Maz watch: Maz Jobrani
Syarifah Syazana talks to the Iranian-American comedian ahead of his show here in KL on comedy, performing at a strip club and what we can expect from his show this Sunday
Growing up do you think you were always funny? Were you the class clown?
I was a class clown but to be honest with you I had some friends of mine who I felt were funnier. I was a big fan of comedy so I liked to surround myself with funny people and I think that’s kind of what lead me to get into what I’m doing.
Were there any comedians you looked up to as a child?
My first comedy hero is Eddie Murphy because when I was a kid he was the biggest comedian in the world that time. He was the first guy who really inspired me to get into this and then once I got into it I started looking at guys like Richard Pryor who were doing more stuff that were social issues; also there’s Bill Cosby who was just funny – those were some of the guys that I watched a lot of. I was also a really big fan of shows like Rodney Dangerfield and HBO Comedy Special where you had a lot of young comics who went on to become legends.
Was this what made you want to get into comedy?
Since I come from Iranian immigrant parents, a lot of immigrant parents who come to America want their kids to be lawyers, doctors and engineers so my parents had convinced me that I should become a lawyer and I was going in that route in my life. But I’d always wanted to be an actor and do standup since I was young but I just didn’t know how others did it. So I just kind of went with the lawyer route for a while. I went to college and studied political science to be a lawyer, and then I decided I wanted to be a professor so I went to graduate school and studied to get my Ph.D in political science. And that’s when I got into some plays again and got bit by the acting bug; acting was what I wanted to do and it kind of went hand in hand with standup so I started doing it. I feel alive when I’m on that stage so I’m happy I did it.
Tell us about your first comedy show.
My first real paid gig was at a strip club where they had comedy in the back room and this guy said, ‘I’ll give you five dollars for every audience you bring’. I was new enough to standup that I didn’t wanna bring too many people, so I brought a handful of people and of course my circles told a bunch of other people so I had like 31 people. When I showed up at the club the guy who was running it came up and said ‘Hey, you know the owners of the club sold the club last night to some new owners and they decided to take the microphone with them’, which is kind of random because why would they take the microphone?
So we did the show without a mic and because I brought the most people they had me go last and it was a lineup of amateur comedians so everyone was really bad. At one point this kind of gangster-y dude came into the room with a stripper and was talking to her while one of the comedians was doing his act and the comedian tried to talk to the gangster. The gangster basically told him to shut up and kind of threatened him; we all got nervous that he was gonna shoot him or something. Before I went on the promoter went up and did about 30 minutes of these one-liners which were just horrible – it was torture. I did my thing at the end and it went okay but it’s funny because it was such a bad night for comedy that some of the people who had come to see me then – this was 14 years ago – had never come back to see me again. So I lost some fans but hey, I made 155 dollars that night.
A lot of people know you from The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. Do you wish to shake off that image?
It’s interesting because that was what really put us on the map. Before that the only way I was known at all by the public was through this movie I had been in called ‘Friday After Next’ which was Ice Cube’s third instalment of the ‘Friday’ series. There I played a doughnut shop owner and his name was Moly of Holy Moly Donut Shop and it did well in the urban community so I was known to them as Moly. But after the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, it was great because people started knowing me as Maz Jobrani from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. As a comedian and performer, we’re brands, we kind of just need to make ourselves better known so I feel like my name has made a good amount of progress in terms of just being known as Maz Jobrani. If people have seen Axis of Evil and they come and see me because of it then that’s fine.
What can we expect from your show in KL? Have they given you the do’s and don’ts yet?
They haven’t so I’ll probably prepare an hour and by the time I get there they’ll give me the do’s and don’ts and I’ll only have five minutes. But in all seriousness I think it’ll be a fun night. I tend to learn how to roll with the punches because I’ve done shows in the Middle East where there were a lot of rules. I tend to try to also do material about the place and my experiences there. I think it’ll be a good night for everybody to come over and have a laugh. I’m looking forward to it.
Will we be seeing any YouTube favourites?
I don’t know if you will because comedy is only funny the first time you see it. Music is different because if you go to a concert you’d want to hear all the hits; with comedy when you know when the punch line is coming it’s not as good. So most likely I will not be doing a lot of stuff that people know, maybe I’ll slip in one or two of the old ones. Sometimes people would yell out something from the audience and I’ll do it but even then it’s just like, you already know what the punch line is so why do you wanna hear it again? Most likely my show will be ninety-somewhat percent all new.
How do you normally come up with material for your shows?
I come up with materials based on my life, so the reason why I’m writing a lot of material on my kids is because I’m constantly stuck in the middle of it. When I talk about kid material I see the audience laughing but I see the parents a lot of times like, dying of laughter because they’re going through the same. A lot of my stuff is just personal; I don’t sit there and go ‘Oh here’s a topic I wanna talk about, let me find a joke for it’, it’s more like things I wanna talk about.
You’re friends with comedian Ahmed Ahmed. Are there any plans to do a show or go on tour together?
Ahmed and I have gone to the Middle East a few times with just a variety of comedians but that’s just a rotation that we work into. What was great about when we stopped Axis of Evil was I think we were all ready to do our own thing so for me it’s been great because when I did Axis of Evil with the guys it was basically everyone doing 20 or 25 minutes and you can only go so much as a comedian that way. If you wanna do what Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor do you have to stretch yourself, write material and go on and do an hour or more. I think that’s important to a comedian; you’ve got to keep evolving, keep growing. I’m really enjoying doing the solo work. For the most part I don’t think we’ll be doing a tour together but you never know.
If you had to pick one, which would you rather do – acting or standup comedy?
I love both but I’m really in the groove right now in standup. The beauty of standup is that you get to write, do and talk about everything you want to – you are the final say in all of it. The difficulty with acting is that there are a lot of people involved; you don’t always end up doing a project that you’re super into. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do projects with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in ‘The Interpreter’ where I played a secret service agent and I’ve done other parts like ambassadors and this and that. I think I really enjoy standup more than ever. With that said, I would really love for my next big thing to be a TV show that I helped create, that I can do in Los Angeles where I can be around my family and do something which I have a lot more say in.
Random question: Did you ever have hair?
No actually, I was born bald and ever since I was a kid I started shaving my hair.
Is that true?
No that’s a lie. I had a nice thick mane. It never went long at the back – I never had a mullet – I just had this hair and when I was 18 I was in the shower and my hair started coming out slowly and it started freaking me out. All I’ve got to say is I owe a big one to Michael Jordan for bringing back bald and now this is my hairstyle.
How long have you been having it?
I think I started fully shaving it right around the time I really got into standup. I think maybe a year or two into it and my life kind of came together. I started to do standup, I met my wife, I shaved my head and here I am flying up to Malaysia to do shows, 14 years later.
Do you think it makes you look funnier?
Nah I think it makes me sexier. Funny? I don’t know. It gives me material to talk about being bald and stuff but I think my nose is what makes me funnier, I’ve got a nice thick nose.
Maz Jobrani performs at KL Live on July 15 and at Limkokwing University on July 16. For more on Maz, visit www.mazjobrani.com.