History says Maz Jobrani is descended from Caucasians. Some Americans think he's a dangerous Arab. Jobrani, however, prefers to call himself "Brown and Friendly."
That's the title of a new comedy special from this Iranian-born comedian who was raised in the United States and now travels the world running roughshod over ethnic stereotypes.
Jobrani starts his show laughing at his fellow Persians, then widens his scope to the whole Middle East. His Indian wife – "not casino Indian, computer Indian" – gets no mercy. Before the end of the show, Mexicans, white Americans, Japanese, the Swiss and more get lampooned, in a variety of perfect accents.
"If you come from a place of love, and you're not saying, 'I'm better than you,' that's one thing that allows you to talk about different ethnicities," Jobrani said in an interview. "It's almost like laughing with each other.
"I've had people come up to me after the show and say, 'Why did you not make fun of Pakistan?' People are actually upset you didn't talk about them. When you do, it's like, 'Cool, I'm in the circle.'"
Jobrani is 37 with fair skin, a prominent nose, shaved head and dramatic down-swooping black mustache. He moved from Tehran to the San Francisco Bay area with his family when he was 6. A love of theater led to standup comedy and roles in film and television, including "Life on a Stick," "24," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Knights of Prosperity." His new one-man show premiered on Showtime in January and was released Tuesday on DVD.
In the fourth grade, Jobrani endured insults after Islamic revolutionaries took hostages inside Iran's American embassy. In high school and college, he was called "sheik" and "camel jockey." Then came the World Trade Center attacks, which changed the lives of many Middle Easterners living in the United States.
"Definitely in the West, we're all cast as the same now," Jobrani said. "Whether you're Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Iranian, Afghan or whatever, you just get thrown into this category. And nine times out of 10, you're depicted as bad."
The cure for this disease is familiarity. Besides ethnic jokes, Jobrani's show also includes common comedic themes such as clueless parents and his newborn son learning to breast feed – but from a different point of view.
One of his best shows ever was in Ottawa, Canada. The auditorium did not sell out, so the promoter sent free last-minute tickets to theater subscribers – a group of older, white people.
"They were loving it," Jobrani recalled. "Part of it is just being exposed to a Middle Eastern comedian. How many white people have been exposed to that? People have these perceptions of us not laughing. They have a perception of us being terrorists ... and then they're going, 'Oh, wow, this is funny.' You know, funny can be universal."
American culture has long dealt with shifting boundaries through jokes, said John Limon, an English professor at Williams College and author of "Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America."
In the 1960s and 1970s, as standup became a cultural force, it challenged the notion that American identity was white and Christian, Limon said, citing the early prevalence of Jewish comedians, followed by giants such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
"With Maz Jobrani, it's clear there aren't just two things," he said. "It's not just am I going to get counted as a white American. It's what does it mean when I'm having dinner with a Jewish person or if I marry an Indian person."
"It's not a question of does this outsider play an interesting and funny game at the border of inside and outside," Limon said. "It's that you can't tell what's inside or outside."
This confusion can be compounded by history. Jobrani notes that parts of ancient Persia, which is now Iran, were populated by people from the Caucus mountains, and that the word Iranian comes from Aryan.
"So we're actually like the original white people," he said.
In 2007, Jobrani was part of the "Axis of Evil" comedy special, featuring comedians of Middle Eastern descent. That led to numerous overseas performances, including places such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Dubai and Cairo, Egypt.
Through it all, he remains a new kind of American.
"I was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard (in Los Angeles), and this straight-up Japanese dude, or maybe Korean, with a thick accent came up to me as was like, 'Maz Jobrani? Can I get a picture? I see you on the Internet!'"
"To me that's a victory. That guy knows more about Iranian and Middle Eastern culture. He knows a funny Middle Eastern dude. In his mind, that's changing the image he might have had."
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press
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