On late-night shows, in stand-up routines and scripted sitcoms, the opposition to President Donald Trump is more intense than a rally full of pink pussy hats. He’s an endless source of material for joke-writers, but also a five-alarm crisis, with barely a voice in mainstream or alternative comedy that isn’t against him. Punchlines morph into earnest manifestos about diversity or health care. The jokes and jeremiads give Trump opponents the release they need—never mind how they might alienate Trump supporters on the receiving end. And they drive Twitter rages from a president who once felt all publicity was good publicity—until he became pop culture’s No. 1 whipping boy.
Maz Jobrani, the stand-up comedian and actor, has been trying to channel his own experience hating and protesting Trump into his work. Marching at LAX against the travel ban becomes one bit. Arguing with his mother about her saying she likes that Trump speaks his mind becomes another. But it’s hard to be funny when you feel like your country is going to hell, and everything starts to sound more shrill than amusing.
“He has emboldened racists. I say that. There’s no joke. There’s no punch line,” Jobrani told me, in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “But I think if you do that, you better have a punch line coming soon.”
But he quotes a line from the comedian D.L. Hughley: “Comedy is like giving people their medicine in orange juice. They don’t taste it.”
Stephen Colbert, who since the election dropped the pretense of playing it down the middle in his new role at CBS, has turned non-stop mocking Trump into skyrocketing ratings. Jimmy Kimmel turned a monologue about Obamacare into what amounted to a viral ad denouncing Republicans’ perceived cruelty. “Weekend Update” is coming back early, ahead of the new season of “Saturday Night Live,” which will have Alec Baldwin back in his Trump wig, though Sean Spicer’s departure will probably mean fewer Melissa McCarthy cameos behind her rolling podium.
Appearing on Colbert’s show on Wednesday night, satirical filmmaker Michael Moore—a cartoon of the left himself who nonetheless predicted Trump would win last year—argued that McCarthy should get the credit for taking down Spicer. “We need an army of satire,” he said. A few minutes later, James Corden opened his CBS show following Colbert in a top hat and tux, singing a parody mocking Trump’s tweeted transgender ban for the military.
Jobrani knows it’s all deepening the chasm between conservatives and the entertainment world—but he doesn’t care.
“Trump supporters or people on the right, whenever I’ve done—even under Bush, when I would do jokes, they felt like I was attacking them. And I’m not attacking you, I’m attacking this politician,” he said. “If you’re going to take it personally, like it’s your—like I’m making fun of your mother, then that’s an issue you have.”
Jobrani says that people who can’t laugh at Trump are just too invested in the president, and not invested enough in the free speech and critical thinking that to him is the whole point of democracy. He’s heard the response that comes back: “‘Well, then, why don’t you make fun of Obama?’ Because he just didn’t do a lot of stuff that was funny to me.”
Jobrani arrived in America when he was six, on a visa he may or may not have overstayed illegally: His father brought him and his sister on what was supposed to be a two-week trip for their winter break in 1978, but decided in the face of the Iranian Revolution not to go back—on such short notice that they’d left his baby brother behind with relatives. He recorded his new comedy special out on Netflix next week, Immigrant, on stage at the Kennedy Center in April with a giant photo of his Iranian passport picture projected above him, inspired by his reaction to Trump.
Raised near San Francisco, Jobrani was in a political science Ph.D. program at UCLA before dropping out for a performing career that started out with many roles as a terrorist. But it’s the stereotyping he’s seeing going on now, in real life, that has him worried.
“No matter how American I am—I’ve been here for most of my life—there are people that still don’t consider me American,” Jobrani said. “It’s like, OK, if you’re going after green card holders, what’s next?”
His routine about the travel ban centers around how differently he and other darker-skinned marchers at LAX in February reacted to the police, compared with the white people who were there. In his joke, everyone’s in it together, marching, chanting, yelling—until the police show up, and he says the white people got right in their faces, while he and the other non-white people in the crowd quietly edged away.
That feeling is real, he said, accentuated by a climate Trump has encouraged.
“I feel, somewhere in the back of my mind, I would feel like they could take my citizenship away, and send me back to Iran,” Jobrani said. “I honestly do feel that there is a thing in my mind that my rights could be taken away at any minute. And not just my rights; anybody’s rights.”
Jobrani has been profiled by casting agents and TSA agents alike, but he said he doesn’t mind how that’s played into his current big role. On the CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts,” the Iranian-born actor plays an Iraqi, and one with a much stronger accent in English than he has in real life. He asked the writers about making the character, a dry cleaner, Iranian, offering to bring knowledge and a little Farsi to the role, but they saw the humor in lines that referenced living through a war. He noted to them that the Iran-Iraq War could provide that material, but they told him they didn’t think most Americans would be familiar enough with that.
It’s an awkward fact that playing around with ethnic stereotypes has boosted Jobrani’s career, as with so many comedians of color. Does that make him uncomfortable? Not really, he insists—but he’s thought about comedian Aziz Ansari’s plea to non-white actors to avoid playing up their accents and other stereotypes (a big theme of Ansari’s first season of “Master of None”). Jobrani sees his Faz as in the tradition of Danny DeVito’s Louie DePalma on “Taxi” and Rhea Perlman’s Carla on “Cheers.”
“To have a character with an accent making people in middle America, or wherever it is, laugh, I actually think that’s progress, because whether he’s like, saying ludicrous stuff, or some of his stuff is like sexist or whatever, I still feel that we are taking a step in the right direction,” Jobrani said. “It reminds you that there are people—immigrants—that are just businessmen, that are going to say stuff that is ridiculous. But I think it’s a drop in this big pond that goes in the right direction.”
Others in Hollywood have pushed for more. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a recent speech at the Creative Artists Agency, urged the crowd to channel their frustration with Trump and what’s happening into scripts and other ways of shaping the popular imagination.
“I want them to know that they have power,” Schwarzenegger said in his own recent Off Message podcast interview. “If they go out and they rally and they go and let their frustration be heard and go and join a movement or whatever it is, be involved and don’t just sit there and look at the news and look at the news and look at the television and then complain. That’s not good enough.”
Like most comedians, Jobrani is easily bored—so he’s left most of the material recorded in his special behind and is working on new bits. He’s trying to tell jokes about being a father, about his son and daughter, but up on stage, it’s the political stuff that ends up getting most of the laughs in spite of his best efforts.
“Even though I’m not trying to do Trump jokes, I end up doing Trump jokes,” he sighed. “But I’m exhausted of Trump jokes.”