So, I had the honor of getting an exclusive interview with Maz Jobrani before his show for Sanad in Beirut on Sunday. The folks at the Hitlon Hotels in Lebanon were kind enough to invite me for lunch and an uncensored chat with a comedian I look up to and appreciate. Here’s our interview:
It’s not your first time here in Beirut, so, what do you think of our city?
I’ve been here a couple of times, but I never stayed long enough, you know, I have two kids at home and my schedule. My first time was with the Axis of Evil in 2007. We did like 5 shows, so they took us around, up into the mountains. We even tried to meet Hezbollah at one point! It was a crazy trip. Then another time, I came with my wife when my son was almost 2-years-old and we stayed in the beautiful Downtown Beirut.
I love Beirut, I think Beirut is amazing. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I really would love to spend more time here.
Have you partied in Beirut? Like, not just your shows, but our nightlife?
When we came with Axis of Evil, we did party! I didn’t know much about Lebanon and Beirut before coming here. I didn’t know the levels you guys take your parties to.
We went to a club called Crystal, it was a Wednesday, an off-day, and it was rock and roll, I mean not rock and roll music, but Techno or whatever. I look over and there’s chains coming from the ceiling and girls were holding those chains and like making out. It was crazy, and the guy turned to me and said, “Yeah, you should come Friday,” and I was like, it gets even crazier!
Yeah, the level of partying in Beirut is at another level. When I was in Beirut with my wife and kid before heading out to New York, our friends from there got in touch and told us they couldn’t wait for us to fly in to party hard. And I said, “this is the party capital, Beirut.” And my theory is that apart from the Lebanese I know being very much into living life and enjoying life, part of it has to do that with the Civil War, people just got tired of it. So, when fighting would break out in the streets, people would just say, let’s take it up to the mountains!”. There’s a resilience that the Lebanese people have, and I think it’s beautiful. You guys are some of the top partiers in the world, easy.
Your comedy can be categorized as observational, but for someone like me from Middle East, a lot of times it’s like it has a deeper message behind it. Would you say you do? And what message exactly?
I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy as a kid, and ultimately, I just wanted to be funny. And I think as I got into it though, and started to talk about being of Middle-Eastern descent, Iranian descent, and growing up in American, I think issues started coming up that were social and political. I think that if you can’t do comedy that has a message somewhere, you know, it doesn’t have to be obvious, but it’s got some political points in there, is my favorite type of comedy. You know, like you said, I’m also a fan of The Colbert Report as well as The Daily Show. But, also in the middle of my show, I do silly stuff. DL Hugley said this one time: “When you do comedy, it’s like giving people medicine but hiding it in orange juice, so they don’t taste it”
Many Americans aren’t aware of the discrimination of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim people, so my joke about the Arab family on the plane, or even people who look Muslim, it could be Christian Lebanese. So, when you tell them the joke, they laugh about it, but they also know, “hey, this is real”. So, it’s a way of delivering the news.
The region is in turmoil, as your jokes illustrate when you say “how do you know the Middle East is going crazy? When Beirut is the safest place there!”. Has that changed your jokes and shows?
I know the rest of the Middle East is going crazy when Lebanon is the most peaceful place in the region. A lot of times, it’s just what really hits me, like for example, I had a Syrian ask me, why don’t you do jokes about Syria. I said, well, I’ve never been to Syria. I don’t sit down and say, I have to write a joke about this topic. If it comes to me, it makes me laugh, then I do it. In light of the situation, I joke about learning to talk Arabic, and I say, if you just say the words you do know and throw in some food in the middle, people will think you speak it. Like, “Yalla, shawarma, yalla yalla, wallahi!” So, I was saying yalla, yalla, hurry, hurry, but you are always late. And Salam Alaykom, which is “may peace be upon you”, and then you go outside and start a war. So, no one is listening to anybody, and it’s a joke Arabs have laughed at.
It’s just about figuring out a light way to say it. I never make fun of the victims or people who are refugees. I think one of the jobs of comedy is to make fun of those in power, not those who don’t have power.
Are you a geek? We were talking about Star Wars earlier, so I had to ask!
I’ll be honest with you, I think I was a bit of a geek when I was younger. I was a big fan of comedy too, that’s why I ended up being a comedian. I don’t have the patience or maybe just lost interest in video games, so not anymore. I loved Star Wars, but didn’t really like the prequels, but when I saw the new trailer, I said, hey maybe I’ll go see the new one. I got excited. My son is 6 now, and I’m kinda waiting for the right age to watch Star Wars with him.
You don’t really distinguish between Persian and Arab, and focus on the Middle East being one kind of “front”. Is that true, and why?
I do, I always make jokes about how Arabs and Persians are different. The problem is that the US is so isolated, that if you don’t open your eyes, if you don’t travel, you’d think everyone’s the same. I used to joke about that, on how my US passport it says “born in Iran” and I’d joke about how some Arab countries like Kuwait don’t get along, and I’d get asked all these questions. Some Arab countries don’t even get along with each other, and I say, the whole area is not one country. I hear people say “just bomb the whole goddamn region”, and you go, “but they’re different countries, which are probably enemies”. Like the Bush administration going into Iraq, where a Sunni minority, was ruling a Shiite majority, and they expected to be greeted with flowers and once you remove the dictator, everyone would just get along (not that the dictator was any good!). But it’s this level of ignorance that is unbelievable. I remember when they were looking for Bin Laden, they asked a bunch of senators if Bin Laden was Shiite or Sunni, and they didn’t know!”
Lebanon has always been known for its free speech and liberal ideals, but recently, a crackdown on free speech and increased censorship is hurting that. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I’m really bothered by censorship. I think people should be allowed to say what they wanna say. I think there’s some of that going on the in the US as well. I think social media has made it so that if somebody is offended at all, they make a big deal out of it. If you have to limit your thoughts and ideas because you might offend somebody, I think a lot of artistic ideas would be pulled back and that’s bad. On the other side, I’m not with saying things just to provoke. With social media, everyone has a platform. Like, just to say something racist.
I hope Lebanon doesn’t go that way. I think it’s all political and they’re looking for excuses. I think it’s easier for me from the outside to say “just do your thing and don’t worry about it”, but ultimately, those who are trying to stop people from saying what they wanna say, is that we live in an information age. So, no matter what you say, whether you’re in China or Iran or Saudi Arabia or wherever, and you’re trying to block people from hearing or seeing things, hey man, it’s just one click away. It’s almost futile, a futile effort to stop people from saying what they wanna say. And I think a lot of regimes are realizing that young people wanna say what they wanna say, they want their freedom of speech, and the laws need to be fair.
I think the West has progressed a lot more than countries here in that aspect. In the US, I can go up on TV and make fun of the president. There are many countries here where I can’t make fun of the leadership. But that shows you the security of the system, cause the president of the US knows he’s not gonna be overthrown by my joke, whereas in some countries, they feel if you disrespect the leader, others might disrespect the leader and threaten the leadership. But, hey, if you’re secure in your leadership, and you’re fair, you shouldn’t worry about what people say.
I hope that freedom of speech progresses in the region. Online it will, it’s unstoppable. No matter how closed off the regime is, people know what’s going on.
One of the hardest things in comedy is knowing when it’s ok to joke about something, especially something tragic. How do you gauge that?
I’ve seen comedians do jokes about tragedies the same day, especially now with social media. I personally try to be very conscious of not making fun of any victims in any way. If a war were to break out, or like the cop killing in St Louis, I wouldn’t find myself making fun of Michael Brown. But, if the police chief says something ridiculous, you can make fun of that. The incident is so tragic, but you can make fun of something that was said that needs to be ridiculed.
This girl in Kuwait tweeted me after a joke I did after Boston bombing, how my first thought was, my heart goes out to all the victims, but how my second thought was, please don’t be Middle Eastern… Don’t be one of us. So, this girl in Kuwait thought it was offensive because people died, and I tried to explain in the 140 characters that I disagree, or else there’d be no comedy. It’s about making fun of the hypocritical things that come out of tragedy.
Maz was awesome. He was a lot fun to be around, very knowledgeable about the world’s current affairs and very passionate about what he does. He’s starring in new feature film that will be released in 2015, and is releasing his book “I am not a Terrorist, but I’ve Played One on TV” in February.