Maz Jobrani was born in Tehran, Iran, before his family emigrated to California when he was six years old. He studied political science and Italian at UC Berkeley, and was enrolled in a PhD programme at UCLA – but in the end, the call of comedy was too great.
Since working his way up through the ranks at Sunset Boulevard's famous Comedy Store, he went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Axis of Evil comedy tour.
He’s a regular on the likes of The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and The Late Late Show – definitely reaching ‘kinda of a big deal’ status over the Pond.
You may have also seen him Grey’s Anatomy, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Apple TV’s Circuit Breakers – or in Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, Disney's Descendents or Ice Cube's Friday After Next.
On a more serious note, Maz is using his platform to amplify the voice of the Iranian people as they protest the mistreatment of women and others inside Iran. In a recent podcast interview with George Lopez, Maz spoke about the shift in his life since the death of Mahsa Amini, and how he channeled all of his effort and energy into spreading awareness.
It’s a strange time for a comedian to be tasked with making people laugh given all that is happening in the world, but it’s also an opportunity to keep people talking about it – and to implore them to do something about it.
Here are the five moments that shaped his career…
I was in the 7th grade and decided to audition for the school musical, The Boyfriend. Given that our school was 7th and 8th graders, most of us lowerclassmen got background dancer parts. On one of the first days of our rehearsals, the director, Ms Shirley Bonbright, (that was her actual name), told us that being a part of an ensemble meant that we had to be at every rehearsal no matter how big or small our part. She also told us that when we were on stage singing and dancing, we always had to be smiling. Because that’s the energy that the audience deserved.
One day, when I was feeling under the weather, I went up to Ms Bonbright and told her, “Ms Bonbright, I’m not feeling well today, but I know it’s important for me to be here, so I’m here.” Then I proceeded to go on stage and rehearse with a big smile on my face as I sang and danced.
Suddenly, Ms. Bonbright stopped the whole rehearsal, pointed at me, and started yelling to the others, “Look at him! Look at him! He’s sick, he’s here. He’s singing, he’s dancing, he's smiling!” It took me a moment to realise I wasn’t in trouble, but rather, she was using me as an example to the other kids.
It was the first time I got positive reinforcement for being on a stage and doing the right thing. I can honestly say that from that moment on I wanted to have a life as a performer!
Greatness & Mediocrity
I always say you’re inspired by greatness and mediocrity. You see someone score an amazing goal in soccer and you think, “I’m gonna go out and score an amazing goal!” On the other hand, you see someone play horribly, and you think, “I know I’m not THAT bad! So I’m gonna go out and play.”
This happened to me with standup comedy. I was in college and having a bad day. My father had always supported me financially, and now that I was old enough, I felt I should pay him back whenever possible. So, a few weeks earlier I had written him a check for $250 and given it to him. He had laughed at me and said he would keep it in his wallet as a fun reminder of the first time I had tried to pay him back. He seemed tickled with amusement.
That day I went to the bank to withdraw $20 from the ATM and a message came up indicating that I didn’t have enough funds in my account. I checked again and again, and was told I only had $17. After a few attempts, it dawned on me that my dad had cashed the check after all! Whereas I thought I had over $250 in the bank, that money was gone, leaving me with just enough to not be able to withdraw any cash to eat.
I was forced to borrow money from a friend and we went to a bar. As we sat down and I told him the story of my day, he was amused and laughing. We looked over to one side of the bar and they were holding a standup comedy competition. As we watched we learned that there were only two contestants and they were both really bad. My friend suggested that if I had entered and told the story of my day, it would have been better than both of the other comedians. I promised myself that the next time there was a comedy competition that I would enter. “After all,” I thought, “I can’t be THAT bad!”
Do it Now or Don’t Do it!
