Heart surgeon-turned-comedian Bassem Youssef stars in documentary Tickling Giants; offers warning re Trump: 'You need a good 20 years to develop a real worthy... dictatorship'
What's the worst thing that could happen to a late night host on American TV? Maybe a ratings dip, or God forbid, cancellation. For Egypt's most popular satirical comedian the stakes ran a bit higher: the risk of imprisonment or cancellation of the kind that puts you in an early grave.
Beginning with the Arab Spring in 2011, Bassem Youssef -- a heart surgeon by training-- hosted a show that dared to mine humor from media, religion and especially politics. In a country with no tradition of permitting political dissent, this was a bold proposition.
Even members of my own family kind of thought I was a spy because I dared to make fun of the army.
Youssef's journey as host of Al Bernameg ("The Show") is documented in the new film
Tickling Giants by director Sara Taksler, herself a producer at another satirical comedy program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The documentary turns increasingly suspenseful as Youssef stuns Egypt with his iconoclastic comedy, then feels a stinging backlash -- first from the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi and later, after Morsi's ouster, from the military-backed regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Tickling Giants is playing in New York (IFC Center), Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills) and London (Bertha Doc House) until Thursday, April 13 (ticket info here). It's also playing on a number of college campuses in the coming days and weeks, including Stanford, Cornell, Indiana University and the University of Minnesota.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Youssef and Taksler in Los Angeles on the eve of the film's theatrical run at the Laemmle Music Hall. These are the top quotes from filmmaker and subject.
There were other people who were 10 times funnier than me. I wasn't the funniest guy in the room.
I don't know many people who have a documentary made about their lives, so how can you say no to that?
I thought the Daily Show was maybe a little bit of a dictatorship itself so maybe if I offend one I offend everybody and Jon [Stewart] will take it personally. So I said yes [to the documentary project], so maybe she'll say good things about me in front of the leader.
They were doing the same thing we do [at the Daily Show] but with such high stakes. And I was very inspired by that.
I couldn't imagine Jon Stewart during the day doing heart surgery and then at night doing a comedy show.
I'm privileged and I'm honored to actually have known him.
To be a fan of someone and then to become friends with them -- for him to come multiple times to speak on my behalf -- that takes fanship a long way, to a totally different level.
We asked Youssef about the Trump administration's decision to invite Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the White House last week. During a photo op with el-Sisi, Trump told reporters, "We are very much behind President el-Sisi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation."
It is the cherry on top of a very big pile of shit.
President Trump welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House on Monday, April 3, 2017. After taking power in a coup, el-Sisi's authoritarian regime reacted negatively to the satirical comedy of Bassem Youssef, forcing his "Al Bernameg" show off the air. Photo White House pool/Getty Images
I don't think the American policy toward Egypt has changed... Under Obama even that brief hold on military aid and weapons was just like for a couple of months and [then] resumed. At that point Egypt's record of human rights was not any better than today. Just a matter of allowing someone in the White House and saying a couple of good words about him.
It kind of empowers and emboldens Sisi more in Egypt to know that he can go on with his brutality against dissidents without the occasional good-for-nothing slap on the wrist.
We have a president who is getting offended over jokes. When I was making the movie I couldn't imagine what it would be like to have a president who couldn't take a joke about himself.
We have a very strong tradition of free speech but we're on a path that I don't like and I think people who value free speech need to speak up.
We're in the baby steps of dictatorship.
You still have a lot to learn about how to become kind of like a respectable dictatorship. You're still not there yet. I think you need a good 20 years to develop a real worthy red hot-blooded dictatorship. And we're here to guide you.
We're also doing really well with conservatives and libertarians. One of the first calls I got at the Tribeca Film Festival was from someone working with Ted Cruz saying that he was really excited about the film, which I never would have guessed.
This is part of what art does. It makes people entertained but it also keeps them informed. And the beauty of a great movie like this, it educates people without preaching, without lecturing. It humanizes the story.
Youssef now lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter. We asked him if he felt as though he were in exile.
I think you can be in exile even if you're in your own country. You can be in exile in a place where you feel uncomfortable and you cannot connect intellectually and emotionally with people around you. It's not a function of geography.
I found I'm somehow grounded, which is good. That's one thing that I'm proud of myself that I went through roller coasters of emotions and successes and disappointments in such a short time and I think other people might have kind of broken under the stress. I'm very happy that I went through all that in one piece.
I'd like to find my own spot in the American media, in this huge arena.. So it is a new challenge, a new chapter and I hope that I would use my experience in order to give a different perspective for Americans here.
One thing about Americans, they welcome outsider views. They don't consider everybody speaking from outside as a traitor or a spy. As a matter of fact they welcome criticism from outside. Many of them, at least.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.