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An Interview with Kambiz Hosseini, Iranian Political Satirist

Kambiz Hosseini is an Iranian political satirist, actor, and TV and radio host. After immigrating to the U.S. in 2000, Hosseini created and hosted the critically acclaimed political satire show, Parazit,  on Voice of America. The show, which ran from 2009 to 2012, had over one million fans on Facebook and caused the Washington Post to call Hosseini “the Jon Stewart of Iran.” He appeared on Stewart’s “The Daily Show” in 2011. In January 2013, Hosseini launched his weekly satirical podcast, Five in the Afternoon, for which he received the Reporters Without Borders Award. His current radio program, Paradox, airs on Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The Politic: You moved to the U.S. at age 25. What exactly led you to move? Did you come to the United States for the purposes of comedy?

Kambiz Hosseini: Well, I didn’t come to the U.S. just to do comedy. When you live in a society where you’re constantly being oppressed as a writer and a comedian, and you’re constantly being censored, there’s this lack of hope for the future. With whatever hope you do have, you still feel like you can’t fulfill your potential. I felt like there was no hope for me there.

You’ve spoken about how everything you say on your show is just as tragic as it is comical. Why do you choose to convey your message through comedy?

Comedy is a survival tool for me. If you read the news about Iran every day, the feeling that you get is that everything is tragic. There is no good news coming from Iran– on women’s rights, gay rights, human rights… on any topic. There is a feeling of injustice all the time. Constantly hearing of executions and other injustices hurts me. These are the materials that I work with. The only way I can stay alive is to make it into comedy. This is how I survive. There is no other way to do it.

There is a point at which things go beyond tragedy and become comical again. In some of my shows, I would just play sound bites and say nothing– I would only make faces. Often, I don’t have to write so many jokes myself… My joke writers are Iranian politicians.

When was the first time you realized you were funny?

I never realized that I’m funny, and I don’t think I’m funny [laughter]. But when I was a little kid, and I would say things in a family gathering, my mom would get pissed at me. Everyone was shocked and surprised because what I said was true, but I wasn’t supposed to say it. I developed this habit of saying things I wasn’t supposed to say in gatherings, and people would start laughing. I made a legit career out of this by becoming a comedian. When I told everyone [I was becoming a comedian], they still thought I was joking.

At the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum, you said that when you were 10 years old, you were in a propagandist radio show called “Islamic Revolution Blossoms,” which forced you to help brainwash children your age with fathers fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. In what ways do your experiences growing up in Iran inform your work today?

As you get older and get educated and start reading books, you get angry. This anger made me a really bad person at the beginning… When you grow up in that kind of environment, there is no way you cannot get angry. I wanted to direct this anger and use it, so I invented this kind of angry humor. When I was a child, they tried so hard to brainwash me, to inject me with an ideology… I felt useless. When you know deep in your heart and mind that you’re right, it makes you angry. I’m not an angry person, so I didn’t know what to do with all of it. That’s why I turned to comedy.

Despite all the government has done to you, are you still proud to be Iranian?

Of course! I’m 43, I have a radio show in New York City, and I have a decent theater career here. But as an immigrant, I chose to give back to the society where I grew up. When I create new radio shows, I feel like there is this little version of me inside Iran who feels the same way as I was feeling when I was growing up. I’m trying to inform that person and tell them: there is hope out there. I do the show in Farsi because I’m very proud to be Iranian. I’ve spent almost half of my life in the U.S., and this country has been really good to me. Part of me is American. Part of me is Iranian. That’s what most immigrants feel. I have that same identity crisis.

Have you ever feared for your family back home, if any remains there? What sacrifices did you need to make by putting your face on Iranian TV?  

I’ve received many death threats. My mom and dad still live in Iran. They usually get harassed. My brother and sister were forced to flee the country illegally. My family paid a high price for me. I never thought that my shows would be this big and get this big an audience. I never wanted to hurt my family, but unfortunately, they harass my family a lot. They’re used to it at this point. I’m very sorry I did that to them. My mom and dad are very understanding people though– they still talk to me.

You are proud to be called the Jon Stewart of Iran, you are based in New York, and U.S. government-funded broadcasters have produced your shows. Do people in Iran see you as representing foreign interests? In what ways do your ties to America serve as obstacles?

It’s always an obstacle. But for an artist to be able to do his art, he needs money from a producer. There is money in broadcasting. And yes, of course, there is always this rhetoric– you’re the [expletive] of the American government… If I were able to do it in Iran, I would do it in Iran. But the reason why I am doing it in New York is that if I go back to Iran, I will go straight to jail.

Also, there’s no anti-American sentiment in Iran in the way you’re describing it. The government and the regime try to feed anti-American propaganda to the people. The majority of the Iranian people love Americans and their lifestyle. If there were a free election today or a referendum, most people, I believe, would vote for a better relationship with the U.S.

How have things changed for your show under current president Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a moderate? How have you altered your message from the days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?  

Material-wise, yes– things have changed. I didn’t have to write so much new material under Ahmadinejad. He said all the jokes himself. Rouhani was more like a peacemaker kind of guy. He always watched what he said. It was more difficult to write jokes about him because he wanted to talk to the U.S. and was a man of dialogue. Maybe he’s not anymore, but he was in the Obama era. It’s kind of similar to how “The Daily Show” thrived the most in the Bush years, not in the Obama years. During the Obama era, the subjects shifted from straight politics to social issues in nightly comedy issues. In the Trump era, we’re back to politics.

What’s your end goal?

Well, my end goal is to stay alive [laughter]. What do you mean by end goal?

What do you see as your mission going forward?

As long as my audience keeps watching me or listening to me in Iran, their viewership is my end goal. I think I have another couple of years in me trying to stay in front of camera. I will definitely go behind camera eventually and try to create shows to promote human rights and freedom of speech, pointing out injustices with my angry, dark humor.

At risk of ending on a pessimistic note, do you think Iran will ever really change?

Eventually, it has too. In the next ten years, because we have so many old politicians, they have to die eventually. Iran has changed already. Change is inevitable.