When Bassem Youssef Ruled Egyptian TV
The heart is a miracle of engineering. Over a lifetime it will beat two and a half billion times, give or take, without pause. Because of its importance, nature has placed it behind a wall of bone — the sternum — so that it can do its work without interruption through decades of life. But sometimes it does falter and intervention, traumatic though it might be, is necessary.
An oscillating saw is used to pierce through this shield, slicing straight down the middle of the breastplate. The two sides of the ribcage are then held apart with a retractor and the heart can be worked upon; two to three hours for a valve replacement, seven to eight for a full transplant. In some cases, the surgeon must stitch or cut into the tissue of an organ that is still beating.
Bassem Youssef stands on stage to receive the Esquire Man of the Year award. There’s an introductory video, showing how he became the biggest TV star of the Middle East. It’s a nice touch but not really necessary. The audience knows who he is and what he has done and is on its feet, applauding Youssef’s use of satire to counter extremism and intolerance. He accepts the plaudits graciously, jokes about being awarded by Esquire, says he’s not really into fashion and will wear anything that doesn’t itch. Everyone laughs. Actually he looks great in his tuxedo and is a natural in front of a crowd. Everyone wants a photograph. He smiles, exchanges pleasantries; seems to wear his fame lightly but well.
A photoshoot the following morning. Esquire’s style team plays with different themes and outfits. He joins in, suggesting ideas for the cover. They borrow microphones from a stage in the corner of an empty restaurant in Dubai’s Conrad hotel. He pulls a succession of faces as the photographer clicks away, playing for the camera, making it look easier than it really is. They quickly shoot more than enough material for the story.
Afterwards, he pulls out his iPhone and shows videos of him dancing with his twenty-month-old daughter. Everyone gathers around. Cue more laughter as they watch him bounce up and down, imitating her moves.
Bassem Youssef is thirty-nine years old. Three years ago he had never done a photoshoot or accepted a media award. He was not married, nor a father, TV host, friend of Jon Stewart or on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Three years ago Egypt still had its leader of thirty years, Hosni Mubarak, and Bassem Youssef was a heart surgeon, on the verge of starting a new life at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. “I just wanted to get out,” he says later. “I couldn’t stand the system anymore.” And he did get a new life, just not the one he’d planned.
He has a friend named Tarek El Kazzaz, a media entrepreneur who wanted to put original Arabic content on the Internet. YouTube is huge in the Middle East and can generate sizeable ad revenue streams as a result. (Related fact: forty percent of the four million YouTube videos viewed every day in Saudi Arabia are comedy clips.) Kazzaz had noticed that when Youssef spoke, the person he was speaking to would listen. And if Youssef could do that to one person, then why not many people? Youssef was working in Cairo’s University Hospital, waiting for a US work visa, but his lawyers were moving slowly and he had a little time. Would he try filming something? Sure, why not he replied.
At first he tried a series of five-minute webisodes that explored religious cults such as Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Youssef wrote the scripts, chose the videos and music and made all the final cuts. Everyone he showed it to liked the results. This was just before New Year’s Eve 2010 and they were ready to launch. Then a car bomb killed twenty-one people at a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day. Now was not the time to talk about different religions, so they held off for a month, waiting for calm to be restored. Only that didn’t happen because all of a sudden it was January 25th 2011 and the Arab Spring had come to Egypt.
Youssef was one of the many doctors who helped the wounded protestors in Tahrir Square in those first chaotic weeks. And the reality of what he saw in the streets versus what was reported on the news at night was so different that it gave him an idea. He’d been a fan of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show for years, so he decided to respond to the unfolding chaos by experimenting with a similar format. He wrote and filmed a series of YouTube videos in the laundry room of his apartment and called it The B+ Show — named after his blood type. He’d take the official news broadcasts, which were often widely different from what was happening on the streets, and dissect them to brilliant comic effect. It launched in March 2011 and within two months he’d got five million views. “It was a way for people to let out their rage about the media,” he says of those early shows. “We showed how these people were ridiculous and were lying to your face. It was the first time in Egypt that someone had used YouTube to talk directly about what made them angry.”
It also attracted the money men. Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, owner of ONTV, tabled a deal to take the show to television. The offer came right at the same time his American visa arrived. He had a decision to make.
Med students start off small, usually by cutting up frogs and cadavers. When they finally move onto real patients, it is to perform tiny skin incisions, opening up, stitching back together, always with someone supervising. By the time a surgeon gets to an advanced level it is pretty much a mechanical process; life-saving daily miracles made possible by mind-numbing repetition and years spent assisting as a junior to a more experienced practitioner.This was the life of Doctor Bassem Youssef. Seven years in med school and a further twelve years training in heart surgery, learning, practicing, learning, practicing. His most recent course was at a hospital just outside Boston, Massachusetts, training to operate a newly developed machine that keeps the heart beating once it is removed from the body.
