Saturday, September 4, 2010

Giving Stereotypes the Maz Treatment

Victor Borge, the late comedian-pianist, called laughter (of the kind heart) "the shortest distance between two people."

Imagine those two people. Perhaps one is old, one young; one liberal, one conservative; one female, one male; one able-bodied, one ill; one Christian, one Muslim; one of this race, one of that.... In laughter, the differences between those two people no longer matter. In laughter, those two people experience a shared humanity.

Maz Jobrani (pictured left), the great Iranian-American comedian and actor (and one of the few contemporary humorists who makes me laugh aloud), understands the importance of humor in the building of community. “I think that one of the jobs of a comedian is to expose hypocrisy, and if I can do that and make people laugh, I’m happy,” Maz says. “I have a social and political conscience, but in the end, I want everyone to laugh together.”

One way that Maz uses humor is to poke fun at all sorts of cultural stereotypes. He doesn't do so lightly. He knows the pain of being pigeonholed. Born in Tehran, Iran, he came with his family to the U.S. at the age of six and grew up in northern California.

“My ethnicity didn’t faze me until I got to Hollywood, where they were like, ‘Hold this gun, take these people hostage,’” Maz says. “I don’t know how many terrorists there are in the world, but I’m guessing it’s .000001 percent of the Muslim and Middle Eastern population. But in nine out of 10 films, those are the roles we’re playing.” Early in his acting career, Maz admits, he took terrorist parts in order to pay the bills. He felt "awful" doing those roles and worried that his work was contributing to hostile attitudes toward Muslims. Now he tries to avoid such parts altogether and through humor relentlessly dares Hollywood to move beyond stereotypical representations of Muslims and Middle Easterners.

A few years ago Maz joined Palestinian-American comic Aron Kader and Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed in The Axis of Evil stand-up comedy tour. The tour took its name from President George W. Bush's designation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil”. The three comics sought to bridge the post-9/11 gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, between East and West, through the power of humor. Traveling first through the U.S. and then five Middle Eastern countries, they sold out 27 shows in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, Kuwait and Amman, telling jokes about anything and everything, "from politics to dating to deer."

In the clip below from Maz riffs on the challenges and conflicts of being Iranian-American--"like, part of me thinks I should have a nuclear program; the other part thinks I can't be trusted." Listen, and Laugh Out Loud.

If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to view the video. All Jobrani quotes taken from Time Out Chicago/Issue 207 : Feb 12–18, 2009, written by Christina Couch.

No comments: