Finding The Punchline: Maz Jobrani On Comedy In The Trump Era

Feb 27, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 2:47 pm

Making jokes about politics and politicians is a tradition as old as America itself. During the Revolutionary War, cartoonists portrayed King George III as a tyrant and buffoon. More than a century ago, Mark Twain wrote that "fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can." And in the 1960s, the Smothers Brothers used their TV platform to criticize the Vietnam War — much to the chagrin of network censors.

These days, of course, comedians have a new target: President Donald Trump.

Among those finding the humor in this politically polarized time is the Iranian-American comic and actor Maz Jobrani. Jobrani came to the U.S. as a child during the 1979 revolution in Iran, and much of his comedy seeks to humanize Persian culture and make light of our stereotypes on issues like immigration.

Offstage, he's become an increasingly vocal critic of President Trump, and was among those who protested the administration's ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iran. Jobrani says he hears from people who believe comedians have no place in politics, but he disagrees — and not just because he holds a degree in political science. Being able to laugh about politics, Jobrani says, may be the key to overcoming our political divides.

Jobrani is the author of I'm Not a Terrorist, But I've Played One on TV, and is currently starring in the CBS show Superior Donuts.

In this episode, we refer to a conversation we had recently with historian Cristina Maria Garcia. Check it out here!

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, BYLINE: Support for this podcast and the following message come from Texas Children's Hospital, proud to be ranked fourth in the country by U.S. News and World Report. For more than 60 years, dedicated to providing legendary care and creating a healthier future for young cowboys and cowgirls everywhere at texaschildrens.org.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. If you tuned in to "Saturday Night Live," the weekend after last fall's election, you may remember the sketch. A group of friends - all liberals - are gathered around that TV as states begin to report voter tallies. It doesn't go the way they expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

AIDY BRYANT: (As character) OK. All she has to do is come back and win Wisconsin, come back and win Michigan, come back and win Pennsylvania.

CECILY STRONG: (As character) And some of the counties are - the urban counties they're so - black people vote late.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Making jokes about politics, politicians and voters is a tradition as old as America itself. Cartoonists portrayed King George as a tyrant and a buffoon during the Revolutionary War. More than a century ago, Mark Twain wrote that fleas can be taught nearly anything that a congressman can. And in the 1960s, the Smothers Brothers used their TV platform to criticize the Vietnam War much to the chagrin of network censors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMOTHERS BROTHERS: (Singing) And if you ever get a war without blood and gore, boy, I'll be the first to go. (Unintelligible), Mr. McNamara.

VEDANTAM: Today, we thought we'd talk with one of those comedians, the Iranian-American Maz Jobrani. For him, the Trump administration ban on travelers from seven nations, including Iran, has hit close to home. Maz is a liberal and has strong feelings about President Trump, feelings that are increasingly showing up in a stand-up routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

MAZ JOBRANI: Listen, first of all, whether you like Trump or not, you've got to admit when he first started running, everybody thought it was a joke. Everybody was like (laughter). Now no one can believe it. Everyone was like (laughing nervously).

VEDANTAM: Today on Hidden Brain, finding the laughter in a moment of political strife. Maz Jobrani came to the United States when he was just a kid. His family fled Iran during the 1979 Revolution. Over the years, Maz has made a name for himself with comedy that draws on parenting, Persian culture and politics. He's the author of "I'm Not A Terrorist But I've Played One On TV." He also has a new show out on CBS. It's called "Superior Donuts." Maz, welcome to Hidden Brain.

JOBRANI: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: Maz, you know, I've always had the sense that comedians are really social scientists because you can't do comedy unless you have a really sharp eye for human nature. There's a joke that you did some months ago that reinforced this idea for me. It's about Donald Trump's attitude toward immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

JOBRANI: Listen, the number one thing I've heard Trump supporters say - number one thing - I love him because he says what's on his mind. He just says what's on his mind. He just says what's on his mind. You go what are your thoughts on his policies? I don't know about his policies. He just says what's on his mind. I thought that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard until I went to visit my mother - my own mother, Iranian lady - she had fallen for the line. My mom goes, Maz, I like this guy because he say what is on his mind.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I go, mom, are you crazy? He's anti-immigrant. If he became president, your relatives couldn't come to visit you. She goes I don't like them anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: So, Maz, you predicted what the Trump administration was going to do with travelers from Iran months before it was announced. Can you tell me what's next in Donald Trump's playbook?

