Bassem Youssef: Egypt's Jon Stewart
On a recent afternoon, a film crew trains spot lights and a camera on a trim, bright-eyed man sitting at a desk. Armed with a phone, a laptop and an air of mock-seriousness, the presenter is rehearsing his lines—a series of wisecracks, delivered with brio, that target celebrities and politicians.
This, though, isn’t a set in New York City but an apartment in a high-rise in suburban Cairo, home of the host, Bassem Youssef.
The format for the Bassem Youssef Show is clearly Comedy Central's The Daily Show—and the fact that Youssef has been labeled “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t please him more.
“Of course we’re just doing 5 minutes,” he’s quick to point out. “Jon Stewart does half an hour. He has celebrities. He has his own cast of fake reporters and cameras. We do it at home using YouTube material. We’re kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart.”
Youssef, who describes himself as "obsessed with TV," discovered Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert during one of his frequent trips to the United States. Back in Egypt, he watches their shows online.
Hosting an Egyptian incarnation of The Daily Show has been a day-dream for Youssef but before the revolution "there were all these red lines." Those red lines haven’t all been swept away. But in post-Mubarak Egypt—especially online—there’s a heady sense of freedom.
“What happened in the revolution was unprecedented,” says Youssef. “The extent and the magnitude of the hypocrisy and misleading information and misleading the public never happened before and will never happen again. That’s why we have a lot of controversy; we have a lot of material. It was a gold mine.”
The gold mine includes segments like the following, in which Talat Zakariya, an Egyptian comedian, described what was really happening in Midan Tahrir during the protests:
TALAT ZAKARIYA: You must have heard what's happening in Tahrir Square.
BASSEM YOUSSEF : No! What? What?
T: Drums and horns and dancing...girls...and boys...and drugs...and full sexual relations.
Y (on the phone to someone): Didn't I tell you we need to go to Tahrir Square? Dude, they're saying there's music and women and sex, and we're sitting here? ... Sorry, sorry.
Y: Mr. Talaat, is there a video that proves what you're saying?
Y: Sorry, clearly we got the video mixed up. We'll fix it. Mr. Talaat, sorry, go ahead, tell us what else is happening in Tahrir Square?
T: What happening right in Tahrir Square is a carnival.
T: There's a band..there's a one act play..all of it against the president..there are snacks and drinks and sodas and tea.
Y: I've finally learned what's happening in Midan Tahrir. Out of solidarity with the eminent Mr. Talat Zakariya, I'm going to show you the proof.
T: Drums and horns..
[Crowds singing the national anthem]
Y: So ill-bred. People singing in Midan Tahrir.
T: Full sexual relations...
[Protesters fighting police]
Y: You're right. It was an orgy...Anything else to add, Mr. Talat?
T: And who knows how many Muslim Brothers, and God knows what else, there...
Y: What, with the music and the girls and the drugs and the sex? What kind of Muslim Brothers, dude?
Mr. Talaat, concentrate for a moment--are you sure of what you're saying?
T: And I take full responsibility.
Y: So when we write the history of the revolution... There was music and dance, girls and boys, drugs and sex, and Muslim Brothers. They had a carnival, they ate snacks and this lead to the fall of the regime.
Y: Mr. Talaat, is there anything else you'd like to add-- anything else bothering you?
T: "Depart": What does that mean? What does it mean to simple people?
[Video of Wael Ghonim and friends]
"Depart" means get out of here! What don't you understand?
Y: I hope we answered the question.
During the three weeks of protests that finally brought down President Hosni Mubarak, presenters and guests on Egyptian State TV wove intricate, outrageous conspiracy theories. They blithely described the protesters as addled youth, Islamic extremists, and foreign agents (sometimes all in one breath).
"It was taken for granted in Egypt for so long that anyone can go on TV and say whatever they want,” says the 37-year-old Youssef, whose day job is as a heart surgeon. “We want to put a stop to that. If you are famous enough to be on TV, you should really watch what you say, because we are going to be watching you."
Through the short, slickly produced segments he uploads to his YouTube channel, Youssef hopes to introduce a new comedy format and a new spirit of accountability to Egyptian media.
“We’re kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart.”
"We're like watchdogs,” he says during a break. “But in a sarcastic way.”
