A Daily Show knockoff in IRAN? Imagine turning on the TV to your favorite show, only to find the screen in complete vertigo and your ears numbed to the atonal drone you can’t wait to put on mute. Static is nothing new in our country, usually brought on by weather, faulty cable carriers, even the occasional public service announcement. In Iran, it typically takes on another message- Big Brother just caught you bootlegging TV.
“Static” is parazit in Farsi, and it’s also the apt name for a recent media sensation for Iranians worldwide, a weekly newscast that uses comedy and satire to deliver Iranian political news in all its glorious conceit. Think of it as the Persian Daily Show for those “who don’t have the patience for news” from the “servants of Mossad and the CIA” to “tickle the foundations of power.”
See for yourself
When humor, impatience, and Iran come together, you have Parazit, and the results are anything but stagnant.
Parazit, the brainchild of host Kambid Hosseini and executive producer Saman Arbabi, started over a bottle of Guinness and a shared discontent with current events in Iran. “We wanted to do a cultural show,” Hosseini told NPR’s Bob Garfield. “But, like anything else in Iran, any subject tends to be political.”
“We have 70 million correspondents,” Arabi said in reference to Iran’s population. “They show us what the priorities are in Iran.”
A couple of ex-pats
Both Hosseini and Arbabi are ex-patriates of Iran, and they grow up in both post-revolutionary Iran and the United States. Arbabi immigrated to America at the age of six to avoid getting drafted into the Iran-Iraq war, and Hosseini, who was working as an actor in Iran, left when he was 20 to follow a girl. Both found themselves at Voice of America’s (VOA) Persian News Network, an official broadcasting service of the United States government. VOA is one of the few foreign-based news outlets to offer alternatives to Iran’s state-controlled media, and it reaches an estimated 19.5 percent of adults in Iran. Hosseini started there as an art critic and the host of a cultural program. Arbabi worked as a video journalist.
Thirty minutes every Friday
The program is shot in VOA’s studios in Washington, DC and then broadcast via satellite and the internet. It began as a 10-minute weekly segment in another show in 2008, but its biting comedy caught such a cult following worldwide, it eventually became a 30-minute program that now airs every Friday. Parazit’s Facebook page has almost 300,000 followers, and it was viewed over 17 million times in December. Its Youtube channel, IranParazit, generates about 45,000 hits every week.
Part of Parazit’s popularity comes from its direct, unabashed cynicism with Iranian politics. In Iran, “it’s almost a perfect program for a perfect audience,” said VOA executive editor Steve Redisch. “They’re very skeptical, they ask a lot of questions, and they don’t always take at face value what’s being said.”
“The duo’s Western-style forthrightness, combined with their innate understanding of the East,” wrote The Washington Post, “mirrors the schizophrenic relationship many young Iranians have with their society.”
As opposed to the ornamental eloquence that has become so characteristic of Persian articulation, Parazit wastes no time cutting bluntly through the wasted politeness of ta’rouf, which would perhaps be described on the show as polite bullshit, “a defining Persian characteristic that includes the practice, often infuriating, of small talk, or frustratingly and sometimes incomprehensible back-and-forth niceties,” Hooman Majd wrote in the book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.
With only 30 minutes each week to cover 7 days of political absurdities, Hosseini wastes no time over conversational etiquette, and in doing so, he’s showing that a viable future in Iran doesn’t just rest in a change in politics, but also in a change of attitude towards worn-out traditional behaviors that more or less beat around the bush instead of at it. His delivery may be brash for the finely tuned Persian ear, but progress doesn’t come from delicacy; it comes from uprooting the damn bush alltogether.
“The state media runs so much garbage… people have become immune to it,” said Hosseini. “So we basically take that stuff, turn it around and we give it back to our audience, saying, look guys, we know you’re used to hearing this stuff, but seriously, let’s listen to this carefully one more time. Is this acceptable? And that’s when the humor kicks in.”
