Maz Jobrani doesn't miss Trump jokes: He wasn't just bad for America, he was bad for comedy

The stand-up appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his special shot in Dubai, Islamophobia, and censorship in comedy

By Dean Obeidallah
January 30, 2021 4:00PM (UTC)
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Comedian Maz Jobrani’s new standup special “Pandemic Warrior” is streaming on Peacock. (Storm Santos)

There is a recurring question that comedians keep getting asked lately: "Do you miss Donald Trump for all the material he provided you?" Although well-intentioned, these people have no idea how stand-up comedy actually works, which comedian Maz Jobrani made clear during our "Salon Talks" episode this week.

I spoke to Jobrani, who has starred in everything from his own comedy specials on Showtime to movies, to his latest special, "Pandemic Warrior," now available on NBC's streaming service, Peacock. In between discussions about his special, which was filmed in Dubai shortly before the pandemic, we kept coming back to the role that Trump, and those who share his beliefs, have had on Jobrani's life from his stand-up act to growing up as an Iranian immigrant

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On the comedy front, as Jobrani explained, the loyalty of Trump supporters carried over to his shows with Trumpers heckling him for telling jokes about the president. Jobrani joked that some of these people apparently "forgot we live in America where you can make fun of the President." But the bigger issue with Trump was that it was challenging to make light of a man who was causing so much pain to so many, including in Jobrani's own community, given the Muslim ban. President Joe Biden has since rescinded that ban on day one of his administration.

Watch my "Salon Talks" with Jobrani, or read a Q&A of our conversation below, to hear Jobrani discuss the importance of American audiences seeing people in the Arab world laughing and the human side of Iranians that we rarely ever seen in entertainment.

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The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Welcome, Maz. You filmed "Pandemic Warrior" in Dubai. Does that makes you the first American comic to ever film a special there?

Thank you for having me, Dean. I think I'm the first American comic to film in Dubai, for sure.

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And you filmed this in December 2019, but it's coming out now on Peacock, which if people don't know is NBC's streaming platform. Why did you want to do this in Dubai?

I've had a chance to film all over the world. I filmed one special in Sweden, Stockholm. Then my last one that was called "Immigrant" and was filmed at the Kennedy Center in DC. I've filmed in LA. But as you know, when you do a special, you're like, "Well it's got to be special. Something's got to be different."

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I had been wanting to do a special out of the Middle East for the longest time. One big reason was to just have people watch and go, "Oh wow. There's people in the Middle East watching comedy." Because even though you and I both know this and we've been going to the region now for the past 13 years, since we collaborated on the "Axis of Evil" in 2007, I still think there's a lot of people that don't know that. Trump was able to manipulate people by scaring them that Muslims are coming and that led to the Muslim ban. I thought, hey, what a better way than to show just a comedy show coming out of the Middle East and having people watch people from that part of the world laugh.

You mentioned "Axis of Evil," which was a Comedy Central special we did 12, 13 years ago on comedy in the Middle East. Then it played in the Middle East. You went over first, in the first wave, then I came with you afterwards. Share with people what it was like going to a place to do stand-up with no history of stand-up comedy. What were your anxieties then?

Yeah, it was me, Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader, and you said, you came with us later. It was the first time you saw Middle Eastern performers on American television and we weren't killed. We were telling jokes. That really helped all of us in the U.S. As you said, it became known in the Middle East. We go to the Middle East and all of a sudden, I think we did 27 sold-out shows in 30 days. There was a huge buzz. It felt like over the Atlantic, by the time we landed in the Middle East, we'd become the Beatles of that time. It was crazy. You'd walk down the street, people would recognize you. They want pictures with you.

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In Beirut, the promoter had bought one show. He was going to do one show for 1,000 people. He ended up doing five shows. He added shows. It was an amazing experience. The most important thing was even though I was born in Iran, I had grown up in America since I was six years old. I hadn't really spent time in the Middle East until then. That's when I really went. It was eye-opening for me because they were so welcoming and they were so friendly, and it was arms wide open.

That's the big thing that I tell people in America. A lot of times when people want to fear-monger, when you hear guys like your Tom Cottons or your Mike Pompeos or your Donald Trumps, a lot of times they tell you, "Yeah, they're going around going, 'Death to America.'" I say, "You know what? That's not the case" – 99.9% of the people in the Middle East and the Arab world are trying to live their lives. They're trying to feed their families. They're trying to maybe have some entertainment in their lives. For us to think that they're waking up and the first thought is to go, "Death to America." I go, " You sound so narcissistic that we think that they're thinking about us all the time." That's not to say there aren't bad people trying to do bad things. But unfortunately the image that we have is the negative one. When you go there and you see how great they are, you go, "Wow. More people should see this."

