- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Maz Jobrani had big showbiz dreams, but as it so often does, Hollywood turned his aspirations into nightmares.

Mr. Jobrani, who is Iranian-American, played all manner of roles as a child in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as a struggling adult actor in Tinseltown, the parts he was called to read for were inevitably for “terrorist” — often followed by a numeral.

“What was frustrating was I came from doing plays as a kid, where I got to play Li’l Abner, I got to play Batman at some point,” Mr. Jobrani told The Washington Times. “I thought, ‘Oh, acting is going to be great — I get to play different parts.’

“And then these auditions started coming up for terrorist, terrorist, terrorist, and I’m going, ‘Whoa, what’s this about?’”

He took some screaming jihadi roles for the money — including getting drop-kicked by Chuck Norris in “The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand” — before telling his agent he wanted no more.

“It was a good statement to make,” Mr. Jobrani said of eschewing ethnic bad guy roles, “because then the parts I got were different. Once in a while I’d get a call, and they’d say, ‘Hey, it’s for a big movie,’ and it was a terrorist part. But I stood fast.”

Mr. Jobrani is bringing his standup comedy act to the District of Columbia’s Warner Theatre on Friday night in support of his new book, “I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV,” a collection of anecdotes from his life. The book includes stories such as his flooring at the hands of Mr. Norris — “As a Middle Eastern male, when you’re in a Chuck Norris movie of the week, you know you’re going to die,” he writes — and his memories as a child in Iran before the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution and the challenges of being an immigrant in the U.S.

“I’m lucky that I’ve got standup,” Mr. Jobrani said. “I never judged my actor friends who took [terrorist roles], because you know they’ve got mortgages and they’ve got to feed their kids. But it’s unfortunate that the system is such that these are the types of roles that are out there. But I also take responsibility, and it falls on my shoulders and the shoulders of other people from that part of the world, to tell our own stories.”

A considerable part of the book is devoted to taking Mr. Jobrani’s standup act on the road, including to his native part of the world.

“A lot of people in the U.S. don’t necessarily travel much to the Middle East,” Mr. Jobrani said. “They don’t know as [much as] one would hope. So it was kind of showing a comedian’s experience in these places that we’re supposed to be scared of.”

In 2006, Mr. Jobrani teamed up with fellow comedians Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Khader and Dean Obeidallah for “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” which made light of the difficulties of being Americans of Middle Eastern descent in the post-9/11 world and of the universality of their experiences as sons, fathers, husbands and immigrants.

In his segment of that program, Mr. Jobrani observed that cable news programs invariably show “the crazy guy burning the American flag going, ‘Death to America!’”

Just once, he said, “I wish they would show us doing something good, like baking a cookie. [In Middle Eastern accent] ‘Hello, I am Muhammad, and I am just baking a cookie. I swear, no bombs, no nothing.’”

“That was kind of me trying to make fun of the way we’re always seen,” Mr. Jobrani told The Times. “[We’re] not all militants with Kalashnikovs waiting to shoot you. And that’s where the ‘baking the cookie’ joke comes in. There’s a lot [more] people baking cookies and just doing day-to-day stuff than taking people hostage.”

“I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV” also touches on the fickle nature of fame. In 2007, Mr. Jobrani was on a show called “Knights of Prosperity” with Ray Romano, Mick Jagger and Sofia Vergara, which was hammered in the ratings during its first weeks against “American Idol,” the Sugar Bowl and a speech by President Bush, and ran for just 13 episodes. Mr. Jobrani recalls driving through the streets of Los Angeles not long after the show’s cancellation and seeing a homeless person wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the show’s logo.

Mr. Jobrani’s standup tours recently took him to Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon and Bahrain, all of which he maintained were perfectly safe, with people simply living their lives.

“One of the points of the book is to show how ordinary people are in those parts of the world,” he said, “and how in the news we’re seeing the worst of the worst. And sure there are parts of the Middle East where there are wars, but you can go to other parts of the Middle East and be fine.”

Mr. Jobrani said that the way to alter the perceptions of Middle Easterners, both in America and abroad, is to reclassify Islamic religious terrorists as “criminals” rather than zealots.

“If we kind of were to turn the paradigm a little bit and get these people we see in ISIS and [attacking] Charlie Hebdo, if we relabel them as criminals, then [people] would go, ‘Oh, I see, those are the criminals with a political agenda.’”

Nevertheless, Islamic State extremists do apply a measure of religious interpretation to justify their actions. Mr. Jobrani said “they’re a minority, [but] unfortunately, I think that people just assume that whole part of the world is just chaotic, and the people from that part of the world want to wage jihad on America, which is not true.”

“Given what we see in the news [and] in movies, you would think that all the people from that part of the world” are the same, he said. However, “there’s different countries and different cultures [and religions], so that’s No. 1 for [people] to understand.”

In his current act, Mr. Jobrani touches on being an immigrant and his ethnic clash with American macroculture, on getting older — Mr. Jobrani is 43 — on social and political issues, and on fatherhood.

“I jokingly say that the enemies are children, you know,” he said. “I always say, if you have young kids, your whole goal from the moment they wake up is to make them tired. It’s exhausting. Anybody who’s got kids knows what I’m talking about.”

He also examines generational differences, such as how the term “quality time” didn’t exist when he was young. To wit, Mr. Jobrani’s father never attended his son’s soccer games except once, when he attempted to bribe one of the referees.

“That’s just how you do it in the old country,” Mr. Jobrani said. “I think a lot of immigrants or people with immigrant parents or grandparents can relate to some of the jokes that I do. I make it relatable.”

Mr. Jobrani is tailoring his performance in the nation’s capital to his audience. He recently tweeted, “#netanyahu is coming 2DC nxt wk so I figured I’d follow him up w/a show @DCWarnerTheatre on 3/6. Dems+Reps welcome!”

“I really love D.C.; it’s one of my favorite places to perform,” Mr. Jobrani said. “I always say when I come here, I feel like my IQ increases by 20 points.”

He points out the bicoastal separation between his life in Los Angeles and the nation’s capital — of a Hollywood culture populated by poseurs versus the real McCoy in Washington.

“The people I meet [in Los Angeles] are like, ‘Yeah, man, I’m doing a film where I play a CIA guy.’ Or ‘I’m doing a film where I’m an FBI guy,’ or ‘I play a diplomat.’ When you go to D.C., you meet people, and they’re like, ‘I’m a CIA guy; I’m an FBI guy; I’m a diplomat.’ You know, real people.”

In addition to his standup, Mr. Jobrani will star in “Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero” as a private investigator from the Middle East now living in Los Angeles.

“It shows us in a different light,” Mr. Jobrani said of the show, the title of which makes light of his own father’s inability to distinguish between a “W” and a “V” sound in English. “It shows us [as] Iranians living in America and being just slapsticky, and it’s something we’ve never seen before. So I think the more [pieces of entertainment] we got out there, the more it will change those rules so that not every nine out of 10 roles will just be terrorists, you know.”

With Islamic State atrocities and conflicts throughout the Arabian Peninsula dominating the news, Mr. Jobrani’s message of humanity common to all could not be more timely. He is quick to condemn terrorism and hopes his book and act will put human faces on Muslims and Middle Easterners in general as well as counter stereotypes and fear.

In an ironic bit of turnabout, Mr. Jobrani writes of his time shooting the Norris film in Texas: “Most of what I knew about Dallas I learned from stereotypes picked up in my childhood.”

Mr. Jobrani will perform at the Warner Theatre on Friday evening.

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