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Maz Jobrani at UC Berkeley Commencement: ‘Keep Rocking the Boat’

18 minute read

Maz Jobrani delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, UC Berkeley, on Saturday. See below for his prepared remarks.

Chancellor, Faculty, Staff, Parents, Students, and Ann Coulter welcome to the graduation ceremonies for the U.C. Berkeley class of 2017. No, I’m just kidding. She’s not here. Yes she is. She’s right there. No she’s not. But maybe she’s watching. Hey Ann! They let me speak!

Students! Congratulations. You’re graduating! After 4 arduous years. For some of you 5 or 6 and a few of you 7 years! If you’ve been here 7 years you probably don’t know what the word arduous means. After 7 years of hard work, the point is, you did it! You’re getting out! You’re free! Way to go. Today is about you. So let me spend the next hour and a half telling you about me. I’m kidding. It’s only going to be 15 minutes but, let’s talk about me.

To be honest with you I can’t believe I’m giving the commencement speech today here at Cal! I graduated from U.C. Berkeley almost 25 years ago and I never would’ve thought I would be giving this speech! When I first got the invite I immediately said yes. As a graduate of Cal I was honored. But the next day I started freaking out. What the hell was I thinking? I’m a comedian. I don’t know how to write a speech! I dropped out of a Ph.D. program so I could tell jokes. It’s almost like I gave myself homework. And the worst part is that if I didn’t in this homework and write this speech, not only would I not graduate, but you wouldn’t graduate. The pressure was building. I started losing sleep over it. I kept asking myself, “Why have they picked me?”

But then I found ways to calm myself. I tried putting things in perspective. For example, I don’t even remember who gave the Commencement speech at my graduation. I think it was a former Governor or a businessman or something. Would you guys remember who gave your speech here today? I’m guessing not…since many of you are probably stoned.

In preparing for this speech, I found that Cal faculty, alumni and researchers have won 90 Nobel Prizes, 45 MacArthur Fellowships, 14 Pulitzer Prizes, 117 Olympic gold medals, and 20 Academy Awards…and yet, you picked ME to give your commencement speech. I graduated from this school in 1993 with a B.A. in political science and a minor in Italian. I have won zero Nobels, zero Pulitzers, zero Academy Awards, zero gold medals – I haven’t even won a bronze… but I’m that guy from the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, so I’m giving the speech!

Yeah, that doesn’t sound right to me either. I dug further. I was told you originally went out to Barack Obama. Now see, he would’ve been a good choice. But when he said no, you guys settled…on me. What are you guys, lazy? You asked the first African American President of the United States of America, he said no, and you said screw it, who’s someone who’s looking to increase their Instagram followers? Let’s get Maz. He’s desperate for attention. And you know what? You were right. I am looking to increase my Instagram followers. Here come in close. Let’s do a selfie. I’ll totally tag you.

Okay, now we have the picture, but I still don’t know why you picked me. One reason, I thought was because I am a proud Cal alumnus and I could make you all feel good by reciting some amazing facts about our school.

-For example Forbes just ranked Cal as the #1 Best Value College in the country. That has your parents breathing a sigh of relief going, “Oh good, we got our money’s worth.”

-At a tuition of just under $13,000/year your parents could’ve been driving around in a Jaguar XE for the past 4 years, but instead they sent your ass to Cal. So, you better get a job soon and pay them back or at least start working as a Lyft driver and give them free rides for a while. That’s value for your money!

-Just this year, Cal scientists figured out why shoelaces come untied! I read that in the Daily Cal and thought, you can get a grant for that? They should’ve given me the money. I have kids. I would’ve told them to just double knot it! Duh!

-Cal is not just an academic behemoth, but it also has great sports. Cal football fans are number one in spending their time watching a game going yeah, oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh…usually ending in oh. But we still love our team!

-Cal’s Sproul Plaza was the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 1960s and has since been the birthplace of thousands of drug deals.

-If Cal were a celebrity it would be Lucy Liu — smart, beautiful and mostly Chinese.

-Lastly, Cal is the #1 University in all of the Bay Area, beating out Stanford in every category that counts. That’s a study done by… me…in my own head. Go Bears!

It’s clear I’m a Cal alumnus, but that couldn’t be the only reason I was chosen. Then I thought that perhaps the students at Cal chose me to speak today because I’m a Cal graduate who also happens to be an immigrant. That’s right! Immigrants. Taking your jobs.

In a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise and we have a President who fans the flames of fear against immigrants and refugees leave it to the students at U.C. Berkeley to send a message of inclusivity to the world by having an immigrant give their commencement speech today.

Now before I go any further, I know that some of you are thinking, “oh no, here comes the anti-Trump stuff.” And this being Cal, many of you are thinking “oh yes, here comes the anti-Trump stuff.” Let me say that this is not about Democrats or Republicans or Independents or Greens. There’s only love for everyone here today. Even if you voted for Trump, we still love you. Hell, I know some immigrants who voted for Trump. Yes, some of my immigrant friends voted for Trump because they wanted fewer taxes. They ended up with fewer relatives, but still. Speaking of Trump, if you’re looking to commit a federal crime this weekend would be a good time to do it since he just fired the Head of the FBI. Easy come-y, easy gome-y. He keeps firing people. I think Trump still thinks he’s on the Apprentice!

