Dallas — Maz Jobrani—international man of comedy. Born to a Persian family in Iran, raised in the U.S., speaks three languages, has performed on four continents, married an Indian-American attorney, and often wears a tuxedo. More than a stand-up, Jobrani is a comedy ambassador. With gentle humor, he chips away at the illusion of difference.
People of all nations and races share the same human foibles. In concert Jobrani gracefully pokes fun of and finds the truth in a global span of stereotypes, with a focus on the Middle East. “We’re there to laugh with each other, not at each other,” he says in a recent phone interview.
The World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth hosts Jobrani on Thursday, May 22 at the Dallas City Performance Hall doing material from his My Lion is Moist tour. It’s a perfect pairing of presenter and subject. There is a deep wonkiness to Jobrani; he has a political science degree from University of California at Berkeley and started on a Ph.D. from U.C.L.A.
Jobrani is a history-steeped, and very funny, scholar who has spent plenty of time with the jet set and rocks that tuxedo. Yet he empathizes with those ground down by the wheels of wealth and power: “The comedy I most enjoy is by nature a bit seditious.”
The Dallas appearance follows a Scandinavian tour and a short swing through Saudi Arabia and Dubai. “Those two countries give me a lot of material,” he noted. It’s a testament to his skills that he passes the Saudi censors and pleases both tradition-oriented Middle East culture and ultra-modern northern European ones.
His last special, I Come in Peace, was taped in Stockholm and included material on masturbation, diarrhea, and bombs made to look like genitals. Yet it never crossed into crudeness. Now that’s comedic diplomacy.
The Laughing Diplomat
“My parents always insisted I was a warrior,” says Jobrani, noting that they named him for Mazyār, a Persian prince known for his defiance of the Abbasid Caliphate. “But I’m more of a diplomat, a peaceful warrior in a way.”
“The other irony was that I was born in Iran on Ashura, the day of mourning for Imam Hussain [grandson of the prophet Muhammad]. They go into the streets and beat themselves and cry. What a wonderful day for a comedian to be born.”
For all of the Middle East’s dour reputation, Jobrani says, “Persia has a rich history of comedy. There’s a lot of joke telling, a big sense of humor. Growing up, we weren’t that religious and I was always seeing my parents at parties laughing. At the end of the party it would basically turn into a talent show. Somebody would sing, somebody would tell jokes, somebody would recite poetry. I jokingly say that the person who had no talent would have to bring the tea.”
As a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour from 2005 to 2011, Jobrani has striven to show that lighter side of the Middle East culture. While the tours did much to counter western paranoia, he continues to speak out against xenophobic Hollywood casting: “I say, ‘Can I play a doctor?’ and they’re like ‘Yes, but can you do it with a bomb strapped to your chest?’ ”
Perhaps some day, he quipped in his TED Talk, “we'll even have our own James Bond. ‘My name is Bond, Jamal Bond.’" For now, he’s taken action himself, producing and starring in the indie movie Jimmy Vestvood, Amerikan Hero, which he describes as “a Persian Pink Panther,” currently in post-production. He also stars in the newly released Shirin in Love as the intended husband of Nazanin Boniadi, known for her role in Homeland.
Changing Comedy in the Middle East
It’s as much cultural exchange as comedic diplomacy for Jobrani. Axis of Evil brought him Beatles-level fame in the Middle East. “All those countries to this day tend to be very supportive,” he says. “They support, but also they want to hear something about themselves. I’ve traveled all those countries and have jokes about them.”
Jobrani has inspired young men and women in the Middle East to try their luck at being stand-ups, which for them is new: “Comedy as we know it in the West is comedy where you go up and talk about your life and your opinion. That’s not the kind of comedy in Iran. There you would hear jokes. In America, if you have a problem you’re encouraged to tell your therapist, tell your family, and then go on Dr. Phil and tell the world.”
“In the west we’ve learned to go on stage and talk about your girlfriend who’s just left you, your financial situation, or just talk about yourself,” continued Jobrani. “Things that in other cultures are considered private. In immigrant cultures we just don’t have any problems. That’s what I love about stand-up, you reveal yourself on stage and admit your flaws.”
And that, says Jobrani, is where social change occurs: “I’m always skeptical, but I’m always hopeful. I’m a hopeful skeptic.”
For the World Affairs Council engagement, Jobrani hinted at a varied program beyond politics: “Taking on social affairs, political affairs, but also my kids. Those are the things I do battle with these days. I try to infuse comedy into my daily life, with my wife and my kids.”
“Laughter is so important and right now my kids make me laugh and I love that,” adds Jobrani. “They’re still young, 5 and 3. They put a smile on my face all the time.” His home life is often showcased in his podcast, Minivan Men.
Even though Jobrani’s progeny are American born, they’ll be Persian at the core, deeply influenced by the Zoroastrian ethos of good words, good thoughts, good deeds. He spoke of praising his son’s natural skills at soccer, but made sure to tell the child “I’m proud of you not just because you scored, but that you’re a good person.”
The golden thread in Jobrani’s comedy and life is his grandfather. The Persian elder taught him “about being a good person, being a human being, and understanding human nature and appreciating what you have. That’s a big part of who I am. I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate everything and I appreciate other people and their situations.”
» Here's video of Maz Jobrani on the Russian coach of his child’s sports team and other Russian wackiness: