Iranian actor and comedian Maz Jobrani is part of a three-man mission to prove that there’s more to Middle Easterners than terrorism. Their Axis Of Evil show has toured the US, and is coming to a TV screen, and possibly a stage, near you. He speaks to Matt Pomroy about the funny side of racial stereotyping.
In America, Muslims are the new blacks – at least in terms of stand-up comedy. Post 9/11 there is no group in the United States that’s viewed with as much suspicion, mistrust, or has such an outsider status as Muslims. So when three get together and call themselves The Axis Of Evil, standing on a stage cracking jokes about their rough treatment, the way they are stereotyped and the quirks of their people, the public take notice. And increasingly, people are seeing the funny side.
Iranian stand-up comedian and actor Maz Jobrani accepts the parallel between Muslim comedians and the black trailblazers that came before them. ‘Yes, absolutely,’ he chuckles. ‘There was an article that actually said we’re doing what Richard Pryor was doing in the 60s and 70s, or what Paul Rodriguez was doing for Latinos.
‘The thing is, there was a time here in America when if you were black, it didn’t matter if you were in a suit or rags, people would look down on you and eye you with suspicion, like you were an animal or something. Now, with this War On Terror, and those doctors involved with the London attacks, or the current series of 24, where the quiet boy next door is a terrorist, all Muslims are being viewed with suspicion – that’s the reality. So it’s important for us to be out there laughing and showing an audience of Middle Easterners laughing.’
The Axis Of Evil is made up of Maz, Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and occasional fourth member, Dean Obeidallah – the comedic Syria, if you will. It was during their time at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles that legendary owner Mitzi Shore put them together for gigs, having told Maz that she believed there was going to be a need for a positive voice for Middle Easterners to combat the stereotypical images in American media. Maz agreed. ‘People have seen the very serious side – they’ve seen the villain,’ he points out. ‘So we took the term George W Bush had used to describe those countries and turned it on its head, lampooning it and putting comedy behind it.’
They were soon touring the country and drawing in big audiences, but significantly, the demographic they’ve been playing to has changed as the tours have gone on.
‘When we started, 90 per cent of our audiences were Middle Eastern, and now it’s about 50:50,’ says Maz. ‘In some cities there were even more white and African American people at our shows than Middle Easterners.’
Word got back to L.A., and The Axis landed their own TV special – the first ever US comedy show with an all Middle Eastern cast – which was broadcast last March by Comedy Central in the States and aired in the UAE recently.
As part of Maz’s efforts to change the way Middle Easterners are perceived, he’s decided to be more selective about his acting roles too. You may have seen him recently in the excellent comedy The Knights Of Prosperity, but one thing you won’t see him doing any more is taking roles as generic bad guys. ‘I had a part in 24, and I also did a Chuck Norris movie where I was a terrorist, and I thought, “I don’t like this feeling I have when I’m playing these parts.” The problem is, Italian Americans have complained that The Sopranos portrays them badly and as stereotypes, but they also have Everybody Loves Raymond, which is a positive thing. All Middle Easterners have are negative stereotypes. I didn’t want to add to that. I don’t judge others for doing it, but I don’t want to be part of that process anymore.’
And it’s not just playing terrorists either. Some of the offers have been just plain offensive. ‘There was a sketch show on Fox TV [The 1/2 Hour News Hour], and they were trying to do The Daily Show from a Conservative standpoint. “They wanted me to play the part of a Middle Eastern architect who was pitching an idea for what the building replacing the Twin Towers should look like. The design had a bullseye on it. It was very stupid.’
Maz grew up in America and still lives in L.A., and has had a lifetime of being the token Middle Easterner (‘So, Maz, you’re from the Middle East, what’s going to happen to oil prices over the next fiscal quarter?’) or just plain getting grief for his heritage: ‘When one Middle Easterner commits a crime, then everyone gets blamed for it,’ he says. ‘I was in the fourth grade when the Iranian hostage crisis happened, and I remember other kids referring to me as a “f****** Iranian.” Back then a lot of Iranians used to pretend they were Italian.’
When he says that, it sounds like it could have been a voiceover from a Middle Eastern version of Chris Rock’s sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. In fact, Maz is trying to get his own show off the ground, but it’s proving tough. ‘Perhaps America is not ready for a show about a Middle Eastern family, but it’s good that we’ve got to the point where we can pitch this stuff,’ he says, and admits that things are slowly getting better.
‘Films like Syriana dealt with it all a little more profoundly. You appreciate that it shows why some people would do what they do, but nine out of 10 still don’t. People don’t leave the cinema thinking, “That suicide bomber was crazy,” like in other films where they leave thinking, “See? They’re all like that.”’
So the tour continues, and the battle to win the hearts, minds and smiles of the world goes on. And best of all, the UAE may soon join The Axis Of Evil, as Maz is in talks to bring the show to this region in the near future.
‘When we do these shows and crowds come to see us, the positivity has been amazing,’
he says. ‘The reaction we’ve got from Middle Easterners has been so supportive and excited, because for once someone is showing them in a positive light, and they all get to come out and be a part of that.’ •
For Time Out magazine.