Thursday, October 11, 2007

A long chat with Maz Jobrani

“I’m Pehrzheean!” actor Maz Jobrani declares in one of his Axis of Evil stand up comedy routines. To find out how “Pehrzheean” Jobrani really is, I sent him an email asking if ever puts raw eggs on his rice.

“What red-blooded Iranian doesn’t?” was his reply.

Later I met Jobrani in person. He’d invited me to watch his performance at Punchline, the illustrious San Francisco comedy club that has also hosted Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres, Dana Carvey, Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, Rosie O’Donnell, and Robin Williams. Afterwards, we met in a nearby pub. Jobrani was in a sprightly mood. He had just stepped down from the stage, leaving Presidents Bush and Ahmadinejad with egg on their faces, and the audience still writhing with laughter.

It turns out, Ahamadinejad and Jobrani go way back:

“My dad was in New York on business in late ’78,” Jobrani explained. “My older sister and I went to an international school. The school was closing down for the winter holidays. Also because of the protests there had been some power outages. My dad sent for me, my sister, and my mom to join him in NYC for two weeks. We really didn’t think we’d be gone for good. I think people thought things might get better. To give you an idea of how much we planned to return, we actually left my baby brother back in Iran.”

“So what happened to your brother?”

Jobrani’s reply, “Today he is known as President Ahmadinejad.”

For the record, Jobrani was just kidding.

Teasing aside, Jobrani adds, “In reality we got the poor kid out 6 months later, and here we are almost thirty years out of Iran. I always say we left for two weeks and stayed for 28 years.”

Years later, each “brother” went on to start his own Axis of Evil comedy group. To see which one has had the most success, I googled both Maz Jobrani and Ahmadinejad. The score: Maz Jobrani 42 google pages, Ahamadinejad 38. Try it!

By this measure, the phenomenal success of Jobrani’s Axis of Evil comedy group ranks him as the most influential Iranian-American today. To show that this is not an exaggeration, one need only point to the millions of dollars of media airtime this artist has single handedly racked up for free, undoing the negative image of Iranians in the American mind. Dr. Jaleh Pirnazar, once Jobrani’s Persian Studies professor at UC Berkeley, astutely notes, “Even if the money was somehow available, who could have organized such an extraordinary task?”

I asked Jobrani how, as a political science major, he came to take Persian Studies at Berkeley.

“Since I came to America at the age of 6, I never really learned how to read and write Farsi. But I always spoke it at home, so I spoke it fluently. Well, when I started at Berkeley I signed up for beginning Farsi, in the hopes of learning the basics—alphabet, reading, writing. On the first day, the teacher went around the class and tested us to see if we spoke Farsi well. There were other Iranians in the class who dumbed down their Farsi in order to stay in the class. I, not knowing that I’d be moved up, spoke fluent Farsi with the teacher. He in turn moved me up to Dr. Pirnazar’s class. It was a challenge because I had to learn how to read and write on my own in order to catch up with the level of her class. I struggled through the semester, but Dr. Pirnazar was very cool and made sure I got through it.”

Having survived a semester of Dr. Pirnazar, Jobrani tested his courage with a language he could learn from scratch: Italian.

“From the moment the teacher came into the class and said, ‘Mi chiamo Francesca. Come ti chiami?’ (my name is Francesca, what’s yours?) I was in love with the language.”

Later, Jobrani went to Italy on a study abroad program. “Italians are very much like Iranians,” he observes. “Food, family, long naps in the middle of the day…It’s now a fantasy of mine to someday own a place out there where I could spend several months at a time sipping wine and conversing in Italian.”

Why Italian? I asked. Besides Jobrani, I know quite a few Iranians with Italian sounding last names—Fooladi, Milani, Kiani—but none has gone so far as to actually study Italian.

“I was…a big fan of the Godfather,” says Jobrani.