The Daily Show and then some
“Parazit has been compared to The Daily Show, but there’s a lot of darkness to it. There’s a lot of sad news,” said Arbabi. “We have to walk a fine line. We come from that generation of kids who got up in Iran and protested the government. We share their politics, so we echo their voice.”
“We use dark humor and angry dark comedy because for me growing up in Iran, I felt a lot of suppression. That caused a lot of anger, not only for me, for my generation,” explained Hosseini. “Even though we are angry and we are a product of a revolution that we had nothing to do with, we’re trying to manage to control this anger and try to talk to Islamic Republic government and say, dude, what you are doing to us is not right and we need our freedom back.”
And the show has not gone unnoticed. Both Hosseini and Arbabi have been accused of anti-Iranian activities, and Iranian officials claim that Parazit is a CIA operation that is stirring a “soft cultural war” amongst Iranians. The regime fought back with an “anti-Parazit” show to compete with it. “The guys talks just like Parazit,” said Arbabi. “But their jokes are really lame,” Hosseini added. “I’m being really fair here.”
The real Parazit fired back at the allegations with this statement:
“This is the show brought to you by the children of the revolution, which is us, who have now become foreigners and enemies and infidels to spread imperialism all over Iran. It’s an angry humor, dark angry humor. It’s a voice of my generation.”
Despite what Iranian officials say, popularity for the show has not waned. In Iran, “fans circulate bootlegged DVDs of the latest episodes and imitate the clothing and expressions of the program’s creators,” wrote Washington Post’s Tara Bahrampour.
We earned our audience’s trust
“We’ve earned our audience’s trust because we’ve never taken sides with anyone,” said Arbabi. “We’ve criticized Obama in the past. We’ve also criticized the Green Movement within Iran, the opposition leaders. So we’ve gained our credibility by just being balanced.”
“I imagined we were watching Iran’s national soccer team play on television. And there’s no partisanship when it comes to the national team,” Hosseini told Frontline’s Tehran Bureau. “So I want to tell him, ‘We are rooting for the same team, we both want the same team to win.’ So why not deal with each other in a humane way?”
Neither Hosseini and Arbabi has returned to Iran since they left, and if they go back now, they face imminent arrest, but that doesn’t suppress any hopes of eventually stepping foot in the country they work so hard to give a voice to. “If we could televise this show in front of a live audience in Tehran, and use satire with this government, or any other government, and to be able to make jokes… that would be ideal.”
“What I think honestly is happening in Iran is a genocide of hope, you know? Depression is huge in Iran. You have no future whatsoever,” said Hosseini. “That’s the saddest story for a generation, that they’re brilliant, they’re bright. They have dreams, and they want to, they want to change their country and the world.”
A visit to “the prophet”
Just last month the duo fulfilled a dream to appear as guests on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which they modeled much of Parazit off of because there was no precedent for it in Iranian media. You could call it the show’s pilgrimage to Mecca; at one point, Hosseini called Stewart “the prophet.” “You guys are us, but brave,” Stewart said in the interview. “You guys are us if we were really going after tyrants…. I don’t profess to follow Iranian politics very closely, but I was totally engaged, I totally got it.”
“Our fans are going to be so happy,” Arbabi said after the interview. Stewart “reached out tonight to what we do and he built a bridge to them… It’s not about Parazit, it’s not about Saman, it’s not about Kambiz. It’s about the Iranian people. We did what we did at the Iranian level and we are very successful at it. But this took their voice and took it up to the next level. And they totally deserve it.”
You can also watch the interview in its entirety on The Daily Show’s website.
When Policies Fail, It’s Time for Some Sitcom Diplomacy
Revolution’s Softer Side: Tahrir Square Is a Stage for New Poetry and Performance
12 Videos of Poetry, Performance, Music, and Dance from Cairo’s Tahrir Square (VIDEOS)
Photo courtesy of Hamed Saber via Flickr