“How did you make it out of there alive?,” I somewhat seriously and somewhat facetiously asked “Daily Show” senior investigative foreign correspondent Jason Jones and producer Tim Greenberg about their recent trip to Iran. Their mission, and they chose to accept it, thinking they were going to France, was to somehow find humor “Behind the Veil,” as they’re calling their multi-part series documenting their ten-day journey to the land of the ayatollahs. .
After all, the two fake journalists could have easily become the male versions of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, or Roxana Saberi, thrown in jail by an oppressive Axis of Evil regime.
So how did “The Daily Show” manage to get two of its people into the country, with seemingly free rein? Believe it or not, they've been working on it for about a year, hustling both the United States government and the Iranian consulate’s press attaché for permission -- with assurances that Jones would not strip down in a mosque, or do anything else crazy. “You are mistaking us for real reporters," they assured the bureaucrats, even while knowing there's not a lot of laughter in bullets and death.
When the official okay finally came through, it was with this caveat -- they were not allowed to bring any electronic equipment with them. No computers, no cameras. Not great for TV, but more on that later.
The timing was perfect. They were able to go during the lead-up to the disputed June 12th election, before things got completely crazy and blood was literally running in the streets. They were safely back in an edit room in New York when the street demonstrations broke out, and would have probably been forced to leave the country anyway as other Western journalists, real journalists, have.
They hired a fixer who then hired a crew with equipment-- maybe not quite up to par, but good enough under the circumstances, until it wasn’t-- a guide and a van. As Jones and Greenberg were trying to sleep off the jet lag shortly after arriving in Tehran, the fixer summoned them: they could actually go to a campaign rally for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They quickly jumped out of bed and headed out.
If you missed this initial piece in the series, you have to catch it online. We are talking laugh-out-loud funny, and the backstory is nearly as good. Without a translator, Jones, doing a standup with the hard-line Holocaust denier ranting and raving in the background, had to take it upon himself to translate. It was basically along the lines of, "He hates the Jews." Pause. Turns to look at the bearded one and then back to camera. "Yes, he still hates the Jews."
But what you didn't see may have been as funny. Jones and Greenberg told me when they were setting up in the crowd, an elderly, scarved woman looked at them and asked: "Zionistas?”
“Jason said, ‘Just my producer,’” Greenberg said, laughing at the memory. “That's as close as I've been to a Holocaust denier since [former Daily Show correspondent} Rob Corddry," added Jones.
Their time in Iran was enough for the two to discern that the political divide was akin to the red state-blue state thing we have here. Uneducated, fundamentalist, poverty-stricken residents who live in the desert and in small towns outside Tehran are most likely to be Ahmadinejad supporters, and sophisticated city-dwellers wearing green are in support of the other guy, Mousavi—no great shakes as a choice of leader if we had our say….which, of course, the wackjobs who have retained control of Iran seem to think we do. Yes, the series of deadly street demonstrations was a Zionist, British and American-orchestrated plot to destroy the democratic will of a great civilization. With more than 100% of the voted counted.
But back to Jones and Greenberg. Driving out to the desert, somewhere maybe near Qom, they were trying to shoot a funny bit with some camels, but the camels kept running away. It was a 13-hour day, and they got about 10 seconds of a shot, but Jones said even that was ruined by "cheap Iranian equipment."
Unbelievably, they were actually given access to clerics and opposition leaders—who were later thrown in jail. In a rare bit of serious journalism Monday night, Jon Stewart actually brought on the son of one of the dissidents to give an update about his father's condition. The man had been pulled out of a hospital bed and jailed. None of this is/was funny.
In a play on Jay Leno’s famous Jaywalking segments “TDS” is calling Jihadwalking, Jones also managed to conduct many person on the street interviews in which he questioned people about their knowledge of the United States and its government, and-- to his astonishment, and visible disgust-- just about all of them passed with flying colors. The Iranians he interviewed were able to name the three branches of government, the date and year of our independence day and a list of presidents going back for the past 50 years, in order.
They also learned that Ayatollah Khameini (which Greenberg insists is pronounced like a rhyme for "hominy") is almost, but not quite as scary as that mullah from 1979 “Death to America” hostage hell, Ayatollah Khomeini. To most Americans, there isn't really a difference.
Yet while Jones seemed to find a lot of intelligent and friendly people, again, much to his surprise, he was a bit confused by the men’s room facilities. Apparently--and we don't have to get graphic here -- there is no toilet paper in Iran, but rather a hose.
And Jones was thirsty, so he drank from it.
(“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” airs at 11 p.m. Monday--Thursday ET/PT on Comedy Central.)