At first, Maz Jobrani told himself he wasn’t going to do it. The pandemic may have temporarily shuttered the comedy clubs and made touring next to impossible, but he was not going to put himself in the awkward position of trying to do standup via some kind of videoconference.
Then, like so many of us, Jobrani found himself working from home, logging into Zoom.
“I was hesitant to do any kind of online comedy shows. But then I saw some other people do it — sometimes for charity, for example — and it ended up being not that bad,” he says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “What I’ve learned is when I do it on Zoom you can unmute a handful for the audience members so you get some sense of the laughter as you go. And the fun part for me is you get to see the audience members in their homes, so you can do crowd work like that.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Jobrani managed to make comedy via Zoom work for him. Apart from comedy, his gifts include an ability to acclimatize himself to almost any environment or medium. This includes everywhere from the White House (where he introduced Michelle Obama at an event in 2015) to film roles, TV series like Curb Your Enthusiasm to Superior Donuts and — perhaps the biggest contemporary indicator of a comedian’s arrival in popular culture — his own Netflix special.
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That said, the challenges wrought by COVID-19 have pushed Jobrani, along with his peers, to try and wring laughs in the most unlikely scenarios: he describes performing through a window at a bar where the audience sat on an outside patio, and a drive-in movie theatre.
“We need a live audience,” he says, pointing out that he is in a better position than those just starting out in comedy, who may have to wait for a vaccine before their careers can get off the ground. “There are no short cuts in stand up comedy. In music you can see a young prodigy, but in comedy there is only one way to get better, which is stage time.”
On the flip side, the year 2020 is nothing if not filled with potential material, and while some might argue for more light-hearted topics to distract people from the news, Jobrani believes there is an appetite to confront what’s happening right now.
“I’ve always been someone who talks about politics, social issues and my kids. Those three subjects remain,” he says. “When you talk about what’s going on and don’t ignore it, (the audience) is going to have a sense of relief that you’re talking about it. Just because we live in a heightened time of politics and emotions, that doesn’t mean you steer away from it; you lean into it.”
This doesn’t just include the Coronavirus, but rising concerns of racial inequality following the deaths George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more recently, Jacob Blake. For Jabroni — whose Netflix special was simply titled Immigrant — the headlines have reminded him of his own political awakening.
“I remember there were protests at the airport in first week of the (Trump) presidency about the hypocrisy of the travel ban. The next day, polls showed a majority still supported it. That was when a lightbulb went off and I realized peel weren’t really paying attention. They turn on the news and they think, ‘This makes America safer.’ So I went down and protested.
“With Black Lives Matter, I had seen them and thought, ‘Oh, black people have it covered,’” he continues. “Then when I saw that people from different backgrounds weren’t part of my cause I realized the next time there’s another moment that doesn’t correlate with who I am, I need to open up my eyes and be present.”
Besides joining in the protests, Jobrani has no problem speaking out and being dead-serious on platforms such as Twitter.
“Someone will say something like ‘Shut up and be funny.’ I say, ‘You stick to accounting and go crunch your numbers.’ Ultimately we are all political beings,” he says, though he is fully prepared to rise to the creative challenges the news presents. “If can succeed in getting a political message across in a funny way, that’s the top of the mountain. It’s the pinnacle of art.”
There should be lots of opportunity to make that kind of art with a U.S. election coming up, but Jobrani says Donald Trump is not the comedic gold mine the public may imagine him to be.
“He’s not, because we need time to develop our jokes,” he says. “This guy says so much crazy stuff every day it’s impossible to keep up with him. His tweets are like Tetris and you’ve got to process them and try to survive.”
Besides returning to stages, Jobrani’s ambitions include starring in his own TV series. If that happens, don’t expect Jobrani to trade hot-button topics for safe laughs.
“I would love nothing more than be able to do more about my kids and fart jokes,” he says. “But unfortunately there’s more to the world we live in.”