It's still like, "First we have coffee, then death to America." Come on.

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Exactly. 

In this special you talk about dealing with the censors. I remember the first time going to do a show in Dubai. It was right after your big tours. They made me write my act out, literally in hand. Then I'm like, "Wow. This isn't funny at all." I mean, it's arguably funny when it's performed, but on paper, it wasn't. You joke a little bit about Kuwait. Tell people what it was like and why the powers that be had such a trepidation about stand-up comedy coming to that region.

I think the reason I was worried about Trump, and I'm starting to turn everything back to Trump, but he reminded me a lot of the Middle Eastern dictators or strong men that we'd seen where when we first toured in the region in the Middle East, when you would show up the promoters would say, "You can talk about anything you want, but no sex, no religion, no politics. You'd be like, "Well, hello and goodnight," or, "Salaam-alaikum and alaikum salaam." But the politics meant no local politics.

I remember doing shows in Egypt, this was 2007 when Hosni Mubarak was still the president. The promoters said, "Yeah, we got a call from some guy from the ministry of information. They're wondering, do any of you have jokes about Hosni Mubarak?" I was like, "I don't think so, but why?" He goes, "Well, they're very sensitive," because a few months before we arrived, some journalist had written an article where he claimed that Hosni Mubarak looked like he was getting older and they threw him in jail. I was like, "Oh no, we're not. We got no Mubarak jokes. Don't worry about it."

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But to come back in 2020 or 2016, and have a president who doesn't go to the Correspondents' Dinner, who says any criticism about him is fake, all of that stuff reminded me a lot of the things that we had to go through. The censors were always afraid that you were either going to offend a leader, or you were going to say something against religion and offend somebody. It's always been a little bit of a dance. It also depends on the countries. When we went to Lebanon, in Lebanon, they said, "Oh, do whatever you want. Make fun of Hezbollah." I was like, "No, you make fun of Hezbollah. I ain't going to kill myself here."

But all of that is to say, as you said, I've had times before, as well in Dubai, where they said, "Write out your set." And I presented it. It's not the perfect science. Because you and I both know you end up saying a lot of different things in your show than what you've written. But this time around, in 2019 when I went, what had happened was Russell Peters had shown up, I don't know, a few months before I had. I guess in doing his crowd work or something, he'd said something that offended somebody. Then the promoter had gotten in trouble. Then the censors had comedy back on their radar.

When I showed up, they said, "Give us your show. We want to look at it." I said, "Oh, well just give them my old show." I thought they were just going to look at it. As you said, when you hand write your jokes, they don't read as funny. Then they go, "No, we're going to translate it to Arabic." I go, "Well, now it's going to be even less funny." Then they told me, "The censor wants to watch you do your show alone, in a theater the day before." That was the first time I ever had to do that. I literally had to go stand there. They're still building the stage. There's people on scaffoldings and they're connecting things. And there's a guy who, remember, doesn't speak English, who's sitting there across from me, next to a guy who does speak English and is acting as a translator and is friends with the promoters.

As I'm walking around the stage with my script in my hand, because it's my old show, it's not the new show I'm going to do the next night. I'm walking around just telling jokes. Every once in a while, the guy translating will lean in and be like . . .  Then the guy's, "Okay, okay." Then . . . I was like, "This is the craziest thing." The funny thing is at the end of it all, being Iranian American, I have jokes about America, jokes about Iran, I got jokes about my kids. Very end of it all, the promoters . . .  And they all go off somewhere to have a discussion. The promoters come back and go, "He approved us." I go, "Great." He goes, "But he said, 'Tell him to not make fun of Iran so much."" I was like, "That's funny. He had a request."

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We talk about the cancel culture in America, but the cancel culture in the Middle East is a little bit more, I would say, punitive. You're not suspended from Twitter, you're just gone. There's no PC police. It's actual police.

You get canceled is like you just disappear.

When I produced a comedy festival in Jordan, I remember being interviewed by reporters and saying things like "We're not being political now." But looking back, comedy is inherently defiant and comics are inherently anti-authority and push the boundaries. Bassem Youssef, known as the Jon Stewart of the Middle East, was probably the first to actually get arrested in Egypt. Now he lives in the States. I knew that was going to come a time where there'd be the tension between, "Hey, this is the funny thing" and someone actually saying something about the leaders of that country, and they're going, "Joke's over, buddy. We're going to arrest you."

That's the beauty of comedy, I think. You go back to Lenny Bruce being arrested back in the day for breaking the law. I think, as you said, we are the kid in the classroom and the teacher has said, "Everyone be quiet." We can't help ourselves. We just got to say something and we say it and we get in trouble and we get in trouble. Eventually that helps a society go towards free speech. I agree with you. We saw it firsthand in the Middle East, because I think we were all very thankful to be there. As a matter of fact, as you know, when we went to Jordan, as did you, the King of Jordan is a fan of comedy. He invited us over.

