Maz Jobrani: The Prince of Persia
Maz Jobrani has done it all. While you may not know his name, you probably recognize his face. In addition to being one of the nation’s premiere comedians, he’s also one of the founders of the Axis of Evil comedy tour, and has been in numerous films, sharing the screen with Ice Cube in Friday After Next, Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter and Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30. Maz first flew onto Christine and my radar in the amazing, but unfortunately short lived television series Better Off Ted as the scene stealing Dr. Bhamba.
I had the pleasure of working with him at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase recently. Sharing the bill with comedians Kvon and Amer Zahr, Maz sold out two back to back shows on a Sunday night. Between shows Christine and I were able to sit down and pick Maz and Amer’s brains about finding your fan base, auditioning for acting roles, the hurdles of television and speaking for your people.
I think a lot of people may dismiss ethnic comedians by thinking it’s easy to speak to their very specific audience because they have such shared experiences. What I believe is overlooked is the fact that, regardless of who your core fan base may be, we all go about writing and perfecting new material the same way, at open mic shows.
Mike: How is performing an open mic show different from performing for the audiences like tonight who are entirely your fan base?
Maz: Whenever I’m back in LA and I’m not headlining, I go to the Comedy Store. I love going on a Tuesday night when it’s a mixed audience. I just try out stuff that’s be on my mind. Sometimes it’s ethnic stuff. Sometimes it’s just stuff that’s happening in my life. The good thing is that you kind of lower your standards. You don’t expect a huge reaction. You’re just hoping to get some laughs. It’s actually freeing in a way. You hope to get some chuckles or laughs here and there. You’re only there for 15 minutes. Sometimes I prefer that environment. This is great because this is the act I put together, but it’s hard to work new material out in front of a bigger crowd because they paid money to come see you do your best.
You’re one of the first to develop a branded show around a central theme with the Axis of Evil tour featuring Middle Eastern comics. I’ve tried to do the same thing with my Desperate Houseguys shows featuring happily married comedians, or comedians in different stages of marriage. Do you think the branded theme show is the future of comedy?
Absolutely. The Kings of Comedy did it, and the Latino Kings of Comedy did it. There was the Blue Collar tour. Definitely if you can get a theme, there are a lot of funny people who have trouble finding their audience, so if there is something about you that the audience can relate to, it makes it easier to market to them.
Is the Axis of Evil the thing that helped expose you to the people who have become your pretty devoted group of fans?
That definitely helped. The Axis of Evil got on Comedy Central and all the press that we got helped. More importantly, when we got on Youtube people started passing these clips around.
Yeah, you said that when Marc Maron interviewed you on the WTF Podcast. Youtube has been tremendously helpful for you.
Maz: If it weren’t for Youtube we wouldn’t have been called to the Middle East to go perform out there. They discovered us through that.
Amer Zahr: In the Middle East that’s all they have.
Maz: This guy that helped organize our tour worked for Showtime Arabia, it was one of the national cable networks out there. He got his company to buy the rights to our Axis of Evil comedy tour and air it on their channel and that helped us a lot in the region as well.
Your ethnic background makes it easy for you to find your people. When we first started touring with the Axis of Evil when it was called the Arabian Nights instantly we knew how to market. We hit the student groups in colleges; Persian student groups, Arab student groups, Muslim student groups, Jewish student groups. Hit them all up and let them know about this ethnic based stuff. It was great.
If I was just some guy who didn’t have this ethnicity, who do I market to? Then the question become, what is my comedy like? You get a guy like Daniel Tosh, and you could probably say the same thing with Dane Cook, a lot of college crowds are going to love their stuff. So that’s where they have to focus their crowd because their material goes there. That’s how you find your audience. Some guys, it takes longer.
Your material is very relatable to a lot of people, especially people from Asia. Even though you weren’t specifically speaking about Filipinos, there were times when I was thinking, “Oh my God, my in-laws do that too!” Since you do appeal to so many people from an area that’s pretty tense these days, do you ever have problems within the crowd?
Most people are pretty cool. My audience tends to be affluent and educated. They tend to be really good audiences. I’m not insulting anybody no matter where they’re from. What you were saying about how similar it is, it’s true. You do you. You do your experience and you’ll see people relate to it. You were saying you did a Star Wars convention. At a certain point of doing if for like seven years or so you get to the point where you’re like, “Okay, these are the topics I like to talk about.” I like to talk to people who, if they don’t know what I’m talking about, they’re open to hearing about it. They’re open minded and think, “Oh this might be funny, let’s hear it.”
Christine: How do you get to the point where once your audience has found you, you can in turn choose your audience and not do a crappy one nighter backwood town show where they turn off Nascar to start the show and the audience wants to kill you? How do you do that and not worry about cutting into your income?