By my mid-20s I had tried several different careers and quit. My parents, being Iranian immigrants, had wanted me to be a lawyer, doctor, or an engineer. I, from the age of 12, had wanted to be an actor and a comedian. I first considered law to satisfy my parents. Then, in college I thought maybe I would be a professor. Later, dropping out of grad school, I tried becoming a copywriter in advertising.
It was at the ad agency, where an older producer named Joe Rein, saw me in a play and asked me if I had ever considered pursuing comedy and acting professionally. I told him that I was planning to save money till I was in my early 30s and was going to give my dream a try then.
He took me into his office and dropped some knowledge. He said, “I’m in my 60s and when I was in my 20s there were some things I wanted to do. But life got busy, and I never got around to it. So, if you want to do it, do it now!”
It was the lightbulb moment I needed, and he was the guardian angel who presented it. I haven’t looked back since.
To become a regular at the world-famous Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, you had to perform a three-minute set in front of the owner, Mitzi Shore. If she liked you, someone from the club would tell you to come back a few weeks later and do a six-minute set. If she liked you again, you’d come back and do a ten-minute set.
I worked my way to the ten-minute set and felt like I had had another good performance. Once I was done with this last set, I was forced to walk past her at the back of the dark room known as the Original Room. Mitzi would sit by the exit, eating popcorn, and watching us all perform. If she decided to make you a regular at the club, she would reach out her hand, pull you in and whisper your acceptance in your ear.
As I walked the 20 feet towards the exit sign, I prayed that she would grab my arm and make me a regular. Being a regular at this club would mean that I would be able to perform and grow exponentially. It was also where my comedy heroes like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and more had performed.
I walked slowly and tried not to make eye contact with Mitzi. I didn’t want to give her any reasons not to anoint me. As I almost passed her, she grabbed my arm and pulled me in.
She said, “You’re very funny!”
I replied, “Thank you Mitzi.”
“I’m gonna make you a regular.”
“THANK YOU, MITZI!”
“Have you ever thought about wearing the outfit?”
“You know… the hat and the gown.”
“The hat and the gown?”
Then, she gestured a circular motion by her head, “the HAT and the GOWN!”
I suddenly realised, she wanted me to wear a turban and a dishdasha on stage. My whole career flashed in front of my eyes. I was going to become the terrorist comic and be laughed out of town. I didn’t know what to say, but I was so intimidated that I simply said, “SURE!”
The next few weeks I had to come up with an excuse as to why I couldn’t wear the outfit. I told the booker of the club that if I wore a turban and dishdasha on stage, some terrorists might hear about it and come after me. Worse yet, I said, they might come blow up the club!
The booker told me she would talk to Mitzi and get back to me. A few minutes later she called and said, “Just wear something comfortable. You’ll be fine!”
Axis of Evil
Mitzi put me, Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader, Sam Tripoli and anyone else who was a brown comedian – but not Latino or African American – on a show called the Arabian Nights. She had always put together theme shows, and she wanted to have a voice of Muslim/Middle Eastern comedians that presented us in a positive light. This was a year before 9/11 and she felt there was going to be a need for a positive voice for our people in the near future.
As we toured under that name, me, Ahmed and Aron decided to change the title to something a little edgier. At that time, George Bush had called Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an Axis of Evil. We felt we could lampoon that title by adding the word “comedy” at the end and touring as the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.”
Our reception was amazing. This was all post 9/11 and the demonisation of Muslims, Persians, Arabs, etc. was in full swing. We were the first group of comedians from these backgrounds performing in the US and ultimately in the Middle East.
We added Dean Obeidallah to the group and filmed a special for Comedy Central. Around the same time YouTube was really taking off and people would send clips of mine from that special to each other in e-mail groups. I knew it was happening because quite often I was part of the e-mail group.
I can honestly say that this comedy special is what took me from being known as an actor in some other projects to being known as Maz Jobrani, the comedian.
Maz Jobrani is releasing a new comedy special on March 31st on YouTube, entitled “The Birds and the Bees.” He’s also back on tour – for dates/cities visit mazjobrani.com