I believe Aron Kader asked him, "We were a little worried how much we could push the envelope in our jokes here in Jordan." The king said, "Listen, just by being here, doing comedy, you're pushing the envelope." A few years later, I was doing shows in Saudi Arabia. Back then, this was before Saudi was doing public shows. They were doing underground shows. They were doing shows in consulates, in compounds, anywhere they could find some privacy and make it a private party. I remember doing a show and there was a Saudi kid, because they had a bunch of people opening for me before I was up. There was a Saudi kid and the guy, the promoter come back, said, "You just keep it clean and no sex, no religion." This Saudi kid goes up and he is just cussing, cussing like a sailor. It's just left and right.

I'm hearing, I'm backstage. I'm like, "Oh my God, are they going to execute this guy? What's going to happen?" The crowd loved it. He came back, the promoter comes back. He said, "You were wonderful. That was amazing." You realize, taking that analogy of the classroom again, we are the clowns. The kids are the ones that want to laugh. That's the general public. General public wants you to go there. They want you to do a risque joke. It's the authorities that you got to stay away from. That's the key. If you can get away without the authorities finding out, you're all right.

What do you say to people who think that Donald Trump must have been great for stand-up comedy?

I have many angles on this. The number one angle is as comedians, we're not late-night comedians with a 20-person writing staff and coming up with material every night based on what he said the day before. We're stand-up comedians. We're trying to carve out an act that we can do for the next year until we put it out as a special and then move on with our lives and start with the new stuff.

The problem with Trump was that every time you came up with a joke, the next day he said something crazier and you're like, "Oh, now I've got to do joke about that. Now I've got to do joke about that." You couldn't keep up with the guy. It was ridiculous. The pace of it . . . I say it was like the game Tetris. We were at the bottom of a Tetris game. He just kept coming at you. And you're like, "Oh my God, I got to ... Oh my God, I got to deal with this. I got to deal with that. Little Rocket Man, Pocahontas, Stormy Daniels . . . storming the Capitol . . ." So on and on and on and on. I'm so happy he's gone for that reason.

The second reason I'm happy he has gone is a lot of people don't realize, before Trump became president, when he was just doing "The Apprentice," I had a couple of innocuous jokes about his hair or something. I would do it. You'd get a couple chuckles. Nobody got offended. As soon as he started saying racist stuff and ran for president, people started getting excited and they took it personally. When you would do a Trump joke, there was a, "How dare you." It happened several times actually, in shows, where the audience would yell at me or get upset when I was doing Trump jokes, forgetting that we live in America, where you're supposed to be able to make fun of the president. You should make fun of president Trump, Biden, Obama, whoever you want. That's the whole point of America.

A lot of my shows, especially as the years went on and on and QAnon starts getting involved and people really think that Trump is doing some good stuff and they really are passionate about him, I started having anxiety before shows because I was like, "Okay, once I get to that Trump stuff, I just got to be ready. Someone's going to yell. Someone's going to yell." It was always in the back of my mind to the point where I would back my way into the Trump material. I would say, "Listen, I'm about to do some Trump jokes. Relax. He's not your grandmother. Just relax. My own mom likes Trump. Just relax." I'm happy to not have to deal with that.

The third thing is, I'm so happy, Dean, for the past two weeks or whatever it is that he has not been in the news as much as he was before. It's amazing to be able to actually deal with real news. You wake up and they're like, "There's a climate disaster." You're like, "Yes. Finally. Climate. Let's get to it." "There's a pandemic." "Yahoo. Let's do it."

How do you think Joe Biden's going to be? I wonder how it will be, if comics will go after him in earnest or will those who didn't do politics before, but did Trump jokes, just pivot away and go back to what they were doing? Trump transcended politics. He became everything.

During Obama there was jokes people made. I mean, maybe again, not at the rate that Trump was being made fun of, but there was Obama stuff, jokes. More importantly, for someone like me, who leans left, there's always going to be stuff from the right to make fun of. Whether it's your Ted Cruz's, your Josh Hawley's, an Arab getting kicked off of an airplane for speaking Arabic. I'm saying how happy was I when they were kicking white people off of airplanes? I was like, "Welcome to our world. By the way, we don't cry when they kick us off. We just take it like a man and take the bus."

Get some coffee and a cigarette and take the bus line.

Biden is known for making gaffes and stuff. There'll be plenty of material to make fun. I mean, already Colbert has an impression that he does.

