Comedian Maz Jobrani: From Tehran to LA
London - Iran-American comedian and actor Maz Jobrani has come a long way. From playing an Afghan terrorist in a made-for-TV movie starring Chuck Norris (Chuck Norris kills him, naturally) to international recognition, appearing on US talk shows and selling out venues in Dubai.
He has also come a long way geographically. Born in Iran, Jobrani moved to the United States after the Islamic revolution when he was 6 years old, eventually settling in Los Angeles, sometimes dubbed Los Tehrangeles because of its large and thriving Persian community.
This has been no ordinary year for Jobrani; he wrote and published a book, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, which has been warmly received, and he is set to appear in a forthcoming Showtime cable television special of the same name. But Jobrani laughs off suggestions that he has now “made it”.
“I don’t think I will ever think I’ve made it. I love what I do and I hope to keep doing it till I die. It’s funny because you’ll do a project and finish it and feel good about yourself but then you realise that promoting the project has just begun,” he said. “Half the work is doing the work. The other half is begging people to read it or watch it or listen to it. It’s been a great year but I plan to keep on going.”
Jobrani is now the man who formerly played terrorists on television, having famously sworn off playing roles that contribute to the Hollywood stereotype of “Iranians and Middle Easterners as members of an evil cabal”, he wrote in his book.
After being killed by Chuck Norris (who pauses while defusing a bomb to shoot Jobrani’s character, who is wearing a ridiculous turban in 2002’s The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand), Jobrani has sunk his teeth into meatier roles such as a US Secret Service agent in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter and last year he played wannabe private investigator Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero.
As for whether he could ever see himself taking up the turban – the favourite identifier of Hollywood terrorists everywhere — once more, Jobrani laughed. “I guess if I got to beat up Chuck Norris then maybe,” he joked.
“But seriously, I don’t imagine I would do a part like that unless it were written so well that it really showed the guy as more than just a terrorist.
Maybe a film where it starts by saying the guy is a terrorist but then it shows that he’s a freedom fighter and why he’s doing what he’s doing,” he said.
Despite his acting success, Jobrani is perhaps best known for his stand-up comedy and his role as a founding member of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe.
Critically acclaimed at home and across the Middle East, the Axis of Evil troupe includes Middle Eastern-American comedians who try to break down stereotypes through humour.
It is an approach that has met both success and critical acclaim, particularly as it takes on subject matter not particularly ripe for laughter.
While Jobrani does take on subjects such as identity (“Iranians don’t say they’re Iranians. We say we are Persian. It sounds nicer and friendlier… ‘Persian’, like the cat. Meow.”) and his mother’s accent (“Iranians cannot pronounce words that have back-to-back consonants.”), he also takes on more difficult subjects such as terrorism.
“If I ever take on a serious subject, I try to make fun of those causing the problems. I never make fun of the victims. Making fun of things like ISIS takes power away from them and makes people realise we’re not all [Islamic State] ISIS or al-Qaeda,” he said.
Jobrani’s acting career and comedy have attempted to show the West a different, lighter side to Middle Easterners — and that is a mission he is calling on others to join.
“[The stereotype] changes as more people from Iran and the Middle East become writers, directors and filmmakers. We need to have more people from that part of the world tell our stories,” he said.