Maz Jobrani’s upcoming comedy special on Netflix is called Immigrant, which is what he is. As a child, he fled the Iranian revolution with his family in the late 1970s and moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he was raised. While in Toronto earlier this year for a performance he spoke to the Globe about dictators, freedom of speech and ethnic humour.
Earlier this year, there were a series of protests at UC Berkeley, your alma mater, involving right-wing speakers. What’s your take on that, as a comedian and how it relates to free speech?
As a comedian, my first interest is freedom of speech. That’s what allows me to be a comedian in America. I’m wary of what’s going on, and not just on campuses but politically, with Trump in power, criticizing the press, saying they’re fake news. He’s trying to delegitimize the press and who knows if that will lead further down to delegitimizing those who make a living because of free speech. We could be next.
Having fun at Trump’s expense is a booming industry now for comedians, particularly for late-night hosts.
Well, I used to say in America, we get an annual event where we make fun of our president, at the Correspondents’ Dinner. And now, this year, he pulled out. We’re getting closer to a Middle Eastern dictatorship than we’ve ever been.
What’s it like doing stand-up in the Middle East?
In the Middle East when you do shows they tell you not to talk about sex, religion or politics. When they say “politics,” they mean local politics, which means don’t make fun of the local leader. The reason is that the local leader is not secure in his leadership. If you make fun of that local leader, you’re chipping away at his legitimacy. And you’re going to end up in jail.
You’re in Canada now, heading back to the United States tomorrow. Do you ever get any hassles at the border?
This will be my first time going back into the country since the travel ban was proposed. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I have global entry. I don’t imagine there will be a problem. But listen, if they held me and interrogated me for a while, it would be material for more stand-up.
I would suggest when the border guard asks where he knows you from, don’t tell him you were part of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.
Right [laughs]. You know my book is I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV. I’m holding a bomb on the cover, with a turban on my head.
Can you talk about that, the stereotypical roles for actors from the Middle East?
It’s been going on for a long time. There’s a great book, Reel Bad Arabs. The author, Jack Shaheen, is a sweet, older gentleman, who’s been at it for years. He’s studied the depiction of Arabs and Middle Eastern people and Muslims in film and television. He talks about depicting them in a negative way, as villains, and how that brainwashes people. So when a Donald Trump says he’s going to bomb them, people get fired up.
You’ve pulled back from playing terrorists, is that right?
I started acting professionally almost 20 years ago. I got a terrorist part in a Chuck Norris movie of the week. Then I got a terrorist part in the television series 24. After doing just a few, I realized, “I don’t like this.” I told my management I didn’t want to do any more terrorist parts. I haven’t done any in the past 15 or 16 years.
You’re okay with other ethnic stereotypes?
I don’t mind playing ethnic characters. I don’t mind playing a falafel shop owner or taxi cab drivers or people with accents. I know those characters in the real world.
How about your character on the CBS comedy series Superior Donuts, Fawz. He’s sort of a bad guy, isn’t he?
He’s a bad guy, but he gets to say a lot of outlandish stuff that’s funny. He’s the Louie De Palma from Taxi, the Danny DeVito character. Or the Rhea Perlman from Cheers. In a subliminal way, he’s actually getting into the hearts and minds of Middle America. Somebody watching it will think, “that guy’s funny.” And I’ll take that.
Maz Jobrani’s Netflix comedy special Immigrant debuts Aug. 1.