Today, Youssef and his team are recording a segment that mocks a former Egyptian actress who, during the protests, complained that the revolution had brought the country to such a standstill...that she couldn’t get pizza delivered. As Youssef, notes, she had more to say:
BASSEM YOUSSEF: After Madame Afaf pissed off half of Egypt talking about food that some people haven't eaten since the time of the king, and of pizza...She came back and and pissed off the other half of Egypt with her conspiracy theories.
A: This one guy...He said people gave him a pen and told him to write: No to Mubarak. London is trying to train kids to speak Arabic with an Egyptian accent, to make them look dark-skinned like us..they're training them to remove Egyptian soldiers from their tanks, and take control of the tanks. Because there's a war coming.
Y: I'd like to know who comes out with these $#%&^@# rumours.
Youssef’s young, lovely but shy wife, Hala, hovers in the background. She seems to view her husband’s new amateur career mostly as a domestic nuisance. “They always come on Friday,” she says of the filming crew, “even though it’s my cleaning day. I don’t know why they can’t come on Saturday.”
Hala is familiar with her husband’s idols. “I mean, when we first got married, he told me: I want you to share this passion with me, I love Jon Stewart,” she says. “And I love... Steve Colbert, is it, I think? And there’s a third guy, but I don’t remember his name. He likes this type of comedy.”
“Egypt wasn’t that used to this kind of free media, making fun of political figures and celebrities,” Hala, who works in public relations, goes on. “But now it’s a new era and a new time of democracy, and it will reflect on the media business.”
The Bassem Youssef show is put together by a talented young trio who has worked together on shows, commercials and short art films.
“All the people working on this show were in the revolution,” says producer Amr Ismail, referring to his two friends, cinematographer Tarek Abdel Hameed and director Mohammed Khalifa, and the show’s technicians. “We were staying in the street,” says Ismail. “After it finished and Hosni Mubarak left and we started to come back to business…we wanted to do something for Egypt. We work in the media, so we have to do something that helps Egypt on this side.”
Or, as cinematographer Abdel Hameed laughingly puts it: “We want people on TV to be afraid of us.”
After less than two weeks online, the show has had close to half a million views and is the second most subscribed to YouTube channel in the country. That still makes it a niche phenomenon. But offers to appear on TV programs are starting to come in.
“And then it will be out,” says Youssef. “And I don’t know how people will receive it, because in Egypt you don’t have something like that. You have people making sketches, putting costumes and make-up to make them look like that person. But I’m actually saying their name and I’m getting videos of them. I could be sued, I don’t know.”
“I mean, you know, they always say the Egyptian people are funny, they appreciate a joke, but when you criticize them, they don’t,” he goes on. “It’s this taboo of: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say that.’”
Once you think of Youssef as “Egypt's Jon Stewart,” it’s hard not to start cataloguing the similarities between them. Youssef isn't very tall (Stewart is constantly joking about his height). Like Stewart, the Egyptian doctor comes off as a charmingly neurotic goofball. He starts our interview by pretending to eat my microphone. He also makes guests to his house wear those disposable plastic shoe-covers they give out in hospitals ("He has a phobia" director Mohammed Khalifa says, shaking his head.) With his thin, chiseled face and grey hair, Youssef looks a bit like Stewart. He even ends a lot of his sentences with a similar high-pitched giggle.
And he says very Stewart-esque things like: “I just want them to stop lying to people.”
To write his shows, Youssef explains, he "saturates" himself with YouTube videos until he finds "a pattern." The material he’s gathered from the revolution “is enough for 15 or 20 episodes. If we go forward and we have more resources maybe we'll be able to cover current events."
Youssef tells me that at the moment -- compared to the flood of disinformation and hysteria that surrounded Mubarak’s fall -- there’s a “drought” of outrageousness. “Everybody is actually being very careful what they say,” he says. But he’s optimistic. “I think, moving forward when you have hopefully a much more free atmosphere and democracy and you’ll have strange people running for president and people saying stuff that if you look deep they said quite the opposite before...in the future there will be a lot of stuff to talk about.”
After we finish our interview, Youssef asks: "Do you think Jon Stewart will hear about this?
There's a chance, I say.
"I used to fantasize that I would be invited on his show," Youssef says, grinning. "But I never wrote a book or anything."
"Maybe he'll make fun of you," Hala says softly.
"Oh, that's OK," her husband answers. "That’s what happens when you go on his show. I wouldn't mind at all." He laughs. "I wouldn't mind being invited by Stephen Colbert, either."
Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.