JOBRANI: (Laughter) You know how hard it's been to write material? Because to do stand-up comedy, it takes time for the material to develop. So you'll come up with a joke, you'll tweak it, you'll work it for six months, you really fine tune it and now you've got a good bit.

Well, with Trump, every day there's something new coming out. And sometimes you do a joke that already feels dated. I did a joke last night about the travel ban, and it just - it felt dated to me already, although you can continue to do it. So nobody knows what he's going to do next. And I keep saying that Trump is good for comedy, but bad for the world.

VEDANTAM: What was the joke about the travel ban?

JOBRANI: Well, it's just that I've been doing jokes about - I talk about how when the protests happened for the travel ban at the airport, I went down - I actually went down at the LAX and I protested. And one of the observations I said I made was that I realized quickly that white people born in America protest differently than people of color or anyone who is an immigrant because I'm an immigrant. And this actually happened. We were all protesting, but then when the cops came out in riot gear, I kind of felt like I wanted to go protest on the side whereas all the white people just kept going at the cop. And I'm going - I was like are you crazy?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: But they were - one guy - this actually happened - one guy had his finger in the face of the cop in riot gear. The cop had his baton. He was ready to go. This white guy had his finger in the face of the cop and just - I don't know what he was saying, but it looked like he was saying something along the lines of this is my right. And I'm going to protest or whatever. And I got nervous for him, and I got nervous for us. I got nervous for everybody.

VEDANTAM: I can tell that you feel very strongly about Donald Trump and that there's much about this administration that upsets you. But I'm also wondering what effect this has on your comedy. I mean, it's hard to be funny when you're angry at the same time isn't it?

JOBRANI: Yeah. Well, I mean, some people have made a living doing that. Lewis Black was one of my favorite comedians. He's angry, and he's funny, very funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

LEWIS BLACK: That's the last [expletive] person you want to give a firearm to.

(LAUGHTER)

BLACK: Did somebody teach you in the fifth grade? Are you [expletive] me? You don't think at some point she's going to reach in her desk and go shut up you [expletive].

JOBRANI: So there are those who have that personality. My personality is probably not as angry onstage. So what I do is if I do get into a topic like that, I just make sure there's a punchline coming afterwards. So I think you just got to keep in mind to have punchlines in there.

I do have people, you know - I've been very active now on social media, and I have people comment and say stick to comedy. You're a comedian. Stick to comedy. And my response to those people is then you should stick to accounting. Don't criticize my comedy. I mean, it's like we are - you are what you are. I am a political human being. I have - that's one of my interests. I studied political science in college. I was actually going to get my Ph.D. in poli-sci. And a lot of my material from early on in my career dealt with politics, so I've always considered myself as somebody who enjoys political humor. So I'm not going to stop.

VEDANTAM: I know you spend time watching Fox News in the age of Donald Trump, and in some of your comedy you talk about how this changes your own perception.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

JOBRANI: It's based on fear. It's all based - like I watch it from time to time to see what the other side is thinking a little bit. You know what I'm saying? I want to like - and then once you watch it a little bit, you start like doubting the people around you. I'm like maybe my cousin Mahmoud is up to some [expletive].

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: You're saying that you start to buy it?

JOBRANI: You know, it's very similar to what happened at the Republican National Convention. I mean, when they kept saying make America great again and got to make America safe and America's in danger. And it's this - if you buy into that fear, I mean - they really were scaring people at that Republican National Convention to the point where you thought, oh, you know, if I'm there, I'm thinking I shouldn't go out in the streets because Muslims are coming to get me. And I think that if you watch those enough that you slowly start doubting and start - when you go into a subway store and there's a Muslim guy behind the counter, you start, you know, doubting his intentions a little bit.

VEDANTAM: How do you take that and turn that into comedy? How do you take stuff that's very serious that people potentially care about, that people are potentially hurt by - how do you take that and turn that into a joke or a punchline? What's - is there a method to doing it?

