Expats' 'Daily Show'-style VOA program enthralls Iranians, irks their government

Parazit, a Voice Of America television show broadcasting into Iran, is one of VOA's most popular shows. Similar to the Daily Show, it pokes fun at everything the Iranian government holds sacred.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 10:48 PM

For the past 30 years, state-approved television in Iran has consisted largely of Islamic prayers, interviews with government ministers, melodramatic soap operas and talk shows in which mullahs expound on the depravities of the West and the righteousness of their own society.

Iranians responded by jury-rigging satellite dishes to spice up their entertainment choices with offerings from abroad. "Baywatch" was a longtime favorite.

But lately, a couple of irreverent expats in Washington have captivated Iranians with a show that pokes fun at the absurdities of life in the Islamic republic.

Operating out of Voice of America's Persian News Network, Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi have started a weekly program, "Parazit," that has drawn comparisons to Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" for its satiric take on Iran's news of the day.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a favorite target.

"His bloopers are fantastic," said Arbabi, 37, as he and Hosseini, 35, cozied up to pints of Guinness in a District bar. "The same way Bush was - he says a lot of dumb things without thinking about it, and at the same time he's president of one of the most important countries in the region. And they have nukes."

Hosseini grinned. In one segment, he said, "Saman and I sort of reenacted how when his family's asleep, he goes under the blanket and has a flashlight and goes on Facebook," which is blocked in Iran.

To the dismay of Ahmadinejad's government, the show has struck a chord in Iran.

"Their following is incredible," said Steve Redisch, VOA's executive editor.

Although VOA doesn't know how many people watch "Parazit" via their forbidden satellite dishes, posts from "Parazit's" Facebook page have been viewed more than 17 million times in the past month - a staggering number compared with other VOA programming. The show's YouTube channel generates another 45,000 hits each week.

Iranians have coined a new term: "Paraziti," or "like 'Parazit,' " with fans dressing as Arbabi or sending in images of their families watching the show.

"You'll see 18 Iranians of all ages - from an old bald man to teenage girls - all sitting quietly, watching 'Parazit,' " Arbabi said.

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