I think he’s serious. Francis Coppola’s brilliant filmmaking aside, Jobrani refers to his own father as the “Godfather” type. Not in the outlaw sense, but as someone people can rely on for help. According to his son, Mr. Jobrani Sr. is the kind of Tabrizi Iranian who gets offended if people who could use his help don’t let him know their need. He has been particularly generous to Iranian expatriates who found themselves in a financial bind after the revolution. Hearing Maz speak of his father, I wonder if the archetype he means is not the Godfather, but the Iranian strong protector persona, the pahlevaan.

Mr. Jobrani Sr. started his career at an electric power facility in Iran. He got the job because he was the only applicant who had the bulk and strength to pick up the massive iron-core transformers and fit them into place. Endowed with brains to outrival even his brawn, Mr. Jobrani Sr. quickly moved up the ranks to become one of three partners in the business. Later his two partners dropped out, leaving him as sole owner. When electric power was nationalized in Iran, he became a government contractor providing electricity for the country.

Almost six feet tall and in great physical shape, the son expresses his own pahlevaan sense of community in a modern context. Jobrani uses his considerable artistic ability to defend the image and honor (gheirat) of his countrymen in the West. In a humorous foretelling of a future as an artistic pahlevaan of sorts, teenage Jobrani’s first time on stage was his lead role in a Marin County Redwood High School production of The Batman Musical and Comedy.

I asked Jobrani, “As an experienced Batman, how do you rate the various interpretations by Clooney, Keaton, and West?”

“As a kid I loved the Adam West Batman. It was fun and campy. Always seemed strange that he had a slight belly going. After all, Batman was supposed to have 6 pack abs. West made him seem more like a normal dude who liked to wear Spandex. When the films started I was in my late teens and really enjoyed the Michael Keaton version. I think he did a good job showing a troubled Batman. He’s really a fantastic actor. That was my favorite.”

For a while there was speculation that Batman Begins 2 would star Robin Williams. Had things turned out that way, Williams would have been the second internationally known actor/comedian graduate of Marin County’s Redwood High to be in a Batman production. I neglected to ask if Jobrani and Williams have met, or discussed their high school alma mater. I did ask him though about his work with actor Sean Penn and director Sydney Pollack in the 2005 thriller The Interpreter. Jobrani played a sympathetic character as secret service agent Mo[hammad].

“I was very pleasantly surprised to see the final cuts and find that the Mo character is indeed important throughout… It was great to have a character like that of Middle Eastern descent that meant something [positive] to the film…I wish there were more parts like this in film and TV. I’m pushing for such things every day.”

Jobrani began his professional acting career relatively late. He was 26 years old when he told his parents he was going to drop out of the Ph.D. program at UCLA, to pursue his acting dream. From his comedy routines one gathers Jobrani’s parents would have preferred their son to continue with that Ph.D. program. Doctor, lawyer, dentist, engineer, Jamba Juice franchise owner—anything but the arts. But then how could they know their Maz had the potential to become a world class actor? Today at 35, Jobrani reveals the liberating excitement of this career decision in stories about his work:

“My experience with Penn was a really good one…[he] invited a group of the younger actors out to watch a good friend of his play music one night. That was an amazing night, as he was sitting with some secret service agents who he’d been in touch with for the role. I went over to say ‘hi’ to them and befriended one of the agents, who later took me to lunch in town. Always cool to be in an unmarked car that can turn on its sirens to get through traffic from time to time. As I was saying ‘hi’ to the secret service agents and Penn at this table, I looked up and another friend of Penn’s was walking toward us. It took me a second to register, but it was Al Pacino. He walked right up to the table and introduced himself. I almost lost my mind as I was standing there just looking like one of the guys shaking hands with Al.”

Here’s the actor still getting jazzed about being on the set:

“My first day on the set [of the Interpreter] I was waiting for Sydney]Pollack to go ‘who’s this guy? I wanted]the other bald goateed guy, not this one….’ However, he was very nice and made me feel comfortable—that is, until I had to do one of my first speaking scenes.

