Bassem Youssef and Sara Taksler Take on Fragile Egos and Authoritarian Regimes in ‘Tickling Giants’
Bassem Youssef has been through a lot. If you aren’t familiar with Youssef, he’s often described as “The Jon Stewart of Egypt,” but that’s more of a convenient shorthand. Youssef created and spent three years hosting the enormously successful Egyptian television show Al Bernameg, a show whose title simply translates as The Show. Al Bernameg employed the techniques and attitude of The Daily Show in the context of Egyptian media after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, when their traditional media routinely failed to offer any progressive voice. Youssef covered the rise of democracy in Egypt as well as its unfortunately swift downfall, marked by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military intervention in 2013. During this exceedingly tumultuous period, Al Bernameg gathered a loyal following of over 40 million viewers; for comparison, Jon Stewart’s interview with Barack Obama on The Daily Show in 2008 pulled in merely 3.8 million viewers.
It is difficult to summarize how much Youssef has endured since 2011, especially for someone whose own understanding of Egyptian politics has largely come from the occasional news article and The Daily Show itself. In 2011 Youssef was working as a cardiothoracic surgeon in Egypt, treating the wounded in Tahrir Square during the revolution. That same year, he utilized his newfound freedom of expression and his laundry room to create a web series that gained 5 million viewers on YouTube in the first three months. That series transformed almost immediately into a proper television series in Egypt (the first to have made such a transition), but sadly only two years later Youssef was forced to flee Egypt for the United States.
Fortunately, Daily Show producer Sara Taksler has somehow managed to capture all of this and everything in between, and it’s astounding. Tickling Giants, which is currently available exclusively on iTunes and will be available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-Ray on June 13th, somehow manages to be entertaining, easily digestible, and profound all at once. Although Tickling Giants will relate to many audiences, it uniquely provides Americans—currently embroiled in our own nationwide debate about free speech and the nature of facts—the opportunity to view our circumstances through the context of Youssef’s own battle with these topics. Taksler provides a deeply resonant look at the role and power of satire, and why laughter makes authoritarians so nervous. The relationship between comedy and politics is made particularly clear through the reality of its effect on Youssef and those around him.
I recently spoke with Youssef and Taksler over the phone about how they came to work together, the deeply self-conscious nature of authoritarian regimes, and finding hope in the aftermath.
Sara, do you remember the first time you learned about Al Bernameg?
Sara Taksler: Yeah, I’d heard a tiny bit about the show, I didn’t even know the name or anything, but some people at work mentioned it so I knew that there was someone starting up a satire show inspired by The Daily Show in Egypt. I didn’t know a ton about it until Bassem came to visit The Daily Show in 2012, and he and a few producers were observing our staff, and they were just hanging out in the room where I work, so we were all talking during the day, and actually that day I had the idea for the documentary and didn’t want it to pass me by. So, before we left work that day, I asked Bassem if I could make a movie about him.
Was there anything in particular that piqued your interest for a documentary?
Taksler: Yeah, it was a couple things. I mean, Bassem has one of those “x-factor” personalities that you hear about, where he was just a great conversationalist, and I thought he’d be really interesting as a character, particularly because he was still a heart surgeon at the time and I couldn’t imagine Jon Stewart being a heart surgeon during the day and then doing a show at night, which was kind of me comparing it to my show.
But the biggest thing was the fact that they were doing the same thing that I do, but with much higher stakes. I thought that was interesting, and I’d actually had the idea a few years before that it could be cool to make a documentary about a late night show going through an election year. So I realized that this was that movie, but with very high stakes because of the political and cultural situation going on in Egypt at the time. I felt like it could be an entertaining story.
The documentaries that I like the most are the ones that would be good movies even if they weren’t true, and I felt like a doctor getting a comedy show and using humor to help people during a revolution would be a good movie, even if it weren’t true.
For sure. And it was really interesting without being an information overload. Whenever anybody produces anything I assume one of the most daunting tasks is deciding how much information is enough. I thought Tickling Giants was particularly well-balanced; I had known some of the general touchpoints from the Arab Spring and the revolutions in Egypt, but until I saw your documentary I didn’t really know how they fit together. So it was impressive how you helped to string them together without overwhelming the viewer. I guess my question here is, how did you decide how much information was enough?