JOBRANI: I think sincere emotions and feelings about a subject, your sincere experiences with the subject. I talk about, for example, talking about the fear of ISIS. And I was doing a little bit about how I actually went to Turkey in November to do a show. And at 7 a.m. one morning, somebody rang my - the door at the hotel room. And I was jet lagged and I got up and I went and looked through the little peephole, and I look out and there were three Arab guys standing there in a triangular fashion like one standing in the center, two flanking him.

And I honestly for a second I thought, oh, my God, ISIS has come to get me. And I just was scared, and I go who is it? And then the poor Arab guy - he kind of looked around, and he goes Mustafa? And I go, no, there's no Mustafa. He goes, oh, sorry, I thought Mustafa. So they had come to the wrong door. Just three Arab guys were - I guess their buddy Mustafa must have been, you know, two doors down - I don't know. But that's where, again, it became - when I was talking about it onstage, it was getting laughs because it was making fun of myself and how I had fallen for this fear. So I think you take those situations, and you talk about the odds of you actually having something like this happen to you are low, but how you can buy into it and how I bought into it.

VEDANTAM: One of the things I find very interesting about your comedy from a psychological perspective, Maz, is you talk about how being surrounded by stereotypes and profiling changes the way you think about yourself. You did an interview some time ago with the public radio show The World, and I want to play a short excerpt from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE WORLD")

JOBRANI: There's this feeling I used to have after September 11. I felt like whenever you passed through the metal detector, you just felt guilty. And I would go through it, and I would hear like (imitating beeping) and I'd be like I knew it.

VEDANTAM: So that's a joke, of course, but I understand this feeling of being suspicious of even yourself might have some parallels in real life as you've gone around the country to perform live shows.

JOBRANI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, listen, we get bombarded with this stuff every day, every day, every day. So it's going to be in our minds. It's going to be there. I mean, I did another bit in my special called the "I'm Not A Terrorist But I've Played One On TV." I do a joke about how I say I realized that I racially profile, and this actually happened, again, where I was on an airplane sitting towards the front.

And before the door closed, this blond girl, American girl probably in her mid-20s. She came running to the front. It seemed like she was having a panic attack and just was saying I got to get off this plane. I can't do this. I can't fly, and the stewardess came up and goes what's going on? We're about to leave. No, no, I can't. I've got to get off. And then the stewardess said, OK, let me ask the pilot. The pilot came out and said, oh, OK, fine, you can get off.

So she just walked off, and then we closed the door. And we took off, and as we were taxiing, the passenger looked next to me, looked at me and said shouldn't we check to see if she had any luggage underneath?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: And my thought to the passenger was, no, she was just some 20-year-old white girl. Any baggage that she had was in her head. Whereas the honest truth is, again, this is how we all profile because of what we've seen.

And I do this - when I would do this in the - when I did this in my stand-up, I picked somebody out in the audience. There was an Egyptian, and I said I guarantee you - I said next time an airplane is about to take off, go sit in the back of the plane you're in and just come running to the front and with your thickest Arabic accent just say I have to get off this plane right now. I have to get off this plane. And see if they let you off the plane, they will definitely stop the plane. They will search the plane. You know, President Trump will give a speech that they thwarted a terrorist attack. So what's that based on? That's based on these stereotypes that we've seen so many times over and over again. And so, yeah, I think we all stereotype, and that's not a good thing.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to ask Maz about the psychology of crafting a joke and whether comedy can actually change our attitudes toward people from other cultures. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Maz, you've performed comedy all over the world - in the United States, the Middle East. Are there jokes that work here that don't work, for example, in Saudi Arabia?

JOBRANI: Yeah. I mean, that's - for the most part, a lot of material works, especially if you're doing material about your family, everywhere you go. When you do kid material, parents seem to sympathize, and I think we can all agree that kids can be the common enemy sometimes. But there are jokes that sometimes don't work as well. I used to do a joke where I said having young kids - your time is not your own time. You have to take care of your to-do list while they're napping. You're almost like a Navy SEAL. You got to be ready to go any time, any place.

