Every mother’s dream is that her son will become a doctor. Her worst nightmare is that he will become a comedian. Egyptian-born Bassem Youssef has been both. In 2011, Bassem left his job as a cardiac surgeon and embarked on a comedy career. Tickling Giants is his story. It’s also the story of Egypt’s tentative steps towards Democracy during the period known as the “Arab Spring.”
Called the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem was initially moved to action after helping wounded protestors in Tahir Square during Mubarik’s ouster in 2011. His first attempts at humor were on YouTube. These were an instant hit and Bassem was quickly picked up on
Egyptian network TV. His show, called, The Show [Al-Bernameg In Arabic], was a satirical look at politics, religion, and the government. And nothing was off limits – Islam and its clerics, sex, the president. Sight gags, animation, and video goofs added to the mix.
Bassem interviewing people at Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011.
It was a winning combination for Bassem. His Egyptian audiences loved it, and even his mentor, Stewart, was moved to let him visit his New York set. There, Bassem’s story and his passion caught the eye of The Daily Show’s long-time producer, Sara Taksler, who committed to making a feature length documentary about him. A year later, Taksler found herself in Cairo. But shooting on location in Eqypt was fraught with difficulties. Because of budget constraints, Taksler had to become a one-man band, shooting much of the action herself, in the midst of dangerous times and risky places; sometimes from a moving car and other times from the protection of the production offices. As Taksler said, “This is a group of people who do the same sorts of things I do as a Senior Producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but with much higher stakes.”
Yet she also managed to capture Bassem and his staff’s humor, dedication, and sense of fun throughout it all. And she said, she found their two offices remarkably similar – the main difference being that one had lots of Ahmed’s, the other lots of Adam’s.
The show itself spanned four seasons and three rulers – Mubarik, Morsi, and Sisi, whom Bassem called, “Mubarek 2.0,” and who won his “free election” with 96.9 percent of the vote. The other 3.1 percent went to “Hummus” or so the show said. But it often put him at odds with the government. Under Morsi’s rule, he was cited for “Contempt of Islam” and “Insulting the President,” and questioned for six hours. Ultimately, the court dismissed the case amidst cheers from the public. As one onlooker said, “He’s a doctor who heals us from the political state we’re facing.”
Bassem presents Jon Stewart with a gift from Egypt.
In its hay-day, the show commanded 30 million viewers, nearly 40 percent of the population. By comparison, Stewart’s show reached two million. But Egypt is not the United States, and freedom of expression is not guaranteed.
When Sisi came to power in 2014, the tides began to turn. Protestors appeared outside the studio, there were thinly and not-so-thinly veiled threats to Bassem, his crew, and his family. Two networks, and one blackout/jammed signal later, Bassem was off the air and being sued for breach of contract for 100,000,000 pounds. It was an amount he could not pay, so he fled the country.
Today, Bassem lives in California with his wife and daughter, but he is keeping his political humor alive. His show, Democracy Handbook, a series of 10 digital episodes, airs on Fusion. And he recently published a book called, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring, which is taking him around the States on the lecture circuit.
It’s a long way from Cairo, and it often makes Bassem wonder whether his little girl will ever see Egypt. But ultimately, he remains undeterred as he reflects back on his show there. “It was a short glimpse in time, where people can look back and say, it’s possible.”
Top photo: Bassem visits The Daily Show in June 2012.
Photos courtesy of Sarcasm’s Productions