A new Voice of America TV show has hit a nerve with Iranians inside and outside Iran. It's called "Parazit" (which means static in Persian) and it's a weekly half-hour of political satire often compared to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." The show's host Kambiz Hosseini and executive producer Saman Arbabi say millions follow them online and they describe how political satire works when the butt of the jokes is an authoritarian government.
JaipurArtist: Michael Leonhart & The Asvamina 7
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For the past year, a Voice of America television show produced in Washington, D.C. has hit a nerve with Iranians, both inside and outside of Iran.
[TV CLIP SOUND IN BACKGROUND] Parazit, which means “static” in Persian, is a weekly half hour of political satire, often compared to The Daily Sun.
[TV CLIP/SOUND UP AND UNDER]] It skewers Iranian politicians, religious leaders, anyone who the show’s host Kambiz Hosseini and executive producer Saman Arbabi catch on Iranian state-run television making hypocritical, false or absurd claims. Parazit can't be seen on TV inside Iran, except via illegal satellite dishes. Many of its fans follow it online on YouTube. Kambiz and Saman say its Facebook page gets more than 17 million views every month and that the inspiration for the show arrived as most great ideas do.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: We were drinking at the bar.
SAMAN ARABABI: Guinness.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Guinness. Yeah, that’s, that’s what we said. We said why, why don't we start a satire show?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the show is intensely political. At least it’s intermittently intensely political. Was that the idea from the beginning?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: No. We wanted to do a cultural show. But, like anything else in Iran, any subject tends to be political.
BOB GARFIELD: Just the question of hairstyles.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: The government of Iran, the Cultural Ministry came up and they introduced I think ten?
SAMAN ARBABI: I think it was nine different -
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Hairstyles.
SAMAN ARBABI: - hairstyles -
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Yeah.
SAMAN ARBABI: - that were dictated –
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: - to all the barbershops.
BOB GARFIELD: Iranian state television did a completely irony-free report on the recommended hairstyles.
[IRANIAN TV CLIP/AUDIO UP AND UNDER] How did you handle it on your show?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI : The state media runs so much garbage like that, that people have become immune to it. 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 where the humor kicks in.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, we found out about you guys reading about you in The Washington Post, a very good piece that compared you to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Is Parazit The Daily Show?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI [[LAUGHS] That’s - that’s a big compliment.
SAMAN ARBABI: Just to be used in the same sentence with-
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Yeah.
SAMAN ARBABI: - as The Daily Show, we're flattered.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: We never had a political satire TV show to look up to in Iranian media, so I would say, yeah, we - we got a lot of experience watching Jon Stewart.
BOB GARFIELD: I was wondering if you could describe for us some of the segments that you have done.
SAMAN ARBABI: I can give you one of our most popular segments we did. This crazy nut job came on state media – I forgot his name – and he basically said that he has proof that in order to go to heaven you – you must speak Arabic, and non-Arabic speakers will definitely not go to heaven and they'll end up going to hell. So what Kambiz and I did, we, we did a skit, and the skit was about him and I trying to fake into getting to heaven by like you know how we use fake IDs here in the States –
[TV CLIP/SOUND UP AND UNDER] - by faking that we speak Arabic. So we basically repeated the same two words.
[TV CLIP/TWO ARABIC WORDS REPEATED] And we fooled the bouncer into getting into heaven.
[CLIP SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, like as if heaven were a nightclub, right?
SAMAN ARBABI: Right. And then the next scene shows that there - there’s not much really going on in heaven; it’s very boring. And all of a sudden this revolutionary guy from the beginning of the Islamic Republic revolution who ordered the execution of so many people at the beginning of the revolution –
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Like thousands of people.
SAMAN ARBABI: - thousands of people -
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Yeah.
SAMAN ARBABI: - who is a good person, according to the Islamic Republic, his head pops up out of one of the clouds, and obviously to us he’s a mass murderer. And then that’s where Kambiz fluffs and he says something in Farsi. And then that’s where God finds out that we actually don't speak Arabic, and we get kicked out of heaven.
BOB GARFIELD: You raise an interesting point there because, you know, while The Daily Show is very good at locating hypocrisy and all the other stuff that reflects the worst of American politics, there aren't any mass murderers in the picture. Your satire really cuts very close to the bone on stuff that is in no way trivial.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: 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, my generation. 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, to Islamic Republic government and say, dude, what you are doing to us is not right and we need our freedom back.
BOB GARFIELD: But it is a VOA show so, literally speaking, you guys are agents of the government of the United States. How does that affect your credibility with your audience?
SAMAN ARBABI: We've earned our audience’s trust because we've never taken sides with anyone. We've criticized Obama in the past. We've also criticized the Green Movement within Iran, the opposition leaders. So we've g - we've gained our credibility by just being balanced.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: We know that lots of people are watching us. In Iranian blogosphere we make news every week. The state media in Iran, they're basically fighting back by producing shows that are very similar to our show. And they even –
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, wait, I - I got to ask you about this. You’re saying that the same state television that with a straight face presents stories on the proper way for men to get their hair cut is also attempting to do political satire? What does political satire from an authoritarian regime look like?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Iran has a very complex political structure.
SAMAN ARBABI: Basically what happened after the 2009 uprising, you, you saw a crack within the regime, and for the first time you saw a separation within founding fathers of the Islamic Republic. So what they're doing now, if they want to make fun of anything or criticize anything, now they're divided. They're basically protecting only one side, which is Ahmadinejad al-Khomeini’s post.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Ayatollah Khomeini is the supreme leader of Iran. He’s the mack daddy. And everybody else is fair game from the other side, for example, the opposition leaders.
SAMAN ARBABI: So they keep themselves very isolated; they're untouchable. And they make fun of everything else, which really screws up their credibility because it’s ridiculous when you listen to what they're doing.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: But their jokes are really lame. I'm being really fair here.
[BOB LAUGHS] Seriously, I'm being really fair. The jokes are really bad. It’s -
[OVERTALK] You can’t -
BOB GARFIELD: They’re just not funny.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: You can’t - It’s not funny. You can't laugh at those jokes.
BOB GARFIELD: What would happen if you decided to go back to Iran?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: I think we're going to go straight to jail.
SAMAN ARBABI: And I can't take pain. If they torture me, I'm going to make so many stuff up you would not believe.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Yeah.
SAMAN ARBABI: Right now they're calling us CIA agents, and they're calling us all kinds of names, Mossad agents.
BOB GARFIELD: When you undertook this project, you understood that for the duration of the Islamic Republic you would be persona non grata in your home country. That can't have been an easy decision to make. Did you talk about it?
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Honestly, no, because we are fighting to have that country back, you know? Those people who died on the streets, you know, they were our brothers and sisters. You know, they were just like us.
SAMAN ARBABI: You know, to be honest with you, we're here in D.C., and we have it -
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Yeah.
SAMAN ARBABI: - far better than those guys do over there, so we didn't sacrifice anything.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: 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. That’s the saddest story for a generation, that they're brilliant, they're bright. They're - they have dreams, and they want to, they want to change the w - their country and the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Kambiz, Saman, thank you very much.
SAMAN ARBABI: Thank you, Bob.
KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Thank you, thank you for having us, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Kambiz Hosseini is the host and writer of Parazit, and Saman Arbabi is the show’s executive producer. They spoke to us from Washington, D.C.