And having gone through all this; the late nights and the examinations and the hospital grunt work; having finally secured his position in a respected heart department in a beautiful part of America, he stopped practicing medicine a year ago to concentrate on his show. For a while he juggled both careers but it was never going to work long-term, so he let it go. He’s reluctant to call himself a media person or an artist or comedian and for a while he was still Dr Bassem, but uses the title less and less. “I’m not earning it. I’m out of the loop,” he says. “I feel that I don’t deserve it.”
He’s talking about this change over a late lunch in Dubai’s Offshore Sailing Club, a warm afternoon sun shining on the terrace. “If somebody said me when we launched on YouTube that I’d leave medicine after one year I might have been too scared to do it. But it just offered itself and you make your decision based on opportunity. I’m not really a risk taker. It’s kind of like every step of the way introduced itself. I was just put in a situation where I had to act.”
“‘I just wanted to get out,’ he says later. ‘I couldn’t stand the system anymore.’”
The way he talks about this momentous change is almost strangely matter-of-fact. “It’s just water under the bridge. There is absolutely no reason to look or go back,” he says with a shrug when pressed on his decision. And maybe he is just stating the obvious – that he could not go back to being Doctor Bassem, the guy who puts hearts into boxes, even if he wanted to. There is a physicality to the level of fame he has reached since those early shows that cannot be ignored or reversed. In Egypt he can’t walk down the street or eat out in a restaurant. He gets stopped, asked for pictures, gets a phone thrust at him with a request to say hello to someone’s mother or brother. Now he goes to friends’ houses, or they come to his. He cannot live as he did before.
There are also the potential risks to his safety. Ask him if feels threatened by his many detractors and he will reply with another question. “Would you consider a tweet or an email or a Facebook page with thousands of followers calling for my stage to be burned down a threat? Or people trying to stop the show going on air, meaning we have to bring in security? What kind of threat do we mean?”
So he must move forwards, step by step. One level to the next, just as he has always done.
Al Bernameg first aired on ON TV in Ramadan 2011. The show, (which translates as The Programme, hence Youssef’s habit of introducing it by saying “Welcome to The Programme programme!”) parodied celebrities and politicians from all sides, a previously unthinkable concept in Egypt. This caused delight and outrage in equal measure, depending on the viewers’ political affiliations, but all sides would watch regardless, giving Youssef an audience of tens of millions and a global profile.
In June 2012 he was invited to New York to appear on The Daily Show. Mohamed Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, had just been elected president and Youssef joked about the conspiracy theories bandied around by the media (“clones of Glenn Beck”) to explain away dissent against the new government. Their scare stories were laughable and someone needed to call them out on it. “We broke ground in television programming,” he told Jon Stewart, in between making jokes about Fox News.
Jon Stewart clearly recognised this fact, praising Al Bernameg for being “sharp, smart, well-executed,” but Youssef had bigger plans for the new season. He wanted to perform in front of a live audience, just as The Daily Show did, so he moved networks, to CBC, and premiered on November 23rd 2012 with a bigger budget, a freshly renovated theatre in downtown Cairo and an expanded writing team. Over twenty-nine episodes, they recorded forty million viewers on TV and more than 120 million combined views on YouTube — a money-spinning revolution in content, presentation and production values.
It was also very smart, very funny and, by Egyptian standards, extremely close to the bone. For example, President Morsi was already facing criticism for his inept performance in office, and this provided comedy gold for Youssef. One sketch saw him sing and dance to the tune of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” with the lyrics changed to “His name was Morsi…” and finished with “…and we got screwed!”. In another sketch he swapped the Men in Black characters on a film poster for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, decked out in black suits and sunglasses.
With every outrageous stunt (including a comedy folk song about Morsi’s reliance on Qatar for money) his fame grew. He attended the gala dinner for the TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World in April last year, and dropped in on The Daily Show for a second appearance. “They are insecure,” he said of Morsi’s government who had by this stage pressed charges against him. “They are locked up into their teenage years. They still have pimples.” Stewart returned the favour by dropping in on Al Bernameg that same summer. The US host was led in to the theatre with a bag over his head in a hostage spoof, the first of a succession of gags that the two men traded, but Stewart also made sure to spell out the importance of Youssef’s role in the new Egypt. “A joke has never shot tear gas into a group of people in a park. It is just talk. He is showing that satire can be still relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves.”
The two hosts have since become friends and Stewart will phone when Youssef is one of his periodic bouts of trouble with the law. “He asks about me. I send him an email and he sends me an email. He’s a lovely person.”
This sort of recognition means a lot to Youssef. He talks about a more recent trip to New York to accept an award at the International Press Freedom awards. His wife and father were there to see Jon Stewart make a touching presentation speech about Youssef where he said: “He’s a wonderful person and I am honoured to be his friend.”
“It’s kind of like the freedom of speech Oscars, it’s huge,” says Youssef, reflecting on that day. “And this was Thanksgiving week — Jon should have been with his family, but he came into town just for an hour to give me the prize. So when you ask if I would change what has happened, the answer is that I would not, because these are moments that you can’t take away.”
