As an Iranian-American stand-up comic and actor, Maz Jobrani is guaranteed to have enough comic material until his grandchildren are driving a Mercedes, the “standard Persian-issue car.” Of course, it helps to come from part of the world where political turmoil has existed since chariots were the standard-issue vehicle.
Arab and Muslim families like their offspring to become professionals. So when the Tehran-born, Bay Area–raised Jobrani broke the news that he'd been bitten by the acting bug, his folks were none too happy. “When I told my parents I wanted to be an actor, my mom was, like, 'I think I heard you say lawyer.'
“She and my grandmother recommended that I think about backup plans. She said, 'Do something people need. Be a mechanic. You can fix cars.' She went from lawyer to mechanic. But now she's my biggest fan.”
She's not the only one. After launching his career more than 10 years ago as a regular at the Comedy Store, thanks to owner Mitzi Shore, Jobrani has been steadily spreading his timely brand of post-9/11 Muslim-versus–non-Muslim humor, including on the nationwide Axis of Evil tours, which featured other Arab and Muslim comics.
“I don't have a discount pump,” he jokes whenever he's asked about the rise in gas prices.
Jobrani has had similar success in the Middle East — albeit by replacing the “penis” in penis jokes with “ding dong.” He insists that he's performed to mixed audiences abroad, even in fundamentalist-dominated countries, where public events are organized like underground raves, and where Facebook serves as an online coffee shop.
“A promoter found this place, a farm an hour outside of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), which a prince owns,” Jobrani recalls. “And it's supposed to be bigger than the country of Bahrain. He's got a racetrack on it, as well as an animal preserve. And going into my David Hasselhoff fetish, I raced a BMW around this track. It hasn't rained in Riyadh for two years, and, of course, the night I come on, there's lightning. So basically, I'm the rainmaker.”
Jobrani hasn't always gotten the royal treatment as far as film and TV work go. Like many dark-skinned, non-Hispanic actors, Jobrani has been offered his share of terrorist roles, ranging from an Afghan bomb-maker in a regrettable early Chuck Norris TV movie-of-the-week to his stint on 24 as an “ambivalent terrorist” who changes his mind halfway through the mission.
“You see so much of that in the news,” Jobrani says. “I want to counter that. I want to show another side of Middle Easterners. My hope is that I would be able to play a variety of parts, and not always be the guy with the accent.”
That accent, though, might be his ticket to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Jobrani and director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Get Shorty) completed a pilot for a Wonder Years–style ABC sitcom in which Jobrani plays the family patriarch based on Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas' 2003 memoir of growing up Iranian-American in Newport Beach in the '70s.
He's also co-writing what he hopes to be a feature film starring a character named “Jimmy Vestvood,” a cologne-dousing rug salesman and amateur crime fighter who still lives with his mother in that Persian principality outside Iran, Westwood. Jobrani calls the script “an Iranian Pink Panther meets Bend It Like Beckham. The tagline is, 'You don't need to be an American to be an American hero.' ”
Until then, let's hope Jobrani is prepared should he be pulled over when he crosses state lines (who knew performing in Saudi Arabia would be easier than in Arizona?).
“There's too much heat on them,” Jobrani says when asked what he thinks of the desert state's new immigration policy. “They need to be in the shade.”
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