Maz Jobrani, the host of the Ethnic Show at Just for Laughs, is a lot of things: a writer, an actor, a comedian, an Iranian-American and a father.
When we talked last week, though, he was just a really tired guy working on two hours of sleep wondering when his country is going to make sense again.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Jaffer: What’s the experience of being an American these days? Are you guys okay?
Maz Jobrani: You know, I don’t think we are okay. Being an American these days, day-to-day, it gets scarier and scarier. I’ll explain that to you: First of all, with this current Supreme Court nominee and what’s going on there, you’re like, “wait a minute, Roe v. Wade could actually be turned over.” I thought we were past that. And then before that it was this thing with them taking the parents and separating them from the children. There’s the travel ban. And a lot of things where you sit there and go, “I thought we had progressed past all this.” It just keeps happening.
DJ: Being in America sounds horrifying. I have to go to Philadelphia soon and I am scared in advance.
MJ: That’s what I’m saying. I’ll tell you straight — when the election was happening and he had riled up this very populist movement it really reminded me of what you’ve seen in places from Nazi Germany to [Iran under Ayatollah] Khomeini, with the revolution, where people just buy into it without questioning. We’re supposed to question our leaders; we’re supposed to question these people. I read a couple of articles that said that beyond trying to cut back on immigration, they are possibly going to look at people that were naturalized?
DJ: Yes, they’re going to try to denaturalize people.
MJ: I heard in an interview, the lady said they’re looking at old naturalization papers to see if there was anybody who lied on their paperwork. And I told my wife, I go, “I don’t think I lied.” Because they ask questions like, “Have you had a parking ticket? Have you been arrested for x, y and z?” And I had not been, but I told my wife, I go, “I might be out of here pretty soon.” It’s really, really scary. As an American I feel very empowered in the world. As an American comedian I feel super empowered. I feel like if somebody does you wrong you can really put them on blast and have them corrected, but once you’re messing with the government, or once the government decides to mess with you, on every level it gets scary.
DJ: I don’t want to just talk about politics but what you do is very political. Comedy is very political, performance is political, and the jokes that you tell are political. Is this pre-Handmaid’s Tale America good for comedy? Is it good for your kind of comedy?
MJ: I used to say Trump was great for comedy but horrible for the world. Now I say he’s not even good for comedy because as comedians, we need time to develop our jokes, and he says so much crazy shit every day, it’s impossible to keep up.
DJ: You talk a lot about race, racism, the experience of being Iranian-American in America and in other parts of the world. It seems like your comedy is based in the absurdity of racism or trying to communicate that most of our experiences, regardless of race or religion, are fundamentally the same. Is that fair?
MJ: I would describe my comedy as taking on social issues, political issues and my kids. When I first started out, I took a stand-up comedy class and they said talk about what makes you different, and in that class I was the only Iranian comedian there, so I started talking about that. And then eventually, I grew to also talk about how I don’t just say “Iranian,” I say “immigrant,” because we have a lot in common, as immigrants.
MJ: I used to do a joke about how my grandmother used to keep her cash in her bra and how we used to think she was a D cup until one day we went to buy a house and she pulled the down payment out of her bra and we realized she was an A cup, and then we looked closer and we realized that she was grandpa. That’s when I realized that immigrants have a lot in common, so I started talking more and more about immigrants. And then once I had kids, I started doing kid material. What interests me are politics and parenting.
DJ: Do you think that you’re making people uncomfortable? Or do you think that you’re finding the discomfort in people and bringing them together?
MJ: I think that most of the people that come to my shows kind of know what they’re getting into, so I don’t think I’m running into some racist couple at my show who might go, “Oh, let’s get the hell out of here.” That said, once in a while, depending on what city I’m in, I have had people walk out on my show.
MJ: I was doing shows at the Laugh Factory one time and this guy was from Canada [and] when I came out the doorman said, “This guy walked out during your show and said he didn’t want to hear politics in comedy.” To me, that just blows my mind because my favourite comedy has been political comedy all my life; Richard Pryor, George Carlin, anyone who makes some kind of political statement. But some people don’t want that, I guess. Some people just want to live in ignorance and don’t want to admit that some things are going on in this world.
DJ: In your role as the host of the Ethnic Show, what is the most important thing you want to communicate to this specific audience?
MJ: It’s a show with six different comedians and it’s not all just about our ethnicity. We talk about everything. Orny Adams, I was talking to him and he said, “I’m not even going to talk about my ethnicity,” and I said, “that’s fine.” I mean, I talk a lot about my kids. It’s just a funny show, that’s really the point to get across. It’s a funny show and it’s a sampling of six different comedians so if people just want to come out and have a laugh, come out and have a laugh. You don’t have to be ethnic to enjoy it. ■
Just for Laughs’ The Ethnic Show continues through July 26.