Hancher Auditorium — Saturday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickling Giants w/ Bassem Youssef
FilmScene — Saturday, April 7 at 12 p.m.
Media outlets tend to tout Bassem Youssef as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” due to the popularity of his political satire in Egypt (the fact that both men are strong-jawed and bright-eyed, with trim, grey hair — and that they are friends — only bolsters this comparison). Yet whereas Stewart got into the comedy business through comedy, Youssef’s rise to prominence came through a more circuitous route: political revolution.
“I’ve always been following satire and comedy as a viewer,” Youssef said, in a recent Little Village interview, “but I never thought I’d be someone producing or doing it … You don’t think there’s hope you can do it. When the [2010-11 Arab Spring] revolution came, it opened a whole new window for everybody.”
Youssef’s original field was medicine. He completed training as a cardiothoracic surgeon at Cairo University in 1998, received additional training in heart and lung transplants in Germany, and worked for a year in the U.S. for a company that manufactures medical supplies for heart and lung transplants. Medicine required him to work “hard, very long hours,” which he credits for helping him get his show off the ground.
“It makes you a perfectionist — even if it isn’t something you’ve done before,” Youssef said of his medical career. “You learn it and stay at it until you get it.”
His entry into political work began in 2011, as he tended to the wounded in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after the military had attended to an otherwise peaceful protest. Frustrated by the largely pro-government media coverage of Egyptian politics, Youssef began his first production, The B+ Show — named for his blood type; not a representation of the show’s quality — which provided five-minute YouTube clips of what became his trademark political satire, filmed from his laundry room.
This led him to helming Al-Bernameg (The Program) on Egypt’s channel ONTV, which translated into a second contract for the show on CBC — a larger platform that allowed Youssef the honor of hosting Egypt’s first show filmed before a live studio audience. However, Youssef’s humor (including an unaired show about CBC itself, a freedom-of-speech ploy that backfired when the station refused to air the episode) became increasingly dangerous in Egypt’s volatile political landscape.
“We were [confronting] different political dilemmas in the years that followed the Arab Spring,” he said, referring to the revolving door of leadership in Egyptian politics. “Dealing with the regimes — the military regime is more sacred than religion, it was more popular, they could be more powerful in stopping people and people will accept it.”
At one point, he was prosecuted by the office of then-President Morsi for promoting “fake news” that might adversely affect the administration. After a 2013 coup toppled Morsi, Youssef began a third season of his program — but once again met with resistance from CBC, which opted to stop broadcasting the show. He found a new outlet — MBC, a satellite channel, where his next 11 episodes were met with massive weekly audiences, before he decided to terminate the program during the 2014 election, fearing for his and his family’s safety.
Although his shows continue to draw large audiences on the internet, Youssef is now an American comedian based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children. He’s written a book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, and was featured in the 2016 documentary Tickling Giants. He currently has a show on news and satire channel Fusion, Democracy Handbook, which provides a series of short, funny examinations of the U.S. through the lens of an Arab immigrant.
Acclimating to America has required a large amount of transition. In Egypt he found that he was relevant and relatable to his audiences. In the U.S., however, Youssef said, “I’m a fish out of water … As an Arab, I’m looked at with suspicion, especially under Trump. That gives my comedy a different flavor.”
He tries to use this perspective to his advantage, seeing himself as “a spectator trying to get my show on the air;” a representative of Middle Eastern Arabs who have difficulty getting heard in contemporary America. But adapting to a new American audience has required Youssef to change in a number of ways. The transition has meant turning his focus from problems in Egypt to ones in the U.S.
Although this has disappointed some of his fans in Egypt, Youssef takes it in stride.
“I have done all I can as an Egyptian. Right now, I’m an immigrant in America. I cannot seriously speak to Egypt — I left almost four years ago. Speaking from the outside — I don’t think it’s a good idea. I still speak, but only toward my new reality.”
In addition to a different set of issues to address, Youssef has also studied how to communicate to his new audience, which requires more than just different words.
“When I shift from Arabic to English, I have to study pauses, flow, cadence, timing — comedy is not universal because it really differs from country and from language, and you have to be on top of it when you try to use your comedy with different audience.”
Even with these changes, Youssef claims a distinctive voice in the American political comedy spectrum. He’s more cynical, he said, “because I come from a place where hope is an exception.” And, in spite of increasing signs of nationalism, Youssef still sees hope for the U.S.
“I don’t think things will be that bad here [relative to what Egypt experienced]. There’s a chance every couple of years for midterm elections. The good thing is that people are waking up and getting more involved. Red states are turning blue, and Democrats are winning — people are getting more involved. The good thing about America is that it’s dynamic and not stagnant.”
He also finds that the opportunity for comedy is good. In America, he said, “Comedy has a bigger seat at the table to talk heavy things that would be more difficult [elsewhere]. It helps take the fear out of people’s hearts and disarm dictators by making fun of them.”
Ultimately, his desire as a comic coincides with his training in medicine: to allow for a kind of healing.
“I would like to have people able to laugh at differences instead of fighting about them. It’s a long shot, but something to wish for.”
Dan Boscaljon is a freelance inquisitor based in Iowa City. He has a fondness for the imaginary and the unknowable and an appetite for learning how to live well. This includes coffee, oatmeal, music, books and training for a half marathon. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 240.