Parazit started with a pen, paper, and two guys who were ready to give Iranian youth the opportunity to choose their own news source, even before Iran’s June 2009 presidential elections.
In the style of the Daily Show, Parazit parodies local politics in Iran, featuring intensely blunt and straightforward interviews among its segments. Nothing is off limits. The show’s success is largely attributed to its highly interactive format and subversive content. The name is even a jab at the government. It means “static” in Persian, for the notorious satellite jamming they do in an attempt to prevent citizens from viewing foreign media. With nearly 832,000 “likes” on their Facebook page, they’ve garnered a huge following—and certainly the attention of the Iranian government.
I sat down with the hosts of the show, Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, to discuss what it’s like to broadcast from outside of the country (while being funded by Voice of America) and what impact they hope the show has for a new generation in Iran.
Clearly you have a huge fan following. Your YouTube channel is viewed something like 45,000 times a week. Does social media help in the curation of the show and what you plan to highlight each week? Kambiz Hosseini [KH]: We mix the content, and we turn it into something that’s unlike television. Like how many times have you watched a TV show on your YouTube channel? You can go on YouTube in Iran—not in the capital, but in other cities in Iran where the jamming is not as tough.
We created a cult by doing short segments. And then the way [Saman] feels the pulse of what’s going on inside Iran through those outlets. We package it so it becomes more visual and something that you could enjoy watching on the Internet and spread to others.
Why do you think the show is so popular, especially among Iranian youth? KH: I think it’s because of the tone we use in the show. We’re transparent. We have humor. It’s a comedy show, obviously, and we are representing the voice of youth inside Iran. They don’t usually have a media outlet to represent them. We try to be that. And also the whole packaging, it’s very new and edgy for today’s Iran media. It’s very fast paced. We know nobody watches TV these days, so we try to make it “Web friendly.”
And people were craving that? Saman Arbabi [SA]: After, like, 32 years of the same old kind of crap that was coming out of Iranian media, we came out just looking and sounding completely different. It was a breath of fresh air. It was something the younger audience related to. 70% of Iranians are under the age of 30, so we felt like this is what they want to hear. This is how they want to be talked to— as a friend.
You are based in Washington D.C. Is it strange to be broadcasting to Iran from outside the country? SA: It’s strange to be in D.C. because D.C. is like the most constipated conservative city you can be in. But like what Kambiz said, those boundaries have been broken down because we have the Internet. Thanks to Al Gore, we have the Internet [laughter]. And if we didn’t have the Internet, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with our audience. We go with the flow of where local things are happening in Iran—things that no other reporter could actually find out about. But we are able to get it because we have 72 million Iranians, and they’re all our correspondents.
How does it feel to be compared to Jon Stewart, and be coined the Iranian Daily Show? SA: It’s super flattering to be used in the same sentence. Jon Stewart said what we do and what he does are similar, but we deal with serious consequences. We can’t do this show in Iran and even here (in the U.S.) we’re not so sure we’re safe. Sometime after 9/11, the Daily Show went off the air because they couldn’t continue doing the show. You couldn’t laugh about anything. In Iran, there are weeks where there is just horrible, horrible news. We continue because we have angry, angry humor. The kind of humor we can get away with because we make fun of the hypocrisy in Iran.
You mentioned consequences for broadcasting. Has the Iranian government threatened you? SA: They talk about us and try to constantly do character assassinations and destroy our credibility. So they’re fully aware of what’s going on. They’re trying to counter it. They haven’t figured out how because they have no sense of humor [laughter]. But, on a serious note, it’s the kind of government that would go to Washington D.C. and assassinate one of the highest diplomats from Saudi Arabia. So, we obviously have that thing to think about, but I don’t think we’re worried about it right now.
Do you ever think about broadcasting something like this in the United States? KH: I think it would be interesting for people in the United States. By watching the show, I think they would have a better understanding of what’s going on in Iran and it would be a great cultural bridge. There is news coming from Iran and sometimes I talk to my friends here (in the U.S.) and they’re like, we don’t get it. Why did Ahmadinejad say that? Is he nuts? Where is he coming from? Things like that. We explain all this in our show.
SA: The best of what CNN journalists can do in Iran isn’t nearly like what we can do, because we can tap into the smallest societies and other things that we can blow up into a bigger picture because of our understanding of the culture—because the networking system we created, and the sources we have inside Iran that no other Western journalist has. So it would be cool for us to be able to translate into English.
We put religion and politics aside and just focus on common sense. That’s just everybody, any culture in the world can have it—the difference between wrong and right. So that’s how we can share.
What does ultimate success look like for Parazit? KH: All that people have in Iran is state media and this small tunnel that feeds them information that’s been censored and controlled by the government. And they don’t have any other choices. They don’t have any other angle to a particular story. What we’re offering is an alternative angle to the same story that they’re delivering. And now they have a choice. We’re offering them an alternative take on different stories. We don’t want them to think like us. We don’t want them to particularly do something we want them to do. We just want to be transparent and promote transparency and honesty.
SA: To inspire others to dream big and dare to fail, and question even the highest level of authority.