How to Become the Most Celebrated Satirist in the Middle East, a Step-by-Step Guide:
Step One: Become a heart surgeon. Live to middle age.
Step Two: Witness the Arab Spring first-hand. Get angry at the media’s portrayal of protesters in Tahrir Square, and at the advice of a friend, post takedowns on a burgeoning internet platform YouTube. Unexpectedly garner millions of views.
Step Three: Make more videos; get a network show; target religious and political leaders who abuse power. Earn 30 million loyal viewers, all of whom need a good reason to laugh.
At least, that’s how Bassem Youssef did it. But if the 42-year-old ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’ and host of Fusion’s new series Democracy Handbook, ever sat down to write a how-to, this is about as far as he’d go. “I have no explanation,” Youssef says of his sudden, unexpected rise in popularity. “I have no manual. I cannot tell you, ‘Let me show you how I did it,’ because I don’t know. It just happened.” Additionally, the brief guidelines above don’t mention anything about how to handle regime change, death threats, governmental inquisitions or potential financial ruin and imprisonment. Becoming the Most Celebrated Satirist in the Middle East might bring the sort of rabid admiration that makes owners of halal carts around the world offer free falafel (a normal occurrence, per Sara Taksler, who produced the documentary Tickling Giants about Youssef), but it also might involve an exile from one’s homeland.
An as hard as it to believe, Youssef had no performing experience before he began making YouTube videos in 2011 at the age of 37. He was charismatic and quick with a joke, and his work as a cardiologist brought him to the U.S. on several occasions; during one of his visits, he found Jon Stewart on TV and fell in love with The Daily Show. Beyond vague fantasies of having his own show, though, he had no idea what was to come. In the words of Taksler, “He spent his life being a really good guy to have at a dinner party.”
After nine episodes of his lo-fi YouTube series B+ earned 40 millions views, he quickly jumped over to Egyptian station ONTV with Al Bernameg, which loosely translates to “The Show.” Taking advantage of unprecedented level of free speech, it took on not only media outlets but radical clerics, conservative government ministers and then-president Mohammed Morsi. For its second season, the series changed networks and taped in front of live studio audience — something that had never been done before in his native country. Famous segments excoriated the military leaders who claimed to have developed a device to cure both AIDS and Hepatitis, and an outsized ceremonial hat worn by Morsi at a graduation ceremony. “There are people funnier than me,” says Youssef. “But people exploded with laughter because we made fun of those that other people were afraid to make fun of. We wrote at the table what was happening every single day.”
Many who witnessed Al Bernameg’s high points while in Cairo between 2012 and 2014 — including Mo Amer, a Kuwaiti-born, Houston-raised comic who was the only American other than Jon Stewart to feature on the show — will testify to the show’s cathartic power and the electricity it generated. “Every show was like a Superbowl,” says Amer. “What American TV show do you know when everybody huddles around at cafés waiting for it to come on?” The entire Arabic-speaking world was in on it, too; Amer’s appearance raised his status among his relatives and, yes, halal cart guys.
While Youssef gave Egyptians a chance to laugh through the difficult aftermath of the Arab Spring, his work also put him at risk. Predictably, the Morsi regime brought him in for questioning, charging that he insulted Islam and the president. (In a show of silliness and bravery, he arrived at the courthouse wearing the same enormous hat he’d worn on the show to mock the leader.) Though the comedian paid a fine and wasn’t jailed, the incident was the first shot fired in an attempt to threaten the show’s influence. Even when the military coup brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power, and the vocal minority who opposed Youssef grew louder, the Al Bernameg staff continued to push boundaries.
“Trump is a racist, xenophobic, bigoted guy, but in the Middle East, we call that Monday. He’d be classified as a liberal progressive.”
Meanwhile, authorities pegged the host as a tool of the Zionist American establishment, and some civilians worried about what his occasionally profane jabs meant for the culture at large. (A devout Muslim himself, Youssef was always very careful to draw the line between the person abusing the power and the religion — he’s never intended to insult Islam outright.) “Satire brings awareness and breaks down taboos,” says Youssef. “What’s done afterward, is with the people. Whether this guy is a satirist or a guy shouting from the top of a pulpit, lazy people are lazy people everywhere. You’re not going to change people’s habits.”
By 2014, the al-Sisi government found ways to interrupt, postpone or cancel broadcasts, while oussef himself grappled with a barrage of threats against him and his family. “From day one, I was bullied, shamed, threatened. I have people threatening me, my family, my 4-year-old daughter, hoping she will die with cancer,” he says. “When I find somebody having a screenshot of a tweet that says, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ I’m like, Seriously? Welcome to my world.”
Mounting restrictions and safety concerns led Youssef to end his show in June 2014; a dubious vedict ruling that he owed his old network millions prompted him to leave Egypt altogether. He spent the next year in Dubai, fielding offers to host game shows and be a judge on X-Factor — he even got an offer to return to his show, if he agreed to severe restrictions. Instead, he went west.
“I see my future in America,” says Youssef, who currently lives in California. He’s in the early stages of creating a one-man show, something he calls a “think piece” about how powerful people use fear to manipulate the body politic. He and Amer have developed a mutually beneficial relationship; Youssef gets stage time opening for the L.A.-based comic on tour dates in places like Tunisia, and Amer makes a splash with a touring companion who thrills Arab crowds. (“He’s like Bigfoot,” says the latter.)
An in the 10 five-minute Democracy Handbook episodes released online today, Youssef tours the States while giddily pointing out some of the same hypocrisy and small-minded thinking he encountered back home. He talks with armed militia members, reconsiders Arab stereotypes in Hollywood and visits a “Muslim-free” gun shop in Florida, pondering not only bigotry but its power to make money and influence behavior. Though he confesses he didn’t learn anything about the U.S. that “sitcoms didn’t tell me,” Youssef did attend his first Donald Trump rally. His evaluation: “Trump is a racist, xenophobic, bigoted guy, but in the Middle East, we call that Monday. He’s too cute to run in the Middle East — he’d be classified as a liberal progressive.”
According to Youssef, new projects like the Fusion show are his way of making inroads with his new audience in the U.S. “I am risking a lot of things making this move, but it’s a challenge,” says Youssef. “So, at the age of 42, I am going on yet another adventure.” During recent live gigs, he encountered hecklers prepared to derail the show, and who he feels were hired by the Egyptian embassy. But Youssef did something that would fit right in the handbook of the Most Celebrated Satirist in the Middle East. “I refused to let them be ejected,” he says. “I made fun of them the whole time.”