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Sam Razi
Founder of Pressimus. Technologist that writes from time to time.
Sam Razi
My conversation with Maz Jobrani about his new movie, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero

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Sam Razi
Founder of Pressimus. Technologist that writes from time to time.
My conversation with Maz Jobrani about his new movie, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero

I first saw Maz Jobrani perform his unique brand of standup comedy in Vancouver in 2008, where he had the audience in stitches laughing. I'm talking about a kind of deep belly laughter that makes you feel like you did several hundred crunches by the end of the show.

Jimmy Vestvood is his independently-produced movie currently playing in a number of theaters across the U.S. (and will be playing in theaters internationally). It's about an Iranian who wins the greencard lottery and moves to the U.S. where he decides to pursue his dream of becoming a private investigator. Unfortunately (and comically) a freak accident where an American flag catches fire while he and a group of people spontaneously celebrate the news that he is going to be moving the U.S. gets captured on video and ends up being played on TV news in the U.S., where it comes across looking like a group of anti-American middle-easterners at a flag burning. This sets up the plot line. The rest I'll let you watch (don't want to spoil)!

As an Iranian-American who has lived the majority of his life outside of Iran, in the U.S., and who moved to the U.S. before the 1979 revolution, how do you think experiencing the tumult of the fallout between Iran and the U.S. effected you?

Well I came to America at a time when Iran was public enemy #1 . I was a kid back then and obviously had nothing to do with the problems between the two countries, but I do remember a 6th grader called me a fuckin' eye-ranian back then. I think that that time might have informed the way I think about my relationship to America. I think from that early age I probably wanted to be liked by Americans and show that I am just a normal kid. That might even explain why I have become a comedian later in life and I try to make people laugh with me and love me. I guess from the early rift between Iran and the US I have found a need to be loved :)

What perspective do you think being a young Iranian that moved to the U.S. afforded you relative to your parents' generation, or older Iranians who moved to the U.S. after having lived a substantial portion of their lives in Iran? Does this perspective play into the film?

I think that being a kid during those hard times in America kind of had me in the trenches. My parents probably had to deal with fewer Americans whereas I was going to school and playing with Americans on a daily basis. When you get picked on for something you didn't do it gives you knowledge about injustice. I think that those experiences might have also informed the way I always try to stick up for the underdog no matter what their background.

How do you think your perspective as an Iranian-American growing up in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s might differ from those who came here in the new millennium--a key difference being that the former group (of which I am a part of) did not grow up in the Islamic Republic, whereas the latter did? Is there a dichotomy? Are they more or less the same? Have you noticed any differences in how these groups perceive or react to your comedy?

Well, if you grew up as a kid in America I would say that you became very Americanized. For example, my comedic heroes were Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I think the Iranians who came to the US later in life had a very different upbringing. Some of them had to be in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which couldn't have been easy for them. All those years that people kids were going of to fight in the front lines I was busy playing baseball and doing plays in school. So yes, our experiences were very different and as a result our personalities are very different.

When did you realize that comedy was something you could do professionally? Was it something that gradually occurred to you or was it an epiphany of some sort? Was there a defining moment?

I fell in love with comedy when I saw Eddie Murphy when I was about 10. I wanted to be like him and I got into a school musical in the 7th grade. As soon as I was on stage I felt alive. From that point on, acting and comedy became a serious option in my mind for a career. However, my Iranian parents were not on board and as a matter of fact they convinced me to study political science at UC Berkeley in the hopes that I would become a lawyer. Later when I decided against being a lawyer and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at UCLA to become a professor in political science I snuck back to the theater department and started doing plays again. It was as if I had been reborn. A few years later I realized that you live once and you can't live in the hopes of pleasing your parents. You have to live for yourself and do what you love to do. I was 26 and that's when I decided to pursue comedy 100%.

Clearly you have an interest in politics. You could see that of course in the film, with the Dick Cheney-esque Republican warmonger villain. There were both some subtle and not-so-subtle political tones to an otherwise light-hearted and slap-stick comedy. To what degree would you say that this is a political film?

I am a big fan of political humor. I loved Richard Pryor and love Lewis Black and the Daily Show. I think that if you can do a comedy with political undertones then you're ahead of the game. We tried our best to keep it light, but also have some political messages in there. There's a great line in a Public Enemy song called "He Got Game" where they say, "Fuck the game if it ain't sayin' nothin'!" Basically, the idea being that if you're not making a statement with your art then what's the point. Anyway, we decided to say something agains the far right in this film and to mock them as well as mocking some far right Iranian politicians as well.

The film doesn't have distribution in the Islamic Republic, but we can assume that Iranians inside Iran will see it eventually. What do you think the reaction will be? What would you like it to be?

I think the people who have a sense of humor will get it. Some Iranians think I'm making fun of Iranians, but the idea is to present Iranians in a Western movie in a fun way that the West is not used to seeing us in. I think this movie is a big step forward for us in American cinema, but it will take some time for Hollywood to pay attention. Some Iranians like to scrutinize and will find fault with it, but I guess you can't please everybody. I hope that most people will get it.

