A lot of American comedians have struggled to figure out the framework for satire in the age of an oppressive president. Bassem Youssef has been here before.
Around five years ago, Egyptian-born comedian was a cardiologist in Cairo who launched a YouTube show mocking his government that quickly amassed 30 million views. That led to a local station giving Youssef his own program, “The Show,” which launched in 2012 at the height of the Arab Spring. In short order, Youssef was dubbed “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” and lobbing fireballs at the tarnished leadership with the same caustic fervor of his American counterpart.
Naturally, Egyptian authorities took notice. Youssef was jailed, his family faced threats, and “The Show” went off the air. At first, he fled to Dubai, then resettled with his family in Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past year. In the summer of 2016, Youssef hosted “Democracy Handbook,” a short-lived YouTube series in which he used the backdrop of his Middle Eastern experiences to explore the paradoxes of American society. Since then, he has authored a memoir about his experiences, “Revolution for Dummies,” which is currently the top-ranked Middle Eastern history title on Amazon; he’s also the subject of a new documentary, “Tickling Giants,” now in limited release.
Viewed together, the book and the movie chronicle a pair of dramatic new chapters in Youssef’s career — his abrupt arrival as the Middle East’s loudest satiric voice, and the inevitable impact of that fame that resulted in his current exile. “The essence of what I do is the same — using satire in the face of power,” he said in a recent interview during a trip to New York. “But I don’t have the same mouthpiece.”
Now, he’s ready to find it. While Youssef has landed representation from talent agencies at UTA and Anonymous Content, none of the offers that have come his way since the Fusion show have been impressed him. “I’m here in a new country in a new place with new people,” he said. “It’s a different set of references. I’m struggling to find myself here in this cutthroat environment.”
That’s part of the way he casts himself on “Democracy Handbook,” where he proclaims in his introduction before each episode, “Now, I can learn from the best. After all, this is the United States of America, the greatest democracy in the world.” From that cynical starting point, he veers from interviews with “Bernie Bros” in Philadelphia to Trump supporters in Georgia, capturing the chaos of the 2016 election and setting the stage for our current divisive times.
Youssef’s field work approach is similar to “The Daily Show,” in that he assumes the charming, curious demeanor of an objective reporter while winking at the camera. Talking to a Muslim Trump voter in one installment, he asks “Would you consider being…less Muslim-y?” In an episode entitled “If At First You Don’t Secede,” he ponders the rampant growth of armed factions in both the Middle East and America, concluding that “every schmuck with a gun rounds up a few followers and starts his own country.”
Despite his affable style, he’s not afraid to push buttons. “I am a little bit cautious about making of fun of people’s religious beliefs,” he said. “But we can laugh about everything.” Having said that, he has lost faith in the prospects for satire in Egypt for the foreseeable future. “The military control has to go,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can think of that would make them go peacefully.”
While “Democracy Handbook” successfully illustrates the way Youssef’s satire can translate into a Western context, it didn’t resonate on the same level as his Egyptian program. Among the 10 episodes produced for Fusion, none garnered more than 357,000 views. “Fusion is a great network, but their reach is somewhat small,” Youssef said. “I hope to get somewhere better now.” He has his eye on networks like HBO, but realizes that he represents a commercial challenge. “It’s just a competitive playground,” he said. “Maybe they don’t know what to do with me. They need something that the majority of Americans want. When you want to tell a joke in a certain language, you have to make it accessible to anyone.”
Nevertheless, he’s keen on pushing back on the limited representation of Middle Eastern identity in American media. While he expressed admiration for American-born comedians such as Aziz Ansari, he noted that the comedy scene was sorely lacking a Middle Eastern perspective. “I belong to a minority that’s not represented well here,” he said. “Maybe if my story gets out there, people will know I’m an asset, instead of having crazy people who blow themselves up represent us.”
He acknowledged that he’s passed on a few offers for film and television roles that struck him as stereotypes. “Most roles are terrorist number three. Hopefully, I’ll be promoted to terrorist number one,” he joked. “I’m waiting for the better offers to come.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, it’s surprising that they haven’t landed yet. With anti-Trump fervor generating daily comparisons between the current administration and faraway regimes, Youssef’s experiences growing up under the controlling grip of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency — followed by the short-lived rulership of Mohamed Morsi — has renewed currency in the West. Plus, he speaks with authority when assuring Americans that Trump’s presidency hasn’t yet reached the censorship extremes of his homeland. “You cannot really compare it to what Trump is doing,” he said, “but it’s the atmosphere of what he’s building. It makes it acceptable to discriminate against minorities. It’s an atmosphere of hate. You have to kill it before it breeds.”
So far, he’s impressed with the pushback. “Nobody’s normalizing him,” Youssef said. “Satire is not giving him a break.”
He’s eager to join that cause, and said he hopes to launch a new show that again casts him as a comedic investigator, struggling to understand the American mindset. He has one goal above all else. “What does it take to change someone’s mind?” he asked. “I think this is an important question.” Still, he’s not sure there’s an easy answer to the challenge of reaching Trump supporters. “The problem isn’t that satire is not reaching them,” he said. “It’s that they’ve already blocked out anything that pushes back on their beliefs and denials — their alternative facts. It’s not easy to change minds.”
Watch an episode of “Democracy Handbook” below: