The Jon Stewarts of Iran

At the foot of the master: Kambiz Hosseini, left, and Saman Arbabi talk with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," the model for their popular program "Parazit," broadcast in Iran on Voice of America.
At the foot of the master: Kambiz Hosseini, left, and Saman Arbabi talk with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," the model for their popular program "Parazit," broadcast in Iran on Voice of America. (Jennifer S. Altman)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011

If you had told Kambiz Hosseini 10 years ago, when he was a poor immigrant pumping gas in a small Oregon town, that one day Jon Stewart would bound eagerly into a greenroom looking for him and asking, "Where are my dudes?!" - he would have given you a blank look.

Newly arrived from Iran, unable to speak English, he had never heard of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." All he wanted was to work his way up to being a cashier so he could get out of the cold.

That gas station flashed into his mind earlier this month when the show's producers e-mailed, asking him to be a guest.

"I was like, 'Finally,' " he said. "I'd been waiting for that e-mail for a long time."

Two years ago, Hosseini, who had long since learned English and was working as an art critic and host for Voice of America, teamed up with a VOA video journalist, Saman Arbabi, to create what has come to be called the Iranian Daily Show.

Hugely popular with Iranians inside and outside Iran, the show, "Parazit," pokes fun, Stewart-style, at the absurdities of life in the Islamic republic.

People in Iran tune in via personal satellite dish or the Web to watch Hosseini and Arbabi, who also emigrated from Iran, satirize their government officials and religious leaders. The show has created a mini-culture of its own in Iran, where fans circulate bootlegged DVDs of the latest episodes and imitate the clothing and expressions of the program's creators.

Although VOA doesn't know how many people watch "Parazit," posts on the show's Facebook page were viewed more than 17 million times last month and its YouTube channel generates 45,000 hits weekly. Hosseini and Arbabi called it "Parazit," which means "static," to refer to the Iranian government's repeated attempts to jam foreign satellite programming. It is so popular that the Iranian government, annoyed by its popularity, has created an "anti-Parazit" show to compete with it.

But it's one thing to be compared to "The Daily Show." It's another thing to be on it.

"Whatever we think he's going to say, he's not going to say," Arbabi said as the two rode the train from Washington on Thursday morning. "He's Jonny Improv. So I'm trying not to think about it too much."

They were a bit fried, having stayed up all night cramming to get their own show done early so they could go to New York.

Already, their fans were trying to micromanage. "People are calling me and saying, 'You've got to look nice and wear your best clothes, because you're representing the Iranian nation,' " Hosseini said. "I'm like, 'Are you kidding? I'm not representing any nation!' "


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