By David Gavri
Maz Jobrani is a Persian American stand up comedian who was raised in the San Fransisco Bay Area, where he earned a degree at UC Berkeley. He was later accepted into UCLA’s Ph.D. program. While there, Maz visited the university’s prestigious theater program and was immediately hooked on acting—something he was involved with as a kid. He left the Ph.D. program and decided to pursue his childhood passion of acting and performing.
Maz’s first big break came as a founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Central Special, which premiered in 2007. It was the first show on American television with an all Middle Eastern American cast. The tour performed in the United States, and later went over to the Middle East, selling out shows in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, Kuwait, and Amman, Jordan—where they performed in front of the king and queen.
Maz followed up his Axis of Evil tour with a Showtime special, Maz Jobrani: Brown & Friendly, for which he toured all over the world. He is currently working on his next special, Browner & Friendlier.
Since then, Maz has made TV appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Lopez Tonight, Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, and The Colbert Report. Maz has also played roles in Ice Cube’s Friday After Next and Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter.
And after selling out the entire weekend at The Improv, Maz took the time out of his busy schedule to hang with us and share his story.
Coming from a family that immigrated to the United States, how did they react when you left the UCLA Ph.D. program to pursue comedy and acting?
Well…coming from an immigrant background, they want their kids to grow up and become lawyers and doctors and engineers, ya know? [laughs] I had been doing theater and acting ever since I was twelve years old. But my parents convinced me that there was no career in that. Becoming a comedian and an actor was not an option. That’s why I ended up not studying any of that in college. But I finally came back to it when I went to graduate school.
My dad at the time had gone back to Iran, so he didn’t really say much about it. I think he lived in denial. Every time I’d call him up and tell him about what I’m doing, he’d just be like, “Yeah okay, get your education…”
Now, my mom really wanted me to be a lawyer. And so when I told her I wanted to be a comedian, she was like, “What the hell?!” [laughs] So she then went through a period of suggesting careers for me. Any time she would get somebody to come and fix something, she’d be like, “They charged me so much! You should do what they do. They make good money!” From that, she suggested I become a mechanic, and she also suggested that I become a washing machine repair man. [laughs]
But my parents eventually came around when I ended up getting a day job at an office—working for an advertising agency. It appeased them knowing that I had a legitimate office job. They were happy to know that I had a job where I wore a tie—even though when I showed up on the first day wearing a suit and tie, my boss was like, “Welcome aboard, we’re glad to have you here! By the way, lose the tie.” [laughs]
It was a good stable job—I had health insurance and I was contributing to a 401K. But I still didn’t make much money. The amount of money I would make in a year at that age was in the low twenties. And there are times now where I’ve made that in a day. [a man in a black suit with an earpiece walks over and hands Mr. Jobrani a silver brief case, bows his head to him, and then walks away] It’s amazing how when you go after your dreams, everything else just falls into place. [puffs on a cigar that just magically appeared]
At what point in your career would you consider yourself a “success”?
The moment I decided to do go after my dreams, and do it full time, a hundred percent, I considered myself successful. And at that time, I wasn’t making a lot of money—I was in debt with student loans and credit cards. But as soon as I went after this, my finances turned around.
Now there’s no guarantee that you will be financially successful in this game. Struggling actors and comedians are the majority. But you do not get into this because of the money. You get into it because you love doing it.
It’s common in Hollywood to take on a stage name. You kept your original name. How do you feel about the idea of stage names in show business?
I don’t think the name stuff really means a whole lot—unless your name is REALLY wacky to where you become pigeon-holed. Like, Kamal Abdullah al Hussein or something. Then it’s like, “Okay, let’s change that.” [laughs]
When I first started, there was some agent that told me I should change my name to get more roles. And I was like, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m happy with who I am.” You need to be happy with the decisions that you make. You have to have integrity and character. If you start changing who you are because you think that’s what other people want, then slowly but surely, you become something that you’re not. And you lose touch with who you are.
Having a foreign background, how do you feel about being in roles that play on stereotypes?
I’ve played every sterotype—I don’t mind playing the cab driver or the donut shop owner. But playing the terrorist is the one role that rubs me the wrong way. Because, I know middle easterners who are cab drivers, I know middle easterners who are store owners. But I don’t know any middle easterners who are terrorists. [laughs]
And I’ve played that role before, and I really didn’t feel good about myself afterward. So no more. Coming into this world of acting and stand up, you really have to feel comfortable with the decisions that you make. Don’t let people tell you how you need to do your act. Know who you are. Be it. And stick to it.
As a skilled headliner, what does it take to build a strong routine?