That’s the thing. I’m lucky I’ve gotten to be able I can say, “I want to do this, I don’t want to do this.” Coming up I would take whatever gig I could get. I would end up in bars with people where I’d look at them and think, “Oh my God, I’m going to get roped tonight.” In those, you just get through it. And you know what, 9 times out of 10 even those places, I would find if I was true to myself and did it with a smile, they’d come along for the journey. Once in awhile I’d be like, “Aw, they didn’t laugh a lot.” But generally speaking, they’d be polite. Once in awhile you’d get the drunk bastard. That strengthens you, going to those places. You learn to deal with that. You have to. You have to keep getting into every situation you can as a comic to grow.
Mike: Speaking of putting yourself in different situations, you’re equally as successful as an actor as you are as a comic. I recently got an acting agent and I’m noticing every audition has been completely different from that last. What advice do you have for auditioning?
I think for auditions you have to prepare as much as you can. I like to be off book going in, but I keep that paper with me in my hand. My agent when I was first starting off said, “Hold that side in your hand so in their mind subconsciously they look at you and think it’s a work in progress.” So even off book, keep it in hand so they think it’ll be even better. And they always say to make a choice. So, this guy is going to be nonchalant in this scene or angry. It’s all there on paper if it’s written well, but sometimes it’s not so you have to add a little bit to it. And then also be loose. If the line is, “Hey, how are you”, but you say, “Hey, what’s up”, don’t get all nervous and get in your head. I’ve done it before where I’m doing a scene now, I’m in my head, and I’ve gone, “Oh my God, you messed that line up.” Now I’m out of the scene. Basically in life, with anything, the less pressure you have, you give yourself…and the more you realize there are a million factors involved. You may go in and give the best performance, but the director’s girlfriend wants to get her brother in, then the brother gets it.
I just went to Chicago and auditioned to play Curly in the Three Stooges movie.
Oh no, clearly I’m not going to get it. I think Jim Carey wants the role.
That’s the thing. If you look at that and go, “It’s the Three Stooges. They’re probably going to go with Jim Carey, but they want to see the unknowns.” So you got nothing to lose. So you go in there and do it and you never know. You might knock it out of the park.
There was a guy there in full costume and I thought that was excessive. I shaved my face and head for it. Do you do that? Like when you auditioned for Better Off Ted, did you show up with a lab coat?
No, no, no. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. It depends what it is. I’ve done that before where I’ve borrowed a lab coast from a friend. I heard that Eriq La Salle for ER showed up in scrubs and it helped him. Sometimes when you can and it’s not that big of a thing you try and dress the part. If I’m auditioning for a lawyer or a high power attorney or a secret service agent I’ll wear a suit. I saw one dude one time, I forget what it was. It was one of those Middle Eastern things. This guy showed up with a turban and a big walking stick and it seemed overboard, especially if you show up in that full regalia and you’re not that prepared and you don’t really give a good performance, it hurts.
I just got done reading War For Late Night and one of the things pointed out was that in this business it’s such an anomaly that Conan’s producer Jeff Ross has a reputation for being a person that no one has anything to say anything bad about. And that’s the same for you. I posted online that I was working with you, all these people were like, “Oh, tell Maz I said hi!” A reoccurring theme on Marc Maron’s show is that he and the guest smooth out some past friction, but that wasn’t the case when you were on his show either. You just have this reputation for being a really nice guy. How do you do that in a business not known for that kind of character?
There’s no reason to be a dick. You are who you are, whether you’re a performer or not. I think Rogan was doing a bit about this. Some people the more famous they become, people go, “Oh that guy became a diva or a dick”. They were probably a dick before. It’s just now it’s exasperated. So if you were a good person before –
Amer: Anyone who was a dick was already like that. They were waiting for a reason for it to be okay in front of other people.
Maz: I personally think there’s no reason to be. We’re doing what we love doing and we’re getting paid to do it. There are people worse off than we are.
I was just reading on your website today you have a television show you did a pilot for.
“Funny in Farsi”. That didn’t get picked up.
I get very discouraged by television. It seems really good, smart, well written shows rarely have a chance to succeed. Better Off Ted had amazingly sharp writing, an original concept and a cast that had great chemistry. Is there a market for good television?
Network TV is hard. Modern Family is an anomaly. It’s numbers. If you don’t do well, you’re out. Cable has given us hope. If you look at a show like “Louie”, Louis CK’s show, I thought it was a great show. The reason it’s able to last is because it’s on FX.
Was that a pilot you produced?
“Funny in Farsi” was a show I was just cast in, but I’m trying to sell the show. I pitched to a lot of the networks, but everyone passed. The problem with networks a lot of times is they try to fit you in a mold that takes the funny out. They take a lot of comics, now you’re going to be a teacher or you’re moving in with your parents. We’re going to take your whole act and get rid of all of that. We’re going to water it down and try to please Middle America. And it ends up being thing mediocre thing.
Every once in awhile you get a thing like with Louis CK. He gets to put his version of his life on TV and it’s hilarious. That’s what I was trying to do with my life. I have a couple of ideas for shows based on how I’m a celebrity in the Middle East, but unknown in America and struggling to make it. It’s about my two worlds. I think it’s very funny. If I were to go and get it produced on a very independent network or even in Canada or something and put it out there and it was good, then I believe the networks would be like, “Why didn’t we ever hear about this?” You did! I pitched it to you! They don’t see it until you show it to them. I believe that. There was a book called Desperate Networks about networks passing on things that ended up being successful.
