By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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On an otherwise unexceptional night at the Comedy Store a couple of Fridays ago, an Iranian-American performer named Maz Jobrani got up and almost immediately had the audience eating out of his hand.
“It’s not a good time to be from Iran,” he lamented. “We’re next. They’re invading all the countries of the world in alphabetical order — in reverse!”
He riffed on cultural stereotypes, managing both to humanize the notion of being Iranian while also sending up the alarmingly radical people who run his native country. The Iranians he conjured up in his routine were more bumbling than frightening — he imagined President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling a friend before making his infamous speech denying the Holocaust and being told: “Hey, Mahmoud, you should probably keep that shit to yourself.”
And he gently suggested that American politicians were not, in the end, a whole lot less crazy. (The main difference being that while Ahmadinejad says a lot of “stupid shit,” George Bush says a lot of “shit, stupidly.”)
The crowd loved it — it wasn’t just funny, it was also a new perspective on the Middle East. Performers and pop culture critics have been complaining for years about the cartoon-cutout depiction of Arabs and the wider Middle East, especially since the 9/11 watershed. In Hollywood, Middle-Eastern American actors have found it nearly impossible to find work as anything other than terrorists or sleazy oil sheiks.
That, though, is starting to change, in part because the performers themselves are taking matters into their own hands, and in part because some film and television producers are coming around to the idea that stereotyping Middle Easterners may have a negative impact far beyond Los Angeles.
Alan Ball’s just-released movie Towelhead, about a Lebanese teenage girl stranded in Texas, is the latest example of a new kind of story that’s light on stereotypes, and it may be no coincidence that one of the sleeper independent hits of the year was The Visitor, about a Syrian musician struggling to avoid deportation from the United States.
Jobrani is part of a successful comedy troupe called the Axis of Evil, which has toured the Middle East and United States. He’s just sold a television series to CBS, which he describes as a sort of an Iranian Everybody Loves Raymond, about a man in his 30s who can’t get away from his crazy family. And he has written a comic film script called Jimmy Vestvood, American Hero, about a modest Iranian-American rug salesman who lives with his mother in Westwood, the epicenter of Tehrangeles, but dreams of becoming an American Superman.
Maybe most significantly, Jobrani has made a conscious decision not to accept any parts as a random Mohammed or Abdul nefariously plotting to blow things up.
He turned down a part in United 93, Paul Greengrass’ reconstruction of the passenger rebellion aboard one of the hijacked 9/11 planes, and he turned down another in this summer’s hit Iron Man, even though he liked the film overall. “I don’t need to play these parts,” he says. “You want to see that, just turn on CNN and you’ll see it.... It just feels icky. It does. You feel like you are selling out.”
It’s a similar story with his fellow Axis of Evil comic, Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American who refused to change his name — despite the repeated entreaties of his agent. His comedy standup got him an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and his recent acting credits include the Adam Sandler vehicle You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. He created a production company, based in Los Angeles and Dubai, called Bonus Features (so named because, for years, his roles were cut out of movies and ended up only in the “bonus features” on the DVD.)
“We want to pioneer a new outlook on the Middle East,” he says. “Doing that through food, music, art and culture is much better than politics. Most people would rather listen to a standup comedian than a boring politician or a dictator.”
That view, perhaps surprisingly, is shared by Howard Gordon, the creator and executive producer of 24, which via its terrorism-centered plot lines has done its share of demonizing Arabs. Not so long ago Gordon was more than happy to play off their stereotype as evil and conniving — his team once erected a billboard above the 405 freeway that depicted a family who played bad-guy Arabs on 24, warning: “They could be next door.” (That billboard, which triggered noisy protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, came down the same afternoon it went up.)
These days, though, Gordon sings a different tune. He thinks Hollywood has a special responsibility to portray Middle Easterners in a multidimensional way and resist taking the easy road of fear and confrontation. “Fear sells. It does,” he acknowledges. “We need to be mindful of that.”