I’m guessing VOA’s new Perisan news network director, Ramin Asgard, was among the crowd at Kambiz Hosseini’s Berkeley talk for the same reason I was: to see what Parazit’s US fan base looked like. For one thing the crowd looked really big. The Iranian-American themed Berkeley Lecture Series usually doesn’t fill a 500-seat theater, and normally you don’t see teenagers sitting on the aisle steps playing Pokemon. The diversity in age groups was noteworthy because there were also folks (usually in couples) who remembered the time when only Ahmad Shah was rich enough to fondle a Pokeman between his fat little fingers. Of course the audience sense of humor was way above our national average; I don’t remember Shirin Ebadi’s crowd laughing so hard when she lectured at Berkeley. On a more minor note, Parazit fans are better dressed (on average) than typical lecture attendees; some being under the impression that Parazit is a satirical soiree.
Hosseini in the flesh does not disappoint expectations. In un-digitized format he is a faithful replica of his transmitted self both in earthy charisma and intimidating quick wittedness. Don’t mess with this guy because he can read your insecurities just by the way you stand when you ask him a question. His person-reading skill, the way he can create a life story out of a posture, a smile, a yawn, a head scratch or a simple statement is the talent engine that powers Hosseini’s satire. Even though on television we don’t get a chance to observe this process at work, Parazit’s satire seems to pivot on Hosseini’s ability to read both the unfortunate object of his ridicule and the audience he rallies to laugh at him. Somehow his acting talent knows that if his tone, facial gestures and body language reveal overpowering prowess in fault finding, the audience will scamper out of the line of fire to line up behind him where it is psychologically the safest place to be. The subconscious mental surrender this actor is able to create in his audience, when socialized and shared, comes out as laughter. All this, despite strict observance of the traditional Persian posture of humility. Truly a dramatic marvel!
Hosseini mentioned a few satirists that have influenced him, Zakani, Iraj Mirza, Khorsandi, Neystani etc. Someone in the audience was annoyed that Hosseini did not mention Fereydoon Farrokhzad. Hosseini said Farrokhzad was perfectly fine, he just happened not to be an influence. Then he made a quip about having danced to Farrokhzad music occasionally, but seemed to falter part way through the joke, sensing perhaps a taboo against poking fun at a man who was murdered by the IRI. If so, he was spot on; we all have sensitive places where humor is not welcome, no matter how clever.
As far as influence on the Parazit format goes, the resemblance to the Jon Stewart show needs no mentioning, though Stewart pushes different psychological buttons than Hosseini. Stewart is self-deprecating, and Hosseini as mentioned above is at his best when he is in his alpha male mode. This is why Saman so masterfully playing as Kambiz’s sidekick works so well. Stewart’s supporting actors provide a stage respite from him, whereas Saman’s character is part of a true double act where Saman is, well, someone for Hosseini to step on, set his hair on fire, throw things at. [As an aside, this is also the reason working a female character into the show--a suggestion I often hear--would require radical dramatic changes. I can’t think of a double act where a third character was not temporary (unless we include animal characters).]
Moreover Hosseini and Stewart perform different roles for their respective audiences. Stewart addresses a democratic society where satirists also serve as pressure release valves, letting out anger and resentment in controlled amounts while the disagreements are sorted out. This is why satirists like Keith Olberman, who become overzealous, are discredited (sometimes with the help of satirists like Jon Stewart). Parazit emulating Stewart too closely would actually be a service to the IRI with Voice Of America beaming comic relief into Iran, transmuting anger into laughter. In this scenario VOA would be staging what is acted out in Iranian taxis—to the same pressure release purpose—except with the best available talent. How do you say “suckers” in Akhoondi?
Kambiz, Saman, and Ramin Asgard have a difficult task beaming a clear message into Iran as long as the US waffles on a well-defined Iran policy. “Free speech is good,” is not a message Iranians haven’t already figured out for themselves. Creative ideas with vectored messages are needed to justify the costs to the American taxpayer. Perhaps this is why Ramin Asgard was at the lecture studying the crowd.
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