Maz Jobrani on Covid-19, hecklers and why the 'Axis of Evil' comedy tour wouldn’t work today

The Iranian-American comic will be performing as part of the Dubai Comedy Festival 2021

Comedian Maz Jobrani will perform at the Dubai Comedy Festival 2021. Getty Images
Comedian Maz Jobrani will perform at the Dubai Comedy Festival 2021. Getty Images

For a stand-up comic, sparring with a heckler can bring the house down.

The heightened state of the audience, not to mention the rapid-fire exchange between stage and crowd, can result in memorable and viral moments.

However, when the banter doesn’t work, gloom permeates the room.

This is what Maz Jobrani, 49, found out four years ago during a US tour.

The acerbic and politically tinged material in the Iranian-American comic's show, held within the tenure of former president Donald Trump, didn’t go down well with some in the audience.

“The first time this really happened to me, I engaged with the audience member and tried to find the funny side while still arguing,” he tells The National, ahead of his Dubai Comedy Festival show this month.

He was talking generally about the state of US politics. “I learnt this was not the best way to go about it, as people, particularly in the US, were too heated.

“So I decided to tai-chi the situation, in a way, and let the person talk and then let them ultimately understand that we are not going to agree with each other and that’s just how it is.”

Not only was it a shrewd lesson in crowd control, but also a creative breakthrough that added a deeper and timely resonance to subsequent tours.

UAE fans got a taste of the new approach in a 2019 taped show at the Dubai International Financial Centre's Gate Avenue, now available for streaming on OSN under the title Pandemic Warrior.

Jobrani is excited to pick up where he left off when stepping on to the Dubai World Trade Centre stage on Friday, May 21.

Honk your horns for laughs

This new performance has been a long-time coming, he says, as the global pandemic forced the US comedy scene to be more resourceful when putting on shows.

“The drive-in shows were interesting because, although they project your image on a screen behind you, all you see in front, from the stage, is a bunch of cars.

“I realised what I needed to do was ask them to honk their horns for laughter,” he says.

“I also did a bunch of Zoom shows and only a couple of weeks ago I did a gig in this small airport in front of one of these old-fashioned planes. That was kind of weird.”

Jobrani wouldn’t have it any other way, though.

While figures from the US and UK live comedy industry have decried how the pandemic has resulted in a lost generation of talents, Jobrani says he plans never to step off the “comedy treadmill”, no matter where the path leads.

After all, he's worked hard to get where he is today.

Who is Maz Jobrani?

Born in Tehran, Jobrani moved to the US with his family as a six-year-old.

An academically gifted student, he studied to be a lawyer more to satisfy his parents than his own ambitions.

But Jobrani envisioned himself on stage as a comedian and an actor.

“The plan was to be a lawyer and then maybe some kind of professor," he says.

"There would be days when I would be driving to work or school and my mind would be daydreaming and I wasn't really into what I was doing.

"And it wasn't really until my mid-twenties that I decided to really go for it.”

The legacy of the 'Axis of Evil' tour

Amid the grind of the US comedy circuit, Jobrani found his niche through material blending his heritage with social commentary.

Both strands came together in 2005's Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

The title was derived from a 2002 speech by former US president George W Bush, during which he designated Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the "axis of evil".

The hilarious and poignant show featured Middle Eastern comics, including Jobrani and Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed, coming to terms with life after the September 11 attacks.

The tour also launched the career of Wonho Chung. The Dubai funnyman and actor, born to a South Korean father and Vietnamese mother, and raised as an Arab in Jordan, became an in-demand Arabic-language performer and actor after making a guest appearance on the Axis of Evil regional tour in 2007.

With such a febrile political atmosphere in the US, surely the time is right to reboot the seminal show. It could perhaps even be renamed as The Bigly or Covfefe Tour after Trump's most viral gaffes.

Jobrani doesn't think so.

The show, he says, wouldn’t cut it with US audiences today.

“Since that time we have become more divided. At least during the Axis of Evil shows most people from the Middle East were of the same mind and against discrimination of Muslims and others in America.

"We agreed then to what the truths were,” he says.

"With the more recent turns of events under Trump, Black Lives Matter and the rise of right-wing extremism, all of a sudden you are seeing people who you thought you agree with are not on the same page.

“It seems the world has flipped on its head right now and the pandemic only went on to exacerbate that."

Maz Jobrani performs on Friday, May 21, at Dubai World Trade Centre. Tickets from Dh150. More information is at www.dubaicomedyfest.ae

Updated: May 10, 2021 02:24 PM

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