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KPBS Midday Edition

Comedian Maz Jobrani Discusses 'Memoirs Of A Middle Eastern Funnyman'

Pictured is comedian and author Maz Jobrani in this undated photo.
Courtesy of Maz Jobrani
Pictured is comedian and author Maz Jobrani in this undated photo.
Comedian Maz Jobrani Discusses 'Memoirs Of A Middle Eastern Funnyman'
GUEST: Maz Jobrani, comedian/author, "I'm Not a Terrorist But I've Played One on TV"

THIS IS MIDDAY EDITION. THIS ONE THING TO BE STEREOTYPED AS AN ACTOR. IT'S ANOTHER TO BE STEREOTYPED ON AN AIRPLANE. COMEDIAN Maz Jobrani HAS DEALT WITH THAT STATUS IN MANY WAYS. INCLUDING THE ACCESS OF EVIL COMEDY NOW HE IS OUT WITH MMR -- MEMOIR ABOUT GROWING UP AND HIS EFFORTS TO MAKE IT INTO THE ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS. IT'S TOLD WITH A MIXTURE OF HONESTY AND HUMOR MIRRORED IN THE BOOKS TITLE. I AM NOT A TERRORIST AND I PLAYED ONE ON TV. MEMOIRS OF A MIDDLE EASTERN FUNNYMAN. I SPOKE WITH HIM EARLIER TODAY. WELCOME TO THE SHOW. THEY KEY FOR HAVING ME. NPR LISTENERS ARE SURE TO RECOGNIZE YOUR VOICE AS ONE OF THE REGULARS ON THE WEEKEND SHOW. WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME. THAT IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS TO DO AND IT HAS BEEN AMAZING. YOU DON'T REALIZE HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE LISTENING UNTIL YOU ARE ALL OVER THE WORLD AND PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU THEY HAVE LISTEN TO IT. GOING BACK TO YOUR BOOK AND THE TITLE OF IT, YOU HAVE INDEED PLAYED A TERRORIST. TELL US ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU WERE CAST AS ONE IN A CHUCK NORRIS MOVIE. GREATNESS STRUCK ME EARLY. I HAD A A JOB IN AN ADVERTISING AGENCY AND I GOT THIS JOB, THIS ROLE TO PLAY AND AFGHAN TERRORIST WHO WAS GOING TO BLOW UP A BUILDING IN CHICAGO. THIS WAS PRE-9/11. I THOUGHT TO MYSELF, IF I TAKE THIS JOB, MAYBE IT WILL HELP ME QUIT MY DAYTIME JOB. MAYBE I CAN REALLY SHOW THROUGH MY ACTING ABILITY WHY THIS TERRORIST IS DOING WHAT HE IS DOING. I WANTED TO DO A GREAT JOB OF ACTING. SO I WENT DOWN TO DALLAS WHERE THEY WERE FILMING IT TO THE WARDROBE FITTING. THEY GO, HERE IS YOUR SHIRT, SHIRT, PANTS AND TURBID. NO, ACTUALLY, ID. OUR RESEARCH. THEY DON'T WEAR TURBANS. LET'S GET THIS RIGHT. AND THE WARDROBE GUY WAS LIKE WELL THIS IS A CHECK NORTH MOVIE. OH, YES. I UNDERSTAND. THAT I THINK WE SHOULD RAISE THE BAR. PLEASE TALK TO THE -- PRODUCERS AND LET THEM KNOW I HAVE DONE THE RESEARCH AND IT SHOULD NOT BE A TURBAN. AND THE NEXT DAY I GO TO MY TRAILER AND THERE IS MY SHIRT, PANTS AND SCARF. AND I TOLD HIM SEE I TOLD YOU THEY WOULD SEE IT MY WAY AND I WILL BE GLADLY -- I WILL GLADLY BE THE SCARF WEARING TERRORIST. THAT IS NOT A SCARF IT'S A TURBAN. YOU HAVE TO WRAP IT AROUND YOUR HEAD. NOTHING. WHAT KIND OF REACTION DID YOUR FAMILY SEE TO -- HAVE TO SEE YOU PLAY A TERRORIST ON TV. FIRST OF ALL, COMING FROM AN IMMIGRANT BACKGROUND, PERSIAN PARENT. THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO BE AN ACTOR, COMEDIAN. IT WAS ALWAYS LAWYER OR DOCTOR. BE SOMETHING THAT THE COMMUNITY WILL LOOK UPON WITH SOME RESPECT. EVEN JUST GOING AND DOING THIS, MY PARENTS THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY. MY MOTHER WAS FREAKED OUT. SHE SAID