‘Tickling Giants’: The Story of the Meteoric Rise of Egypt’s Jon Stewart and His Crusade for Freedom of Expression
Occasional Daily Show guest and one-time member of the Time 100 Influential Persons of the Year Bassem Youssef is more than just a late night host, cutting-edge satirist, and champion of free speech. He’s also a surgeon. Up until 2011, he did that job full-time. Inspired by the Arab Spring in his home country of Egypt and what he observed first hand treating protest victims in Tahrir Square, Dr. Youssef took not to the streets, but to the internet with a simple mission: to find laughter amidst the chaos.
Hundreds of millions — that’s right, hundreds of millions — of YouTube views, the love of many, the wrath of some, a court summons, and a government-mandated cancellation later, Bassem now teaches humor and politics at a joke of an American institution, Harvard. Most comedians aspire to build half that career over the course of twenty years. Bassem became a comedic powerhouse in four. It is this meteoric rise that the new documentary from Daily Show senior producer Sara Taksler hopes to bring to life — and audiences.
The film Tickling Giants will tell the story of the recent events in Youssef’s life, from surgeon to comedian to television host to polarizing public figure. In this short span of time, he went from making instantly popular YouTube videos under his own name skewering the Egyptian government to helming the hit politically satirical television show, Al Bernameg (The Program),which garnered him the nickname “The Jon Stewart of Egypt.” This comparison did not go unnoticed by his American counterpart, who first invited Bassem to a taping of the show and later to appear as a guest in 2013.
It was during Bassem’s first visit in 2012 when Sara Taksler proposed the idea for what would become Tickling Giants. When I asked Taksler about her “elevator pitch” to him, she described it as “impulsive.” Though she didn’t have a specifics in mind, she immediately recognized the story of a doctor becoming a successful comedian as unique. Set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, a documentary seemed like a no-brainer. Upon their first meeting, Taksler asked Bassem if she could make a documentary about his new show. He agreed. Afterwards, she questioned the risks involved in filming such a controversial topic in the tumult of Egypt’s political environment. But when Youssef was called to court on the grounds of insulting President Morsi and Islam itself, she knew this story was worth it.
In 2013, Taksler and her crew traveled to Egypt under the guise of total secrecy. No one discussed, promoted, or even mentioned the film on social media, or anywhere really, out of concern for the safety of the crew. Only two years after the Arab Spring, Egyptian officials and civilians were wary of film crews and cameras. When shooting outside, Taksler’s crew usually had to do so from moving cars as a safety measure. Even indoors, safety was not a guarantee. At the Al Bernameg offices, interview subjects believed the offices were likely bugged. A cameraman was beaten for filming a party, and the crew had to sneak footage out of the country because the government had started checking hard drives. The government pressure and mounting protests from critics of the show necessitated armed guards be called to the offices to protect Bassem and his staff. After being forced switching television networks, his show was suspended indefinitely last June. Bear in mind, all of this took place over the course of a few years.
Despite his critics and oppressors, Youssef’s stardom shows no signs of slowing down. In its prime, Al Bernameg averaged 30 million viewers per episode (compare that with the 2 million The Daily Show draws nightly). The show’s YouTube channel has nearly 2.5 million subscribers and almost 200 million views. Their Facebook page has 7.9 million Likes, and Bassem’s Twitter 4.16 million followers. American marketing execs can only dream of impressions, as they call it in the biz, like these. One fan took the time to subtitle a bunch of episodes in English, and created a YouTube playlist of them. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bassem recalled his most recent appearance on The Daily Show. The following day Jon Stewart announced his imminent departure from the show, raising substantial speculation from Youssef’s fans on Twitter as to whether he may the one to replace Stewart. Judging by his career trajectory so far, it would be tough to bet against his odds.
It might not be readily apparent to American audiences just how revolutionary Bassem’s particular brand of political satire was for Egypt. With shows like TDS, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and even Weekend Update, to name a few, Americans probably would not find the humor of Al Bernameg particularly provocative. In Egypt, this format was downright incendiary. As Taksler described to me, “Bassem’s show is such a big deal to the Egyptian audience because before it, no one was making jokes about religion, politics, and government in this way.”
With the principal filming on Tickling Giants wrapped, Sara Taksler and company have finally gone public with their project. They have opted for the popular crowd-funding route in order to raise finishing funds for the film. Via Indiegogo, she and her producing partner — Maziar Bahari, upon whose best-selling memoir Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater was based — hope to raise $150,000 to cover post-production costs. The perks range from a free digital download to a signed poster to a day in the edit to Bassem himself recording a personalized voicemail message. Recognizing that “documentaries are typically a lousy investment,” coupled with the difficulty of acquiring large-scale grant support for docs, both Taksler and Bahari saw crowdfunding as the smartest route to raise money and awareness for this project. Despite the financial risks typically associated with documentaries, Taksler thinks, if done right, “a documentary can be funny, interesting, and attract an audience.” She believes Tickling Giants has the potential to do just that for people who love comedy, Daily Show fans, Al Bernameg fans, people interested in the Arab Spring, and those who care about and support free speech.
Taksler came up with the film’s title following a conversation she had with a writer for Al Bernameg who is also a cartoonist. “I asked him [Andeel] to draw something about what Al Bernameg represents. He drew Bassem tickling this big foot that looks like it may stomp on him.” This image perfectly underscored the idea she hopes to convey with the film: that using “words and jokes to tickle giants” can have a greater impact than violence.
The Indiegogo campaign for Tickling Giants runs through April 10th. They have already raised an impressive $78,000, but are still 48% shy of their goal. Yet given recent threats on the international stage, both verbal and violent, to free speech and humor, it feels more important than ever for a film like Tickling Giants to find an audience and a platform for its message.
The campaign page underlines this urgency, describing how the film “explores how free speech and non-violent protest can make an impact, and raises the question of whether a power structure that is threatened by a comedy show is really all that powerful.”
Most Westerners would agree that the only thing a joke-teller should fear is their audience not laughing. Unfortunately, this freedom of speech we hold as an inalienable right is a luxury not enjoyed worldwide. For Bassem and the staff of Al Bernameg, telling jokes became an act of courage from which they did not back down. Supporting a film that tells their story is a statement of solidarity.