Okay that’s enough Trump. Let’s get serious. Let me start by saying that immigrants love America. We run away from strife, conflict and poverty to come here for a better life. As cliché as it might sound, America is truly the land of opportunity where anyone can be anything.

I was born in Iran. At the age of 6 my family was forced to flee because of the Iranian Revolution. Today I stand in front of you giving the commencement speech at one of the top universities in America, if not the world. I am the American dream!

Berkeley has students from over 160 different countries and that number doesn’t include the immigrant students with US high school degrees. Cal was the first campus to have an Undocumented Students Program and is the role model for dozens of other programs that are being created across the country.

I know that many of you are first generation Americans getting your degrees. Some of you are the first in your families to graduate college. Your parents have sacrificed so much. Some have fled war and revolution, worked multiple jobs, swallowed their pride and gotten you here. Today we have Mexican-Americans! Where are you at? Chinese-Americans! Koreans! Iranians! Indians! Pakistanis! Syrians! Italians! Greeks! Vietnamese! Just yell out where you’re from! What a beautiful mix! Let’s keep it going – Native Americans, African Americans! White People! We love you white people! White people you are the rice and we are the spice. Without us you’d be eating meat loaf all day long. We give you burritos, dim sum, sushi, kebabs, hummus, jerk chicken and curry. Who doesn’t love curry? This is America!

My parents came to America in late 1978. They were in the middle of their lives back in Iran, with a home and kids and work and they had to pick up and come to a foreign land. But back then America welcomed us.

However, things turned when Iranians took Americans hostage in Iran and suddenly we were blamed for the actions of a government we had fled and we opposed. Quickly this anti-Iranian sentiment turned ugly when I was in the 4th grade and I would be called an f’in Iranian by some of the older kids at school. Other Iranians were beaten and shot at just for being Iranian in America.

Unfortunately, other immigrants have also experienced such persecution. Japanese-Americans were blamed for the actions of the Japanese government and put into internment camps during World War 2, just recently a man in Kansas shot two Indian men and gloated that he had shot 2 Iranians and our own president Donald Trump calls Mexicans rapists and drug dealers or lumps Syrian refuges in with Isis when those refugees are fleeing Isis.

Earlier this year when the Administration tried to implement their travel ban I knew a storm was coming. We were told that the ban was for America’s safety, but none of the countries in the ban had committed an act of terror in the U.S. Again, people who had done nothing wrong were being blamed. I heard of an elderly couple landing at LAX to visit their son only to be told the ban revoked their visa. They were put back on a plane and sent back to Iran. I heard of another Iranian man who lived in Norway who had obtained a visa to visit his dying father in the U.S. but had his visa revoked and wouldn’t be able to see his dad’s final days. I heard of a Syrian family in a refugee camp in the Middle East who had been vetted over a few years and were finally told they could come to America. They sold their belongings and were told last minute they couldn’t come. The travel ban wasn’t making America safer. It was tearing families apart and ruining lives.

Hearing these stories reminded me of my own experience. What would’ve happened if I had arrived in the U.S. on December 5th 1978 as a 6 year old and been told that I wasn’t welcome. What kind of psychological damage would that have done to me and my family if we were put back on a plane and returned to a Revolution we were fleeing? Imagine if your own parents or grandparents had experienced that when they first came to America. How would that have changed your destiny.

Immigrants and refugees aren’t just numbers. They are people coming to America for a better life. I believe most Americans are good and if they could only hear the stories of immigrants and what they are fleeing it would open their hearts to accept those people rather than shun them. If I can drive one point home today – it would be to put yourself in the shoes of the less fortunate and have empathy.

You are blessed to be graduating from one of the top institutions in the world. Not everyone has the opportunities that you do SO when you come across others in America or around the world who are less fortunate than you, be open to them and try to understand their experiences. Try to help them if you can. Always fight for the underdog. I went to a protest against the travel ban at LAX and one of the coolest things I saw was all of the lawyers who had shown up at the arrivals gate and were ready to volunteer their services to those in need. Be that lawyer!

Whether you’re an immigrant or not we are at a crossroads in American history. And you graduates are right in the thick of it. Do we keep the American dream alive and let people from around the world come to this country to make the best of their lives or do we close ourselves in and kill the American dream? 25 years from now, who will be giving the Commencement Speech? Will it be a kid from Damascus or Mogadishu or who knows, maybe even an undocumented student? Or will they be shunned? I would encourage us to aim for a future America that welcomes people of different backgrounds and thrives on diversity.