AT LEAST LEARN SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE NEED. NOBODY NEEDS ACTORS. [ LAUGHTER ] AT LEAST, BECOME A MECHANIC. YOU CAN ALWAYS FIX CARS. WELL, YOU WENT FROM LAWYER TO MECHANIC. THERE ARE A LOT OF JOBS IN THE MIDDLE, YOU KNOW. SO SHE WAS PROBABLY GOING WELL THIS IS NOT GOOD. I CAME BACK TO LA AFTER CHECK NORTH AND SAID NO MORE TERRORIST PART. AND 24 CALLED. AND HE SAID IT'S A TERRORIST. AND I SAID NO THANK YOU. AND SHE SAID BUT HE CHANGES HIS MIND HALFWAY THROUGH THE MISSION. ALL, THE AMBIVALENT TERRORIST. AND THEN OF COURSE I DIE IN THAT. AND MY MOTHER WOULD SAY WHY DO YOU KEEP DYING? WHITEOUT YOU KILL THEM? WHEN THEY SAY LIGHTS, CAMERA, GO. YOU GO. YOU DON'T WAIT FOR ACTION. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND. SAY YOU WERE A KID FROM TO RAN TO MOVE TO THE STREETS OF LOS ANGELES. WHATEVER -- WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? ORIGINALLY I WENT TO NORTHERN CALIFORNIA TIBURON. I WAS HAPPY. I REALLY AS A KID IT'S FUNNY -- WE FIRST ACTUALLY SPENT A MONTH IN NEW YORK CITY. MY FATHER WAS ON BUSINESS AT THE PLAZA. HE WAS STAYING AT THE PLAZA HOTEL IN NEW YORK ACROSS FROM SHORTS. -- SCHWARTZ. AMERICA IS A GREAT PLACE. THERE IS A TOY STORE RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET. AND THEN I GREW UP IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THERE WAS A GREAT EXPERIENCE. I HONESTLY DID NOT KNOW THERE WAS THAT MANY IRANIANS IN AMERICA UNTIL I MOVED DOWN TO LOS ANGELES. IT WAS INTERESTING BECAUSE IN MARION COUNTY THERE WERE SO FEW IRANIANS IF YOU RAN INTO ONE IT WAS A BIG EVENT. YOU WOULD HUG AND KISS AND A FEW TIMES I WAS AT DELIS AND THE OWNERS WERE IRANIAN IN THE FOUND OUT I WAS IRANIAN AND STARTED GIVING ME FREE COOKIES. IT WAS AMAZING. SO I COME DOWN HERE WHERE EVERYBODY IS IRANIAN. SO EVERYONE IS IRANIAN. THIS WAS IN WESTWOOD. CAN YOU READ SOMETHING FROM YOUR BOOK FOR US? I THINK WE WOULD APPRECIATE THAT. ABSOLUTELY. THIS ONE IS FROM WHEN I WAS IN MARION COUNTY. DURING THE IRANIAN HOSTAGE MY NUMBER ONE GOAL WAS TO LAY LOW AND FIND MORE FRIENDS LIKE MARK COME ETC. I DIDN'T WANT ANYONE TO KNOW I WAS DIFFERENT. AND I SURE DIDN'T WANT THEM TO KNOW I WAS IRANIAN. THAT WOULD JUST GIVE THEM AN EXTRA BODY TO BEAT UP HERE CHI DID WANT ANYONE TO KNOW I EXISTED. THE LESS THEY KNEW ABOUT ME THE BETTER MY CHANCES OF MAKING IT THROUGH THE DAY WITHOUT A BROKEN NOSE. I DAD IN HIS ROLLS-ROYCE DID NOT HELP AT ALL. MY ATTEMPT TO BLEND IN BUILD MISERABLY IN THE FOURTH GRADE. I WAS MET VERBALLY BY A GREATER NAMED JIM WHO SOMEHOW FOUND OUT THAT I WAS THE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC. FURRY EYEBROWS IN A STRANGE SOUNDING NAME WITH PARENTS DRIVING ROLLS-ROYCE IS. THIS GUY CALLED ME AN F IN IRANIAN. AT THE IRANIANS. FIRST OF ALL, I EXPLAINED IS ANNOUNCED IRANIAN NOT IRANIAN. SECONDLY, YOU'RE BIGGER THAN ME SO IT IS WHATEVER YOU WANTED TO BE. I AM NOT SURE WHERE YOU HEARD THAT RUMOR THAT I AM IRANIAN. I AM TOTALLY I TALLY AND. CHILD. YOU STOPPED AUDITIONING FOR TERRORIST ROLES. HOW DID YOU COME TO MAKE THAT DECISION? IT WAS THIS FEELING OF BEING ON THE SET, ON THIS COUPLE OF TIMES, THE CHUCK NORSE THING AND THE 24. I REALIZED I REALLY DID NOT LIKE IT. ALSO LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE, AS A STANDUP COMEDIAN, I