Maz Jobrani has long made politics a central feature of his comedy, as seen prominently in his 2017 Netflix special Immigrant, in which he pulled no punches in criticizing President Donald Trump, especially for inspiring fear and hatred of people from other countries.
This fall, the Iranian-American comedian — who says of Trump, "This guy has effed up the coronavirus response so badly and this guy has been just so bad for civil discourse" — is also making politics a significant part of his day-to-day life, using his social-media platforms to encourage people to vote, phone banking for Joe Biden, and planning to volunteer as a poll worker, along with his wife, in Nevada on Election Day. It’s far more than he did during the election in 2016, when his efforts didn’t go beyond donating money to Hillary Clinton.
Jobrani — who also has a podcast called Back To School with Maz Jobrani, in which he explores a range of questions surfaced by his two children — spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about navigating stand-up comedy in 2020’s incredibly politically polarized climate; his upcoming comedy special Pandemic Warrior (recently picked up by Comedy Dynamics); and about his hopes and fears of getting back on the road doing comedy touring at socially distanced indoor venues in November.
How has your life changed this year?
I was this touring comedian, traveling the world and now I’m Mr. Mom — I’m tech support. I’m the handy man. I wash the dishes. I walk the dog. You know when that first lockdown happened like nine months ago, I feel like everybody in L.A. was like, "We can handle this. We got this." And as time dragged on, holy moly it’s become Groundhog Day.
One of the things you’ve been doing while stuck at home are comedy shows over Zoom. How are those going?
We haven’t really learned how to monetize it yet. Zoom shows actually are fun for me but it’s not close at all to the career of when you were touring and doing theaters. All that just ended. I would definitely say that I’m lucky in that I was able to have money set aside for this type of thing.
How do the Zoom comedy shows work?
I was a little worried about them at first. If you unmute like 10 of the viewers, you can hear some laughter but there have been times when people are unmuted and they don’t know the decorum. They will be like, "Oh that’s a good joke. I really like that!" Then someone will come on the chat and say, "Can you tell them to just shut up?" It’s been pretty fun and funny all in all. The more recent ones I’ve tried to turn into a talk show.
Why not do a straight stand-up set?
With comedy, people want new material all the time. So with that, I realized that I can’t do stand-up comedy shows if the same people keep tuning in and my material is not new. So I started doing a talk-show; I called it Maz in the House. It has a monologue, we have a guest on and we cover the news. We charge like $10. It’s really just a way to get people on a Friday or Saturday night in front of their computer, grab a glass of wine, and we have fun with them.
When do you imagine you’ll do in-person comedy shows again?
I’m actually getting ready to go to Arizona after the election to do shows. The club in Arizona, they said they are doing half capacity. They are doing social distancing, checking temperatures, all that stuff. I’m willing to try it.
Are you nervous about it?
I’m a little bit wary. You start to see the numbers rising again. I don’t want a headline that says "Maz Jobrani: Superspreader Show."
What sort of volunteering are you doing during this year's election?
One thing I’m doing is waking up at five o’clock in the morning going, "What happened today?" I’ve been losing sleep.
And then what do you do the rest of the day?
I’ve been pretty active with trying to encourage people to vote. I’m very active on Twitter. I’m pretty active on Instagram. I’m very impassioned about how bad Donald Trump has been for the country and the world and just what a bad human being he is. What I realize is that I have a group of Iranian-American immigrants, and you would think, oh immigrants, they would all go, "I don’t like this guy." But there’s a lot of Iranian immigrants who like this guy and I think a big reason is he said he’s going to get rid of the government of Iran, which is atrocious and oppressive. But there’s no plan — like everything else. This one Persian guy once came up to me and said, "Maz, I’m a fan but please stop making fun of Trump. He’s going to get rid of the mullahs?" I said, "How?" "I don’t know. He’s just crazy." That’s the strategy?
So how do you talk to people and try to persuade them?
