go to Atlanta, or Madison, or wherever I go, the audience that shows up are already my fans and they know my material. So there isn’t a guy with a cowboy hat and a gun trying to shoot me, I’ve been lucky that way. I mean, once in a while you will get an audience member who is conservative. It actually happened to me during the Bush Administration. When the Iraq War started people were very sensitive. There were a few times when I did some jokes about the President and people were sensitive to it. It was interesting because at the time the administration sold the line to people that, “if you criticize the war, you are criticizing the troops.” And you had to be like, “no man.”
TLB: Speaking of tours, you have the new one Brown and Friendly.
MJ: After the Axis of Evil tour I started the Brown and Friendly tour back in January of 2009, it was my first solo tour. It was great because suddenly I went from doing fifteen minutes a night with three comics plus guest comics, to now with my opener doing twenty minutes and I’m doing an hour. It was great and helped me grow, I shot a special, and got to go around the world with it. I went to Australia, I went to Europe, and the Middle East. It’s been a great experience. You feel yourself growing as a comic the more you go out and do it.
TLB: Have you happened to see the movie Four Lions?
MJ: I haven’t, I heard about and I want to see it.
TLB: It’s a dark comedy about these four Middle Eastern kids who are committing a suicide bombing. Obviously you’ve played the stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist character on film. What’s your opinion when they take the role, turn it around and make it fun without mocking it? But at the same time exploiting the stereotype?
MJ: It’s interesting; at a certain point I just told my agent, “No more terrorist parts.” Then after that I was actually approached several times to do shorts. The Onion actually contacted me for a movie, and it was supposed to be this big goofy movie, kind of like Airplane! where it was over the top shtick. They had two roles for terrorists in there, one was a bumbling idiot, and the other one was to keep an eye on the bumbling idiot. Even to that I didn’t want to do it even though it was joke and I’d be making fun of and exploiting it. I would do something like Dean Obeidallah did, he was on the Axis of Evil tour with us. He sold a pilot to Comedy Central a while back with Max Brooks, who is Mel Brooks’ son. It was for a show similar to Chapelle Show but with Middle Easterners, in one of the sketches they had was they had me play a Middle Eastern acting teacher who taught other Middle Eastern actors how to play terrorists and hijackers. It didn’t have me playing a terrorist, it had me playing a teacher who taught others to play a terrorist, that was funny. I prefer not to play a terrorist even in fun. It doesn’t mean I won’t see Four Lions, I’m sure I would like it, but I just got to the point where I want to play other parts. I feel there is such an overwhelming image of Middle Easterners that I don’t want to add to it.
TLB: Now what’s the status of your movie Jimmy Vestvood?
MJ: We are actually trying to raise money for it and it’s been the hardest part. We are hoping to shoot that [the movie] and we have high hopes for it. It’s a fun character and I really hope that it crosses over. I want to see white, Asian, and black kids quoting Jimmy Vestvood.
TLB: Like the Borat of the next generation?
MJ: Kind of like that but it is a little more like The Pink Panther. But that is definitely the hope.
TLB: Yeah because when I saw the trailer and it totally struck me as an Austin Powers-meets-Borat where you have a fish out of water story?
MJ: Yeah that is the vibe we are going for.
TLB: Are you looking to do more touring or acting in the upcoming future?
MJ: I love touring but I have a kid now and we have one on the way and I would love to be on a TV show or something, so that I can stay home in LA. Or if we film Jimmy Vestvood that would keep me home for at least a month. As much as I love stand-up, you get tired of the traveling. Also it gives you a chance to write new material if you get off the road. Right now I am at a point where my material is evolving constantly so I will go to a town and I will have some old and some new. But it will be great to be in town in LA for a while. Go to The Comedy Store or Laugh Factory and work out the material.
TLB: Where do you see your comedy going in the next ten to twenty years?
MJ: I hope to continue evolving. Currently I am getting a lot of material from my family because of having the kid. It’s taken me in that direction which will eventually expose me to an audience that I’m not exposed to right now. At the same time though I might lose some audience. Because some of them might like more of the political stuff. So I see that happening, but as an Iranian American and also the kind of person I am I always have my ear to the ground, and I like coming up with political or social jokes. My favorite people are guys like Lewis Black and The Daily Show where they are saying something in their comedy. So I would hope that would continue to happen.
We’d like to thank Maz for his time. His special, Brown And Friendly is in stores now. You should go pick up a copy not only because it’s funny, Maz is an extremely nice guy, and we’re hoping the Jimmy Vestvood gets made sooner than later. You can also check his website for dates where you can see him on the road.