Spending a ‘Mideast Minute’ with Comedy Central’s newest satirical news host

Meet Pardis Parker.

Pardis Parker in “Mideast Minute.” CREDIT: Comedy Central
Pardis Parker in “Mideast Minute.” CREDIT: Comedy Central

Such is the sad state of American manufacturing: We aren’t even growing our political satirists at home anymore.

Pardis Parker — a native of Halifax, Canada — is the creator and star of Mideast Minute, a satirical news show with bite-size episodes which premieres on Thursday across Comedy Central’s fleet of digital platforms. The three-minute segments parody America’s propaganda-masquerading-as-news efforts abroad, with Parker playing host Jamsheed Al-Jamsheedi. Jamsheed assures his Middle Eastern audience that “immigrating to the United States is overrated,” while tidbits like “Dubai developers claim pyramid tower will be built ‘old-fashioned way’” and “U.S. not guilty of war crimes, guilty only of loving freedom too much” crawl across the bottom of the screen.

The digital-only delivery method isn’t new territory for Comedy Central, which distributed Nikki Glaser’s Quickie with Nikki and James Davis’ Swagasaurus this way. Mideast Minute’s claim to game-changing is that it will be the first show of its kind — one satirizing the news, in the vein of Comedy Central’s marquee offering, The Daily Show — to live solely on the network’s digital platforms: Comedy Central’s Snapchat, website and YouTube channel.

Parker is hoping he won’t be confined to Snapchat for long though; Davis’ series was ordered to primetime at the end of last summer, and success for Mideast Minute could translate into a similar trajectory. Not to put the pressure on or anything. On the eve of his series’ launch, Parker spoke with ThinkProgress about the story behind his show, his Canadian perspective on American politics, and whether or not cheese whiz is an acceptable “food gift.”

Your series premieres tomorrow. How are you feeling? Counting down to midnight?

I don’t know what the rollout time is. But I feel good! It took a lot of work and now, you just hope that the work results in something that connects with people and it finds an audience. The proof is in the pudding.

Mideast Minute is only airing on digital platforms. How new is that territory for Comedy Central?

They’ve done a bunch of digital shows in the past. James Davis had a Snapchat series called Swagasaurus, and that was ordered to series back in August. So I think Comedy Central really views it as a proving ground. It’s cheap development for them.

And you launched Mideast Minute as a web series years ago?

That was back in 2007. I got a bunch of friends together. We rented a room in our old school. I bought a bunch of lights from the hardware store and a green screen from the camera store, which we hung from two coat racks that were pointing toward each other. And we didn’t have a lav mic or an extra set of hands to hold a boom mic, so we taped a mic to a cardboard box to use as our boom mic. It was a really kind of pulling-ourselves-up-from-our-bootstraps thing. And after we did it, I found out about Alhurra.

For the uninitiated, what exactly is Alhurra?

Alhurra was launched in 2004 by the Bush administration. Bush talked about it in his State of the Union address: “to cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda… soon a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region.” Specifically, they wanted to counteract the very sort of accurate, real reporting out of Al-Jazeera. And this was 2004, the height of the war. So they “needed” their own kind of voice in the region.

What was the initial premise of your web series?

The original idea was to do a show that tried to convinced Middle Easterners that everything was okay in the Middle East. So what we would do was, every week, we’d shoot on Friday or Saturday and release on Sunday, and I would take real news headlines coming out of the Middle East and put a positive spin on them as if I was an American mouthpiece, trying to convince Middle Easterners that everything wasn’t as bad as it seemed, everything wasn’t America’s fault, and Christianity was at least worth a try.

I didn’t know about Alhurra until I started reading about Mideast Minute.

I learned about it after, too. I think it was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” moments. You go, “Oh my God, this thing we thought was so absurd and funny and tongue in cheek and wouldn’t-it-be-funny-if” was actually real.

So you wrote the parody before you knew about the real thing? Like how R. Kelly wrote “Ignition (Remix)” before he wrote Ignition!

