Thanks to a military coup and a brutal dictatorship with 60 years of oppressive experience, Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef had to move with his family to America because he dared to openly mock governmental authority.
Not long afteward, Youssef found himself standing on the floor of the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, covering the Republican national convention for a Current TV series and listening to speaker after speaker praising then-future and now soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump.
“I was there hiding in the shadows, like, hoping nobody would see this,” Youssef says from his home in Los Angeles ahead of his show this weekend at the Addison Improv. “Fuck — I was like, I left Egypt for this?”
Youssef was known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart. His satirical news show El-Bernameg (The Show), which ran for three seasons on state and privately owned Egyptian airwaves, made him famous among his fans and record-breaking viewers and infamous among his targets and critics. The actual Jon Stewart flew him to appear on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, furthering his celebrity reach. Youssef returned the favor by bringing Stewart on his show while Stewart was in Jordan filming his first feature film, Rosewater.
Of course, Middle Eastern TV criticism in the face of political opinion is vastly different from America’s media discourse. The worst that an American president can do to a satirist is post a mean, catty Tweet about them and maybe prompt an on-air apology. Rulers like former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi can have satirists arrested and interrogated for insulting their leaders, and the Islamic and military-installed President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi can interfere with public broadcasts, which forced the comedian and his family to flee for their safety.
“[Trump] would be considered a liberal tree hugger in the Middle East,” Youssef says. “I know a lot of people are waving this whole thing with America becoming an authoritarian country and everything and yes, Trump is an authoritarian figure.
“Trump is a dictator, but the thing is, to have a whole authoritarian country, you have to have an authoritarian system, a system that allows for this to happen.”
Youssef knows from firsthand experience the limits that dictatorships looking to quash a democratic spring are willing to cross. He starred in the 2018 documentary Tickling Giants chronicling his show’s rise from YouTube and its fall under oppressive forces. He also created a live storytelling show called Late For Democracy about his journey from being Egypt’s most wanted comedian to a satirical witness to America’s political and social processes.
“It’s a story that could be told today or could be told 10 years from now,” Youssef says. “I talk about finding myself in the middle of a right-wing militia carrying guns just a few steps away from a bombing that happened in New York to what happened to me when the Las Vegas shooting happened in May, trying to find another rebirth in America with my family. It’s a very, very personal story.”[embedded content]
The story for Youssef’s live show starts in his home country, where he tried to bring political satire to a nation finding its own freedom in 2010’s Arab spring, a series of nationwide demonstrations that led to the ousting of longtime Egyptian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He started a popular YouTube show that turned the former cardiothoracic surgeon into a TV star and satirist. El-Bernameg earned him a massive TV audience and following and equally feverish critics and protests toward the end of his show’s three-season run.
Youssef was arrested and interrogated by the nation’s prosecutor general in 2013 for making fun of the country’s leadership and Islam, according to The Guardian.
Youssef recalls a moment in an interrogation where he and all the lawyers involved in his case watched episodes of his show to determine the validity of the charges and, he admits, “I never took it seriously.”
“In third-world countries we have fascists … but there’s also a lot of bureaucracy,” Youssef says. “So imagine then trying to play your episodes on an outdated computer and it doesn’t work. Then you stand up trying to help them to play the evidence against you. It is one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I could have a one-hour show just on that scene of interrogation.”
Youssef’s stories also cover the more serious stakes created by Egypt’s current president and his supporters calling for his execution in massive crowds outside his old TV studio. During one of the more volatile moments of Tickling Giants, Youssef sneaks a peek through a covered window shielding him and his show’s staff from crowds of angry protestors carrying signs written in English with grammatically incorrect slogans like “We wish Bassem Youssef to go to the hell,” as he recalls.
Youssef simply walks away with a smile and says, “So funny.”
“When I saw that scene, you’re watching yourself, which is kind of an interesting experience and I don’t know why I did that,” Youssef says with a laugh. “It was just stupid, and the thing is you’re saying that and you’re trying to write comedy because we have a deadline and we have to be there. It’s kind of like part of me didn’t have time to worry about safety as much. I need to worry about the quality of the next episode.”
Youssef was more afraid of the shots people fire online than of real-life bullets.
“I was more afraid of the Twitter backlash from the episode instead of me being shot … because if I’m shot, I’m shot, but you have to live with the trolls on the Internet. That’s a harsh punishment.”
Youssef fled Egypt with wife Hala Diab and daughter Nadia to Dubai and eventually America in 2014, two years before Trump’s surprising presidential election and almost five years before the coronavirus outbreak. The comedian says he takes full responsibility for these events, and for “jinxing America.”
These and other experiences in his American comedy pursuits led him to write his latest storytelling show, developed during a six-month residency at Joe’s Pub in New York’s Public Theater.
“I never imagined I would be doing stand up because I can speak the language fluently but humor is a different thing,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error and you can understand the language perfectly and be fluent but telling a joke is something else. So a lot of times when I told a joke, it fell flat.”
Youssef says moving from one oppressive dictatorship to one that seemed to be in its infancy actually shows the strength in American democracy, even if it may have been hard to recognize at times.
“I joke about the comparison and how you’re not just taking a page out of our playbook,” Youssef says. “You’re taking the whole playbook. In America, there’s lots of checks and balances and there’s a lot of legacy to prevent this from happening, and we have seen Trump try to destroy the system for four years. He has done a lot of damage, but I think the system is healthier than you think. It’s not perfect, and it has a lot of flaws, but I think there’s a lot of resistance in a lot of people that would not allow this to happen.”
Political satire and the ability to tell a joke without getting arrested isn’t enough to create change. It’s simply a sign of a healthy democracy that requires public participation and demonstration to make it work.
“It serves a useful purpose for showing the integrity of the system, but people should not use it to have a fake sense of liberation or freedom, and I think it’s even getting worse in the last few years,” Youssef says. “People are coming to me and saying all the time, ‘Oh, look at John Oliver or look at Trevor Noah making fun of him.’ It comes down to what do you actually want to do in the streets.”
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