Lessons from "the Egyptian Jon Stewart": "The satirist’s role ends at the screen"

Salon talks to Bassem Youssef and “Tickling Giants” director Sara Taksler about why satire is a powerful weapon

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published March 18, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

Bassem Youssef   (Getty/Khaled Desouki)
Bassem Youssef (Getty/Khaled Desouki)

One question constantly hounds political comedians: Is satire an effective political weapon? Critics love to point out that satire didn’t bring down Hitler, and Jon Stewart couldn’t even save us from George W. Bush.

It’s an endlessly annoying query for those of us who work on satire, not simply because offering examples of the material effects of satire can be tricky, but mostly because it is the wrong question to be asking in the first place.

The issue of the politically material effects of satire assumes that the goal of the satirist is to bring down a tyrant or install a new regime. But that question misses the point of satire: Its goal is to encourage critical thinking, provoke the audience to question the status quo and inspire audiences to reject the packaged narratives offered to them by the media and by politicians.

The goal of political satire is to make material change possible, to open the mind to other ways of thinking, and to help us all laugh in the face of repression. Sara Taksler’s new film “Tickling Giants” is a perfect illustration of just how this process works.

Plus, as an added bonus, “Tickling Giants” also traces one of the most important cases where satire directly led to political change and did, in fact, help end tyranny — at least for a little while.

Taksler’s film tells the remarkable story of Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef and his satire program “Al Bernameg” (literally “The Show”), which became the most-viewed television program in the Middle East, with 30 million viewers per episode, capturing 40 percent of the Egyptian population.

Youssef has often been dubbed “The Egyptian Jon Stewart,” but as a point of comparison “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart averaged 2 million viewers, or a little more than one half of one percent of the total U.S. population.

The rise of Youssef’s show coincided with profound political change in Egypt, and the film serves as a good intro to these events. In 2011, the year of the first season of “Al Bernameg,” 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak was brought down in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt held its first free presidential election. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won that election but soon mirrored some of the same repressive techniques as Mubarak. Then Morsi’s top general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power. Sisi later “ran” for president, winning a supposed 96 percent of the vote, officially sending the country back in time.

“Tickling Giants” follows the team of “Al Bernameg” as they work to use political comedy to help support democratic ideals. It is a firsthand glimpse at a satire project that was both really, really funny and really, really powerful.

I interviewed Taksler and Youssef via email earlier this month. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to conceive of this project?

Sara Taksler: In 2012, I was at work at "The Daily Show," where I'm a senior producer. Bassem came to observe us before his show went live. He was with a few producers, two of whom are women, and I was very curious what it would be like to be my counterpart in Egypt. People always ask me what it's like to be a woman in comedy, and I was just so curious what that experience would be like in the Middle East. Within a few hours, I told a co-worker that I thought this would be a great movie: A heart surgeon becomes a comedian in a country where free speech is not settled law. The only thing was, I was scared to go to Egypt alone. I tried to convince my co-worker he should make a movie with me, but he had his own projects going on. The day was coming to a close and I didn't want to miss this opportunity, so I pulled Bassem aside, asked if I could make a film about him, and he said yes!

Tell us a bit about the title, how you came up with it, how you hope it resonates.

Taksler: The message of the film is that people can creatively and nonviolently stop the abuse of power. Throughout the movie, you see people sing, dance, tell jokes . . . I felt like there would be some way to further explore that with drawings, but I wasn't sure how to work it in organically. Then I met Andeel, a writer at Bassem's show and a political cartoonist. For me, Andeel represents hope. He is funny and creative and a real revolutionary. One day, while we were filming, I described what I wanted the message of the film to be, and asked him to draw something based on that. He drew this tiny little Bassem tickling a giants' foot with a feather. Will the giant laugh or stomp on you? You don't know. That is the risk. I loved the drawing and was looking at it a few weeks later and just thought, this is it, this is what the whole thing is all about. I want people to leave this movie inspired to start tickling giants in their own lives and to share how they're doing it with the hashtag #TicklingGiants.

Who do you see as the intended audience for this film?

Taksler: "Tickling Giants" is a documentary, but it's also really funny. So, it's broader than your average documentary audience. I want people of all backgrounds to see the film and be inspired. But, the group I most want to see the film are young people. I want them to know that there is an option between violence and other ways to be heard. Bassem was several blocks from Tahrir Square, where people were literally killing each other to have their opinions known. Meanwhile, Bassem and his team were making jokes, and I would argue that their voices were so much louder. I also hope that a lot of Americans see this movie. It is important to better understand the Middle East and support the Egyptian people. And, we are dealing with a Giant in Trump and his administration. When they tell us to be scared of Middle Eastern refugees, these are the types of people they're talking about. When they tell us the press are enemies, and comedians are out of line, these are the types of people they are talking about. And, Trump considers the current president of Egypt a friend and ally. Their values are similar. This is a cautionary tale. One thing that has surprised me is how many conservatives love the movie. They also value free speech and immigrants and the film resonates with them, too. If both sides could unify over that, maybe we could stop the injustices of Trump.

