Maz Jobrani: “We Need to Go Beyond Just Standing Up for People That Look Like Us”
After gunmen killed 12 staff members of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for the paper’s content in 2015, Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani joined colleagues in a video produced by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) to express solidarity with the victims and defend free speech. Born in Iran seven years before a revolution turned his country into an Islamic Republic in 1979, the actor, writer, producer and podcast host is acutely aware of the importance of defending basic human rights. That includes the right to be you without being subjected to discrimination—be it in Iran or America.
Celebrating difference is a central tenet of Jobrani’s comedy. Whether he’s drawing on his personal experiences or dominant themes in the media, he’s often challenging stereotypes by revealing the falsehoods and misunderstandings they’ve been built upon. While Jobrani is known for his sharp, political commentary, lesser known is the fact that he was working towards a PhD in political science before deciding to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a performer. Today, instead of researching or teaching at a university, he’s dissecting social justice issues through the art of comedy. “I think we, meaning everyone as human beings, need to go beyond just standing up for people that look like us,” he told CHRI. “We need to stand up across the board… whether it’s human rights violations by the Iranian government or in America where they’re putting kids in cages, I will express my opinion.”
Following are excerpts of the interview, which was edited for length and clarity.
CHRI: You went from almost doing a PhD in political science to countering social justice issues like racism, prejudice, and inequality through the art of comedy. What inspired your drastic career change?
Jobrani: I had always wanted to be a comedian and an actor, since I was probably nine or ten. I was born in Iran and grew up in northern California. When I was young… I wanted to be like Eddie Murphy but having immigrant parents from Iran, they really didn’t even consider that an option for me. So they pushed me in another direction.
Nowadays, most immigrant parents want their kids to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers, and I fell into that. My parents convinced me to maybe become a lawyer, so I went to UC Berkeley, studied political science, thinking that I would go to law school. But then in my junior year at Berkeley, I took a year and studied abroad in Italy. While I was there, there was a professor, and I loved what he was doing. I thought to myself, maybe I should be a professor. I thought that was a good compromise between having a reputable job that my parents would like and having a chance to be in front of people and speak. So that’s when I got into the PhD program at UCLA and just when I started that first year, I quickly learned that being a professor is not about standing in front of people and speaking, but rather about “publish or perish.” So, I decided to perish.
While I was at UCLA, I started doing plays again, and I loved being on stage. I had first started doing plays when I was twelve years old in junior high. Long story short, it was in grad school when I realized that this is not for me, so I dropped out, and then it was around my mid twenties when I finally got the courage to pursue what I wanted to pursue. And I realized, you get to live your life for yourself and not for your parents.
CHRI: Fourteen years ago, you kicked off your “Axis of Evil” comedy tour and have since branched off to other projects including solo specials and the film, “Jimmy Vestvood, Amerikan Hero.” Have you seen a progression of views among Americans about Iranians and people of Middle Eastern descent during this time, or do the same jokes apply?
Jobrani: I started doing stand up comedy in the late 90s. I took a stand up comedy class and they encouraged us to talk about what made us different from other comedians, what made us unique. And one of the things that made me unique at the time was that I was an Iranian-American. There really was not any other Middle Eastern American comedians that I knew of at the time doing stand-up. Look, I came to America in late 1978, and I think a lot of Americans didn’t really know much about Iran, and then the revolution happened and they kind of knew about Iran. And then the hostage crisis happened and they really did know about Iran. Then Iran never left the news. It was from the hostage crisis to the Iran-Contra Affair, to the movie, “Not Without My Daughter.” Then, when 9/11 happened, even though it had nothing to do with Iranians, I think that Middle Easterners and Muslims again were at the front and center of people’s minds.
There have been two things going on: one is that we have continued business as usual. For example, now we’ve got the travel ban. And again we’ve got the Iranian-American confrontations. We’ve got, you know, Saudi Arabian news and we’ve got anti-immigrant sentiments. So all this stuff with a certain part of the population has remained and continues to be out there. On the other hand, I think we’ve seen some progress in American film and television when it comes to depictions of Middle Easterners. There is a great new show, “Ramy,” on Hulu. It’s actually a friend of mine, Ramy Youssef, who is Egyptian, and it’s a great show, where he’s just talking about being a young, Muslim guy in New York, trying to be a good Muslim with his family, while also trying to meet women and sleep with them and just be a young guy and have girlfriends. So I think there has been some progress. It’s not that every time you see a Muslim or Middle Easterner, it’s got to be a “terrorist” anymore. Because I think the main thing is, we now have a lot more content creators from those backgrounds. It ultimately takes multiple people from those backgrounds to create depictions of those people in a humane way.
CHRI: Your comedy highlights misunderstandings and miscommunications regarding people of Middle Eastern descent, particularly Iranians. But your audiences aren’t only Middle Easterners. What are the key ingredients of making your jokes relatable as well as funny to audiences of diverse backgrounds?
Jobrani: Well, I think if you look at my earlier stuff, it was more Iranian-centric, like the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour. I do talk about being Iranian and all this sort of stuff. I think if you look at newer specials, for example, my latest special was called “Immigrant” on Netflix, and that one really leaned into being an immigrant. I talk a lot about being a dad, which is international. So, as a comedian, you talk a lot about what’s going on in your mind, you talk about what is interesting to you at that time.
A lot of comedians get their inspiration from their lives, so ever since my son was born, if you look at my first solo special called “Brown and Friendly,” there is a lot of material about having a baby in there. Then my other specials also had a lot of parent material. And then they had material about current politics. I had a special called “I Come in Peace,” Ahmadinejad was president of Iran then, so there were jokes about him because he was well-known in the West. So I could talk about him and people could understand what I was talking about. So really, it’s what’s out there, what’s inspiring.