I used to do a joke where I said the other day the kids were napping, and I went to my wife. I said, hey, the kids are napping, you know, let's make love. And my wife said I'm not in the mood. I said, well, I'm not in the mood either, but the kids are sleeping. Let's go move it, move it. You know, we've got to kill bin Laden. Let's do this. And then jokingly I turned to the audience. I said that's what we call sex in my house, killing bin Laden. And then - and so that was the joke. And in America, people appreciated it.

But then I was doing a show in Saudi Arabia and, as you may know, the bin Laden family is a respected family in Saudi Arabia.

VEDANTAM: Oh, yeah.

JOBRANI: So I wasn't sure - yeah. I wasn't sure how they were going to respond. And so I tried the joke, and it kind of got a lukewarm response. And I felt it.

VEDANTAM: Like a nervous response.

JOBRANI: Like a nervous response. Like some people in the audience, like the younger guys in the audience were laughing, but the older, you know, families were not because I think they just felt it was disrespectful. So yeah, there's been times when some jokes don't go over as well, but, you know, live and learn.

VEDANTAM: So over the years your comedy has often addressed Persian culture and tried to demystify that culture for other Americans. This is a clip from your comedy special "I'm Not A Terrorist But I've Played One On TV"

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW, "I'M NOT A TERRORIST BUT I'VE PLAYED ONE ON TV")

JOBRANI: Persians, the Persians - we're very formal, we're a very formal culture. I'll tell you how I realized how formal we are OK? This happened recently. I was at a Persian event, and I was walking. And there was this Persian lady standing there. I stepped on her toe accidentally. I said I'm sorry, and she goes, no, please, my foot is too long.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: She took the blame. It's like please, I should never have been here in the first place.

VEDANTAM: Where did the idea for that joke come from?

JOBRANI: This actually happened. I was at an event, this Iranian fundraiser, and I stepped on this lady's toes. I didn't write the joke. I just literally stepped on her toes, and I said I'm sorry. And she literally said, no, please, don't worry. It was my fault. My foot was too long. She said that, and that same night I went onstage because it just wrote itself, and I just basically reported what happened. And it was funny because she stood up from the back, and she goes that was me.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

JOBRANI: And I go yeah. And I said I told you guys. I said I'm not making this up.

VEDANTAM: I understand that one of the battles you fought over the years is to get roles in television and in movies that allow villains, including terrorists to be played with psychological depth. How's that worked out?

JOBRANI: Well, that was an early battle, I would say. That was early on in my career. I've been doing this now 18 years. So around the year 2000, I was - I still had a day job. I had a desk job. I was an assistant in an advertising agency. So I was looking for some TV gigs that would help me or film gigs that would help me be able to financially subsist without the day job. So I was ready to take anything, and then I got - I auditioned for and was cast in a Chuck Norris movie of the week called "The President's Man: A Line In The Sand."

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) America has come under siege.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mr. President, our worst fears have been realized.

JOBRANI: And in this movie, I was to play an Afghan terrorist who was going to blow up a building in Chicago. And this was before September 11 had happened. So as you just said, I decided to take the part, thinking to myself that, perhaps, through my acting ability, I could show why this guy was so upset about America to the point where he wanted to blow up a building. I really kind of basically misled myself thinking that maybe my acting will show why this guy was doing what he was doing. But when I went down to Dallas where they were filming this and went to the wardrobe fitting, and they said here's your shirt, here's your pants and here's your turban. And then I told the wardrobe lady. I said, oh, no, no. I said actually Afghans in America don't wear turbans. I really want to get this right. You know, it's Indian Sikhs who wear turbans. Let's get this right. And she said, listen, the producers want you to wear a turban. I said, listen, you let them know I've done my research. Afghans in America do not wear turbans.

And then the next day I came back to the - to put on my clothes, and there was my shirt, my pants and what looked like a scarf. So I thought that she talked to them, and they'd agreed. And I said, well, thank you for talking to them, and I'm happy that everyone's agreed that I should - I don't mind being the scarf-wearing terrorist. And she goes that's not a scarf. That's the turban. You just got to wrap it back up. And I go, oh, come on. So I wore the turban. I felt like an idiot.

