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Meet the Duo behind Iran's 'Daily Show'


13 Aug 2010 19:11Comments

Nicety-free show finds no heroes, attracts broad audience.

[ dispatch ]
Kambiz Hosseini states that he has "no patience for ta'rouf." He states it very emphatically.

In his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd explains that ta'rouf is "a defining Persian characteristic that includes the practice, often infuriating, of small talk, or frustratingly and sometimes incomprehensible back-and-forth niceties." Hosseini, host of the weekly satiric show Parazit on Voice of America's Persian News Network (PNN), is having none of it.

It is hardly necessary for Hosseini to declare his position with such vehemence. In the interview segment of Parazit, the show he co-created with Saman Arbabi, his lack of patience for ta'rouf is unmistakable.

Hosseini once asked his VOA boss if he was an agent of the Islamic Republic. He asked Iranian gay rights activist Arsham Parsi if this was really the time to push for homosexual rights. He asked human rights activist and former CNN anchor Rudi Bakhtiar if she had stated that Ahmadinejad has many followers out of fear that otherwise she would lose access to Iran. He got into a spat with journalist Masih Alinejad about an article that wasn't published on a Green Movement website -- the more Alinejad insisted that the matter was trivial, the more Hosseini insisted that in fact it was vital and that "the people have the right to know."

All this and more has been heard on a program pitched as comedy. Parazit is billed as the show for those who "don't have the patience for news...and all news is bad news." It declares that it is brought to its listeners by the "servants of Mossad and the CIA" to "tickle the foundations of power."

All ta'rouf aside, Hosseini and Arbabi have created a popular and relevant show that has brought Iran's self-mythologizing personalities down to earth with one common denominator -- humor. Hosseini and Arbabi are smartasses, but every episode of Parazit reminds its audience that in order to be a smartass you first have to be smart.

After studying theater in Iran, Hosseini found work as an art critic. Encountering increasingly restrictive conditions, he left in 2000 for the United States, where he eventually wound up at PNN. There he met Arbabi, who immigrated to the United States in 1985 at the age of 12 because of his parents' concerns that he would soon not be allowed to leave the country and would eventually be drafted to fight in the Iran-Iraq War.

A shared sense of humor toward politics, religion, and social issues is what first brought the two together. But it wasn't until after they had spent a few years at VOA and tired of their "routine and boring" jobs as low-level assistants that they began sharing notions for a show which would allow them to utilize their particular talents. Arbabi says their wrote down their very first ideas on a napkin as they sat in a bar.

They pitched their concept to management and were initially given a time slot for just a brief segment. Soon enough, they built up a following and the narrow slot expanded. They are currently recording the second season of their original program, now 30 minutes long. Kambiz, who hosts, has been drawing comparisons to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Parazit is now fairly ubiquitous -- there's the Facebook page, the YouTube channel, the show blog, the file sharing page, and of course, Voice of America's official PNN page. They are such an Internet hit that they say most of their fans at first have no idea Parazit is even part of VOA.

Speaking with various people about Parazit, I did not come across one who disliked the show -- a remarkable accomplishment, given that Iranian ex-pats still argue vociferously over whether Pahlavi or Mousavi would make a better leader, while many still opt for Mosaddegh, dead a mere 43 years.

Once I spoke with Hosseini and Arbabi, I figured out how it was that they have achieved their rare feat -- transcending the partisan divisions that separate their countrymen both at home and abroad. I asked how they choose their material for their weekly show and what poor figure will become the subject of their jokes. "We don't want to be labeled," says Hosseini. Arbabi quickly adds, "Common sense is the core of what we do."

Because of Iran's unique political situation, journalism is an unavoidably political endeavor -- akin to how Fox News and MSNBC have chosen to define their respective missions. Finding an Iranian journalist who doesn't advocate for one side or another is rare. And this attribute has traveled with Iran's emigrés to the United States and Europe. Most journalists and media personalities clearly side with particular factions and so inevitably alienate certain viewers.

