With about a week to go before the “Axis of Evil Comedy Show” comes to the Bay Area, the Iranian-American actor and comedian Maz Jobrani is getting ready to lay on his thickest Iranian accent—this time for laughs.
In movies and on TV, Jobrani has been a terrorist, a spy, and an imam. He’s worn turbans and he’s owned a donut shop. More than once he’s ditched his perfect English and put on a heavy Middle Eastern brogue. And he’s died so many times that his own mother has begged him to kill the other guys in the movie for a change.
But that’s not all. Maz Jobrani is one of a trio of Middle Easterners responsible for the riotously funny “Axis of Evil Comedy Show,” which will have its Northern California premiere on February 9th at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and February 12th at Santa Clara’s Avalon Nightclub.
And Jobrani might just be the guy to give America its first pistachio-shucking, watermelon loving, backgammon playing Iranian-American hero, “Jimmy Vestvood.”
In addition to regular stand-up gigs at LA’s Comedy Store and The Laugh Factory, Jobrani had been performing on stage and on screen well before 9/11, but after the attacks he found himself in demand to play a kind of Muslim he’s never known in his life: the Hollywood kind.
He appeared on several network shows, including “24,” “The Agency” and “Without a Trace,” then went on to play “Moly” in the Ice Cube movie “Friday After Next.” Last year he played “Agent Mo” alongside Sean Pean and Nicole Kidman in the film “The Interpreter.”
Today Jobrani, who left Iran at age six and grew up in the Bay Area, doesn’t play to stereotypes anymore, but he has this wry take on his life as an accidental terrorist: It’s all made for a rich and steady source of material for his comedy routines.
“The Axis of Evil Comedy Show” features stand-up performances by Jobrani and two other Middle Eastern comics, the Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed and the Palestinian-American Aron Kader, and it offers an edgy take on hot topics like the Iraq war, terrorism, profiling, and detentions. The comics make fun of themselves, George Bush, and everything and everyone in between.
Often, their “Axis of Evil” material comes straight out of the group’s own post-9/11 lives. Ahmed Ahmed has a namesake on the FBI”s Most Wanted List and has even been held up at airports before shows. Like Jobrani, he’s been able to find humor about the experience at a not-so-funny time for Middle Easterners in America.
The “Axis of Evil” trio got their start as the “Arabian Knights” at LA’s Comedy Store. In 2001 the club’s owner, Mitzi Shore, saw potential for a new comic specialty and rounded up her Middle Eastern comics as a regular feature at the club.
In 2002 Jobrani, Kader, and Ahmed took their show on the road and have been performing to sold-out audiences around the country ever since. They build their material as they go and the show is always taking on new shapes. At one point they had an Iraqi rapper on board. And they’re always saving a place on-stage for up and coming Middle Eastern comics.
In the Bay Area, the group will be accompanied by a “jamming” dombak player. There will also be guest appearances by the Armenian-American comic Sam Tripoli, Palestinian-American Dean Obeidallah, and Maysoon Zayid, one of the few female Middle Eastern comics performing today in the U.S.
“It’s a political show,” says Jobrani, but he’s quick to add that there’s more than just politics on the comedic menu. With a name like the “Axis of Evil Comedy Show,” what may surprise audiences most are the non-political parts of the show–the jokes about flatulence, sex, and other “standard” stuff.
The idea, says Jobrani, is to represent Middle Eastern immigrants in what’s maybe the most radical way these days: as Americans as much as anything else. “Our lives embody so much more than what the TV lets you see,” says Jobrani.
His “Jimmy Vestvood” project has Jobrani stepping up his campaign to bring a totally different Iranian to the big-screen. He has co-written a script about a bumbling but lovable Iranian guy who comes to America and dreams of becoming an American hero, and is presently in hot pursuit of the funds it will take to bring Jimmy to life.
In the meantime, “The Axis of Evil Comedy Show” goes on. For Jobrani, the laughs he gets from audiences signal an impatience with the media stereotypes of Middle Easterners.
“People get it. It’s like, ‘Enough already. Let’s see something else.””
But just what constitutes a “Middle Eastern” identity nowadays is something that manages to bedevil even Jobrani from time to time. Recently he appeared at the “Humor for Humanity” benefit in Southern California, and just before going on stage a fellow American comic panicked at the idea of performing a “dirty” routine in front of a predominantly Iranian audience. He assumed “Iranian” equaled “devout Muslim.”
“Be as dirty as you can!” Jobrani told him. “They’ll love it!”
He was right. They did.
But a few months later in Oregon, another Middle Eastern audience fit a very different profile. Halfway through his own set Jobrani looked out at the audience and saw young kids running around the club. “Holy Shit!” he remembers thinking. The show had been heavily advertised in the Muslim community, and many parents, expecting some clean Muslim-style family fun, had brought their kids along for the night.
“I went through with it, but as I left it seemed like all their eyes were on me,” he says, sounding basically unrepentant.
Still, being part of the “Axis of Evil” has given Jobrani some pretty great moments in his career. He remembers the “cornhusker type” who recently came up to him after a performance and gave him a huge hug.
“I’m totally into that,” he says, laughing.
It turns out that an embrace shared by Middle America and the “Axis of Evil” is just the kind of twist that gets Maz Jobrani laughing with real, unscripted pleasure.
“The Axis of Evil Comedy Show” comes to San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts on Thursday, February 9 and the Avalon Nightclub in Santa Clara on Sunday, February 12. Tickets are $25-$35 with a $5 discount for students. Contact: The Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, S.F., 415-392-4400; Avalon Nightclub, 777 Lawrence Expressway, Santa Clara; (408) 241-0777.
More information about the show can also be found at www.axisofevilcomedy.com.