Have you seen Saturday Night Live recently? How about Last Week Tonight? Or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert? Have you noticed that in the last year these shows have gotten… well, funnier?
It’s a sad fact. A nation becomes divided, people take to the streets, people fear for their well-being or the well-being of others, but the shows they watch get funnier, not in spite of what’s happening, but precisely because of what’s happening.
Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef of the documentary Tickling Giants knows this phenomenon all-too-well. During a time when millions of Egyptians were protesting the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak, Youssef noticed a stark contrast between what the resistance looked like on the streets, and how the protests were being depicted on the news.
With the flame of revolution behind him, Youssef took it upon himself to create a YouTube show satirizing the circus that the Egyptian media had become. He was the right man at the right time, and his show took off in a big way, eventually leading to a contract with the Egyptian TV studio CBC to start a political satire show called, simply, The Show.
As a satirist, Youssef didn’t pull any punches. He went straight for the jugular and always hit hard. A sign in The Show’s office read, “SARCASM, because beating the shit out of people is illegal.”
Such an approach earned him an immense following, but it came with a price, and that just happened to be his security. In Tickling Giants, he remarks that most people think of fame as something which makes people narcissistic or arrogant, whereas his fame only brought him fear.
After President Mubarak, Egypt fell into the hands of a series of other authoritarians – one of which was Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He had gained huge popular support for overthrowing Egyptian President and dictator Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt had yet another dictator, and Youssef had yet another dictator to criticize.
No one likes being criticized, especially dictators, but the thing about dictators is, when they are criticized, they can kill people. And the only thing worse than a dictator who can kill people is one who has popular support behind him.
The desk Youssef sits at on his show is shaped as a question mark, reflecting his purpose of questioning the version of reality that the populace is given by authority. But when the populace really likes the version of reality they are being fed by authority, they don’t protest the dictator, they protest the one criticizing him.
Youssef at one point had 30 million viewers (Jon Stewart only had 2 million in comparison). So when he criticized President Morsi, he had the benefit of popular support. If Morsi had him arrested or killed, there would be public outrage. The president would risk insurrection. But when you criticize a beloved dictator in front of 30 million people, and they start protesting you, then there’s nothing stopping the dictator from threatening your life, or your family’s life. Youssef’s resistance never failed to bring him trouble, but now it brought him genuine danger.
I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to document such a figure. I attended a screening of the documentary at IFC Center in New York City, and it was followed by a Q&A with director Sara Taksler, and Youssef himself. I was able to talk to Taksler afterwards and ask her about her own struggle with commitment to the story when facing the danger of it.
She was juggling two jobs, producing The Daily Show and using her weekends and vacation time to travel to Egypt and film the documentary. What started as a nine-month project ended up taking four years, due to the constantly changing circumstances of Youssef and his show. Taksler even went bankrupt making the film. Not to mention, she was in the room when Youssef and his crew were accounting for the possibility of their studio being bombed! But she had to finish what she started, she told me, in between hugging cousins and friends of hers who came to see the screening.
Watching the film, I was struck by how ignorant of the rest of the world I am. I obviously knew nothing about the political circumstances of Egypt, because at no point did I anticipate what would happen next in the documentary.
Youssef is known as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” – a comparison the documentary never tires of returning to (Taksler has, after all, been a producer for The Daily Show for eight years). I am very familiar with Jon Stewart, but had not heard of Youssef until watching the trailer for Tickling Giants
And, boy, is that an unfortunate fact. Youssef is nothing less than inspiring. Here we meet someone who blurs the line between comedian and hero. It’s a perfect time in the United States to blur this distinction. Discontentment with how the media portrays the news of the week has led many to turn to satire shows for news and for relief. The word Taksler used for these shows in the Q&A was “cathartic.”
“Comedy wins, the country loses,” Youssef said in the Q&A. That rings true for me. I had not been watching Saturday Night Live until Alec Baldwin started appearing as Donald Trump, and Larry David played Bernie Sanders. Since then, I can’t get enough.
The best joke is the one told at a funeral, a writer for The Show says in Tickling Giants. Not just any joke, I add, but a joke that names and expresses what the people feel – in this case, that things are horribly wrong.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the fool is the one who is able to convey the truth to the powerful figure. In our day, this is increasingly becoming reality. Youssef is not just an example of this, he might as well be the patron saint of satirical truth-tellers.