Taksler: Well, first, thank you. That was definitely a task, figuring out how to do that. While we were editing we did a bunch of test screenings, and at the screenings we would invite people from the Middle East, specifically Egypt, and also people from the West, and try to figure what was gonna work. It became pretty clear that it was either going to be not enough information about something, too much information, or confusing to the two different audiences, so we really had to focus on who we were trying to make sure understood the story, because otherwise it’s not gonna be the best version for anybody.
So I decided that I’m not probably going to make the best story ever told about the Egyptian Revolution; there’s going to be a lot of people who understand it more deeply than I do. But I thought I could make a good story about a comedy show and the power of satire and using humor to shed light on abuses of power. I thought that Tickling Giants should be clear to a Western audience who might not know a lot about the Revolution coming into the movie, and so we tried to make sure that the information we presented would be clear. We would ask people, “Where are you confused? Does anything feel redundant?” Things like that, and then just make new cuts based on the feedback we were getting. It was more about figuring out how to get across the messages we wanted to tell, and making sure we were successful in the ways we were doing that.
I think it’s also nice that there’s nothing about the documentary that should make it particularly partisan in the United States. Technically, it would only be partisan if you fundamentally disagree with the concept of free speech, because otherwise there’s nothing in it about Egyptian politics that Americans regularly interact with. Do you think something like this would end up being spun as somehow partisan, or do you think we’ll all continue to interact with the contents of the documentary without someone spinning it some new direction?
Taksler: Just sort of going back to the earlier part of what you said, I was nodding vigorously, because the best surprise for me in this whole thing has been that we’ve gotten a ton of support from conservatives and libertarians and different groups that I didn’t know would become champions of Tickling Giants. I think it’s because so many people do care about free speech. But yeah, I really didn’t know that we would have such wide support. On the way to one of our screenings, I got a call from someone working on the Ted Cruz presidential campaign who wanted to offer support, and the Koch brothers loved the film. A lot of people that I didn’t necessarily expect to get behind it.
I think it’s because free speech is, in this country, really universally praised, and both sides want to protect free speech, and both sides, I’m learning, seem to think that the other side doesn’t care about it at all. One thing I find hopeful is that I think, at the screenings, there’s a place for dialogue. The fact that it’s not about America makes it a little easier for American audiences to swallow and have objective opinions. Most of us don’t know a ton about Egypt, and we don’t have a horse in the race, so we can just judge it based on what we believe is morally right, and not because we have a loyalty to a certain party. But, you know, I can’t really say what I think the conservative criticism would be, because I’ve been really surprised and pleased that we’ve had these great responses. I’ve been interviewed on Christian radio shows and conservative radio shows, and I’ve talked to some conservative groups, and people have been really into it.
One of the things that has been fascinating to see in Tickling Giants was how much the people in Egypt and in the United States right now actually have in common; there’s so much xenophobia, fear, and just intense hate that causes these people to kind of abandon logic and facts in unusual ways. Inasmuch as Tickling Giants allows that category of people in the United States to look more objectively at similar situations, do you imagine that something similar could be applied to that same population in Egypt? Would that be possible in Egypt, or is Egypt so tied to what’s going on in the United States that that wouldn’t be quite as feasible?
Bassem Youssef: Well, I mean, there are the same groups of people in Egypt who don’t care, really, about the truth or facts anymore — it’s ideology-first, it’s what they feel first, and then anything can be tailored to their beliefs. So, there are certain groups of people in Egypt who would not just believe it. They were ahead of Americans in believing all of the conspiracy theories, for example, about Obama being a secret Muslim, or that he is empowering ISIS, or that Hillary Clinton is empowering the Islamic extremists in the Middle East, so there’s some mirroring there.
The only difference is that [in America] you have a much bigger mass of people who adapt to liberal values than we have in the Middle East. I consider those much more of a crushed minority in the Middle East. So here you kind of have more of an equal battle. Back in the Middle East, it’s pretty much unequal. If you are an authority, you are a right-wing, pro-military person. If you’re not an authority, most likely you have a right-wing, pro-Islamic mentality, which leaves very little for the people in the middle, and these are crushed by both sides.
Yeah, and that really seems to be a recurring pattern in the Middle East in general, that religious fascism yields militaristic fascism or vice versa.
