Ask Maz Jobrani about his comedy material and his response is simple: “I take on social issues, political issues and my kids. Anybody who has kids will tell you that they provide you with a tonne of material.
“But I’m still talking about political and social stuff. It’s hard not to with Donald Trump and the elections we have here.”
When you’re speaking to an Iranian-American comedian known for his political jokes, you might reasonably expect him to fire off some Trump-inspired zingers from the start. But Jobrani, an actor and comedian well known for his contribution to the 2008 Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, is far more even-handed and thoughtful about Trump’s popularity.
“His supporters – it’s all fear-based.”
The comedian, who begins a tour of Australia this week with his new comedy show, has a lot to say on the subject of fear. In a time of increasing racial turbulence in the US, and strain over gun control, he’s candid about the tension in his adopted country.
“What’s interesting to me is that a lot of these guys really believe that if these immigrants leave, that they will have their jobs back and that their lives will be better. But really … there’s a modernisation of the economy happening, and a lot of these people just aren’t trained for the modern economy,” he says.
“Rather than being angry at immigrants, they should be angry at the iPhone, they should be angry at their governments for not training them.”
The problem, Jobrani continues, is that the US can be very insular; generally speaking, Americans aren’t well-travelled.
When Obama was elected to the US presidency, Jobrani felt the US was progressing, that perhaps racism was declining. But that changed with the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his vocal supporters.
I think when you’re an immigrant, you always have one foot in one culture, one foot in the other culture.
“It is scary because these people exist, and they’ve just been either in hiding or they’ve been quietened in the past several years, but now they’re back. And they’re really seeing the world from another prism, they really are seeing the world as they are the victims of us, they are victims of immigrants, they are the victims of black people, of gay people, of all this liberal agenda that has allowed this country to go to hell.”
As a comedian, Jobrani doesn’t simply poke fun – he unpacks the prejudice, using recent events covered by mainstream media to illustrate his point.
He believes his comedy can make a difference. While he says audience members on tour are usually fans, he reaches others in club shows and TV comedy specials.
“[But] you still have the people coming from a small-thinking, racist mentality.”
Racism is a topic Jobrani deals with in his comedy; it seems his mission is to challenge how Americans – and the world – think of people from the Middle East (a term Jobrani uses to cover Iran as well as the Arab world). He often focuses on Muslims, who Jobrani says are “so demonised in the west” due to world events and media coverage.
“I do feel like the people that I have met from these parts of the world are good people, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have that representation in the mainstream western media. So that’s why I bring some of these issues up.”
Jobrani also brings up Australian politics. He’s curious about a conservative Australian female politician he’s heard about – Pauline Hanson.
Once explained to him who she is – using the example of Hanson’s recent bid for a Royal Commission into Islam – Jobrani pauses:
“She’s kind of like your Sarah Palin in a way. Wow. Scary.
We came from oppressive countries and so we appreciate the hell out of the west.
“It’s a similar thing here … a lot of it is based on fear, a lot of it is based on the fact that these people don’t know anybody in these cultures.”
The simpleness of fear-based reactions to outside terror is but one of the things Jobrani mocks in his new film, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero – a cross between The Pink Panther and Borat. The movie, which he starred in, and co-produced and co-wrote with Amir Ohebsion, pokes fun at right-wing news media and its shock jocks, while making the stringent point that migrants living in the US generally do it because they want to be there.
“Immigrants love America. And they sometimes love America more than Americans do, and I’m sure it’s the same thing in Australia, where we came from oppressive countries and so we appreciate the hell out of the west. And that’s why, I think, I’m so liberal in my fight for anyone who is an underdog.”
Indeed, in his autobiographical book, I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, one of Jobrani’s central missions is to show “how much we have in common, whether you’re Middle Eastern or black or Asian or white or whatever”.
“I talk about being a kid and being embarrassed by your parents. I talk about wanting to just blend in with other kids and not stick out.”
But, as the title suggests, Jobrani also talks about his early experiences playing a terrorist in American film and television.
“I felt really bad doing it afterwards and I decided not to do anymore,” he admits.
Still, for all he has in common with others, Jobrani has also successfully made a living out of telling jokes about what makes him different. He says identity issues haven’t plagued him, but they have shaped him.
“I think when you’re an immigrant, you always have one foot in one culture, one foot in the other culture,” he says. “I’ve never felt fully American and I’ve never felt fully Iranian.”
Jobrani is comfortable using cultural oddity as a prop, but he says he’s not defined by his heritage, nor by a feeling of obligation to others who share it.
“I never sit there and go, ‘God, my community needs me to talk about these things’. I do it because I am interested in it.
“And in all honesty, I feel like, as a comedian, I get a chance to talk about the hypocrisies and the injustices of the world.”
Maz Jobrani is touring Australia this month with Maz Jobrani – Live in Australia
Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero has a limited release in Australia, starting in Melbourne
Catch up on US politics with Full Frontal With Samantha Bee on SBS On Demand.