Iranian-American Comic on Trump: "What Scares Me More Are His Followers" (Guest Column)
The actor and comedian on his policy against taking terrorist parts, using comedy to show Middle Easterners in a different light and performing at the White House for Michelle Obama: “I strongly doubt under a Trump White House you would have something like that.”
I've read that any time a terrorist act happens, the backlash in [American] schools against children who are Muslim is just immense. It's made me realize again that images in films and television really do mean something, and it's solidified my position not to do those parts. (The last terrorist part I played was one in 24 who changes his mind halfway through the mission — an ambivalent terrorist is interesting.) There's also a book called Reel Bad Arabs, where author Jack Shaheen studied thousands of films and pointed out how villainous the Middle Eastern characters are. He says that once you villainize a group like this, it's easier to dehumanize them. It's easier to either declare war on them or refuse to help them. That's how you get politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz saying, "Let's not help the Syrian refugees, because they could turn out to be terrorists." Would it have been easier to rally support if it were English refugees, given how we see English people in our films and television programs as sophisticated and intellectual?
I feel like Trump is generally a smart person, a New Yorker and a businessman who's obviously seen people from all kinds of backgrounds. What scares me more are his followers. I saw that video of that one old white guy giving an elbow to the black guy who was being escorted out of the Trump rally, or when that Mexican reporter [Univision anchor Jorge Ramos] got kicked out of the Trump press conference, and he's outside and there's this tall white guy who looks like a banker getting into his face, yelling, "Get out of my country!" In April the White House held an event for Nowruz, which is the New Year for a lot of Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, some Kurds. I was asked to do a little stand-up and then introduce Michelle Obama, which was really the highlight of my career. The First Lady gave a great speech, where she said, "The White House belongs to the people." I strongly doubt that under a Trump White House you would have something like that.
It's disheartening. And the more the media shows this Abu-Pick-Your-Whoever-It-Is, the next leader of Isis, and a TV show or a movie also depicts us in that way, the more you're gonna have people going, "See? That's just how they are." When The Sopranos came out, some Italians were like, "This is not good for us." But they also had Everybody Loves Raymond and all these other movies. Our problem is that we've never had that other side. The people that I grew up with, the Iranians I've seen all my life, are all good people doing good things. They're doctors and businessmen and gas station attendants and whatever. When Anthony Bourdain went to Iran for Parts Unknown, he said he was surprised to discover that Iranians were the most hospitable people he'd ever met in his entire life. So we're hospitable people, and yet you've never seen us be hospitable in any movie or TV show.
I used to be upset about the fact that there aren't more normal parts for Middle Eastern actors, and then I realized that's because none of the people writing the movies and the TV shows, or the executives involved, are from this background. A lot of Iranian, Arab and Muslim communities are more recent transplants to America, and it takes a generation or two to realize that working in Hollywood is an option in life. Usually what happens when people first come is the parents buy a five-and-dime store or do whatever they can, and they want their kids to become lawyers and doctors and engineers, and it's not until the second or third generation where the kids start saying, "Hey Mom, Dad, I'm gonna go off and write screenplays." You're just starting to see that. There's this Iranian-American filmmaker, Ana Lily Amirpour, who did a really funky, cool and artistic movie called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that did really well at Sundance a couple of years ago. She calls it a Western vampire movie, and it's all in Farsi with subtitles.
I once heard D.L. Hughley say that comedy's like giving people their medicine, but in orange juice. Back in 2007 when I launched the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour with Ahmed Ahmed, who's Egyptian American, and Aron Kader and Dean Obeidallah, who are both Palestinian American, we would sell out the D.C. Improv on a Monday night, and then we'd sell out a Tuesday, and then we'd sell out a few more days. But the clubs just felt like there was no market for this. It wasn't until we rented a 1,400-seat theater in D.C. ourselves and sold it out, and then sold out a 1000-seat theater in San Francisco, that the industry started paying attention: "Wow, there's a comedy scene for this?" That actually is an insult to the intelligence of the public. When I do shows, I have people of all backgrounds getting the jokes and laughing and enjoying it. Will all of America be open to it? No, especially nowadays, with the country so compartmentalized. But executives still are a little bit behind the curve when they feel that there is not an audience for this kind of stuff. There is an audience, definitely of Middle Easterners but also of others, who are sick of seeing us the way we've been portrayed in media. Now in 2016, there's been a burgeoning of comics from Middle Eastern backgrounds. At the Laugh Factory they have the Comedy Bazaar, and in New York they're doing the Arab American Comedy Festival.
Now I'm trying to do in film and television what we did with stand-up. Last month I self-released a movie, Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero, where I play a goofy, wannabe private investigator, kind of like Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau meets Borat. I wanted to show this fun side of Iranians that you've never seen before. Some members of the Iranian community weren't sure I should be presenting ourselves in this light, since Iranians are so proud of our background. I tell them: "Listen, guys. We all know how great we are historically, we had a Persian empire, we have scientists, we're big in Silicon Valley, we've got people in NASA. But the rest of the country has no idea what or who we are. Just to show us in a funny, tickling way is a huge step forward."
People ask me all the time, "What do you think of Shahs of Sunset?" I think it's a step forward, because we used to be known as terrorists — now we're known as drunks. At least Americans can go, "Ah, ga'dammit, he drinks just like me.”