You have done a lot of travels over the years. There was the Axis of Evil tour with other middle eastern comedians like Ahmed Ahmed, and then your independent tours. I first saw you when you came to Vancouver for the first time. I'm sure you see similarities and differences in the various audiences over the years. With respect to Iranians in the diaspora whom you have encountered in your audiences and elsewhere, how would you say that Iranian-Americans from L.A. are either similar or different from other hyphenated Iranians? Is the ostentatiousness that you poked fun at in the movie something native to L.A. or is it a common denominator you can find in all Iranian diaspora communities?

I think that we probably have more in common than you could imagine. I think that most Iranians that I have met are good people and are very supportive. Within that there is always room to poke fun at different types of Iranians. I try to poke fun at different types of all people and not just Iranians. So, for example, in the movie the character played by Niousha Jafarian who has a nasally voice and has had plastic surgery done, etc. is a character you will find in the Iranian community anywhere. That said, our direction to her was to try to channel Kim Kardashian, so she's parodying an Armenian. I try to not be mean with my comedy, and to laugh with people. Some of it is a social commentary. For example with the plastic surgery I am a big fan of people not doing plastic surgery because I think people are beautiful as they are. I try to tell people to work on themselves from the inside rather than the outside.

Tell me about how you came up with the idea for the film and the character of Jimmy Vestvood. Is Jimmy's character based on or influenced by anyone in particular?

My co-writer, Amir Ohebsion had written a play in 1995 called "The Belind Date." It was about a charlatan Iranian guy who goes on a blind date with a gold digging Iranian girl. They were perfect for each other. The play was the first play done in english for the Iranian community of Los Angeles and it was a huge hit. I played the charlatan and his name was Jamshid. At some point in the play, trying to sound cool the character tells the girl he's on a date with that she can call him Jimmy. Anyway, once that play was over I told Amir that I felt we had a movie in the character. A few years later we started to write the movie and it went through many iterations. It took us a good 10 years of writing and writing and writing and trying to get the financing till we finally decided to make it. We did a crowd funding project in 2012, shot the film in 2013, got into the Austin Film Festival in 2014 where we won the audience award as well as the jury award for best comedy. And now, after looking for a distributor we are finally distributing it ourselves going a few cities at a time.

How did you go from concept, to getting the funding, to production and distribution? It's quite a feat to accomplish something like that, especially for a movie with an Iranian as the lead character and actor.

Tell me about it man. I don't think we could have gone into a Hollywood studio and said it's about an Iranian who saves the day. They would've laughed at us and kicked us out of the lot. We basically did the crowd funding which gave us our seed money. From there other investors came on board and put money into the project. Then once it was done we decided that it is best if we self distribute because the big distributors were not coming on board. I think that it's hard for independent films to find a big distributor these days. I also think that American distributors don't know that there is a market for this kind of film. However, we have already proven that there is. Our opening weekend per screen average took 4th place nationwide just behind Captain America. I think that when all is said and done some people in Hollywood will take notice of this film and more importantly they will take notice that there is a community that wants to see films where Iranians and other Middle Easterners are portrayed in a more fun and positive light.

How far along are Iranian-Americans in finding their place and their voice in the U.S.?

We have come a long way in certain industries. We are killing it in high tech and real estate. We have a lot of great doctors and lawyers. I think we can make some more progress in the political arena and we will. We have come a long way in entertainment as well. When I first started there were a handful of Iranian-American actors and I was the only Iranian-American comedian that I knew of. It was me in the US and Omid Djalili in England. Now we have a bunch more like Max Amini, Amir K, Tehran, K-von, Peter the Persian, Omid Singh and more. We just need to keep getting more of these people into the game and hopefully getting more Iranian-Americans into positions of executives in Hollywood where they can help green light projects that show us in a more positive light.

Do you think Iranians and Iranian-Americans are perceived mostly positively or negatively by the broader American population?

By the broader American population I think we are perceived negatively. I did a Norooz event at the White House this year where I got to do about 5 minutes of standup and then introduce the First Lady. It was an amazing experience and definitely the highlight of my career. There was a reporter there who covered the event for the USA Today. She posted the great article and when I read the comments below I realized how little people know about us. There were people writing that the Obamas are sidling up with the Muslims again even though Norooz is not a Muslim holiday. They were spewing hatred in their comments and I realized that there is a majority of the population that has no idea about us. That's why we need more presence in the media and I honestly think that comedy is a great way to reach these people and humanize us.

Do you hope to ever be able to visit Iran? How do you feel about the prospect and what would it mean for you?

I would love to visit Iran. I have done some jokes about the leadership and hosted human rights events so I would not go back now. If that day ever comes I would love to go and take my family. There is so much to see there. I was last there about 20 years ago and I only had time to stay for 2 weeks. I would love to spend a full summer in Iran and see all of its beauty!

If you could distill it down to just one key thing, what did you want the film to accomplish?

Be funny!

Is there going to be a sequel?

I have an idea for something called Jimmy Brentvood where his success from the first film has gone to his head and he's moved to an even more exclusive part of Los Angeles which is Brentwood. Then something goes down where he is needed to save the day, but he's become so "Los Angeles" that he doesn't have time because he has to go to yoga and get a frappuccino and meet his guru, etc. Then something happens where he loses his fame and he hits rock bottom taking him back to the hood to save the day.