Bassem Youssef: Egypt's Jon Stewart 'Nibbles At The Walls'
In search of comedy in a complicated country, Youssef is back on the air.
CAIRO — Political satirist Bassem Youssef and the El Bernameg team are three episodes into the latest season of their comic news show, currently airing on satellite channel MBC Masr after being unceremoniously booted off CBC last November.
As a vegan in a nation of animal carcass enthusiasts, it warms my stony, plant-fuelled heart to report that Youssef shuns meat. He recently declared on Twitter that he has been a vegan for five months.
As we pursue a meandering conversation about El Bernameg, the minefield that is political comedy in Egypt, and his run-ins with middle-aged ladies at the Gezira Sporting Club, Youssef ploughs through the offerings in front of him with an impressive gusto. It is gastronomical carnage, and the falafel is the primary victim.
Asked about the Bernameg team and what it’s like working with them, Youssef likens his colleagues to a family, saying that he tries to employ a non-hierarchical “structure” in which he is like a “moderator,” only intervening when absolutely necessary. It results in “endless discussions,” Youssef says, something that sounds very familiar to us at Mada, where meetings can go on for centuries.
This horizontal structure renders him without “ego” because he subjects himself to their continual criticism — which is lucky, because since he hit the big time, Youssef has been the target of continual criticism. His show is broadcast amid an atmosphere of extreme and heated political polarization, with each side variously eulogizing him when he reflects their opinion and excoriating him when he doesn’t.
Compounding this is that even Youssef’s fans lash out when the show fails to meet their expectations and complain that “he’s not as angry and revolutionary as we are!”
Youssef’s answer to his angry fans? “At least I’m on your side. Maybe I'm not as loud and vicious as you are, but that’s maybe because I'm in mainstream television,” he says. “I have to be a bit more careful. This is a very unhealthy environment. At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment show. We never claimed that we’re freedom fighters.”
Youssef describes his approach as “nibbling at the wall of consciousness” rather than hurtling headfirst into it.
There is pressure to both deliver a message and be funny, all the while packaging the comedy in a way that Egypt’s socially diverse society can understand.
Some 35 million to 40 million people watch El Bernameg, Youssef estimates. The working man watching in a cafe may not be able to identify with references that Westernized Egyptians relate to. For example, Youssef can remember the time he made a joke involving Mohamed ElBaradei and Twitter during rehearsals, and the studio technicians looked blank and asked each other what he was going on about.
“Writing comedy for a big audience is extremely challenging,” he says. “Being in a zone that everyone understands and at the same time is funny is very difficult.”
From surgeon to funnyman
Youssef’s own background is well-known. A surgeon and Jon Stewart fan, he Egypt-ized The Daily Show format on YouTube before he was snapped up by television.
Youssef “isn't the funniest person in the room,” he says, but he compensates for that with hard work and organization, the legacy of his years in medicine. There is nonetheless a natural goofiness (“at heart I'm a nerd”) about him, and this coupled with his talent for doing ridiculous voices makes for great entertainment.
The first time he recorded a show in front of a live audience, Youssef froze when they roared with laughter. He and the team continue to judge the success of an episode by the laughs it gets during recording rather than by post-broadcast responses.
Reaction to the show is heavily shaped by the media, Youssef says. He recalls going to the Gezira Sporting Club — an exclusive club in the upscale Cairene district of Zamalek — the morning after one controversial episode, and people were shaking his hand.
But after 24 hours of media coverage, the tide has turned when he went back to the club and was instead getting the stink eye. So Youssef is highly critical of Egyptian media.
He is equally critical of the lack of diversity and imagination on Egyptian television, whose programming largely consists of chat shows and anchors receiving phone-ins. Very few programs veer away from this model with, say, documentary reports or other formats.
“My problem with Egyptian media is that you don’t have Egyptian TV,” he says. “You have Egyptian radio. If you close your eyes totally and you follow the mainstream TV, you’ll not miss anything. There is nothing visually stimulating about it. Even when you do phone calls on CNN, there are reports and graphics and so on. For the past 10 years, Egyptian television has been spending all its money on radio.”
But the media, despite the narrowness of its artistic vision, has been used to great effect to (mis)inform and shape public opinion, particularly during the chaotic days after the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that followed, he says.
“In September and October, the anger was horrible,” Youssef says, recounting an encounter with a lady at the Gezira Sporting Club (again) whose comic absurdity takes a considerable edge off the tragedy of it all.
Youssef was doing pull-ups at the running track one morning when out of nowhere a formidable middle-aged woman doing laps came speed-walking past.
“ ‘You traitor! You foreign agent!’ ” he recalls her saying, imitating her in a rapid high-pitched shriek.
“The first thing I thought was, where is this sound coming from? The next time she speed-walked past it was, ‘How much did Obama give you?’ She had 400 meters to think of something to say each time. A girl objected and the woman screamed, ‘Is she Muslim Brotherhood or what?’ ”
“I’m in a position that I can’t really answer back. I’m being put in a position that I can’t really answer anyone because it will be taken against me,” Youssef says.
There was a more cheerful incident at the Gezira Club when a woman approached Youssef and said, “I’m a fan of yours despite the fact that you make fun of my son.”
The woman turned out to be the mother of Tamer Hagras, an actor Youssef had mocked because of his deep orange, George Hamilton-type tan.
“The funny thing,” Youssef remembers, “is that she was wearing orange.”