WOULD MAKE FUN OF THE MEDIA AND THE COVERAGE OF PEOPLE FROM THE MIDDLE EAST. I THOUGHT THAT IT DIDN'T SIT RIGHT WITH WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY HERE. AND I SAID NO MORE TERRORIST AUDITIONS. THE THING IS THE MAJORITY OF TIMES WHEN YOU SEE PEOPLE FROM THAT PART OF THE WORLD, YOU SEE THESE NEGATIVE IMAGES ON THE NEWS. AT THE TRUTH IS MOST OF THEM FROM THAT PART OF THE WORLD ARE NOT THAT. I HAVE DONE SHOWS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND I HAVE FRIENDS FROM THAT PART OF THE WORLD. MOST OF THEM THAT I KNOW ARE JUST GOOD PEOPLE LIVING THEIR LIVES. PLAYING THOSE PARTS ADDS FLAME TO THE FIRE SO I STOPPED. TODAY HAVE AN IMPACT? I HAVEN'T WORKED IN 10 YEARS. [ LAUGHTER ] I AM LUCKY BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE FRIENDS AT 90 -- I HAVE FRIENDS AND I DON'T JUDGE MY FRIENDS. I HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE ACTING IN THE HAVE KIDS AND MORTGAGES AND THEY HAVE TO TAKE THE PARTS. THE STANDUP SUPPORTS MY ACTING SO I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CHOOSE SOME OF THE PARTS I WANT TO DO. A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO THERE WAS THIS SMALL TOWN CALLED DAVID. THE STORY OF A YOUNG MUSLIM BOY WHO BEFRIENDS A JEWISH BOY. I PLAYED THE MUSLIM BOY'S DAD. AS THE STORY GOES, I OPEN UP MY WAYS. I THOUGHT IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL SCRIPT AND IT WAS SUCH A SMALL FILMS AND A PLEASURE TO BE A PART OF. THAT IS ONE OF THE THINGS I HAVE DONE. AND I HAVE JUST MADE MY OWN FILM CALLED JIMMY BEST FOOD AMERICAN HERO. THE PANTHER MEETS [ INDISCERNIBLE ]. IT'S A SILLY COMEDY. I PLAY A CHARACTER WHO IS AN IRANIAN OF FAST WITH BEING AN AMERICAN HERO AND FINALLY WINS THE GREEN CARD LOTTERY TO COME TO AMERICA. HE WANTS TO BE A COP LIKE STEVE McQUEEN WAS IN BULLET. BUT THE BEST JOB HE CAN GET IS GROCERY STORE AND HE HAS TO SAVE THE WORLD FROM THERE. COMING OUT THIS YEAR HOPEFULLY. TALKING ABOUT YOUR STANDUP. YOU HAVE A HUGE AMOUNT OF PUBLICITY AS BEING PART OF THE COFOUNDER OF THE ACCESS OF EVIL. DID YOU FIND THAT HUMOR IN THE MIDDLE EAST IS DIFFERENT FROM THE US? A LITTLE BIT. WHEN WE FIRST DID THIS SPECIAL ON COMEDY CENTRAL, -- SIX MONTHS AFTER WE DID COMEDY CENTRAL, IT IN ON YOUTUBE. WE GOT SOME -- GOT A CALL FROM SOME KIDS IN JORDAN. AND THEY ASKED US TO COME AND DO THE SHOW THERE. AND WE SAID WELL THE SHOW IS IN ENGLISH. AND THEY SAID YES I AM SPEAKING ENGLISH RIGHT NOW YOU IDIOT. THE PEOPLE IN THAT PART OF THE WORLD ARE VERY AWARE OF OUR CULTURE. THE REST OF THE WORLD KNOWS A LOT MORE ABOUT AMERICA THAN AMERICA ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD. SEKOU GO DO A JOKE ABOUT LINDSAY AND THEY WOULD KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. THE DIFFERENCES ARE THE PROMOTERS ARE AFRAID OF TOUCHING ANY SUBJECTS THAT DEALT WITH SEX, RELIGION OR POLITICS. THAT WAS AN INTERESTING THING TO SEE BECAUSE THEY WANTED US TO STAY CLEAR OF THOSE. AND WHEN THEY SAY POLITICS, THEN THAT LOCAL POLITICS. THAT WAS INTERESTING TO KIND OF NAVIGATE YOUR WAY THROUGH THAT. THAT THE AUDIENCES WERE LAUGHING AND IT'S AMAZING THIS PAST SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS I HAVE GONE BACK SEVERAL TIMES. THERE HAS BEEN A GROWTH OF STANDUP COMEDY IN THE REGION. THERE ARE LOCAL