Almost three years ago, Bassem Youssef, the satirist and TV star often referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, fled his home country with his wife and young daughter. Having lasted three dictatorships and as many television networks, he and his weekly comedy news show, Al Bernameg, loosely translated as “The Program” or “The Show,” were each issued multi-million dollar fines by an Egyptian court. The crime? His former network had sued him for breach of contract after canceling his show, accusing him of delivering content they could not air. Leaving was a no-brainer. “I realized right away that the verdict was politicized,” Youssef told Paste. “It wasn’t about money. So I skipped.”
His rise, during and after the Arab Spring, was meteoric. In the twilight of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Youssef made a series of YouTube shorts poking fun at various facets of Egyptian society, most notably its state-run media and ruling class. Within two months his first video had received five million views. The TV offers came shortly thereafter. At the time he was employed as a heart surgeon, a job he kept into Al Bernameg’s first season. The show, the first of its kind in Egypt, quickly ran into trouble. When he criticized Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s democratically elected successor who exhibited similar autocratic tendencies, Youssef was summonsed on charges including insulting the president and insulting Islam. Investigators questioned him for hours about his jokes, literally reading from a script and asking him to explain them, before releasing him with a warning. Though it enjoyed as many as 30 million weekly viewers, Al Bernameg was canceled after its second season for continuing to criticize the government. It was picked up by a new network for a third season, but the public pressure, characterized by intense vitriol in both public protests and on state media, was ultimately too heavy for Youssef to carry on. So he canceled the show in June 2014. Then came the million-dollar verdict.
Youssef’s story—what exists of it so far, at least—is told with quiet compassion in Tickling Giants, a new documentary by longtime Daily Show producer Sara Taksler. She and Youssef met when he brought his crew to the United States, in 2012, to observe the inner workings of The Daily Show. She was struck, among other things, by the presence of women on his production team. “There were four producers, two of whom were women,” Taksler said in a panel discussion about the film. “I was really curious what it would be like to be my counterpart on a comedy show in the Middle East. So at the end of that day I asked Bassem if I could make a movie about him and he said yes.” Her film, now available on iTunes and other on-demand platforms, is as much about Youssef as the astonishingly dedicated team of artists who made Al Bernameg a reality, while it was still a reality. They are mostly young men and women, writers and producers and researchers and editors singularly devoted to holding their government accountable. Many of them remain in Egypt in creative fields, though political dissent is mostly absent from the media landscape. “There is wonderful work happening, but it’s all social commentary,” Youssef said in that panel. “There’s no political satire… Egypt is slowly turning into North Korea.”
It’s not long into any public Q+A with Youssef before Donald Trump comes up. The comparison is immediate and ominous: Youssef tried to take on an autocratic government—well, three of them—with comedy and that government shut him down. He is quick to emphasize that the cases are not as similar as one might like to think, as Trump is still constrained in many ways by the Constitution. And though right wing media is probably as powerful a force here as it is in Egypt, it is not yet technically state-run. “In the Middle East, many of those ridiculous outlets are funded or supported by the government,” he said. “They are mouthpieces for the regime. Here, it’s more of a free flow to say bullshit; the bullshit comes organically, no one is telling you to do the bullshit. It’s capitalism.” Clearly free-market bullshit has similar consequences as its state-funded counterpart, as in both countries it has given birth to a highly polarized populace, one side of which is much less informed and much more emotional than the other. This polarization is starkly evident in Tickling Giants, when angry throngs gather outside Al Bernameg’s studio to call for Youssef’s head. Years later, he’s still cold the possibility that one side could ever win over the other, with comedy or anything else, in Egypt or in America. “I’m a little pessimistic about reaching out,” he told Paste, “because these people already have set ideologies, and they change facts and truth to fit with their ideologies. So I don’t know. I found it very difficult to speak to them
As to satire’s role in the political discourse, he and Taksler are adamant that it plays a small but vital part. “I grew up hearing, ’Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people. People change things,’ and that’s how I look at comedy,” she said. “Comedy doesn’t change anything. You laughing at something, even if it’s something you really care about, won’t affect anything else except your experience—it might make you feel less alone. But maybe if you watch a satirical piece on something, it raises your awareness. And then you study it, and learn to care about it, and then you actually do something that affects things.” Youssef maintains too that the real work is on the ground, not on TV. “People have high expectations that comedy can overthrow a government,” he said. “It doesn’t. It’s really down to what you do when voting comes.” No longer a TV star watched by millions weekly, Youssef is adjusting to life as, well, just another comedian trying to get his projects off the ground. He lives in Los Angeles with his family, where he’s developing TV projects and preparing for his new role as a voice for the powerless everywhere, not just in Egypt. “In the past few years, I realized whatever we have been complaining about in Egypt is not an Egyptian issue—it’s a global issue,” he said. “When Trump goes to Saudi Arabia, to the summit, and two days later it’s like the whole Gulf explodes… It affects everybody. You cannot isolate certain parts of the world anymore.”
Tickling Giants is available on iTunes, Amazon and www.ticklinggiants.com.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.