The last time Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef was in Philadelphia, he was a budding surgeon taking his United States Medical Examination at a local testing center, as he told the Inquirer and Daily News in a recent phone interview. Now, he returns as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” as he often is called, with his one-man show, The Joke Is Mightier Than the Sword.
The path for Youssef, 44, from surgeon to comedian and TV host was a complicated one. It began in early 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, when Youssef was inspired to begin hosting The B+ Show, a short, Daily Show-style satirical news program, from his laundry room thanks to his love of Stewart’s shtick. By September that year, the show evolved into Al Bernameg (“The Show”), an Arab-language satirical news program.
With Al Bernameg, Youssef attacked Egyptian political figures like former President Mohamed Morsi, as well the country’s media, inspiring both his Stewart-based nickname and a serious amount of politically charged trouble. In 2013, he was investigated by the Egyptian government for his work on Al Bernameg and turned himself in after an arrest warrant was issued. He was later freed on bail.
The persecution continued, and in 2014, Al Bernameg ended. In November that year, Youssef fled to Dubai, and eventually landed in Los Angeles with his wife and children. His story was chronicled in the 2016 documentary Tickling Giants.
Since then, he has organized his experience into The Joke Is Mightier Than the Sword, which comes to Philly on Wednesday as part of the Kimmel Center’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. We caught up with Youssef ahead of the show, and discussed his experience in Egypt, how President Trump compares to the authoritarians the comedian is used to, and how close our political climate is to Youssef’s home country. Check out the interview below:
What can people expect from the show?
It has all. I mean, it has it all except me stripping onstage. It is giving people a different perspective of what happened in the Middle East, and follows my journey as an immigrant in Trump’s America. It is a show for all, and it is a show actually designed for American people. I’m not just speaking to my base.
How is it designed for American people?
The beats, the rhythm, the cadence — it’s pretty much American. As a matter of fact, I have more complaints from Arabic-speaking people, and it’s like, “Speak more Arabic!” No, it’s a show in English because we are telling America our story. We need to speak to everybody, not just ourselves.
What was the path from surgeon to TV host and comedian like for you?
I had a very stable career as a heart surgeon for 17 years, and then the revolution came, and suddenly I did these YouTube videos because of what I had seen in the streets. It was totally different from what you saw in the media. It was like a brainwashing machine happening. I was a huge fan of The Daily Show, so I re-created the show in my old laundry room not expecting that this would go anywhere, and it just blew up.
Why was news satire like what you did in Egypt problematic for the government there?
Because authoritarian regimes anywhere, authoritarian figures do not like to be made fun of. They build their whole legacies on fake respect and fake achievements, and fear. When you laugh at these people, you take that away from them. It doesn’t work anymore. They change from being the most feared, the most revered, and the most respected into the most ridiculed.
So humor destabilizes authoritarians’ views of themselves, as well as the public perception.
They build their whole rhetoric on the image of the leader, the one who can cause no harm. If you just sit back and make fun of them, it just destroys them.
That sounds a little like our current president.
Someone like Trump, who is in a democratic system but is not himself democratic, he gets p–ed when people speak about him or make fun of him. He even disinvited himself from the [White House] Correspondents Dinner. He doesn’t take it. He doesn’t take humor well, because for him, humor is disrespect. He is not strong enough to take it.
Did that type of approach make life dangerous for you in Egypt? Were you worried you would be harmed?
It ranged from harassment and tarnishing my reputation to lawsuits and sending people to put my future under siege. I didn’t really care about my safety so much as I wanted to do a good show. That was the most important thing for me.
How does your work in Egypt compare to someone like Jon Stewart of Stephen Colbert, as far as risk/reward goes? Here, public outcry is pretty much the extent of consequences they’d face.
Where I come from, that treatment is sanctioned. Right now, I cannot go back to Egypt. In the last four weeks, three or four of my friends were detained and taken from their houses. This is the type of consequences we have.
What are your thoughts on the political climate in America currently?
Like, Trump vs. the world? It proves that no one is immune from populists. The question is, will populism change the dynamics of the country and destroy democracy? There was a backlash for Trump. The Trump-like mentality will not go away — as a matter of fact, it might increase. The good thing about the dynamics in America is that people can reorganize themselves with elections and stop that flow. This is the beauty of democracy.
How has Trump affected comedy in America?
The problem is that he provides plenty of material, but he makes it difficult for people to upstage that. People will have to be more creative, I guess. You know how I got comedy from Trump? I bring comedy from my own part of the world — you cannot imagine how horrible it is. How incredibly insane it is. Trump is like a walk in the park next to us.
Does the climate here feel similar to when you were doing your show in Egypt at all?
Honestly, I make fun of the similarities in my stand-up because it’s fun. Realistically, no, it’s not like Egypt because you don’t have the government coming in and shutting down the show. Let me put it this way: You are still stuck in your own dictatorship. You still have a long way to go. Good luck, guys.
Bassem Youssef: The Joke is Mightier than the Sword
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., $45-$59, kimmelcenter.org.