In “Immigrant,” for example, I have a lot of jokes about Trump. Why? Because everyone talks about Trump nowadays. He’s in the media, so he’s on my mind. I think it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can relate to those jokes. The other thing, when I realized that it’s not about being Iranian but about being an immigrant and how much we all have in common. I used to do a joke about how my grandmother used to keep all her cash in her bra. One time when I was doing this joke, I was at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, there were two Latina girls in the audience who were dying of laughter, and I realized, oh my god, Mexican grandmas also keep their money in their bra. And then I realized that a lot of immigrant grandmothers keep their money in their bra, and a lot of grandmothers–non-immigrant grandmothers–keep their money in their bra. So you realize the more you talk about yourself, the more people relate.
CHRI: We here at the Center for Human Rights in Iran have reported on people being imprisoned in Iran for making jokes about religious and political figures. On the other hand, people here in the US are allowed to march in the streets in white sheets touting hate speech. Should there be limits on freedom of speech?
Jobrani: As a comedian, I’m a big proponent of free speech. As a matter of fact, I was lucky enough to do the commencement speech at UC Berkeley a few years back and that was around the time when Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter had wanted to come to speak there and there had been people from the left who had protested against them being able to speak at Berkeley. My argument was: we need to be soldiers for freedom of speech and allow these people to speak about what they want to talk about. Because ultimately, I think that good ideas rise and bad ideas die.
Now, reflecting upon that a little bit, we do see that given the world we live in with the social media out there, bad ideas don’t always die. Sometimes bad ideas rise as well and we end up with, like you said, people with sheets over themselves or the people we saw at Charlottesville, marching for racist reasons. So I think that free speech obviously has its limits, as we know in America, you can’t go into a crowded theater and yell fire. There is hate speech. There is that kind of stuff. Ultimately, we have to have some barometer. But as far as we can push free speech, I would be a proponent of that. I think of countries where people get in trouble, places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, some of the other Middle Eastern countries where they get in trouble for making fun of their leaders. That just shows the insecurity that those leaders have in their system. And we see it now with Trump, who doesn’t want to go to these White House Correspondent dinners. Because, again, I think there is insecurity deep down inside where he feels that comedians and jokes could chisel away at his authority. So I think it’s very important to fight for freedom of speech.
As a comedian, really you live and die by the laugh. If you say something that is racist or sexist or makes fun of people with disabilities or what have you, and the audience doesn’t laugh or groans or walks out on you, then you realize that, okay, this is my limit. But I actually have been running into that now in America, where I do a Trump joke and some people that are Trump supporters really take it personally, as if I’m insulting their grandmothers and I just have to remind them: Listen, the whole point of America is that we should be able to make fun of our leaders. And I try to differentiate that with places like Iran. It happened during the Bush administration, when I would make fun of Bush and some people would get offended and I would say, the irony is that you guys are saying we’re attacking Iraq to bring democracy to Iraq, but then you don’t want me to make fun of our own leader, which is part of democracy.
CHRI: Some people say celebrities should stick to entertaining and keep politics out of their work to avoid alienating fans. But you’ve publicly appealed for the release of political prisoners in Iran, so you’re obviously not a believer in that approach. Why do you choose to use your platform to speak out for human rights in your birth country?
Jobrani: Well, I don’t agree with the people who say that performers and the sort should keep their politics to themselves. Because ultimately, we’re all human beings and we all have political opinions. Whether you’re a plumber, or you’re the president, or you’re a singer, whatever you are, we have our political tastes.
Some performers choose not to share their political stance on anything and say, I want to stay neutral. I’ve always been a fan of political comedy from the start. After I was a fan of Eddie Murphy, I quickly became a big fan of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and then later a big fan of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show and Lewis Black. Any art form that has a political commentary, I’m a fan of. I’m a big fan of the band Public Enemy, I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye’s music, especially the later stuff. So, I’ve always been there. And then I’m also a human being, so when I hear about somebody being jailed in Iran unjustly, which we hear about a lot with their human rights violations, somebody reaches out to me and says, hey, will you make a video or sign something or whatever they say, I go yeah, of course I would do that. Because if my voice can help get the word out about injustices, whether they’re in Iran, or in, I don’t know, China, of course I would do that.
I mean, it’s not just my “Iranianess” that brings me to that… There is injustice everywhere. That’s one of the things that I also want to point out, that I think having been an opponent of the travel ban, and having gone and protested against it in LAX when the travel ban happened against Iranians as well as other countries, in America, I remember being at the protest at LAX and thinking, oh wow, I’m seeing all these protests all over the country. I feel a lot of Americans understand how unjust this travel ban is, and then listening to the radio that night, having someone talk about how the majority of Americans still felt that the travel ban was a good thing because it was keeping terrorists out of this country, even though none of the countries on the travel ban list had ever committed an act of terror. It opened my eyes to the idea that, wow, the travel ban was a personal thing. Being an Iranian-American, it was personal to me. Meanwhile, when I would see things like the Black Lives Matter marches, I almost felt like, oh okay, black people got that handled. But no, in reality, I would want to stand up against that injustice as well.
I think we, meaning everyone as human beings, need to go beyond just standing up for people that look look like us. We need to stand up across the board. So as a human being, if political causes come my way, where I feel that there is injustice being done, whether it’s human rights violations by the Iranian government or in America where they’re putting kids in cages, I will express my opinion.