Bassem Youssef's charms are many. A former surgeon who practiced medicine for 12 years in his native Egypt, Youssef now adds once and former — and now, possibly future — TV personality to his list of skills.
Youssef became known as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” when he rocketed to stardom in Egypt in 2011 as a YouTube star doing political satire. Many took notice, and Youssef's YouTube series led to the creation of a television show called “Al Bernameg” ("The Show”). "Al Bernameg" was soon a hit, and at its height reached 30 million viewers. Youssef became a sort of national hero in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which he says caused a myriad of people to drop whatever they were doing to pay the bills and transition to social and political activism.
Today, Youssef lives in exile in Los Angeles with his family, unable to safely return to Egypt, where many factions worked hard to drive him away from the spotlight and his homeland. When he stopped by Salon's studio recently, he talked about the process of making "Tickling Giants," a new documentary about the rise and fall of "Al Bernameg."
Youssef also described the challenges of being unknown as a talent to most in the United States, and having to start over. His recent book, “Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring,” is giving him some of that recognition, and chronicles the story of his show and why he left Egypt.
What made you want to create "Al Bernameg"?
I was always inspired by Jon Stewart, and I dreamt of having a political satire show like "The Daily Show" in Egypt. When the revolution happened, there was a discrepancy between what you saw in the streets, protests, and the media ... they were making stuff up. It was like fake news, as it should be. I was just inspired to ultimately, eventually do that show, satirizing the media on the Internet. I never thought it would catch fire, but it did.
What's it like to start over in the U.S.?
Living in Los Angeles, you live the Los Angeles life: You pitch ideas, you go into meetings and hope that something will click. That's the life of entertainment, right? I hope I do have my own show, but it doesn't have to be about Trump. In fact, we are already over-Trumped. My first appearance on television will be something else, and it will streamline into something else. I have to remind people that I was a big star in Egypt, but here I am a newbie, a beginner. It's a very saturated, competitive playground, where you have to go and compete with people who have been here in that playground way before you. Hopefully, I will have my spot.
Watch our full conversation to hear more about Youssef's role in the Arab Spring and his plans for a fresh start in America.