Thirty-five years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, political humor in the country’s domestic media remains in short supply.
Farshid Manafi, a broadcaster in Prague for RFE/RL’s Persian language service, Radio Farda, fills this void through his award-winning show, “Pasfarda,” (“The Day After Tomorrow”) extracting truth through satire for audiences in Iran five nights a week. He has built a devoted following since “Pasfarda’s” launch in 2010, pulling from Iranian and international headlines to lampoon government officials, cultural conservatism, and the highly controlled Iranian state media.
RFE/RL sat down with Manafi to discuss how the show has evolved over the years and what he’ll be panning next.
RFE/RL: After President Obama was elected in 2008, the American political satirist Jon Stewart did a bit on his show about how much harder it would be to make fun of Obama than his predecessor. Is Iran’s President Rohani a more difficult subject of satire than Ahmadinejad?
Farshid Manafi: Rohani is hard to make fun of. Ahmadinejad was perfect for satire. Every one of his words could be used as a joke, even without any additional comment sometimes. Rohani is hard because he’s quiet, he’s confident, and he’s smart enough to choose his words well, so we can’t really make fun of him. But we have lots of other people in Iran we can poke fun at, like the Supreme leader, for one. My job is harder now, but I’m happy for the people of Iran. If someone like Rohani is in charge, maybe there will be some changes in the years to come.
RFE/RL: You do a lot of different character voices in your show. Could you describe some of them?
Manafi: One is a taxi driver. He’s a normal person you could see on the streets of Tehran. I really like him. Taxi drivers talk so much, and they know everything about people, politics--everything. Most people in Iran are really religious, so he’s really religious. I have a Mullah, who was actually my first character. His name in Farsi means something like ‘the biggest believer.’ I’ve just recently added a new character, a barber from northern Iran. He’s not religious at all. Like taxi drivers, barbers talk a lot. He’s got many customers from all walks of life and they discuss our weekly topic for the show. For example this week’s topic is literacy and education, student life, and the education level of those running the country. We try to get deeper into the details of our topics through these characters.
WATCH: Manafi In The Studio
RFE/RL: What topics do you expect will be good fodder for Pasfarda this year?
Manafi: Many things. Social life in general in Iran is satire, but a bitter satire. Without any freedom -- not just freedom of speech, but freedom to do anything -- it’s kind of a joke living in this kind of world. Even though it’s all jokes, I try to be honest with people and give accurate news. People who know me know that I’m honest.
RFE/RL: How has “Pasfarda” evolved over the past four years?
Manafi: When I started the show it was more like a monolog. It was just me commenting on the news, and we had just one character -- the mullah. Slowly but surely the characters developed and now we have about ten of them. We also have more small bits like spoof commercials. And we have a fake news magazine that pokes fun at the state TV evening news. We get most of our inspiration from Iranian news, as well as what Iranians are talking about on social media.
RFE/RL: Surely your ribbing of official state media can’t go unnoticed by the Iranian intelligence and security services. Do you experience harassment from them?
Manafi: Of course, but it’s not just me. All of my colleagues at Radio Farda are in this situation. Our families are under pressure in Iran. They [security services] interrogate our families periodically because they want information about us. They make websites about us where they write about our personal lives. It’s mundane information and cheap shots like, ‘this is where Farshid goes shopping,’ or ‘this is the type of car Farshid drives and how much he paid for it, and he meets his friends at such and such a bar.’ They announce where we’re going on our vacations and they make fake Facebook pages -- there is one called ‘We Hate Farshid Manafi.’
RFE/RL: How does an idea become a live show? What’s your process like?
Manafi: I meet with my writer, Saeed Bozorgi before each show as well as with my assistant Mehdi Tahbaz. Saeed starts on the sketches and then I read through and we go back and forth to finalize it, deciding which character should comment on a news item, for instance. Sam Khakzad, my technician, helps with the many sound effects that we have and creates the new ones when we need them.
RFE/RL: Is satire as a genre essential to building free societies?
Manafi: I don’t know about other countries, but in Iran we don’t have satire inside the country. The government doesn’t want it. I had a kind of satire show back in Iran and they just shut it down after a year and a half. Right now I don’t think we have any satirical radio programs in Iran. We only have state radio and state TV, without any private channels. I think my program is the only satirical radio show in Persian, and people really appreciate it, both inside and outside Iran, but our target audience is inside Iran. People want honest news, not twisted news the way the government wants it.