Maz Jobrani: Can Comedy Break Stereotypes? Iranian-American comedian and actor Maz Jobrani describes a comic's role in challenging stereotypes — especially when it comes to Middle Eastern Muslims in America.
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Can Comedy Break Stereotypes?

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Can Comedy Break Stereotypes?

Can Comedy Break Stereotypes?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on today's show - playing with perceptions, ideas about assumptions, prejudice and stereotypes. Are there - are there like perceptions that people have of you that like really get under your skin?

MAZ JOBRANI: Oh, man, all the time.

RAZ: This is Maz Jobrani. He's a comedian.

JOBRANI: So when I'll be doing a show and I'll say like, you know, guys, like when you hear British, what do you think? And they say, you know, they think cool accent, you know, rock star, James Bond.

RAZ: Maz by the way is Iranian-American.

JOBRANI: And then when you hear like Iranian, what do you think? Well, oil, terrorist, Khomeini - like Khomeini is our James Bond. It's like that's not right, you know?

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: For the most part, when you see us in the major media, you know, it's some evil dude with a beard and that ominous music - wanna wanna ooya noya, you know? It's that.

RAZ: And as an actor, Maz has played his fair share of evil bearded dudes, as he explained on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JOBRANI: A lot of times in Hollywood when casting directors find out you're of Middle Eastern descent, they go, oh, you're Iranian? Great. Can you say, I will kill you in the name of Allah?

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I could say that, but what if I were to say, hello, I'm your doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: They go, great and then you hijack the hospital.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I think you're missing the point here. Don't get me wrong. I don't mind playing bad guys. I want to play a bad guy. I want to rob a bank. I want to rob a bank in a film. I want to rob a bank in a film but do it with a gun - with a gun, not with a bomb strapped around me.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: Because I imagine the director, Maz, I think your character will rob the bank with a bomb around him. Why would I do that? If I want the money why I kill myself?

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: Right?

(APPLAUSE)

JOBRANI: Give me all your money or I'll blow myself up.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: Well, then blow yourself up. Just do it outside please.

RAZ: So what is the worst role that you've ever been asked to do?

JOBRANI: Well, you know, starting out, I would just go on any audition that came my way. So I actually got a Chuck Norris movie of the week once called "The President's Man: A Line In The Sand." I played this guy, who's like a physicist, who was in Chicago to blow up a building.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRESIDENT'S MAN: A LINE IN THE SAND")

JOBRANI: (As Ali Faisal) I've lived here in Chicago for 10 years now. Your father, Rashid, he paid for my education, a Ph.D. in applied physics from Northwestern.

And he worked for like an Osama-bin-Laden-type guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRESIDENT'S MAN: A LINE IN THE SAND")

JOBRANI: (As Ali Faisal) I knew one day I'd be called upon to serve a greater good - to serve Allah.

And I went for the fitting, and they go, OK, you know, here's your shirt, here's your pants, here's your turban.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: I swear. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. I go, this guy wouldn't wear a turban. They go, no, well, you know, he's this Afghan guy - we want him to wear a turban. I go, first of all, Afghans in America don't wear turbans. And secondly, if he's trying to blow up a building, he's definitely not going to wear a turban.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: I go, this is stupid. I said, please let them know, so she's like, OK, I'll talk to them and see what'll happen. So the next day, I show up at the trailer. And there's my shirt, there's my pants and there's a scarf. And I was like, oh, great, you guys gave me a scarf. She's like, no, that's the turban, you just got to wrap it around your (inaudible).

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: So I wore the stupid turban.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRESIDENT'S MAN: A LINE IN THE SAND")

JOBRANI: (As Ali Faisal) The closer I get to Allah...

And I swear I tried watching it and it was so bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRESIDENT'S MAN: A LINE IN THE SAND")

JOBRANI: (As Ali Faisal) ...The more peaceful I'll become.

And then I said, no more. I said, no more terrorist parts.

RAZ: It might be funny now, but for Maz - for a lot of actors who get typecast because of their ethnicity, it can get depressing. So comedy? It helps.

JOBRANI: Standup comedy is really like therapy. So whether you're dealing with ethnic issues, or you're dealing with just issues of the house, you're having an issue with your wife or your kids, or whatever it is, you go on stage and you just - you can actually just riff about it and find the funny in it and really by finding the funny in it, it helps you cope.

RAZ: Does it feel like some of those tropes about Muslims or Arabs, you know, that came after September 11, like have they kind of dropped off a little in the past few years or is it worse?

