By CNN's Laurie Ure
A hip and edgy comedy show is rapidly gaining popularity in - of all places - Iran, much to the chagrin of that country's leaders, who are often the butt of the program's jokes.
"Parazit," Voice of America's satirical Farsi-language television broadcast, takes jabs at Iranian culture, politics, leadership. Everything is fair game, much in the style of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in the United States.
The program's reach is such that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will tape an interview on the show Wednesday.
Funded by the U.S. government and produced from VOA's Persian News Network studios in Washington, the program's no-holds-barred, in-your-face approach aims to "tickle the foundation of power," according to the "Parazit" producers.
Co-creators Saman Arbabi, 38, and Kambiz Hosseini, 35, hatched the idea to help fill what they say is a void created by Iran's lack of government transparency and free press.
Two of the show's biggest targets are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and religious Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"To see this, these two, or the government, as a bunch of grown, adult, mature human beings representing their nation with 80 million people, and they're looking at you in your face and telling you the biggest lies you couldn't fool any kid with," Arbabi, who is executive producer of the program, told CNN in an interview on the show's set. "And that's the humor of it, because it's, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you think I'm stupid enough to buy that from you? Or are you really in denial?'"
Host and writer Hosseini believes disenchanted Iranians at home and abroad relate to the show.
"I think the main reason is that we are basically saying what people can't say in Iran," Hosseini said. "We are yelling people's thoughts, projecting what people see."
The show's title means "static" in Farsi, a reflection of the Iranian government's repeated attempts to jam VOA's satellite transmissions and webcasts.
Fans nonetheless circumvent this censorship via bootleg DVDs and the Internet, using identity-hiding proxy servers to access social media sites like YouTube and Facebook with links to the program.
The "Parazit" Facebook page has more than 718,000 worldwide fans, and thousands have viewed episodes on YouTube.
Arbabi and Hosseini base their comic material on what they say is the absurdity of the Iranian leadership's actions and words. And they point out there is no shortage of substance, much of which is funneled their way by viewers themselves.
"This is 'Parazit,' the program from the deceitful, belligerent spies who are enemies to the people of Iran, meaning, 'those foreigners,'" an announcer facetiously says at the beginning of one episode.
Another show features a clip from an actual Iranian newscast, in which the news anchor reads, "The representative of the Supreme Leader at the
University of Yazd said that since the skin of one's elbow is similar to the skin of a man's testicles, people should refrain from wearing short-sleeved shirts."
The episode then cuts to Arbabi, seen bending his arms while scratching his ears and thus exposing his bare elbows, immediately followed by censor-like symbols covering them.
Jon Stewart is impressed. He invited the "Parazit" producers to appear on his show last January.
"You're like our show, but with real guts," Stewart told them. "I'm proud to be considered in the fraternity of humorists that you guys are in."
Arbabi and Hosseini first mapped out the show on a napkin at a bar. What followed was a 10-minute segment on another show in 2008 that evolved into its own full-fledged half-hour weekly program a year later.
The U.S. government sees "Parazit's" growing momentum as a huge opportunity to reach Iran's disaffected citizens, more than two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30, according to the 2009 Human Development Report.
"This is one of the few, if not the only way the United States can have a conversation with Iran and the Iranian people about their future," said Steve Redisch, VOA's executive editor.
In fact, Arbabi and Hosseini are fast becoming the voices of their generation.
Even Washington is listening.
Hosseini was one of several witnesses invited by a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee earlier this year examining human rights in Iran and the state of the democratic reform movement there.
"Despite government pressure to limit freedom in Iran, my generation is sending a clear message to the Islamic republic: we want our basic rights as human beings," he testfied.
Karim Sadjadpour, an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, told CNN in an e-mail, "The brilliance of 'Parazit' is its appeal to such an incredibly diverse audience. It is watched by old and young, religious and secular, intellectuals and laborers, urban, rural, and diaspora Iranians, everyone from Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi to members of powerful Iranian clerical families, (who) have told me that they watch it every week."
CNN caught up with fans of the show at a kabob restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, all of whom asked that their names not be published due to fear of retribution to themselves or their families, since they travel back and forth to Iran periodically.
One diner laughed while watching the show on a laptop.
Iranians "are very open people. They have a great sense of humor, they're very cultured, they're very educated, so why wouldn't 'Parazit' go over well with the Iranian people?"
Kamran Adell, an Iranian expatriate now living in northern Virginia, finds "Parazit" "very funny and entertaining." An architect who left Iran more than 30 years ago, Adell said the show is good for exposing the regime's flaws, but believes its influence on Iranians is limited.
"I don't think viewers inside Iran can get much more cynical than they already are, but more info can reinforce their views," he said.
Nariman, a college student living in Howard County, Maryland, who asked that CNN not use his last name, said he is a big fan of the show. He arrived in the United States about a year ago.
"I would watch it on the Internet every week back in Iran with my family and friends, and I watch it now," he said. "There's nothing like it on Iranian TV."
Arbabi said he and Hosseini get similar positive feedback from their travels around the United States and abroad, including London and Prague, from viewers who recognize them.
One of Arbabi's favorite perks of his newfound fame is free kabob in Washington, D.C.-area restaurants. "It's kind of cool," he said.
The duo insists they're not angling for regime change in Iran. They say that along with the show's success is a "huge responsibility" to be careful not to encourage young Iranians to take to the streets and risk their lives with anti-government protests. In February, Arbabi and Hosseini learned that a pro-democracy demonstrator who was shot and killed in Tehran was one of their Facebook friends and a fan of their show.
"We show both sides of it and then, at the end of it, let the audience decide for themselves," Arbabi said.
That aside, Arbabi said he would like the Iranian leadership to watch the show, think about the way they treat their people "and say, 'You know what? This is not fair.'"
Iran's leaders "keep connecting themselves to holy places, and to God," Hosseini said. "They use religion as a tool to justify what they do. What we're saying is, this is not justified."