The Jon Stewarts of Iran
By Tara Bahrampour,
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,'â" Hosseini said. "I'm like, 'Are you kidding? I'm not representing any nation!'â"
The convergence of the two shows was perhaps bound to happen. Both "Parazit" and Comedy Central's "Daily Show" turned their dry wit on Iran's 2009 elections, which were followed by massive protests and a violent government crackdown. At least one person interviewed by "Daily Show" correspondent Jason Jones was subsequently arrested. The "Parazit" guys knew better than to go there themselves; if they return to Iran they will likely be arrested, too.
'Wow, talk about assimilating'
In the show's greenroom, a 24-pack of shot-size cans of Red Bull awaited.
"Does this stuff really work?" Hosseini asked.
Arbabi took a swig. "It tastes like something out of the Bushehr power plant."
Hosseini was already vibrating. "We're really excited. This is like our Mecca, you know? We made it to the holy religious spot."
Suddenly, the man himself appeared. His dudes stood up, beaming.
"It's so good," Stewart said of the show, shaking their hands. Then, noticing Arbabi's pants, a lime-green punk-style creation designed by his girlfriend, he added, "Wow, talk about assimilating."
Sitting on the couch with them, Stewart said he had come across "Parazit" while browsing the Web. "You're like the heart," he told Hosseini, the host, "and you're like the eyes on the heart," he told Arbabi, whose on-camera role is that of a grunge-rocker sidekick with a pierced nose and painted fingernails.
"You have to look away from the heart once in a while and look at the guy in hair rollers."
"We learned a lot from you," Hosseini said. "We watch 'The Daily Show' all the time."
"You guys are us, but brave," Stewart said. "You guys are us if we were really going after tyrants."
Stewart told them that he feels a strange kinship with "this country that our country demonizes." After watching "Parazit," he said, "I don't profess to follow Iranian politics very closely, but I was totally engaged, I totally got it."
"Can we have you on our show sometime?" Arbabi asked.
"Yeah," Stewart said. "Absolutely."
Twenty minutes later, it was time. Stewart played a clip from "Parazit," then beckoned Hosseini and Arbabi to the stage, as friends in the audience whooped and cheered.
It wouldn't have been an Iranian encounter without elaborate compliments on each side.
"I can see the passion in what you do and it's very engaging," Stewart said.
"It's all you, Jon," Hosseini said. Then, genuflecting, he added, "You are the prophet, you are the prophet, you are the prophet."
Looking sideways at the audience with a spooked expression, Stewart said, "So, you calling me a prophet, that will in no way get me in trouble, will it?"
Hosseini described growing up in Iran unable to express himself openly. The show, he said, offers catharsis for him and, he hopes, for people living in Iran who are still subject to its restrictions.
At the end of the interview, he had a special request. Could he try sitting in Stewart's place, just to see how it felt? The two switched seats, and Hosseini sank into the host's chair with a satisfied sigh.
"It feels like driving a Hyundai all your life, and now you're sitting in a Ferrari."
'It feels like a dream'
Outside, on West 51st Street, starry-eyed audience members approached them. "We just want to say congratulations," said Sami O'Keefe, 23, of Brooklyn. "We'd love to buy you a drink."
But "Parazit" had a barful of friends waiting - Iranian underground rockers, poets and artists who have fled the country in recent years and settled in New York and Washington.
As the limo pulled away, Arbabi looked out the window. "I'm going to wake up tomorrow and finally realize what just happened."
At a bar that promised to turn on Comedy Central at 11, the group ordered tequila shots.
"I still can't believe it, it feels like a dream," said Nazanin Ilchi, Arbabi's sister, who had driven with her husband and daughter from Potomac to attend the show. "I'm really proud, and he made my mom really proud, and he would have made my dad really proud."
Hosseini said he wasn't nervous. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised by Stewart.
"He's very down-to-earth, and cooler than what I thought. I thought he's going to have a little celebrity thing going on."
Arbabi nodded. "A very cool, humble dude."
At five to 11, it was discovered that the bar's television had no sound. After some last-minute scrambling to find a neighboring bar with a fully functional TV, the viewing began.
They watched with big smiles as the on-screen Arbabi explained to Stewart that when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University and declared that there were no gays in Iran, "that's all you need to have. From then on, you have a show."
"That was good! That was good!" Hosseini said, clinking glasses with Arbabi. "You're my man!"
Arbabi grinned. He thought back to Iran, where "The Daily Show" is also popular.
"Our fans are going to be so happy," he said. Stewart "reached out tonight to what we do and he built a bridge to them. . . . It's not about 'Parazit,' it's not about Saman, it's not about Kambiz. It's about the Iranian people. We did what we did at the Iranian level and we are very successful at it. But this took their voice and took it up to the next level. And they totally deserve it."
Sepideh Salehi, an Iranian artist who lives in the District, concurred. "This gives them some hope for the future," she said.
"So," Arbabi said, "we owe Jon 4 or 6, maybe even 10, shots of tequila."