COMEDIANS PERFORMING ALL THE TIME. YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE ASKED NOT TO TALK ABOUT SEX OR LOCAL POLITICS. THAT WOULD BE SEEN AS A FORM OF CENSORSHIP IF SOMEONE DID THAT OVER HERE. WE HAVE BEEN HEARING A LOT ABOUT FREE SPEECH AND CENSORSHIP EVER SINCE THAT TRAGEDY IN PARIS. I AM WONDERING AS A COMEDIAN, DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT? WHERE DOES MY FREEDOM OF SPEECH -- IS THERE A LIMIT TO WHAT I CAN SAY? IT'S INTERESTING. I HAVE ALWAYS SAID THAT THE FIRST TIME I WAS ON COMEDY CENTRAL THERE WAS A SET CALLED PREMIUM BLEND AND THEY HAD TO SUBMIT OUR SET TO THE STANDARDS OF PRACTICE OF THE NETWORK AND THEY CAME BACK. I USED TO DO A JOKE WHERE I JUST REFERENCED MERCEDES-BENZ AND 711. THEY CAME BACK AND SAID YOU CANNOT SAVE EITHER ONE. THEY MAY BE SOME OF THE SPONSORS OF THE SHOW. IN THE MIDDLE EAST GOD IS GOD AND IN THE WEST TIED IS GOD. WHAT IS INTERESTING IS WHEN I AM IN A SHOW THAT HAS BEEN PRODUCED BY SOMEONE IN THE COUNTRY ON YOUTUBE AND THEY SAY STAY AWAY FROM THESE TOPICS, I STAY AWAY. I TO PICK ABOUT MY FREEDOM OF SPEECH. MY GOAL ON STAGE IS TO BE FUNNY AND HAVE THE AUDIENCE HAVE A GOOD TIME. I AM NOT THERE TO TURN THEM OFF. AS A MATTER FACT, WE SPOKE WITH A LEADER WHEN WE FIRST WENT OUT THERE AND HE SAID JUST BY COMING HERE AND DOING STANDUP COMEDY, YOU ARE PUSHING THE ENVELOPE. SO YOUR MATERIAL DOES NOT NEED TO BE EDGY. I AM FULLY IN SUPPORT OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH BUT I THINK AS A COMEDIAN OR PERFORMER -- WHAT AM I GOING TO DO. I DON'T EVEN HAVE A JOKE ABOUT YOUR LEADER. WHY WHEN I MAKE ONE UP? BACK TO YOUR BOOK. YOUR MOTHER'S VOICE IS VERY FUNNY IN THIS POINTS -- BOOK. IS SHE ALL RIGHT WITH YOU USING HER VOICE AND CHARACTER IN COMEDY BUT SHE IS SUCH A SWEET LADY. I TRIED TO APOLOGIZE IS MUCH AS I CAN. TO SAY THAT MY MOTHER IS A VERY SWEET LADY. WE HAVE BECOME VERY CLOSE. AS A KID, CULTURALLY SPEAKING, IT WAS SO DIFFERENT. WHEN I WAS A KID FROM THAT BACKGROUND, IT WAS OKAY TO HIT YOUR KID WITH A HANGER. NOWADAYS, I WOULD EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. BUT BACK THEN, MY MOTHER WOULD SOMETIMES HIT US. WAS NOT A BIG DEAL AND WE DIDN'T GO HOME WITH BRUISES. AND THEN LATER AS I GOT OLDER, IT WAS MY MOTHER AGAIN AND HER SAYING THAT OF THIS ACTING STUFF. YOU NEED TO BECOME A LAWYER. IT'S FUNNY BECAUSE I SAY IN THE INTRO, I AM SURE A LOT OF TIMES SHE WAS SAYING ONE THING AND I WAS HEARING SOMETHING ELSE. LIKE WOODEN SHE WAS SAYING WHY ARE YOU NOT A LAWYER LIKE SO-AND-SO'S SON? IN MY MIND I WAS HEARING HER SAY I NEVER SHOULD'VE HAD YOU. YOU ARE A BIG DISAPPOINTMENT. BUT SHE IS TOTALLY BEHIND THE. SOMETIMES NOW SHE WILL BE LIKE LISTEN, I NEED TO T-SHIRTS AND GIVE ME A COUPLE OF DVDS. THE NEIGHBORS WHAT SOME. I WANT TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT THAT LAST QUESTION. YOU ARE FILMING A SPECIAL THIS WEEKEND. IS THAT RIGHT? IN LOS ANGELES AT THE WILL TURN THE USER. IF ANYONE IS LOOKING TO GET OUT OF TOWN FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, COME ON UP AND BE A PART OF THAT. IT'S ALSO PART OF THE BOOK TOUR. WHOEVER BUYS A TICKET GETS A BOOK AND A SIGNING AFTERWARDS. Maz Jobrani I HAVE BEEN SPEAKING WITH THANK YOU SO MUCH. THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

