Parazit: Iran’s Subversive Comedy News Show

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Parazit might just be one of the biggest comedies in America you’ve never heard of. Produced in our nation’s capitol for the government-funded Voice of America’s Persian News Network, it was discovered in late 2010 by the American media, but by that point it was already wildly popular to millions of Iranians.

Parazit literally means “static,” a nod to the Iranian government’s affinity for jamming satellite signals, thus creating static. Our media folks were quick to nickname it “The Daily Show of Iran,” which is a fair parallel given its set up: humorously-timed cutaways and an anchor wavering from incredulity to outrage to bemusement. The two voices behind this, anchor Kambiz Hosseini and executive producer Saman Arbabi, are not career comedians but rather two creative professionals who wanted to break from the somber tone of news from Iran. Judging by their massive following, mostly from Iran, the demand was there.

While Hosseini and Arbabi are hardly household names in the country from which they broadcast, they have one influential fan in Jon Stewart who might have helped raise their profiles when he had them on The Daily Show back in January.

They may look like your typical hipster media types, but these guys have more guts than a tweet-up full of New York City bloggers. And integrity tops the list of their intentions. Hosseini bluntly tells Jon Stewart they don’t care about American politics — their show is about Iranian politics and it is for the Iranian people.

Which may prove slightly problematic for the interested American who does not speak Farsi. Part of Parazit’s strength is its wide availability over the Internet. You can skip iTunes; it’s free! Catch is, every episode is in Farsi. However, on their YouTube channel they provide a highlights reel of the show with English subtitles.

If you aren’t up to date on your Iranian politics, many of the jokes might not resonate with you. But, even with a basic knowledge you will quickly realize just how unique and moreover gutsy their show is. The government has tried to rebut the show with a show literally called Anti-Parazit, and government leaders cannot be pleased with Parazit’s continuing success.

But if Farsi doesn’t intimidate you, I encourage you to watch all of their episodes on the YouTube.

While shows are available for download on Voice of America’s Persian News Network site, many Iranians view the show illegally either on Facebook, by satellite or using proxy servers (a method I became familiar with while living in China, a notoriously censor-happy country). Despite the governments attempts at jamming the signals, Hosseini and Arbabi’s static seems to be winning the battle.

At its most impressive social media presence, Parazit’s official Facebook page has over 350,000 fans, a number that has grown exponentially since last December. However, on Twitter they have only 327 fans. That’s right, 350,000 on Facebook and less than a thousandth of that on Twitter. Their YouTube channel has over 5 million total views and some 4000 subscribers, falling somewhere in the middle. The vast disparity between these platforms is puzzling, but I wonder if it has something to do with which websites the government chooses to ban in Iran. Or, perhaps, which platforms have proved the most useful to Iranians. Sorry, Twitter.

Using the example of recent protests in Egypt, Hosseini launched into a satirical rant about how great things are coming to Egypt now that the regime has fallen — listing high-speed Internet as one of these elusive commodities. If most Iranians lack high speed Internet, it does not discourage the lengths to which they will go to procure the latest episodes. In fact, a recent press release from the Broadcasting Board of Governors discussed Parazit viewing parties popping up in Iran. Fans have taken to calling themselves Parazitis.

But unlike The Daily Show, Parazit will break from the jokes when the issues turn too dark or too serious. Some things happening in Iran are too unbelievable to laugh about. In February, the creators took time to discuss recent protests in Tehran that were violently suppressed by the government. One pro-democracy protestor slain was a fan of Parazit on Facebook and had liked one of their recent episodes days before his death.

In a profile on PBS Newshour in February, Hosseini imagines a time when they can film Parazit in Iran with a live studio audience. This would implicitly mean a more free government would be in place. Arbabi jokes they could go to Iran now, they just might not return from it. This joke, in my opinion, is exemplary of the show’s sense of humor. They are willing to laugh and throw jibes openly at their former government, but they don’t forget the potential cost of their jokes. You can watch the full interview on PBS here.

In an interview with the Washington Post last December, Hosseini claims the voice of Parazit is a departure from traditional Persian journalism because Persian culture is known for its “elaborate politeness rituals.” A host would probably never place his guest in the hot seat and would be sensitive about saying anything negative about anyone. Hosseini says instead he just “sits in front of people” and says “What the fuck?”

While older generations might balk at this transparency, the youth of Iran (according to the PBS report 50% of the population is under 30) are hearing the message loud and clear. In the same article, Voice of America’s Executive Editor Steve Redisch credited the people of Iran’s predisposition for satire as part of the show’s success: “They’re very skeptical, they ask a lot of questions, and they don’t always take at face value what’s being said.”

And Hosseini points out that current President Ahmadinejad is a walking punchline not unlike former President George W. Bush. Both have a history of unintentionally hilarious quotes that the most prolific jokes factory couldn’t rival.

Parazit does not necessarily embody the essence of “Persian humor,” but it may represent the future of it. For the hopeful comedy tourist, Parazit’s strong commitment to the people of Iran and lack of interest in American politics does not promise much more of a crossover than English subtitles. But, it does provide a complex look into a country whose politics are too often painted in a one-dimensional light by the American media.

There seems to be growing diasporas of Iranian ex-pats who are importing satire to their home country in a way they could not within its national borders. But it seems to me that this brand comedy isn’t just a tool for criticism, for those still living day-to-day under the oppressive regime in Iran — it’s also a release.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Parazit: Iran’s Subversive Comedy News Show