It’s exactly like that! That’s usually how I describe it.

And if you look at Alhurra — they hired a network president who didn’t speak Arabic and had no journalism experience. They hired a bunch of people who didn’t care about the news. In 2004, when an Israeli airstrike hit Hamas [killing Sheik Ahmed Yassin], and all the Arabic news channels cut to the coverage, Alhurra continued with their cooking show. In 2006, an Alhurra newscaster said on the air that the Holocaust never happened.(Editor’s note: Alhurra covered a Holocaust-denial conference in Iran.) They also aired a speech by a Hezbollah terrorist leader on the air, live.

By 2008, they burned through over $500 million of taxpayer money, $700 million by 2010, and it’s still going on today. So it’s a total cluster-mess on all levels. And it’s something we’re paying for!

I know that even by the very loose, New York Times Style section laws, it takes three to make a trend. But you’re Canadian, and Samantha Bee is Canadian, so… that makes two Canadians doing political satire focused on America and American efforts abroad. Why do you think you’re as invested as you are in American politics? And what perspective do you think you bring to this news, as someone who lives in the U.S. now but grew up and went to college in another country?

As Canadians, because of the proximity to the US and the similarity, we are equally as embarrassed. We feel as if anything the US does that is in poor form reflects on us as well, even though it doesn’t! It’s something we roll our eyes at and lament, as if it was something we had done or caused.

I think we Canadians are more objective about it because it’s not personal. We’re not talking about our own country. I think also, in general, if you look at most of the northern countries in the west —Scandinavia, Canada — generally, we’re a little more dispassionate about patriotism and nationalism. As Canadians, we understand that just because it’s something that we’re doing doesn’t mean that it’s good that we’re doing it or it’s something that should be done, and we don’t get behind it just because our flag is on it. It’s more of an analysis and a skepticism of our own government’s actions, and that extends of course to other governments, and the U.S. would be the main one that would receive our focus.

Even though people like John Oliver are pretty adamant that what they’re doing is not journalism, there’s clearly a tremendous amount of research and reporting that goes into putting on Last Week Tonight and all these other comedy-news programs. How much are you emphasizing reporting, and how much are you focused on comedy?

I try to figure out what people would criticize us for if we got it wrong, because otherwise it undermines the joke. The joke loses its validity because you haven’t gotten the facts exactly right.

Has the structure of the show evolved much from your original series?

I think we basically did three news stories, and then we’d end with a description of that week’s food gift. During the war, the U.S. was dropping food rations across Afghanistan. But they didn’t call them rations; they called them “food gifts” from the good people in the United States. “I know we caused this with our incessant bombing, but look how nice we are!” And the items they included in the rations were hyper-western-centric that locals didn’t know how to use, like peanut butter and cheese whiz —

I think cheese whiz is fairly self-explanatory.

It’s plastic! It’s orange plastic. So we would make fun of that, we’d take a food item from the west and sell it to the villagers.

These episodes are about the length of a pop song. Did you or Comedy Central make the decision to go against the grain of the standard comedy-segment length of the moment, which seems to be moving in the opposite direction, toward longer-form stuff? Thinking of Oliver, the “A Closer Look” pieces Seth Meyer’s done lately, and Sam Bee.

Comedy Central thought these episodes were too long. They wanted episodes that were 45 seconds to a minute long. And I don’t know what I would say in 45 seconds. I can’t set up a joke, let alone deliver a punchline in that time. So I would be over the moon to do something the length that John Oliver does or Seth Meyers does with “A Closer Look”. But I think they look at their internal data and they’ve come to the conclusion that people are more likely to watch something shorter. Though as much as I appreciate that data, my belief is, if it’s good, it’s good. Our challenge is trying to make it good.

Episodes of “Mideast Minute” premiere on Thursday on Comedy Central’s Snapchat Discover channel. Episodes are made available on Comedy Central’s website on Friday and on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel on Saturday.