Why Maz Jobrani quit terrorism — on screen

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Marco Werman: Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, one that often pushes the envelope of what’s acceptable. So, today we want to explore that line between satire and decency with a comedian. Maz Jobrani calls himself a Middle Eastern-American comedian and he makes a living by making fun of the things that make us and him uncomfortable. Like, say, terrorism.


Maz Jobrani: There’s this feeling I used to have after September 11th. I felt like whenever you passed through the metal detector, you just felt guilty. I would go through it, and it would make a noise and I’d be like “I knew it! I knew it! I’m a terrorist!”


Werman: Jobrani works out some of that misplaced guilt in his upcoming memoir, “I’m Not a Terrorist, But I Play One on TV.” He says the importance of satire in comedy is brought into sharp focus by yesterday’s attack in Paris.


Jobrani: Our job is to make fun of things, it’s to show hypocrisy and for them to attack these cartoonists, it was an attack on any satirist anywhere.


Werman: What is your comedy like? Did the shooting at Charlie Hebdo scare you as a comedian?


Jobrani: I talk a lot about social and political issues. I also talk about normal stuff, like having children. But the social and political stuff, most of it is dealing with how Middle Easterners--I’m originally from Iran myself--how Iranians, Arabs, Middle Easterners, people from that part of the world, how we’re depicted in the mainstream media in the West. Right away, when something like this happens, the fingers are pointed at us. For example, I talk about in the Boston bombings, the New York Post took a picture of two Moroccans who happened to be wearing backpacks, they were at the finish line and they put it on the cover and it said “These might be the guys.” It turned out they weren’t the guys. So, I try to make fun of how we’re depicted. I don’t personally get into making fun of religion, but I know some comics do and it’s their choice.


Werman: How did you come to the decision not to probe religion as a subject in your comedy?


Jobrani: Religion is not one of the issues I want to talk about on stage. It wasn’t that I was frightened by it. As a matter of fact, it’s interesting, when I first did stand-up in the Middle East, we went with the Axis of Evil comedy tour, and we went to the Middle East in 2007, and we did five countries. A lot of the promoters would say “Here’s the guidelines: no sex, no religion, no politics.” We would be like “Alright”¦”


Werman: Axis of Evil comedy tour--what’s left?


Jobrani: Yeah, exactly. It’s like “Hello! Goodnight!” Here’s what’s interesting: I did a TV set for Comedy Central years ago and I submitted my material to the legal department to go through it, and they came back and said “Okay, your jokes all work out, but towards the end of your material, you make a reference towards Mercedes and one to 7/11. You can’t talk about those because they might be our sponsors.” I quickly realized that in the Middle East, God is God, and in the West, Tide is God, or the sponsor is God. So, there’s guidelines everywhere.


Werman: Have you ever gone too far in your comedy, and how did you know you went too far at the time?


Jobrani: I’ve never felt that I’ve gone too far. I think that people sometimes will hear a topic and then they won’t listen to what you’re saying, and they’ll say “You went too far.” For example, I did some shows in Kuwait. In Kuwait, I did a joke about the Boston bombing. My joke makes fun of the bombers and it also makes fun of media coverage of Middle Easterners and Muslims. This one person tweeted me and said “You shouldn’t do jokes about the Boston bombings.” I said “Well, I’m not making fun of the victims, I’m not making fun of the situation. I’m making fun of how quickly the media turned on Middle Easterners and Muslims.” In this case, one thing that I’m looking at right now is the backlash against Muslims in France, and already we’re seeing people attacking mosques and Muslims. It’s a shame because what it is is these extremists went out and committed an act of violence, and people that are a lot more moderate will suffer from this, and it’s a shame to see that.


Werman: As I said earlier, the title of your memoir is “I’m Not a Terrorist But I Play One on TV,” and your first breakout role was a Chuck Norris film where you play just that, a terrorist.


Jobrani: We won’t call it a “breakout role” because it really didn’t do--


Werman: Well, let’s say your first role.


Jobrani: One of my first roles, because it really didn’t do much for my career. It was early in my career, I didn’t know any better and I would just take any audition that would come my way. So, I got an audition to go out and be in a Chuck Norris movie of the week. I just wanted to quit my day job, I just wanted something to get me out of the office. This thing came along and the movie was called “The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand,” and in the movie I played an Afghan living in America who decides to blow up a building in Chicago. I read it and I go “I don’t know, this isn’t good. I’m not sure if I should do this.” But then I thought “You know what? Maybe I can bring some nuances to the part.” I went down to Dallas where they were filming this, and I showed up to the wardrobe fitting, and they go “Here’s your shirt, here’s your pants, here’s your turban.” I was like “Um, excuse me, but Afghans in America don’t wear turbans. I want to really show the way this person would really be.” Furthermore, if I’m planning on blowing up a building, I’m definitely not going to be walking around Chicago with a turban on. They were like “Listen dude, this is a Chuck Norris movie. You’re overthinking it, okay? Here’s your shirt, here’s your pants, here’s your tuban, and oh, here’s your snake in a basket.” They were just throwing it all together.


Werman: I’m kind of chuckling here but don’t you think stereotypical roles like that exacerbate the issue--the tensions with Islam and the media, the whole thing?


Jobrani: Absolutely. And, as a matter of fact, once I left, I felt so bad having done that and I said “No more terrorist parts.” Then actually the TV show “24” got in touch and they said “We have a terrorist,” and I said “No!” Then they go “But he changes his mind halfway through the mission.” I was like “Ah, the ambivalent terrorist! Maybe I can humanize this guy.” That was the last terrorist part that I did and quickly I realized that I don’t want to do those parts anymore. I’m lucky that I’m a stand-up comedian and I don’t have to do those parts anymore.


Werman: Comedian Maz Jobrani. His memoir, “I’m Not a Terrorist But I Play One on TV” is out next month. Maz, great to meet you. Thanks for coming on to the show.


Jobrani: Thanks for having me Marco.