JOBRANI: No, listen man, it's like it's always one step forward, two steps back because, you know, anytime you think, like oh, great, we get a break. Al-Qaeda's slowing down. Oh, here comes ISIS. You know, it's always, you know, even - this is just going to exist no matter what happens. I mean, you could have a thousand Iranian or Arab doctors saving lives every day in the United States. And the lack of exposure that would get compared to one Muslim trying to blow up a car bomb in Times Square like the Pakistan guy had tried to do it years ago. And now the Muslims are coming to get us again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JOBRANI: Now I happen to be in Times Square that night doing a comedy show. And a few months before that, there was a white America guy in Austin, Texas, who flew his airplane into the IRS building. And I happened to be in Austin that day doing a standup comedy show, and I'll tell you as a Middle Eastern male, when you show up around a lot of these activities, you start feeling guilty at one point.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I was watching the news - I'm like, am I involved in this crap?

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I didn't get the memo. What's going on?

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: But what was interesting was when the white guy flew his plane into the building, I know all my Middle Eastern and Muslim friends in the states were watching TV going, please don't be Middle Eastern, don't be Hassan, don't be Hussein. And the name came out Jack. I'm like, whoo! That's not one of us. But I kept watching the news in case they came back. They were like, before he did, he converted to Islam. Dammit. Why, Jack, why?

RAZ: Do you ever come across people who are, you know, who are Middle Eastern, or Iranian, or Native American, who are just like, screw this? You know? I just want to completely hide from my identity because I'm just tired of like being tagged for something that I'm not?

JOBRANI: Absolutely. I mean, I used to do a joke about how a lot of Iranians just became Tony.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: Yeah. They became Italian. I mean, that was the way they dealt with 'cause I tell you, if you look at in recent history in the U.S. So you got 1979 - 1980, you got the revolution. Then you get the hostage situation. Then you get the movie "Not Without My Daughter."

RAZ: Oh, yeah. I remember that one.

JOBRANI: Yeah, which is about an American woman married to an Iranian man. And in America, he's great. But as soon as he goes to Iran, he turns into an animal. I remembered like, when "Not When My Daughter" came out, I'm serious I think dating for Iranian men became a lot harder. Dude's name, Shahrokh - became Tony. Mehsud became Mike.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: I mean, these guys were like, screw it, I don't want to deal with it.

RAZ: Yeah.

JOBRANI: When we're all together, we'd be speaking Farsi. Yeah, what's up? Dadadadada. As soon as like some blonde girls would go by, hey, girls, how are you? This is Mike. This is Tony. This is Vinny. It's like what? We're the Sopranos.

RAZ: (Laughter) I mean, what's like the balance between finding the funny side of a stereotype and then actually trying to break it?

JOBRANI: Look, stereotypes exist because there's always some truth to stereotypes. Not always, but often. And I feel - I personally feel like if there's a balance out there - I think the good thing about America is it is a melting pot. There's so many different people here. And, I myself, sometimes I see something and it breaks a stereotype. When I see Asian-Americans, I expect them to speak either like this or with an Asian - you know, like a Chinese accent, or Korean accent, or Japanese accent, or whatever. But I was in New York one time, and I saw this Asian-American talking like this, how you doing? What's going on you, guy? And I was like, what? It just blew my mind. I was like, it's an Asian Goomba.

RAZ: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: So, you know, that's going to exist. And so for me, I think it's - I think the breaking of serotypes is more interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JOBRANI: But one of the things I try to do with my standup is to break stereotypes. And I've been guilty of stereotyping as well. I was in Dubai and there's a lot of Indians who work in Dubai. And they don't get paid that well. And I got in my head that all the Indians there must be workers. And I forgot that there's obviously successful Indians in Dubai as well. I was doing a show and they said, we're going to send you a driver to pick you up. So I went out down to the lobby and I saw this Indian guy. I go, he's got to be my driver. Because he was standing there - like a cheap suit, thin mustache, staring at me. So I went over, excuse me sir, are you my driver? He goes, no, sir, I own the hotel.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I go, I'm sorry, then why were you staring at me? He goes, I thought you were my driver.

(APPLAUSE)

JOBRANI: I'll leave you guys with this. I try with my standup to break stereotypes, present Middle Easterns in a positive light, Muslims in a positive light. And I hope that in the coming years, more film and television programs come out of Hollywood presenting us in a positive light. Who knows? Maybe one day, we'll even have our own James Bond, right? My name's Bond, Jamaal Bond.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: Until then, I'll keep telling jokes. I hope you keep laughing. Have a good day. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Comedian and actor Maz Jobrani. He's about to release an action movie spoof with a Middle Eastern protagonist who does not play a terrorist. It's called "Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero."

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