Payman Benz. Hahahahaha That’s my name. It’s not my birth name but it’s my legal name. It still throws me off so I am positive it throws off anyone who meets me or hears my name for the first time. I know this because I meet people and they’re like “So, your name…” I feel like I should explain it here to reduce the amount of times I have to do it in the future.
I was born in Iran right around the Iranian Revolution, which caused my family to escape and come to a country where we could, you know, stay alive. USA! USA! My birth name is Payman Abdollahi. As you can see, it’s not easy to spell or pronounce. Every single time I ordered something or had to give my name for any reason, the conversation would slow down as the other person would understandably have difficulty. “Abadolli? Ab…Abdahi? Abdalahi?” When I was in school and the teacher would do a roll call, I was always first (except for that one time a kid with the last name Aaron was in my class) and roll call would be slowed down as the teacher struggled with my name. “Payman…Ab…Aba…” I’d just interrupt with “Here!” It gets really annoying to have to do that every single time someone has to say your name.
I’ve always thought names were stupid. Animals don’t need names. They can identify each other by smell, sight and energy. Once you become friends with someone, you barely say each others’ name. It just becomes “Hey dude…” or “Hey…” When you’re in a relationship, the only time you say each others’ name is during an argument or if you’re in a crowded place and are calling out to your lover as she leaves with a much more handsome and taller man.
The other issue I had with the last name Abdollahi is that it is an Islamic name, and I’m not a Muslim. I have no problem with Muslims, but since I’m not one, I didn’t like having a name that made it seem like I was. When people convert to Islam, they often change their names. Many times that name has a variation of “Abdol” or “Abdul” in it.
I grew up in Silicon Valley, which was a pretty progressive and multicultural place to grow up. After 9/11, I was never harassed by anyone and didn’t have much trouble when traveling. I went through extra security a few times at the airport, but nothing excessive.
As I was beginning to consider moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in making comedy, I got advice from people who were working in the industry, including a few producers. Everybody told me to change my last name. “It’s difficult to pronounce and the audience (especially online) may get hung up on it.” I don’t know how true that was, but I wasn’t about to test my luck. And if I was going to change my last name, I’d have to do it before I moved here and began working.
Sure, I could have kept Abdollahi and done the work I’ve done and hoped that it would all work out, but I didn’t see the point of taking that risk. I’m not here to change the world. I’m here to make funny things. I just want to make things that entertain people, make them laugh and forget about their troubles for a little while. The idea of something as trivial as my last name getting in the way of that was absurd and unnecessary. So that was that, I was going to change my name.
So for about 2 years, I debated on what my new last name would be. I went through periods where I thought, “This is stupid. I’m not changing it.” But I knew my end goal of making comedy could not be compromised, so I plowed through literally hundreds of potential names. I’d even ask strangers for their input and ideas. It was especially tough because my first name is already pretty unique.
During all of this, my brother Sean was out one day and saw a business card of a guy named Harold Benz. He thought the last name was hilarious, but also kind of cool. So a few days later when his boss was trying to get hold of an investor who wouldn’t call him back, my brother called and said “Tell him Sean Benz from (name of company) called.” The guy called back 2 minutes later and asked for Sean Benz. There was fear on the other end of the line because Sean Benz sounds like a guy who means business.
My brother knew I was looking for a new name and suggested Payman Benz. I laughed very hard and told him he was insane. That name was SO flashy and sounded douchey, especially for a guy who wore t-shirts and the same pair of jeans for months at a time. I passed it off as silly and kept searching for a name.
Then, oddly enough, one night I went camping with some friends and we did mushrooms. I’ve only done it a couple times and it’s always been an incredibly enlightening experience. I always have a notebook with me in case I get an idea. I was scribbling in the notebook and the name Payman Benz popped into my head, and I laughed again. I wrote it down a few times. It looked PRETTY cool. I practiced a signature, “WHOA this last name is REALLY cool!” My signature for Abdollahi was a god damn mess. I’d do the A-B-D-O and then just a scribble at the end. I hated signing my old last name, and it was different every single time.
I also loved the idea of a 2-syllable first name, 1-syllable last name. The rhythm is nice. But again, Benz is so damn flashy. Can I really be Payman Benz? It’s such a silly (but also cool) name. I’m not cool enough to carry that name. If someone tells you “Hey Payman Benz is here” and you turn and see my goofy ass walking in, you’d be like “Where? All I see is that goofy ass guy.” So I moved on and forgot about Benz.
About a year later, I was gearing up for my move to Los Angeles and still hadn’t picked a name. I woke up one morning and the first thing that popped into my head was Payman Benz. I hadn’t thought about it since that night we went camping, and it suddenly felt so natural. I follow my instincts 99% of the time and am all about taking leaps of faith. This felt right. I thought, if someone thinks the name is flashy, all they need to do is meet me and realized I’m not at all a flashy guy.
So I talked to my father and grandfather and told them what I wanted to do and why, to make sure I had their approval. It was important that they knew that I was only doing this to help my future, and it was in no way a move to distance myself from my family. They understood and approved.
So, I waited a few more months and weighed the options some more. Once I made this change, there was no turning back. I don’t even remember the other few names I was considering but nothing else felt right.
Since I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew that I wanted to work in comedy in some capacity. The decision to become a director didn’t come until about 11 years ago, but I knew it would lead there eventually. Growing up, all my friends knew I wanted to work in comedy. I talked about doing it, but I wasn’t doing anything about it. I did a little standup and wrote some things here and there, but I was too afraid to make any leaps.
Changing my name was symbolic because it represented a new version of myself. I’d finally become the guy who wasn’t just going to talk about doing things, I was now the guy who was actually doing things. There was no turning back if I changed my name to Benz. I couldn’t be Payman Benz, the guy who works in a cubicle. You can’t have that name and work in a cubicle.
I went down to a courthouse, got the appropriate paperwork, followed all the steps and about 6 weeks later, I was officially Payman Benz. Abdollahi is now my middle name because I didn’t want to erase my family entirely.
When I got the approval from the courthouse, I suddenly felt like a different person. I walked back to my car and stared at the piece of paper with my new name on it for a few minutes. Even though I was just sitting in a car, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. It lit a fire inside me and I couldn’t wait to get to work. But first, I went to In n’ Out to celebrate. It was delicious. A few days later, I was ordering something over the phone and was asked my name. “Here we go again-oh wait, this will be easy!” I thought. Finally! I said “Payman Benz…” and the girl said, “Great” and moved onto the next question. Victory at last.
I moved down to Los Angeles a few months later and I’ve been working ever since. I wonder how different things would have been if I hadn’t changed my name, but I’m happy that I did. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, besides choosing comedy as my career and getting my dog Dude.
What’s the lesson here? Names are trivial and you shouldn’t let trivial things get in the way of your dreams.
My name is Payman Benz. I’m not flashy, I’m not a douche bag and honestly, I’m not very cool. I’m just a goofy ass guy who just wants to make things that make you laugh.