Youssef: Yeah, because both of them need each other. Military fascism in the Middle East only allows for one faction to be there on a tight leash as a scarecrow. They empower them but they mercilessly crush any middle-ground or liberal voices, because they know that they could be a very attractive alternative. But it’s always “Either me or those other terrorists!” And if you look at Syria, for example, this is what Bashar Assad did. His first reaction, when he was fazed by people who revolted against him, was to release all of the Islamic militants from his prisons. He hardly shot any single shot against them and he concentrated all of his effort against the moderate, or non-Islamic rebels. It was funny, in 2011 everybody wanted Assad out, and then now in 2017 it’s “No, maybe he should stay, we don’t want ISIS in his place.”
What is it that is so inherently threatening about satire to authoritarians?
Youssef: Authoritarian regimes or authoritarian leaders depend on two main pillars to strengthen their image: respect and fear. They have to be respected and they have to be feared. Satire takes that away from them. That is pretty apparent in the Middle East, but you look at Trump when he has press conferences and says something like, “Oh, nobody here is gonna give me a nice question?” he considers everybody who asked him a question, a decent question, to be someone who is disrespecting him or undermining his authority. He can’t deal with that, he can’t handle that, because he has authority and he has to be respected. Satire makes people laugh at that fake respect and fake fear that those authoritarians surround themselves with.
A lot of people say things like, “How do you make a joke out of Trump? Everything he’s doing is a joke.” Is there really such thing as an authoritarian being too obviously ridiculous to be mocked?
Youssef: Well, I think he’s making it harder, because how can you really one-up him, how can you go above what he’s saying? And not just that, I think there’s also a danger in what’s happening, that it’s just gonna be like an everyday joke until he becomes normalized. People aren’t shocked anymore. I think he has taken the shock value out of our lives. Shock has become just part of him, and people kind of say, “Oh yeah, yeah, I know.” If Obama did one tenth of what Donald Trump has done, he would be slaughtered. But now, this has become the new norm, which is crazy. He normalized craziness. I’m just worried that people get tired of it, and think “Yeah, you know, another day for Trump, another joke.” It seems like nothing he would do will break him. And the problem is that his supporters don’t mind anymore. They don’t care.
I saw that you and Jón Gnarr, the Icelandic politician and former pundit, just had a panel meeting. That’s such an interesting juxtaposition: you, a pundit exiled for critiquing your government and Gnarr, a critical pundit who was welcomed into the government itself.
Youssef: Yeah, but let’s remember that he was living in Iceland.
Taksler: So, you win some, you lose some.
[laughs] Right, he has to live in bitter cold and darkness.
Taksler: Bassem was just in metaphorical darkness.
What was your biggest takeaway from that meeting between you and Gnarr?
Youssef: Well first of all, he’s a lovely person and a lovely character, and I enjoyed being on stage with him. And he was a normal guy, a comedian, whose system allows freedom of expression to go to unprecedented levels in comparison to the Middle East. If he was in the Middle East, he would have been totally crushed if he even announced his run for a political position. My takeaway was that if people are left to their own devices they might actually trust comedians more than they trust politicians. If there were no external pressure affecting people’s choices, people might actually go with the absurd, because politics is already absurd.
Sara, has the process of putting Tickling Giants together changed your view of satire and what it can do?
Taksler: I think I always appreciated good satire. The theme of my bat mitzvah was “Sara’s Comedy Club.” I’ve always loved comedy, but I didn’t have an idea of how it could emotionally save people, in a way, and give them respite. The first time I went to Egypt, I came home just feeling very lucky that we had a lot of different comedy shows here, because I think the hard thing in Egypt was that they were starting out with just one, so it made everything they did sort of under the microscope, which it makes it harder in every way. They were delivering a new product, which was important, but that just makes everything more challenging and more criticized, and it takes more out of you. As for now, I’m not someone who’s happy with the way the US is going, and the day before the election, I was talking with some people about what would happen if Trump won. “Wouldn’t it get boring? All the jokes would be the same thing over and over.” And I thought, “Well, based on what I saw in Egypt, this will be the first time in my life where satire was actually really important.” There were other moments where it felt important, like after Hurricane Katrina, or Saturday Night Live right after 9/11 and things like that, but this, as a bigger period of time, feels, to me… It really is valuable to have satirists who are holding their leader accountable, and holding the press accountable, letting people know that someone’s watching and they’re gonna point out hypocrisies and make jokes about it.