And so I came back to Los Angeles, and I told my agent I don't want to do any more terrorist parts. And so then that was only the second terrorist part I'd ever done. And then the TV show "24" called, and they said we have a terrorist, and I said, no, thank you. And they said, but he changes his mind halfway through the mission. And I said, oh, the ambivalent terrorist. Well, now that's interesting. So I played that terrorist, and that was the last time I played a terrorist, and I haven't played one since.

VEDANTAM: Sometime ago, Maz, I came by a bit that you did that reminded me of a recent episode of Hidden Brain that looked at the subject of immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

JOBRANI: I swear to God I was in an Uber with an older Armenian guy. This guy loved Trump, barely spoke English, but he loved Trump. He was trying to tell me what a great politician he is. He kept saying what a great politic he is. The whole drive this guy - Donald Trump number one politic, very good politic, number one politic, very good number one politic, very good, number one, very good, number one, very good, number one, very good. Finally I go, dude, he's anti-immigrant. You're an immigrant. He goes, yes, but I'm here.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: We recently talked with Cuban-American researcher Maria Cristina Garcia, and she told me that this has been a repeated feature of U.S. immigration. Very soon after people get here, they want to slam the door on those who come after them. So there's some historical insight in that joke.

JOBRANI: Yeah. I - I've been experiencing it. I experienced it during the campaign, and that Armenian guy was a real guy. And he really loved Trump, and it opened open my eyes. And then I heard it more and more in my shows. I was actually doing a show in Houston where there was a mixed crowd of different backgrounds, and there was a white couple who - they seemed Republicany (ph) just the way they were interacting with me when I was talking to them. And I thought they were going to be the ones that were going to yell back at me when I did my Trump jokes. But they didn't.

Instead, this Lebanese guy when I said - when I did the bit, and I say to my mom, hey, mom, he's anti-immigrant. Trump is anti-immigrant. The Lebanese guy in the audience goes he's an anti-illegal immigrant. You know, it's amazing how they want to distinguish themselves. But I feel bad because I go where's your empathy?

VEDANTAM: So with that question of empathy in mind, do you think comedy can actually change anything? Does it change the way that people think?

JOBRANI: Yeah. I think comedy is a good way to help people change their minds. I think that if you're laughing and getting a message across, it's a lot easier than when somebody is screaming in your face. So I've had people - you know, for example, after September 11, when I was part of the Axis of Evil comedy tour, and it premiered on Comedy Central in 2007, we got emails from people - a few of them saying - one guy in particular I remember saying that he said he goes after September 11, he said I really hated Arabs and Muslims and people from the Middle East.

But he goes having seen your guys' special, it made me realize that there's good people from there as well. And part of that also is not just the jokes that we're doing and being comedians onstage, but also if you look out in our audience, and you see people from those backgrounds just laughing, I think it makes people realize that there's good people from everywhere. So, yeah, I do think that comedy can help change people's minds.

VEDANTAM: Maz Jobrani, thank you so much for joining me on Hidden Brain today.

JOBRANI: Thanks for having me.

VEDANTAM: This episode of Hidden Brain was produced by Tara Boyle. Our staff includes Maggie Penman, Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Chloe Connelly. Our unsung hero this week is Steven Heptinstall (ph) Steve's a data scientist at NPR and helps us understand how audiences are listening to shows like Hidden Brain. He loves numbers and loves bringing numbers to life. Steve is also a walking reminder of the value of that old saw, when you want something done, always ask the busiest person. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

JOBRANI: And then she comes back, but, Maz, when have Americans ever thought of Iranians as terrorists ever? Never.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I was like apparently you weren't here during the hostage crisis.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBRANI: I was getting my [expletive] kicked. Where were you?

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Hey, podcast listeners. I'm Maggie Penman, one of the producers of Hidden Brain, and I have a weird favor to ask. We at NPR are constantly talking about podcasts and recommending new ones to one another. We know you probably have strong feelings about the podcast that you love, too. This month, we're asking you to tell a friend about a podcast that you think they'll love, and if they don't listen to podcasts already or don't know how to, sit down with them and walk them through it. Tell us what you recommended with the hashtag #trypod. That's T-R-Y-P-O-D. And thanks for helping us spread the word. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.