Wisecracks in the war on terror.
A few days before the Iranian New Year, comedian Maz Jobrani takes to a San Francisco stage, casual in dark jeans and a black blazer. The largely Iranian crowd explodes with laughter as the bald, goateed Jobrani jokes about battling airport security over his cologne—a favored item among Iranian men. “What am I going to do, hijack the airplane with my cologne?” Jobrani pauses for comic effect. “Everybody turn over your wrist,” he commands, pretending to spritz.
“Now if you put it in a sandwich bag, you can get on,” Jobrani continues, flashing his dazzling smile. “That’s our defense against Al Qaeda? A sandwich bag?”
Given Jobrani’s background, making fun of the incongruity of the War on Terror comes naturally. After his family left Iran when he was 6, Jobrani moved to Tiburon and tried his best to assimilate. (“I’d eat apple pie and play baseball. I’d eat apple pie while playing baseball,” he jokes.) He studied political science at Berkeley, where his social conscience bloomed, and before turning to a career on the stage had started a UCLA doctoral program focusing on revolution and terrorism. Of the path he didn’t take, Jobrani now says, “I would’ve been a talking head on one of those TV networks.”
Jobrani also acts in TV and movies and is part of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (a group of Middle Eastern comics who bonded over being pigeonholed in Hollywood as AK-47-wielding movie terrorists). The group tours internationally and has become popular enough to land a Comedy Central special. All that attention has drawn some notice from the feds, too, Jobrani says, a bit concerned; last year the FBI even sponsored the show at a Middle Eastern convention held in Washington. But Jobrani figured out how to spin the sponsorship—and surveillance of Middle Easterners—into a joke: As he stepped onstage, he pulled out a camera, pointing it right at the FBI agents themselves for a shot while the crowd convulsed with laughter.
The laidback Jobrani is as disarming as your funniest college buddy—but with a news junkie’s cynicism. “I read stuff that makes me say, I’m one step away from this guy,” he says backstage, citing the case of a German citizen sent by the CIA to Afghanistan, where he was tortured for months before authorities realized they had the wrong man. “Really,” Jobrani marvels, “you didn’t have Google? You couldn’t figure out it wasn’t the guy?”
Not everyone appreciates the humor of Jobrani’s shtick. When he appeared on a Fox News segment, the visibly uncomfortable anchor grilled Jobrani about why Iranians always seemed to be burning American flags, and then asked, “Is America ready to laugh at this?” Onstage, Jobrani rips into both American and Iranian politics with equal gusto: “Bush is the perfect president to have TiVo with. You can go back and say, ‘Did he say that?!’ You can’t avoid making fun of him. And [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—he’s the Bush of Iran.”
Jobrani has followers on both sides of the political spectrum, including fans in the armed forces and State Department who flock to his shows in Washington, D.C., and in cities with military bases, such as San Diego. “Listen, people are smart. They are over there [in Iraq],” he says. “They appreciate it when somebody presents it to them in a smart way.” But he also gets plenty of mail from pro-war detractors who accuse him of supporting Ahmadinejad. The irony, Jobrani says, is that he actually is on the Iranian president’s radar: A Kuwaiti acquaintance recently reported that Ahmadinejad’s nephew had been asking around about Jobrani. “I told him that I knew you,” the Kuwaiti told Jobrani, “and it looked like I’d just insulted his mother.”
In late 2007, the Axis of Evil group went on its first Middle East tour, performing 27 sold-out shows in Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. “You go there and everyone is hip, cool, and smart,” Jobrani reports. “There’s no voice for this in the West. People only think about oil, turbans, and camels.”
Since the tour, Jobrani says, he receives personal phone calls from a new friend: the king of Jordan. And the Axis of Evil has other admirers in high places. Berkeley Persian literature scholar Jaleh Pirnazar, who taught Jobrani in the 1990s, says that his political comedy has been influential in increasing dialogue in the politically divided Iranian-American community. “Maz is doing that job single-handedly,” Pirnazar says. “He is very clear in his mission to put a human face on both sides.”
And not long ago, Jobrani says, he even ran into a fan from the United Nations who told him, “You’re doing more for world peace than we are.”