Parazit has set itself apart. It is one of the few Iran-themed programs that actually unites viewers. When audiences tune in, they understand that no one is beyond the reach of the show's biting wit. Its "everyone is fair play" approach has been rewarded with an ever-expanding fan base.

Whether the topic is a law barring Western hairstyles or Rafsanjani speaking up only when his own political career is in jeopardy, Hosseini and Arbabi are prepared to point out the hypocrisy of Iran's various political kingpins and often absurd laws with a sharp and unflinching eye. The show's introduction promises to "make clear the unspoken," and one of Hosseini's favorite words throughout is shafaaf, "transparent." Arbabi confessed that once they began criticizing the leaders of the Green Movement -- in addition to everyone else they were already criticizing -- their viewership actually increased.

One of the show's most effective segments regularly airs at the top: Hosseini will recount what a certain individual said and follow it up with, "But he didn't say..." For instance, "Mir Hossein Mousavi said, 'Their interests are in the discord between cultures.' But he didn't say whose interests. Up until a year ago, he used to say we. Now, we has become those and these. Mr. Mousavi, for 30 years the people have been saying them when referring to the state...what has been your contribution to alleviate the discord between the two cultures? Of course, we celebrate your presence in all of this" -- a clear reference to the Green Movement -- "and because of that we won't give you a hard time, but some of your friends are going in the way of them. Remember when I told you this." Hosseini turns to face the camera placed just below his desk to the right. Staring directly at it -- directly at the viewer -- he says, "Once again, we remain in this, alone."

The popularity of Parazit is based on more than its news updates, its lack of ta'rouf, and the way it takes aim at various figures. Another reason for the show's success, especially inside Iran, is that it "fuses Persian humor with Western sensibilities," says Reza, a Ph.D. student who introduced me to the show.

Each episode intro revolves around Arbabi's hyperkinetic montage of video clips, accompanied by a blasting, upbeat rock song. The Western influence on his musical and visual tastes is evident. Hosseini is quick to add that many Iranian songs, especially from the country's underground scene, have been played on the show. But the Western influence on his style can be detected as well, specifically in the interview segment.

When asked about his straightforward interviewing style, Hosseini went on a short rant about how most Iranian journalists will spend 25 minutes of a 30-minute-long interview showering their guests with praise and affection. "There are too many important issues to discuss for me to do that," he says. "The people deserve transparency." That word again. He uses it quite a bit off-air, as well.

Perhaps this is why Dr. Hamid Dabashi says that he finds the "no-nonsense prose" of Parazit "liberating." Dabashi -- Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at New York's Columbia University -- compares Hosseini and Arbabi to the political satirists of Iran's Constitutional Revolution, no small praise. He hails their show's "pointed and purposeful humor [as a] badly needed critical element of satire in our politics."

Dabashi goes on to compare Hosseini to Jon Stewart, a comparison that came up so often that I had to ask Hosseini and Arbabi about it. Although they admit to being flattered, Hosseini pointed out that while The Daily Show has dozens of writers and other staff members, he and Arbabi essentially worked by themselves alongside a couple of indispensable assistants.

Hosseini also observed that after 9/11, The Daily Show did not immediately return to the air. That simply wasn't an option for Parazit during the very different yet emotionally comparable situation in Iran after the 2009 election, as protests raged across the nation -- particularly after a brutal video surfaced showing a young girl being struck in the head with a baton by a member of the security forces. That's when Parazit set comedy aside for a segment that lasted a few moving minutes. Hosseini addressed the militia members as "brothers of the Basij" and appealed to their reason and empathy.

I asked them why they struck such an intimate, even friendly tone, when the rest of the Iranian ex-pat community was cursing and screaming. "The Basij are a part of the community," Arbabi said. "They live there, they are there. So calling them brothers was natural."

Hosseini added, "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. So I wanted 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?"

As for the future?

"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."

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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