Now, since we’re in Berkeley, there’s another topic I would like to talk about today and that is free speech. As someone born in Iran where free speech is limited and people fight for it on a daily basis, even dying for it, I would urge you to not take that freedom for granted. Recently U.C. Berkeley has found itself in controversies around Milo Yiannapolis and Ann Coulter. To prepare for this part of my speech I went online and read some of their writings. Oh God! Talk about cruel and unusual punishment! They say a lot of stupid stuff Berkeley so I can’t blame you for not wanting them to talk here! However, as much as I’m appalled by their despicable words, as an American and as a comedian, I would encourage you to defend their rights to free speech. I know that’s not the most popular thing to say on campus, but we should have that discussion. I also believe that if we let them speak, their own words will ultimately hang them as was the case with Milo.

I have done standup comedy around the world and the first time I went to the Middle East in 2007 the promoters would tell us that we could talk about anything we wanted except for sex, religion and politics. Well then, “Hello and goodnight!”

When I returned to the U.S. I would tell people that what made America such a great country and differentiated us from many dictatorships in the region was our freedom of speech. While those countries were so insecure in their government that they didn’t want comedians to make fun of their leaders, in the U.S., I would argue we are encouraged to make fun of our leaders. Not only do all of our late night TV hosts take jabs at the President daily, but we actually hold an annual event where the President shows up and gets roasted. Yes, the Correspondent’s Dinner. And then this year our President decided to break from tradition and not attend. And I thought, Oh My God! We are starting to look more like a Middle Eastern dictatorship than an American democracy. Why is Mr. Trump afraid of being joked about? Is he not secure in his leadership? Why does he attack any piece of news he doesn’t like about himself and call it Fake News. That’s more a tactic a Middle Eastern dictator would use than the president of the free world should be using in 2017! If we limit free speech from the right then we sound hypocritical when we criticize Trump for trying to delegitimize our free press. Let’s not be the ones attacking free speech but the ones defending it.

Now I know I’m getting a little political and I might be upsetting your parents and grandparents, but hey, that will give you something to talk about over mimosas at brunch! I’m not going to apologize.

In many immigrant cultures we are told not to question authority and do as we’re told. My parents used to tell me that we had a reputation in the community so I should stay out of trouble and not rock the boat. But in America we are encouraged to question authority and I implore you to keep rocking the boat even when you’re out of college! Criticize our leaders! Hold them accountable!

The travel ban reminded me that even though I’ve been here most of my life some people don’t consider me American. It reminded me that my rights could be taken away at the drop of a hat and it made me be politically active. I started posting on my social media and went to the protests at LAX. I had some people who followed me on Facebook hit me up saying “if you keep talking politics you’re losing a fan.” Oh well. I would rather speak up and do what’s right in my heart than sell tickets to my comedy shows. I would rather fight for the underdog than to stand on the sideline with the majority and just watch it happen. Get involved. Be politically active. Lord knows there’s enough causes and protests to join. It would be easy to get into a 9-5, put your head down and collect a check. But why would you do that? The world needs you. You’ve got many battles to fight. Immigrant rights, women’s rights, black lives matter, global warming, LGBTQ rights, and many many more.

Though there’s much work to be done and that work falls in your laps, I am optimistic about your future. I think you will be more integrated and more progressive than any generation before you. I know that I’m Iranian-American, my wife is Indian-American, and our kids are confused. But they don’t judge people based on the color of their skin. Keep pushing the envelope of integration. Although I’m not religious I try to live my life by the tenets I have heard in the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Good words, good thoughts and good deeds. If you can live up to these 3 basic principles on a daily basis I believe you will have a good life.

And to end on a less political note, let me give you a few tips that I have gleaned the past 24 years since I sat where you sit today. Let’s call these final tips:

Tip 1 – Always tip! 20% if you can. I believe in karma and that what you put out in the world comes back to you, but it also feels good. And besides, being stingy sucks and nobody likes you!

Tip 2 – Find what it is you love to do in life and do it! And by the way, only you know what that thing is. My mom wanted me to be a lawyer. When I told her I didn’t want to be a lawyer she said, and I quote, “At least become a mechanic.” I asked, “How did you go from lawyer to mechanic?” She said, “People need a mechanic. Nobody needs a comedian!” I realized she didn’t know my passions, she just wanted me to have a secure future because she loved me. I love my mom too, as I’m sure most of you love your moms, but your parents don’t know crap! Following your passion is not a secure choice in life, but if you can find the light and go for it you will see that it is the best choice. You should love what you do!

Tip 3 – Travel – Go see the world. It is big and it is beautiful. And by seeing the world I don’t mean a weekend in Cabo. Go overseas, go to South America, go to Beirut! Yes, Beirut Lebanon! Visit the Muslim world. You will quickly see that Muslims are not out to get you. They just want you to visit their country and buy a rug.

Tip 4 – Never pay full price for the rug. Always negotiate. And when negotiating try saying “my friend.” It helps get you a discount. “My friend, for you five dollars!”

Tip 5 – Kiss your parents every time you see them. Especially if they’re immigrants because you never know, tomorrow they might be deported!

Once again congratulations to the class of 2017 and Go Bears!

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