Bassem, having just watched the documentary twice in a row, I feel like when we started talking I should have started with “Are you okay?” Needless to say, that was a lot to go through. How do you cope on day-to-day basis with everything that’s happened?
Youssef: I try to look forward. I mean, I don’t really dwell on the past. Al Bernameg is a legacy now and I’m not dwelling on the past. I think it’s there, it has its place in history, and nobody will touch it. And I’m looking forward, hopefully, to a new life here, where I can find my voice. I could carve my own space here, in American media. I think there’s a place for voices like me to be represented in American media. So this is what I’m concerned of from day to day now — how to make it happen here.
What kinds of roles are you hoping to gravitate toward now? What kind of projects are you hoping to be a part of?
Youssef: Well, as I said, there are so many people who are second-generation, third-generation immigrants who have voices already, like Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj. But I think I’m unique in a way — that I am actually fresh off the boat. I’m someone who is from that area that everybody is talking about and I can bring a different perspective for people to watch. I’m not just another minority in America, I’m a minority who just moved to America from a place that everybody seems to consider as a big headache. So hopefully I can bring a different perspective about that. And hopefully my story and the experience that I bring from the Middle East will shed more light on what’s happening there, and people can look at that and the documentary and my story, and say, “You know what? We should appreciate what kind of free speech we have, and we’re not that far away from what’s happening in that part of the world.”
Taksler: That said, you should also request a part on Master of None as Aziz Ansari’s cousin or uncle or something like that, if you want to throw that into the wind.
Youssef: He hasn’t called me!
Toward the end of the documentary, somebody asks “Is Al Bernameg dead?” and your response is “It’s not dead, so much as it’s asleep.” Do you have any intention of going back to critiquing Egyptian politics from the United States, maybe returning to YouTube or anything along those lines?
Youssef: No, I live now in a different country, and I think I should… There’s a lot of issues that I, as an immigrant, can discuss, whether through political or social commentary. There’s a lot of work to be done here now. I think Al Bernameg is something that should be done from within the country. To be done outside, I don’t find it very productive.
Taksler: I think, also, Al Bernameg is symbolically asleep in the sense that Bassem may not be in Egypt, but there are a lot of people carrying the torch, and even though there’s not a political satire show on TV now, there will be again, because now people know it could exist. So this show is asleep, but it’s only a matter of time, and someone will bring something like it back successfully.
Right, people like your cartoonist and writer Andeel are there to keep it alive.
Taksler: Yeah, that’s sort of who I had in my mind when I was thinking of the legacy of the show. Important, funny, new creative things will still live in Egypt, and people like Andeel are gonna be the ones who create it.
Bassem, do you have the same hope for Egypt, for the time being?
Youssef: I always have the hope that things will get better, and it’s very hard right now, when you have… I mean, I’ve spoken openly about what the military is doing to the country; it’s a military junta holding the whole country at gunpoint in order to continue milking it and getting its resources for the military elite. It’s very difficult, because it’s not just a political conflict, it is a fight for resources and income. For [the military], this is their piggy bank, and they will not let it go. So, it’s not just a power struggle anymore; it’s like, “This is our land, our money, and we’re gonna take as much as we want.”
And with regard to the people in Egypt who are violently mad at your show and everything that it created, what do you think it is that they are afraid of? Because they’re not the people in power, but they are still somehow deeply afraid of satire.
Youssef: They are afraid of whatever the media tells them to be afraid of. They spread fear. They tell them, “If the military goes, this whole country will crumble. Don’t you see Syria? Don’t you see Libya? Don’t you see what happens in Iraq? Do you want us to be like Iraq? Do you want us to be like Syria? Do you want your women to be raped? Do you want your houses to be destroyed? Do you want to be refugees?” So that is the narrative that they use. They tell them, “Without us, you’re gonna turn into this! So to hell with democracy, to hell with human rights, this is how those countries were destroyed!” Their narrative is “Security trumps everything.”
Tickling Giants is currently available exclusively on iTunes and will be available on VOD, DVD, and Blu-Ray on June 13th. You can also find the movie, special features, music, and more by going to TicklingGiants.com.