It'll be interesting. It's a new world. You were born in Iran and you have a lot of insight into your Iranian heritage. It looks like we're going to have a new Iran deal. Should America get some Middle Easterners on our side and negotiate?

If our guys are not saying, "My friend, my friend," then they're dust. You got to say, "My friend," you got to really work that in there.

Bring some presents for them. "For you, your wife, everybody," I'm not going to judge. [Laughs]

Keep bringing tea, be like, "Have a tea, we talk. Finish the tea, then we talk." No, I'm all for diplomacy. A lot of Iranians get upset at me when I say this, because a lot of Iran . . . Listen, Iranians in the West, the diaspora, even some Iranians in Iran are so sick of the Islamic Republic of Iran, because it's such an oppressive government that they just want someone to take a magic wand and get rid of them.

That's what Donald Trump claimed he could do. He kept saying, "I'm going to get a better deal. I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that." If you look at a lot of the stuff that Trump said, a lot of it was just empty promises. Because you sit there and go, "How? How are you going to do that? How are you going to get Mexico to pay for the wall? When is infrastructure coming? How are you going to get this new healthcare? How, how, how?"

A lot of Iranians started to support Donald Trump because they thought he was going to get rid of the mullahs, especially when he killed Soleimani. They thought, "Oh, look at that. He's a tough guy. He killed Soleimani." Soleimani was a bad guy, but the problem with the way they went about getting rid of Soleimani was there was no next step to the plan. It's like breaking into the bank and going, "Okay. Now, what? Did you bring the bags? Oh, you didn't bring bags. How are we going to carry out the money?" That's basically what they did with Soleimani. "Let's kill Soleimani. Okay. Now what?" And then they're like, "Oh, now war?"

Just basic logic, alright. We have been enemies with Iran for 40 years. It hasn't worked. Our buddy, Jason Rezaian just wrote an article, an op-ed piece in The Post about how the past four years of the Trump-Pompeo policy have just hardened the Iranian leadership. They killed a lot of people in protests over there. They've imprisoned more people. Granted, the sanctions have probably crippled some of their overseas operations, but that said, they're still as oppressive as before. More importantly, the people of Iran now are suffering from the sanctions.

I've always been open to trying. Let's try diplomacy for five years, 10 years. Let's see how it goes. I don't like the government there either, but let's see how it goes. I believe the philosophy behind the Iran deal was, "Let's bring them into the fold, the international fold." Then once they get a taste of how good it is for their economy to be dealing with companies from the West, at that point, if they continue to do human rights violations or they're starting wars or carrying out acts of terror, then you have a big negotiating tool to tell them, "Guys, if you keep doing that, we're going to have to pull out." I'm all for trying to open up the Iran deal again, and seeing if we can somehow bring a little more prosperity to the people of Iran and also to bring a little more freedom and democracy to the people, because they're the ones suffering, really.

You've just brought more humanity to the Iranian people than we see generally in our media for years. Just talking about them as fellow humans. In your comedy you talk about your immigrant parents coming to America from Iran and how they acted when you were a kid. But you're an immigrant too. Do you think your kids are going to make fun of you?

When I came, my parents were immigrant immigrant. They didn't speak English. They had to learn. There was a lot of looking back because a lot of what comedians do is we almost do a self-reflection or self-analysis from the past. Because you sit there and go, "Why was I doing that? Oh my God. My mom used to hit me. That's right." Or, "Why was I so embarrassed about my parents? Oh yeah. My dad used to be really loud and he would just embarrass the hell out of me."

In the special I talk about having a lot of friends whose white parents would show up and they were just buttoned up and very quiet, and, "Hi, how are you? I'm here for Brock's parent-teacher meeting. Okay. I'll be waiting over there." My dad would be like, "Hello, thank you very much. We are happy to be here. This is my son." He's just loud and immigrant-y. You know?

I look at what my kids are going through. They both love comedy. They've been bingeing "30 Rock." They love "Saturday Night Live." They listen to all the Netflix comedy stations, and yours. But I sit there sometimes and things that happen, I go, "Oh my God, if they go into comedy, that's going to work its way in there." For example, my wife is an immigrant from India. She moved to America when she was six months old. When it comes to academics, she's very traditional and like, "Let's get it. Let's go. You got to make sure you get good study skills, this, that, the other." Every time she'll sign them up for some extracurricular study class I'm thinking to myself, "Okay. When these kids grow up and they're doing stand-up comedy, they're going to be like, 'While the other kids got to go to,' whatever it is, 'swim camp, I had to go to square root camp,' or whatever it is." I could totally see them talking about it.

Now you can say, "You're welcome. I just gave you your first five minutes of material."

"Pandemic Warrior" is currently streaming on Peacock.

 


Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to CNN.com Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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