Did you have any challenges making it? Tell us a bit about the filmmaking process.

Taksler: Filming was difficult because I didn't have a budget to bring a crew. So, I went solo and hired a local crew. I couldn't be in certain places because it would make situations more difficult. For example, when there were protests at Bassem's office, they asked me to stay inside because, as a white woman, they thought I'd stand out and work up the crowd. Some people thought I was a spy. We had to film most of our outdoor footage from a moving car, for safety, after one of our camera guys was beaten up for his footage.

Bassem Youssef had been called the Egyptian Jon Stewart. In what ways do you think his show was different from Jon's?

Taksler: “Al Bernameg” was inspired by “The Daily Show,” but it became its own thing. Though I'm starting to understand the possibility more now, I couldn't imagine working for a comedy show where you'd get in trouble for making fun of the president.

In what ways do you see his comedy as similar?

Taksler: When you're trying to process something difficult, laughing is cathartic. Comedy helps people work through things that might not otherwise feel accessible. In “Tickling Giants,” someone says, "the best joke ever is the one told at a funeral."I think this is probably true in every culture. When pressure is high, a joke can be such a good release.

Do you think there is a specific type of comedy that is more powerful for ticking giants?

Taksler: I think that if you're being honest, everything can be funny. I'm not someone who believes that every joke needs to be said at every opportunity. But if it's funny and true, there is probably an audience that will appreciate it. Right now, we're dealing with fake news. Lies. Propaganda. Comedy is a good way to show the hypocrisy. But comedians need to be careful, just like everyone else, not to spread lies.

The film is being framed as a "call to action" — what sort of action do you hope it leads to?

Taksler: I hope people will leave the theater inspired to protect free speech and call out abuses of power. This can be a kid who sees someone bullied, an employee speaking up about business practices, or a people responding to a president who disrespects his people. We can all tickle giants in our own lives. I want people to find creative, nonviolent ways to be heard and to share those ideas in order to inspire others with the hashtag #Tickling_Giants.

Bassem, what prompted you to agree to a documentary about your work?

Bassem Youssef: Sara was working as a senior producer on “The Daily Show.” For some reason she was interested in doing a documentary about me and my time when I visited their offices. Neither of us expected that it would be such an epic four years of filming.

When Sara arrived in Egypt to work on the film, “The Show” already had a huge following and had already angered those in power.

It was so surreal to have to write comedy in the middle of such turmoil. It was like trying to open a Dolce and Gabbana haute couture boutique in the middle of Somalia. When people are tense they don’t deal with satire that well.

Tell us about the idea for "The Show." How did you come up with it?

Youssef: Well I was an avid follower of Jon Stewart and always wanted to have a similar show in Egypt. When the revolution happened and we saw the blatant lies of the media trying to tell us that the revolution is such a conspiracy, well the opportunity offered itself.

How would you describe your style?

Youssef: I like straight-face comedy more than anything. A joke that is delivered with the least effort.

Tell us a bit about what it is like dong a satire show in a country that doesn't protect free speech.  Were you ever scared?

Youssef: It was a scary environment but I was not scared of physical harm as much as I was scared from delivering a bad show. This was the only thing that kept me going: perfecting our work.

We are increasingly seeing satire used as laughtivism — as a way to help spark resistance. Did you hope that your show would have a political impact?

Youssef: Well it did, but satire has its limits. It is really up to the people to make the change. The satirist’s role ends at the screen.

What do you see as the unique role that satire can play in public perceptions?

Youssef: It can simply bring more people to the table. People who might not be interested in different political issues or activism can be tempted by satire to be more involved.

You eventually decided to stop working on your show because it was too dangerous. Tell us a bit about how you came to that decision.

Youssef: We reached a point where there was absolutely no legal cover for anyone; the state was the judge and the enforcer. It only took a tweet or a Facebook post to put you in jail or simply put you on a no-fly list. It was really difficult to continue working or even living there.

You now have a new project — "Democracy Handbook." How does your new show differ from “The Show?”

Youssef: It is more of a travel show, not live, and it offers an outsider perspective on how the United States can be similar to the Middle East in so many surprising ways. Hey, at least I went to a few Trump rallies!!!

What are the challenges of making political comedy in the United States in the Trump era? And how does that differ from your experiences in Egypt?

Youssef: Will a satirist in America, even under Trump, lose his or her freedom or be forced to leave the country? Hmmmmm. I don’t think so.

“Tickling Giants” is playing in New York’s IFC Center and is soon to be released across the U.S.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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