Christine and I wrote a pilot that’s being produced right now. We’re getting ready to figure out this pitching process and we’re looking at every means of distribution from cable to webisodes.
It’s the best thing. If you listen to the Louis CK interview with Marc Maron he talks about how he’s been making his own stuff for all these years. That put it in my head again. That’s what stand up is. We create our own opportunities. So why not take it to the next level and make filmic stuff that you can put online? The only impediment nowadays is cost and because of the low cost of cameras, you get a guy who knows how to shoot. Go out with a camera and shoot it totally cheap. Put online three to five minute episodes and get a little buzz going. Next thing you know you get meetings with people who want to put it on air.
I hate to keep harping on one part of your huge career, but on a total fan boy level, any funny stories from Better Off Ted?
Those guys were great!
You were really becoming a regular in the second season and started becoming the nemesis.
I don’t know if you remember the episode where I was sleeping with Lem’s mother. That was one of the more fun episodes. They had me wear the real short nighty. It was a great cast and great people. (Victor) Fresco was a great creator.
At this point, Christine took over the interview and took things in a more cultural direction asking some really insightful questions.
Christine: Do you ever feel pressure as an ethnic comedian to be a voice not only for your culture, but other minority cultures?
I think you try to avoid that as much as you can. The only time I feel pressure is when I look out in the audience and see an older Persian woman or an Arab woman and I’m like, “Oh my God, that reminds me of my mother.” Or there’s a kid. I’m like, “Okay, there goes any cussing I was going to do.” That’s the only time I feel pressure and that’s probably from years of growing up with a family where it was instilled in me, “Don’t say anything that’s going to embarrass us.” They put that in your head.
Amer: I’ll tell you what I find. And Maz was talking about this earlier with being true to yourself. If you’re an Arab, an Arab especially, you’re a spokes person for anything Arab or Middle Eastern. After 9/11 people would come up to me and say, “What do you think about Mohammed?” That’s a question. I think if you get up in front of an audience and your name is Amer or Mohammed or Maz Jobrani, if a good part of your material doesn’t have a tinge to it that has something to do with your ethnicity then it’s like you’re not being honest almost. The audience expects you to talk about Arab stuff if you’re an Arab. If a black comic got on stage and started telling jokes about going to the mall or whatever, observational, Jerry Seinfeld type humor, eventually you’re going to go, “But he’s black.”
Maz: Here’s what I think it is. What interests you? There are black comics who have that Mitch Hedbergy kind of observation. There are white comics who have it. I’ve seen Middle Eastern comics…a guy like Aziz Ansari doesn’t do Indian stuff at all. That’s where his sense of humor goes. The reason I talk about what I talk about is because actually it interests me. You have a law background. You’re educated in these things. So you write your blog all the time about what’s going on in the Middle East. You’d expect him to get up on stage and do the material he does. If you knew his background and he got up on stage and did fart jokes. You’d be like, “That’s kind of disappointing. He seems like this intelligent guy, we were hoping he’d talk about political or social issues.”
What about your Persian audience…well, for instance, with the Filipino culture, we have Rex Navarrette or Pacquiao. All of a sudden, they give us a voice. They’re heroes. They represent all of us. Do you ever feel that?
Sometimes they put that on you. That’s the thing –
Rex can’t do anything but Filipino stuff because they don’t want to hear it.
That’s the thing though. When I did the thing where I said, “cock”, and I do a joke about trying to run because right now there’s a group of Persians going, “Oh my God, he said “cock” I brought my mother, she doesn’t speak English and I’m going to have to translate cock into Farsi. That, for me, is pushing that envelope for them. To go, “Loosen up guys. I know what you’re thinking. You’re judging me about swearing. Just take it easy.” Sometimes you’ve got to push them a little bit.
Watching all of you, it’s so important and I don’t want to put anything on you, but being a minority, but representing people who aren’t white, there is gravitas. It’s so important for a sense of identity. Even though I’m not Persian, as somebody who’s brown, to hear that and be able to relate, do you ever think about what that means?
Amer: For me, at the end of the day, you want to make people laugh. That’s our job. If there is a teachable moment in it, great. At the end of the day, we’re doing stuff that’s meaningful to is. If out of it, they’re able to understand our culture better, then that’s great. If you go up there as a comedian with that goal, people will see through it.
Maz: Yeah, you’ve got to be funny. There better be a joke coming.
You can find out more about Maz and Amer and www.MazJobrani.com and www.AmerZahr.com. Maz’s DVD “Brown and Friendly” is available on Netflix and pretty much every single place that sells DVDs! He and I are the same age, so needless to say, I was super geeked that it starts with a cameo from the Iron Sheik!
Posted on March 6, 2011, in Interviews and tagged amer zahr, axis of evil, better off ted, Comedian, comedy, funny in farsi, maz jobrani, mike bobbitt, off the mike, Television. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.