Know what you want to say. Have a purpose. And this takes a VERY LONG time to figure that out. When I first started comedy, at age twenty-six, I was told that in order to find my voice, it was going to take at least seven years—going up on stage five to six nights a week. And I was like, “Man, you crazy!” But low and behold, seven years later, I finally began to realize the kinda things that I really like to talk about.
Who are your comedic influences?
When I was a kid, Eddie Murphy was big—he’s the one who first inspired me. And later on when I got into stand up comedy, I was very inspired by Richard Pryor’s style. Bill Cosby has always been an influence. Those are the guys that had the most impact on me.
Now, I’m a regular at The Comedy Store, and while I wait around to do my set, I watch and learn from all the other comics that go up. Eddie Griffin will come in there and bump you—and then do a couple of hours. So at first, I wasn’t a fan of him because of that, but after watching him work, I would see how good he really is. And by watching him, it had an affect on me and my act.
Headlining the entire weekend seems tiring. Yet, your shows were full of energy. How’d you keep it goin?
It can definitely be draining. Especially if you drink during and/or after the shows. But part of it’s just your natural energy. If you take care of yourself and you get your sleep, you’ll be fine. I’ve done gigs where it was three shows in one night. And by the time you get to the third show, you’re flat out tired.
But the goal is to keep going with the energy you have left. If you’re tired, it may lead you into a different style of a set, which is okay. Don’t try to act one way when you’re feeling another way. Be true to your energy. As long as you’re honest and sincere with your audience, they’ll be with you.
Aside from being a comedian—you’re a husband and a father. How do you balance the family life with the career life?
The hardest part about doing stand up and having a family is the traveling aspect. It completely takes you away from your family. Make it a point to spend time with your family—no matter what it takes. You really have to enjoy your kids while they’re young. I try to be around as much as I can and be a big part of their youth.
And I didn’t get married until I was thirty-three years old. By that time I had been doing stand up for seven years. I think it helps to have some sort of stability in your life before you get married and have kids.
Financial problems come up in relationships all the time. I mean, if you’re just doing open mics and you work at a pizza place…and you wanna get married…[laughs] Then, after you get married, it’s possible that you’ll want to have kids. And then it becomes a question of, can you afford all of this? Something like that could cause problems.
Another thing is that the comedy life takes place at night. This is during the same time that you’d want to spend with your spouse and your kids. There have been many times where I’ve had to leave my wife and kids in the middle of something that we’re doing, all because I had to go do a gig. They’d be bummed out—and I totally understand. I’d say it helps to be more established before you take that next step into getting married and having kids.
Is your wife in show business as well?
Not at all, she’s totally different. She was a lawyer and then she was a real estate developer. Two totally different worlds, it’s great.
The movies that you’ve been in gave you the opportunity to work with names such as Sean Penn, Ice Cube, Mike Epps, Terry Crews, and Katt Williams. What was that like being around all those names?
These guys are A-listers—they’re superstars. But at the end of the day, they’re also human beings. Some of them are shy, some of them are outgoing, some of them are nice, some of them are jerks. That’s in any profession.
It was cool to watch Sean Penn work. He’s one of the best actors of our time. He’s a reminder of what it takes to put in the hard work as an actor. Working with Ice Cube was fun. He’s smart, and he gets a lot of good guys together on the set. What made it fun was all the improvisation that we were able to do—and do well, on the set. Everybody was on it. And it’s a great thing to be able to do all that.
What advice can you give comedians who want to also pursue acting?
It’s important for comedians who want to be actors to take acting classes. And to be able to practice perfecting the craft. You have to ALWAYS be prepared. Once you’re on that set, you MUST be able to deliver. And that has to do with being comfortable—which comes from doing it over and over again.
Also, be professional. Be nice to everybody from beginning to end. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t think that just because you got some part in a movie that you’re better than everybody. Always deliver. If you do all that, you’ll do well.
What’s the best advice you can give to the aspiring comics?
Just keep getting up on stage, and keep writing—those are the two keys.
Is there an end goal to your stand up comedy career? What do you ultimately seek to accomplish?
I love doing stand up. It’s my therapy. I don’t imagine retiring until I simply can’t get on that stage anymore. I’d love to emulate somebody like (Bill) Cosby or (George) Carlin, who kept going. The real challenge is staying relevent, no matter how old you get. I really hope to keep it goin’ forever.
We hope so, too. It’s been fun, thank you Maz.
No problem. Keep doing your thing. Take care.
Click Here for the official website of Maz Jobrani
Interviewed & Written by: David Gavri