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Iranian comic Maz Jobrani on embracing his identity and political humor in the Trump era

The standup comic and Superior Donuts star joins the podcast to talk about embracing his liberal identity in the age of Trump.

Crayon Collection Presents: COMEDY FOR A CAUSE
Jobrani performing at L.A.’s Laugh Factory.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Crayon Collection

Whether it’s during a standup set or onscreen, Maz Jobrani has always been acutely aware of the role his ethnicity plays in his audience’s reaction. Since moving to the United States from Tehran, Iran, as a child in the late 1970s, Jobrani has found success in comedy by addressing prejudice and stereotypes in a way that acknowledges harsh realities, but also considers the impact his words have on people with opposing viewpoints.

“In the past couple years I’ve felt confident to go on stage and say, ‘I’m a liberal guy, that’s who I am. This is my voice, if you don’t like it, then too bad,’” Jobrani tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of VanDerWerff’s podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “In the past, I used to be a little hesitant because I didn’t want to get in an argument or alienate people.’”

Though Jobrani says his time in America started off positively, he remembers the sentiment toward him and his family changing dramatically around the time of the Iran hostage crisis.

“That’s when we would get picked on for being Iranian, even though we had nothing to do with the hostage crisis. The older kids would pick on you and call you an ‘F’ing Iranian’ back then,’ he says. “That was the first time I really realized that being Iranian was not good in America.”

These kinds of pointed observations inform Jobrani’s upcoming Netflix special, Maz Jobrani: Immigrant, which debuts on August 1. It’s his latest work in a career spent addressing his ethnicity and immigrant status, notably as an original member of the Axis of Evil comedy group, and also in films like Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, as well as his current role as Fawz, a dry-cleaning store owner and real estate developer on CBS’s Superior Donuts.

Jobrani cites comedians like Richard Pryor, Lewis Black, and George Carlin as people who helped push his work to touch on social issues, but he’s also found through performing that many of the experiences he once felt were specific to his upbringing are more universal.

“For the longest time I was talking about being Iranian in America, but then I realized that immigrants have a lot of similar experiences. I was doing a joke about how my grandmother used to put her cash in her bra at the Laugh Factory in L.A.,” says Jobrani. “There were these two girls in the audience that were Latina, and they were laughing. And that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my God, their grandmother also put her cash in her bra.’ And I realized that immigrants have a lot in common, and that even if you’re not an immigrant you have friends that are, so I stopped saying ‘Iranian’ and started saying that this was an ‘immigrant experience.’”

In his upcoming special, Jobrani hopes to correct some of the misconceptions many Americans have about immigrants. He tells VanDerWerff that one of the posters used for the show incorporates a picture of himself from the third grade as well as the actual visa he used to come to the United States.

“One of the points of the special is to point out that all these people that are anti-immigrant and anti-refugee that there are kids coming, there are people trying to get away from a bad situation, and that’s what was happening with us,” he explains. “We were leaving the revolution in Iran, things were getting worse and worse.”

When VanDerWerff observes that comedy is an arena to discuss politics without people on opposite sides being completely enraged, Jobrani counters with a story from a recent set that complicates that observation:

“There have been shows where after the show I’ve had Iranians come up to me or other people come up to me and say, ‘Listen, I’m a fan, but I don’t agree with you on all that stuff.’ And I’ve had pretty decent conversations and that person and I won’t see eye to eye … and I’ve had people lose their minds. I was at a very hoity-toity black-tie event and I was doing jokes about Trump and some guy got up and started screaming at me, but once I got to my Hillary joke — I had one Hillary joke — and I go, ‘Blah blah blah Hillary’ he goes, ‘Loser! She’s a loser, you’re a loser!’ This guy was in a black-tie heckling me. It shows you that some people can’t, even in a comedic environment, talk about politics.”

Later, Jobrani succinctly sums up that point, saying, “You can bring up serious subjects in a comedic way, but if someone is so stubborn they’re not willing to be self-deprecating or see the fault with the person that they are rooting for, there’s nothing you can do to get that kind of laugh,” he says.

Despite that, though, Jobrani says he’s committed to using his platform to address the orange elephant in the room.

“I’ve been wondering why Trump gets so under my skin, and someone mentioned this to me the other day and I’ve talked about it before: He’s a bully,” Jobrani says. “I think as a kid — back then you didn’t call it bullying, but when you got called an ‘F’ing Iranian’ by the older kid who’s popular it gets into you. You go, ‘I’m always going to fight that guy,’ so I’m always fighting Trump because he’s a bully.”

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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