“I had a scene where I was supposed to be doing surveillance and looking through some binoculars into someone’s house. Then I was supposed to mumble some lines to myself as I looked at this guy through the binoculars. Well, I did the scene, mumbled the lines, and then heard Pollack’s voice come through a walkie-talkie they’d put in the car with me for him to give me direction. He said something like ‘Give the line less emphasis.’ So I did take 2 with less emphasis. Then his voice came back on the walkie, ‘You need to be more casual.’ I tried more casual. Take 3...take 5…this went on for about 7 or 8 takes.

“We moved on from that day and I felt more and more comfortable with Pollack. A year or so later when I saw the film, that scene was cut…I had a feeling it would be.”

Expecting to see Jobrani in a blockbuster any day now, I asked, If he could play a Star Wars character who it would be?

MJ: R2D2.

AS: Why R2?

MJ: He was always up to some goofy mischief, getting people into trouble and joking around. However, when it came time to save the day he could always be counted on. If It weren’t for him, none of the other characters would ever have prevailed—and yet he had a fun air to him.

AS: Which Star Wars character wouldn’t you play?

MJ: The Emperor. He had really bad skin.

AS: Speaking of bad skin, except for Xerxes, there isn’t a single Persian—out of a million—in the movie 300 who shouldn’t sue his dermatologist. Do I take it that Xerxes is the only Persian you would play in that movie?

MJ: I never saw 300. I saw Sin City and really enjoyed it. Someone told me that Frank Miller made some racist remark in a radio interview about Middle Easterners not having the knowledge to build airplanes and yet they flew those planes into the twin towers on Sept 11. I believe he was responding to the criticism of his film from the Persian community. If he did indeed say these words, then I don’t think I would have wanted to play any one of his characters in 300—good skin or not. However, I do have an idea for a sequel called 600, where a Persian dude buys a 600 series BMW—black—and goes around looking for Spartans to run over. It’s called The Persian Estrikes Back!

AS: Estarring who?

MJ: Estarring who? Estarring me, of course!

Spartans, there’s no need to run and hide. Even during his Batman days the gentle Jobrani drove the family’s hand-me-down Honda. He is a peace-loving, secular Muslim devoted to his secular Christian Indian wife. He has nothing but kind words even for his in-laws. Jobrani does, however, have a childhood bone to pick with the school bully.

6th grader Jim Jevonan used to tease little Maz about being Iranian. Things never got violent, however. “He was a 6th grader and I was a 4th grader,” Jobrani says. “He chose not to beat me up and I didn’t try to fight him since he was bigger than me. Just became material for the future.”

Indeed it did. Jobrani’s crowd-gathering charisma, compelling warmth, and sensuously animated stage presence, is secretly energized by a powerful angst characteristic of the most fearsome comedy. In my memory only Eddie Murphy—in his earlier days—has savaged racism with such glib intelligence. Eddie Murphy spoke in a time when anti-black racism was in retreat. Maz Jobrani takes the stage while anti-Iranianism is on the rise. That takes courage of a rarer sort.

As the evening wrapped up at the pub with Maz Jobrani, his friends and admirers, a friend of Jobrani’s father came up to him for Persian hugs and kisses. “I spoke to your father in Iran,” this friend whispered to the artist. “And he is very, very proud of you.”

As are we all, Maz.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful.

Two things stand out. No, not those two.

The first is Jobrani's comment "I always say we left for two weeks and stayed for 28 years" which is utterly heart rendering.

Being from California I never get a chance to miss it because wherever I go, Dublin, London, Topeka, I find California. For Jobrani and others I sense a real longing for something uniquely familiar that they most likely will not find in any of those places.

The second is that half way through the piece Ari stops calling him Jobrani and starts calling him Maz. What a flirt.

Thanks for the ping.

Best,

Safar Ali

Mojgan said...

Thanks Ari
That was the best article I have read about Maz Jobrani. I heard him on NPR's fresh air a while ago and was very impressed with him. Maz explained why he had rejected some roles that were portraying Iranians in a negative way (one was about an honor killing). Not only he's smart and witty, he's also classy and dignified. He makes us all proud.
Boy... am I glad I found my way to your blog :0)