Toronto, Canada – When Iranian-American Maz Jobrani first started acting in Hollywood 15-years ago, he wasn’t expecting to be constantly offered roles as a terrorist or villain.
As a comedian, he decided to change this negative perception of Muslims and Middle Easterners through his stand-up comedy, in which he challenges these stereotypes while making people laugh.
In 2005, Jobrani teamed up with three other Arab-American comedians and formed the “Axis of Evil” comedy troupe and toured across the United States, armed with jokes about being Middle Eastern in the US. Their tour was a success and it led them to performances in the Middle East, where they sold out 27 shows in five countries. They broke records as the first American comedians to publicly perform in the Middle East.
Jobrani is breaking ground yet again by playing the first Middle Eastern hero in American cinema with his newest project – a movie called Jimmy Vestvood, Amerikan Hero. Describing the character as a “Persian Pink Panther,” Jobrani said it is time for pop culture to feature a Middle Eastern role model. The movie raised more than $110,000 from the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo and filming is scheduled to begin this fall.
Al Jazeera’s Mersiha Gadzo caught up with Jobrani in Toronto before starting his “I come in peace” comedy show, where he discussed his new film, his childhood and future plans.
The goal of this film is to have it cross over beyond just the Middle Eastern community.
Al Jazeera English: You mentioned in your promotional video for Jimmy Vestvood that you approached production companies who said they loved the idea but they preferred the hero to be Italian or Mexican instead. Why do you think the film industry is reluctant to change this stereotype?
Maz Jobrani: The honest truth is we talked to a couple of producers and the feedback was … they just didn’t see the potential for it. No one specifically said make him Italian, we kind of did that as a general theme, which is the kind of response you usually get on movies like this.
I think a lot of people don’t know there’s a market for this, that there’s an audience that’s hungry for a depiction of Middle Easterners and Muslims in a different way. I can attest to that with the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour, until we put our show together and started performing it, people didn’t know that there was a market for it. Suddenly people saw they [the shows] were selling out, there was a market, and then we had interest from production companies and people who wanted to produce this as a special for Comedy Central.
Hollywood is in the business of making big films with big names. For example, Tyler Perry [American actor, director, screenwriter] did that with the African-American audience. He created his own films and then he started bringing in all these numbers and then Hollywood started listening to him.
I also think more importantly for us right now, the types of roles that are out there tend to be negative. People aren’t writing parts that present us as the cop or the good guy or the guy who saves the day. So that’s what we’re trying to do with this.
AJE: What else do you hope to achieve with this movie in the end?
MJ: The goal of this film is to have it cross over beyond just the Middle Eastern community. I want Western teenage boys, white, black, other ethnicities laughing, quoting this character, and enjoying this film.
I've seen news footage of people getting beaten up just because they were Iranian. I have friends who are Arab who tell me that they got beaten up because people thought they were Iranian. It's just stupid.
AJE: Who were some of the people who pitched in on Indiegogo?
MJ: It’s not a bad place to go [Indiegogo] because by doing our fundraising, not only were we able to raise seed money, but we also were able to get a buzz going about the project. People starting coming to us who were individuals in the community who said, “Hey I’m a businessman and I want to help support this.” They came out of nowhere and in the end we were able to put a little team together.
AJE: You often joked about political relations between Iran and the US. What was it like growing up in California while the hostage crisis was happening in Tehran?
MJ: When the hostage situation happened, I was 8 or 9 years old. I was a kid. I was just trying to play kickball and soccer. I would see it on TV, but I didn’t relate to it until I got picked on at school a little bit.
Looking back on it, you realize how hard it was for some other people. I’ve seen news footage of people getting beaten up just because they were Iranian. I have friends who are Arab who tell me that they got beaten up because people thought they were Iranian. It’s just stupid. It’s kind of like right now with what happened in Boston. These guys are Chechnyan and then a bunch of people on Twitter were saying, “Let’s go attack Czech Republic.”
Furthermore it wasn’t the [republic] of Chechnya, it was two Chechnyans, so why do you have to attack the whole country because of that? So, people are just stupid and they get into the fervor, but I was fortunate to not get a lot [of harassment]. There was a kid in the sixth grade who used to call me an effin Iranian back then; you know, that’s what people would call you.
AJE: Since you finished your “Axis of Evil” tour in 2007, you now have two young children at home. How long do you plan on traveling like this for shows?
MJ: I’m trying to travel less, I really want to get a TV show in LA, but it’s really hard. I sold a show to CBS last year based on my stand-up but it didn’t go past the script stage; it’s very competitive. I’ve done a couple of pilots for TV shows and it didn’t go past the pilot.
I really would love to get on a show that I enjoy and be able to stay home and be around the kids because they’re at an age right now where they’re cute and they still love you. People that have teenagers tell me, “Wait until they’re teenagers, they’re not going to want you around.” So maybe when they’re teenagers I’ll go traveling again.
AJE: You have two older sisters and two younger brothers. Did any of your siblings fulfill your mother’s wish of having her children become doctors and lawyers?
MJ: It’s funny; they’re all doing their own thing. My oldest sister is a psychologist, the next sister is a documentary filmmaker … but no, we don’t have any lawyers or doctors. But I guess a psychologist is a doctor. I think it’s funny; my parents really came around.
That’s what I always tell people. If there are any young people reading this, I really encourage them to find their passion and go for it. You got to do what you love, it’s your life; it’s not your parents’ life. And any parents that are reading this, please let your kids do what they love doing because I think that’s step one in having better people in the world.