WASHINGTON — He’s performed stand-up specials on Showtime and Comedy Central, as well as late night with Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and Stephen Colbert.
This Saturday, Maz Jobrani returns to Kennedy Center after last year’s sold-out performance, this time to film his first original Netflix special with a pair of comedy shows at the Eisenhower Theater.
“Oh my god, I’m super excited,” Jobrani told WTOP. “Ever since I started doing stand-up 19 years ago now, I’ve always wanted to do a special in Washington, D.C. There’s a couple reasons: One is because I’m a big fan of Eddie Murphy’s and he did ‘Delirious’ in D.C. so I wanted to be like Eddie Murphy, but also, ever since I started touring, I honestly think D.C. has some of the best audiences in the world.”
As an Iranian-American who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, Jobrani has a vital perspective on pressing political topics, from immigration reform to border walls to travel restrictions. Thus, the Kennedy Center bills the show as such: “At a time when partisan rancor is high, Jobrani brings us together with laughter and material to show that no matter where we are from, we are all the same.”
“Coming from the perspective of an Iranian-American, I have a lot to say,” Jobrani said. “When the election started … everyone was doing [Donald] Trump jokes and I thought to myself, ‘What can I do that no one else is doing? I’m not even gonna try it.’ But then as he kept talking, it became impossible not to. … I realized I kinda have this tool that allows me to, in a diplomatic way, get my point across.”
“Comedy historically has dealt with politics,” Jobrani said. “Guys like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, even Lenny Bruce, they all were dealing with some serious topics, but when you do it with comedy, it gets the message across in a way that the audience isn’t thinking about it consciously. I was on a panel once with D.L. Hughley and he said, ‘Comedy is like giving people their medicine but in orange juice.'”
Born in Tehran in 1972, Jobrani has many fond memories of growing up in pre-revolution Iran.
“What I remember from Iran is just great memories,” Jobrani said. “I was born in 1972 and I was there until late ’78, so it was before the revolution. There was definitely not the strict Muslim laws that are governing the country now. As a kid, I remember a lot of American influences. I remember having Spider-Man comic books, being a fan of Zorro; I loved Muhammad Ali. It was fun. It was great.”
Those memories come rushing back each time he returns to visit, though it’s now bittersweet.
“I would walk into my aunt’s house and the smell of her food would bring me back to my childhood, so all that was amazing,” Jobrani said. “The sad part was there was a lot of young people who seemed to not have a lot of opportunity, that felt like the economy wasn’t good, that they were held back by the regulations of the government, some of the laws where men and women can’t walk around in public if they’re not married or siblings. So there’s a lot of freedoms we take for granted that they didn’t have.”
Jobrani’s family moved to the U.S. and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 6 years old. He grew up like many other American youth, playing sports by day and watching comedy by night.
“I would just binge on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘Evening at the Improv,’ all of the Rodney Dangerfield specials, discovering guys like Dom Irrera, Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, Arsenio Hall — it was nonstop,” Jobrani said. “Now, as a parent, we are very diligent about our kids falling asleep on time; I don’t remember my parents checking in too much. They’d say, ‘Go to your room,’ and I had this little black-and-white TV. I’d just turn it on and stay up late and watch this stuff. … I was a comedy nerd.”
Despite his deep passion for comedy, his parents wanted him to take a more “serious” career path.
“It’s very much an immigrant story,” Jobrani said. “Immigrant parents think, ‘Listen, I fled a revolution to get here, so you’re gonna be a lawyer or a doctor,’ and that’s what my parents convinced me. I had been doing theater since I was 12 in school and I fell in love with being on stage [but] when I told my parents that’s what I wanted to do for college, they said, ‘No, no. you should be a lawyer or a doctor.'”
So, he studied political science in undergrad at UC Berkeley, then enrolled in the Ph.D. program at UCLA. It was there that he happened to star in a play called “Dead Mother; or Shirley Not All in Vain.”
“I’d be doing the play at night and having a blast, then I would go to my poli-sci classes during the day,” Jobrani said. “Every time we would discuss something in poli-sci, it would always digress into a conversation about what purpose we served as political scientists. … That’s when I dropped out and in a roundabout way ended up at age 26, [that’s] when I decided to really pursue [comedy] seriously.”
Jobrani began performing stand-up comedy shows, as well as film and TV roles. Ironically, one of those films sparked an apocryphal nickname, “The Persian Pink Panther,” which he wants to remove.
“The Persian Pink Panther comes from a movie I made called ‘Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero,'” he said. “Somebody put it on my Wikipedia page so, unbeknownst to me, I would go into radio interviews and they’d say, ‘We have here today, the Persian Pink Panther!’ … I’ve been trying to get Wikipedia to take that off. … It’s hilarious that they’re telling me I don’t know me. … Start the campaign [to end it]!”
Meanwhile, a different brand proved quite profitable: “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” a collection of comedians with backgrounds from the Middle East-North Africa region. Jobrani joined Ahmed Ahmed (Egyptian-American), Aron Kader (Palestinian-American) and Dean Obeidallah (Palestinian-American) for a stand-up tour created by Mitzi Shore, owner of The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
“Being Jewish, she was watching CNN in the year 2000 [and] had this epiphany: ‘I think there’s going to be a need for a positive voice for Middle Easterners in the very near future,'” Jobrani said. “This is before September 11. … Originally, she called it ‘The Arabian Nights’ [but] Iranians would come up after the show and say, ‘I really enjoyed the show, but we’re not Arabs.’ So around 2005, [we called it] the ‘Axis of Evil’ to lampoon the term that George [W.] Bush had given to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.”
The group’s first big show was here in Washington D.C. at the Lisner Auditorium on Nov. 11, 2005.
“It basically put us all on the map,” Jobrani said with gratitude. “Eventually, a production company saw it and liked it enough to produce it for Comedy Central and then from there, we went on!”
Now, Jobrani is at it again with his first Netflix special at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, April 15.
“Get your mind off your taxes and come laugh,” Jobrani said. “More importantly, get your mind off the president. … It used to be that when the weekend came, you were guaranteed that you were not going to hear from the president. But not this one! Saturday morning tweets. Let’s have some laughs.”
Click here for more info on the Kennedy Center shows. Listen to the full chat with Maz Jobrani below: