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Being an Iranian Stand-Up Comedian Is No Joke

Not everyone's laughing when Iranian comedians turn to topical humor.

Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej

Photo of Zahra Noorbakhsh

Iranian comedian Siavash Safavi recently took the stage in Toronto to talk about time zones between Iran and Canada. “My friend always calls me at 3 AM and asks, ‘What’s the time difference between Canada and Iran, anyway?’” he said. “I tell him it’s 50 or 100 years.”

Although it sounds light, this joke isn’t something Safavi could say in his home country. “There are limitations on all topics—there are no jokes about religion, the regime, international politics,” said Safavi, a dissident who has been living in Toronto for five years. “You might see some mild sexual innuendo, by Iranian standards.”

According to Safavi, there’s no stand-up comedy scene in Iran—not even comedy clubs or cafes where stand-up is performed. “Stand-up is solely limited to TV, and those who dare to challenge the regime use YouTube and social media,” he said. “Even if they do something edgy or against the regime’s ideology, the regime doesn’t go after them, which allows them a little wiggle room.”

In light of the recent anti-government protests across Iran, are comedians and satirists silenced down to the last joke? The hardship is worse than ever, even though those outside of the country can only use the opportunity to speak up. “Like all dictators, Iranian dictators don’t like satire and comedy,” said Maryam Faghihimani, an Iranian researcher and founder of Oslo’s Centre for Cultural Diplomacy & Development. “Since the current regime in Iran doesn’t recognize freedom of speech, freedom of expressions, and freedom to insult, any stand-up comedian or satirist who crosses the red lines will be banned from performing, fined, or jailed.”

Political cartoonist Atena Farghadani was imprisoned for 18 months for drawing a cartoon that criticized the parliamentary members for neglecting women’s rights in Iran. “A number of comedians and satirists who used to have their show broadcast from Iranian state TV were banned for coming too close to the red lines,” she said. “But even if these stand-up comedians don’t have any political connotations or insult to the religious values, those who believe in a strict version of Islam and Sharia laws disapprove of such shows because to laugh and listen to jokes is a sin itself—that it creates moral corruptions and encourages people to commit other sins.”

Some manage to still break the red tape, though—like Iranian comedian and satirist Hadi Khorsandi. “He’s defiant, clever, erudite and funny,” said Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “It’s a dour regime that tries to censor everything particularly laughter and comedy, but Iran has a rich tradition of comedy and satire that is sometimes ribald, always critical of hypocrisies and false pieties and that tradition continues to exist.”

There is a way to take a lighter attitude—to laugh at the way comedy is treated in Iran. “People do it all the time,” said Milani. “All kinds of comic tapes and programs are produced and distributed illegally.” To Omid Djalili, a British comedian with Iranian roots, it’s a gray area between what one can get away with under the regime in Iran. “It won’t stop anyone being creative or having fun with it—in fact, we thrive on it,” he said. “Artists in Iran have to be good at hoodwinking authorities into thinking their films are not as subversive as they really are; the same with comedy. On paper, I am a mainstream Middle Eastern crowd pleaser, and that’s part of my own narrative of hoodwinking.”

To Zahra Noorbakhsh, an Iranian comedian who’s based in Los Angeles, joking about her Muslim and Iranian identity has changed as it becomes more in the political spotlight. “As soon as I mention that I’m Muslim and Iranian, it’s like the whole audience starts taking notes, It’s an incredible amount of responsibility. I have to think very carefully about my syllabus—I mean, jokes,” she said. Playing live is different than what it once was; she hosted a stand-up show called “All Atheists are Muslim,” which ran from 2011 to 2015. “Now, I’m more careful about what campuses I’ll perform at and which events I will go to,” she said. “I find myself writing more and performing less. In the past, to hype a show, I’d send out press releases and put up posters all over town. Things are different now.”

To Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American comedian based in California, it’s important for Iranian—as well as Muslim—comics to take the stage across America. “Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened many racists to attack Muslims in ways that might not have been happening before,” he said. “There seems to be more anti-Muslim rhetoric these days—people demonizing Muslims without even knowing who they are. Most Muslims in the US are peaceful people just living their lives, but the current political climate has made it OK to attack them verbally and even physically at times.”

Despite the limitations, comedians are still finding a way to have their voice heard under the regime in Iran, too. “The dictators hate and fear comedy, satire, laughter and happiness because it helps people to express themselves freely and refuse being controlled and manipulated,” said Faghihimani. “We see the courageous artists such as stand-up comedians keep performing in public and private arenas and try to push the limits even though it may cost them. Humor, irony, and satire have a deep root in Persian culture. The regime might have changed the rules overnight, but they can’t change our culture.”

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