I’m in a What’s App chat with a group of friends. Some of them have gone down the Q-Anon rabbit hole. Oh it’s a conspiracy and Dr. Fauci and Bill Gates planned it and talking about All Lives Matter. They drank the Kool-Aid. They probably feel like I drank the Kool-Aid. I’ve realized I’m not going to change people’s minds who are entrenched. What I decided to do is I need to motivate people who are Democrats who might not have been planning on voting. I’ve been phone banking in places like Texas and Arizona. I’m going to do Florida. I’ve been doing this other thing with VoteRiders, which makes sure people have the right ID cards and all that stuff to vote. I also had a couple of events through the Biden campaign. They reached out. We did one event for Arabs and Muslims, another one was Persians for Biden.
How do you like phone banking?
The first time I did it was north Texas. I had one really interesting call I did. I was using the name Mike instead of Maz. Maz is a weird name. I didn’t want to say, "This is Maz calling for Joe Biden." Suddenly this name came up of this 80-year-old man, Jamsheed, that was a Persian-sounding name. So let me just say my [real] name and see what happens. I said, "This is Maz." The guy said, "Maz Jobrani? How are you?" It was an 80-year-old fan. He said, "I’m going to vote for Joe Biden. I’m getting my daughter to vote for Joe Biden. Maz, do me a favor. My wife doesn’t think voting matter. Can you just call her?" He gave me her number and I ended up calling his wife and leaving a message and said please vote. I think they invited me for dinner next time I’m in Texas. The other thing I’m doing — my wife and I are going out to Nevada to be poll watchers. The truth is, the last time I donated to Hillary Clinton but she lost. This time I was like, "What can I do to go beyond just donating."
Are you worried about the outcome of the presidential race?
When I saw [recent] Obama’s speech about how Trump has normalized hate and racism and all of that, it’s totally true. So how could this even be close and yet I know it is. What has gotten me nervous are these people who might not answer pollsters – there might be that silent majority that shows up for him again. There may be people with guns trying to intimidate people from voting. I wouldn’t be surprised about that. My hope is that [Trump] takes such a clobbering that there’s no doubt. I’m hoping he gets shellacked. I’m afraid if it ends up close and it drags out with verbal arguing and it ends up in the Supreme Court and Amy Coney Barrett decides our destiny, we’ve got four more years of this numb nut.
How did you feel recently when Georgia Senator David Perdue mispronounced Kamala Harris’ name?
I saw the clip. I go, "What an asshole." The truth is my whole life it’s been a struggle to get people to say Maz [rhymes with Oz]. They say Maz [with a soft "a" sound], which is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. It’s like Maserati, Mazatlan, Lamaze class.
When is your next stand-up special?
It hopefully comes out first quarter of next year. I went to Dubai last December and filmed the special Peaceful Warrior, which was the name of my tour last year. The reason I called it that was I’d been doing a show at the LA Improv. When I got to the part with Trump jokes, an audience member started yelling at me about not making fun of Trump. We started yelling back and forth a minute or two. Someone said, "What happened to the show?" I went, "Oh my god. I’ve lost control of the show." I realized I had to deal with Trump hecklers in a peaceful Tai Chi manner. And so the next time I was at the Irvine Improv and some guy started yelling and cursing me, I was like, "Hey man, it’s all good." I handled it peacefully. The idea of peaceful warrior is, tell your jokes, get your message across but do it peacefully.
Why did you change the name from Peaceful Warrior to Pandemic Warrior?
The pandemic hit. I realized I can’t just put a comedy special out without acknowledging what has happened these past few months. I said let’s change it to Pandemic Warrior. Let me do a few minutes of stand up from the closet I’ve been using as a stand-up room in my house. And I piggy-backed that on to this special
What topics are you covering lately on your podcast?
Back to School with Maz Jobrani was inspired by my kids always asking me questions I don’t have answers for. I thought let’s bring in experts and we’ll interview them. It’s really run the gamut. We’ve had like a lady who was a cave diver who goes underneath the earth to discover stuff to a guy who helped land a rover on Mars. More recently it’s turned closer to the political world. I start every episode with a question from my son or my daughter. I had a guy on who was a former assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI. He was talking to us about the threat from white supremacists. First of all, you realize there are so many interesting things out there. Secondly, it’s kind of helped me keep my sanity a little bit during these crazy lockdown times. If anyone is looking for ways to stay sane, start a podcast.