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For Iranian TV Viewers, ‘Parazit’ Offers Reprieve From Static

February 28, 2011 at 8:34 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks with the creators of "Parazit," a web-based Farsi-language program that combines Iranian politics with comedy in the style of "The Daily Show," an American political satire television show.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a very unusual window on events in Iran.

In Tehran today, the state prosecutor announced that authorities have cut all outside contact with the country’s two senior opposition leaders. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former presidential candidate, and Mehdi Karroubi had been under house arrest after urging supporters to attend rallies several weeks ago. Their whereabouts now are unknown.

All of these developments are being closely watched by two young men here in Washington who have become stars in Iran.

Welcome to the world of “Parazit,” a weekly mix of Western attitude and Persian culture and humor, often zany and satirical, sometimes straightforward and serious. Here, the news about Iran is most definitely not what its government puts out. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can be, well, the funniest guy on the planet.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian president (through translator): What is it to you?

MAN (through translator): Liar!

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KAMBIZ HOSSEINI, “Parazit”: As soon as this guy opens his mouth, we have material to work with, because he doesn’t make sense whatsoever.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so each week, 35-year-old Kambiz Hosseini, who came to the U.S. a decade ago, and Saman Arbabi, 37, who arrived when he was in middle school, try to make their own kind of sense, broadcasting to Iran in Farsi as part of the U.S.-government funded Persian News Network at the Voice of America headquarters in Washington, D.C.

SAMAN ARBABI, “Parazit”: Frankly, we did something new, I think. And 99.9.9 percent of the news that comes out of Iran is bitter. You know, there’s nothing fun. It’s always something horrible.

And it — reporting the news has been repetitive. So we turn it into how we would talk about it as if we’re talking to you right now or we’re sitting at a bar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, “Parazit,” which translates to “Static,” a reference to the Iranian government’s repeated attempts to jam foreign satellite programming and websites, often takes the “Are you kidding me?” approach, as when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei recently claimed that Egypt’s uprising was a reprise of Iran’s Islamist revolution.

“Parazit” played the tape.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, supreme leader of Iran (through translator): Today, in Egypt, the echo of your voice is heard.

JEFFREY BROWN: And host Kambiz Hosseini’s responded.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Says who? Who has said that? Who told you? Where have you heard it?

JEFFREY BROWN: The point, Hosseini says, is that leaders can and should be questioned.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: They want people to believe that this is not their voice; this is the voice of God’s; and you have to believe it, not because I say it, because this is bigger than life and bigger than this world of ours.

What we’re trying to do is we humanize these people…

SAMAN ARBABI: Right.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: … for people of Iran, saying, look, watch, listen. These people are — they’re humans, just like us. And they can make mistakes. And you are entitled to question them. They’re not — you know, they’re not prophets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now in its second season, “Parazit” features several segments, some out of the Jon Stewart playbook, like faux reporting in the field. And there are interviews, sometimes straight, sometimes for laughs.

Recent events in Egypt gave the “Parazit” pair a chance to point out a few differences between the countries, with a big wink of the eye.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI (through translator): People of Iran, do you know what has happened in Egypt? There’s an uprising there, a revolution. They’re going to open bars. Women don’t have to wear veils anymore. High-speed Internet is becoming available.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, not so bad.

The surprise result, this creation of two self-described regular dudes has become one of the most popular programs in Iran, where it’s watched on satellite TV, illegal, but widely used, and on Internet sites such as Facebook, which is also illegal, but where the program had close to 30 million views in the past month.

The show is a hit with the Iranian-American community as well. Mehran, a math teacher who doesn’t want to share his last name, for fear of reprisal to his mother in Iran, and Farideh Soltani, an I.T. specialist, get together every Friday evening in McLean, Va., to watch.

MEHRAN, “Parazit” viewer: I also like their kind of anti-censorship spirit that they bring. It’s humorous. What is taking place in Iran and the ruling ideology in Iran is very somber. So, comedy, satire and all that really puts a wonderful spin to what’s going on in Iran.

FARIDEH SOLTANI, “Parazit” viewer: When I see “Parazit” posted on Facebook via my friends and relatives, distant relatives in Iran, that it’s — you know, you get this sense that, oh, all of us like this show. And so, yes, it somehow brings you together.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Iran, Soltani’s cousin responded to our question about why she values “Parazit.”

WOMAN (through translator): When Kambiz talks, you feel that you have just seen him in the street, the same jokes and same preoccupations as those of today’s youth in Iran. What matters to us is important to him, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, more than half of Iran’s population is below the age of 30. And playing to them, using their phrases and slang, is clearly part of “Parazit”‘s success.

Still, there are some topics that remain off-limits, most of all religion. And there are plenty of times when “Parazit” plays it straight and serious, as in a recent interview with a blogger who had escaped Iran.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: Were you tortured?

MAN (through translator): Yes, I was.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: How?

MAN (through translator): Physically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also not funny, the latest crackdown by the government on demonstrators who took to Tehran’s streets after Egypt’s successful uprising.

Hosseini and Arbabi dedicated that week’s program to two young men killed during the protests. One of them, Mohammad Mokhtari, was a fan of “Parazit” and had shared the latest show on his Facebook wall just two days before his death.

All of this, of course, raises the question: How much is “Parazit” out to change the world?

Here, Arbabi demurs.

SAMAN ARBABI: We’re nobodies. We’re a bunch of people in front of TVs saying the same stuff that people hear all about. We just do it in a different way, under the umbrella of humor.

But it’s for the audience to decide for themselves. Whether they like us or they don’t like us, a lot of people have come together from many sides of the opposition groups, including even the government, and they watch the show. Now, if they — they choose to change their mind and see things a little bit differently, that’s up to them.

MAN: Democracy.

MAN: Democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the government has taken notice, even producing its own state-run anti-”Parazit” program. It uses similar techniques, sometimes even clips from the show itself, while reminding viewers that “Parazit” is supported by the U.S. government and branding its two creators spies.

Hosseini and Arbabi, who are both U.S. citizens and federal employees, seem to enjoy the backhanded homage to their work.

SAMAN ARBABI: It’s turned into a war of comedy. So, we do a show that’s, you know, around humor, and they try to counter us with another funny show.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think they’re listening? You think they’re watching, huh?

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: I’m sure they watch the show and say, damn, they’re good.

(LAUGHTER)

MAN: This is “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

JEFFREY BROWN: And, apparently, Jon Stewart thinks they’re damn good, too. He saluted the pair in a recent “Daily Show” appearance.

JON STEWART, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”: I can see the passion in what you do. And it’s very engaging. When you watch the show, you feel like the heart and the anger. And then they constantly cut away to some — to, like, for the comedy break.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: I’m the funny dude.

SAMAN ARBABI: No.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you like to do this program in Iran?

SAMAN ARBABI: We’d love to.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: With an audience and all that.

SAMAN ARBABI: Absolutely, live audience, the whole shebang. It would be one of our dreams come true.

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: That’s a very great moment for me and Saman to do this, because doing this show from Iran, meaning that country already becomes democratic, and they can tolerate a show like this in their media, criticizing their own government.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you went now, impossible now?

KAMBIZ HOSSEINI: No.

SAMAN ARBABI: Oh, we can go.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can go?

SAMAN ARBABI: We just wouldn’t come back.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, for now, “Parazit” will continue to push the limits of Tehran’s tolerance from thousands of miles away.