It's one thing to try to avoid being stereotyped as an actor or entertainer. It's another to try to avoid being stereotyped when you get on an airplane.

Iranian-American actor and comedian Maz Jobrani has dealt with life after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in many ways, including touring as part of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe.

Now Jobrani has written a memoir about growing up as an Iranian immigrant in Southern California and his efforts to make it in the entertainment business.

The memoir is told with a mixture of honesty and humor that's mirrored in the book's title: "I'm Not a Terrorist, But I've Played One on TV: Memoirs of a Middle Eastern Funnyman."

Jobrani, who was in San Diego in February for a lecture at UC San Diego, said he began his acting career while working at an advertising agency. He accepted a role in "The President's Man: A Line in the Sand," and he played a terrorist.

But after another similar gig, he decided to stop accepting roles as terrorists.

"It was a feeling of being on a set and realizing that I really didn't like it," Jobrani told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. "This doesn't sit right with what I'm trying to say here."

Jobrani, who was born in Iran but moved to California when he was 6, said images of Middle Easten people as terrorists aren't reflective of the population.

"I've done shows now in the Middle East, and I always say I've never met a terrorist," he said.

Jobrani, who is best known for his stand-up comedy, said he's now more selective about the roles he plays.

"I'm lucky that I do my stand up," he said. "I've been able to choose the parts that I want to do."

Excerpt From "I'm Not a Terrorist, But I've Played One on TV"

I was born in Iran and grew up in America. That makes me a Middle Eastern American. The only thing more intimidating for a Middle Eastern guy than going to Texas is going to Texas to meet Chuck Norris. Talk about the official Heartland of America. When it comes to terrorists, Chuck has a 100 percent kill rate, usually televised at two o’clock in the morning. One of my first big breaks was to star as a terrorist in that Chuck Norris movie I mentioned in the Introduction. Yes, I was blessed with greatness early on. So off I went to Dallas to meet him. Most of what I knew about Dallas I learned from stereotypes picked up in my childhood. When I first came to America in the late 1970s, I didn’t know much about American sports. I was only six at the time and had played soccer back in Iran. I had never heard of American football. So once I began to settle in I started to learn how this foreign game was played.

“I get the part at the beginning where the guy kicks the ball. Why does the other guy catch it? Is he the goalkeeper? Why is he being chased by all the other guys? Does he owe them money? Why is everyone dressed in tights? These are the biggest and meanest ballerinas I’ve ever seen. Why are they hitting each other so hard? Do they have anger issues? I know why they’re angry. Because their ball isn’t round. Balls are supposed to be round. Who makes an oblong ball? You have no idea which way it’s going to bounce. I’d be pissed, too! Whoa, whoa, whoa—who are the girls dancing on the sidelines? How do they fit in? You mean they get paid just to cheer? What a country!”

Once these concerns had been properly addressed, my friend Sam—another Iranian kid who’d been in the United States for a while—led me to my first favorite sports team: the Dallas Cowboys. This was the late seventies, so the best teams in the NFL were the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unaware of what the Cowboys stood for, I became a fan and only later found out that I was rooting for what was known then as “America’s Team.” What better way to become an American, I thought, than to be a fan of the most Americanny American of teams that ever existed. Plus, they have hot cheerleaders!
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