There is a puzzle at the heart of Bassem Youssef: how does a man spend almost twenty years in the relentless pursuit of one career, suddenly switch to something so different, and make such a success of it, and act like it is not that big a deal?
His response only hints at an explanation. “I don’t know if I’d have handled it as wisely or cautiously if I was in my mid-twenties. Maybe at that time I would have had more of an ego.” But there’s more to his success than that. There has to be. He did not win Arab’s Got Talent, he is not just a celebrity. Bassem Youssef picks fights with presidents and generals. He’s loved and hated with equal measure by millions. He gets death threats and international prizes. He is, by most people’s, standards, in over his head and yet seems to have taken it in his stride. What has he got that allows him to do what he does?
Dig through his past for clues and he will divulge the following information: He comes from a good family, upper middleclass in Egyptian terms. His father was a judge. His mother, who recently passed away, was a university professor. He has an older brother who is an engineer. He went to a private school, Al Alsson, regularly coming top in his class, and it was normal for kids like him to go to medical school, so he did, though he’s hesitant to describe medicine as a passion. “Well here’s the thing,” he says, “I have learned that if I commit to a task, I should not complain. Maybe I did not have a passion but I was still getting good grades and it was a mission.” Same with his plan to move abroad. “You think about it in phases. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do in five years’ time. I just focused on the task in front of me.”
He’s also reluctant to agree that being a comedian was something he subconsciously wanted all along – or only to the extent that “Everyone in the world dreams about appearing on TV”, which in itself is revealing because it is not true. He says he doesn’t know where the humour comes from. He’ll admit to sometimes being the class clown back in school, and says that satirical humour between doctors was useful in stressful situations in hospitals. But that could apply to plenty of jobs or people.
His methodical approach towards research and writing, which he only discovered was more-or-less the same as The Daily Show formula after he’d visited their set, has clearly been important. He developed the process alone and then assembled and trained his team. “It’s like medicine,” he says of the show. “I have to come up with the best process to get the job done.”
Attempts to dig any deeper prove as self-defeating and pointless as trying to explain a joke. Bassem Youssef was a heart surgeon. Now he is a TV host who is famous because he is good at his job and has the balls to take on authority.
It is what it is.
The jubilation of February 2011 when Hosni Mubarak stepped down now seems like a distant memory for most Egyptians, including Bassem Youssef. “We’re back to square one because the revolutionaries were not organised enough to sell their just cause to the people,” he says of the ebbing away of Arab Spring optimism. “We did not bargain well. We did not play politics, we were just angry at everyone. I am not belittling that, but politics is about compromise and the art of the possible. That’s why I don’t call myself a revolutionary.”
Egypt today is in a kind of suspended reality. It has an interim president, Adly Mansour, with elections and a new constitution scheduled for this year. As of today, no one knows if army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew the country’s first elected president, will cede effective control. Youssef doesn’t know either and he doesn’t like to speculate about what comes next. “Egypt is totally unpredictable,” he says.
What everyone now knows is that the Arab Spring was never going to create a utopia overnight. “Europe had to go through two world wars and go through some really bad s***. Why would history make exceptions for us?”
Dusk is falling and Bassem Youssef is in a more reflective mood. His country’s future is uncertain and he also has big personal decisions to make. “Making people laugh in a country like ours right now, is much harder. There’s a really, really bad mood. I don’t know if I will actually continue doing it. The terrorism, the killing, the blood… how can you make fun of that? I’m okay if there is turmoil and political instability, but when blood gets spilled then you’re on the border line of sensitivity.”
Season three of Al Bernameg began last October. The two shows that ran before he was pulled off the air attracted the biggest audiences so far and were considered to be the best yet. He sang about Morsi’s ousting, set to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” and in another sketch he ate cupcakes with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s face on them to prove his patriotism to the army.
But Egypt has changed since those early days of 2011 when everything seemed possible. “With political satire, you need to have equal, strong parties. But what you have now is a police state, people who are threatening the stability of the country. And you have terrorism and you have people that want to make trouble.”
No one knows if there was pressure from above to silence him. The show was suspended but not cancelled, making it harder to switch to another provider. He’s trying anyway. “You fight as much as possible and you hope that it will pay off in the end. But if it doesn’t, if it keeps backfiring, then you might as well just stop and do drama, or act, or open a f***ing restaurant, or some other business and shut up.”
He’s had other offers or work, of course. Lucrative ones, though he won’t give details. He could probably record the show in a different country, but wonders how well that would reflect on Egypt or himself. “It’s not funny anymore when you are poking fun from the outside.”
There is also the more practical concern of living up to his reputation. Until now, everything he has done has been bigger and better than what came before, but that could change. He could alienate too many people. Or they could just stop finding him funny. “As Jon Stewart says, topical political satire has the shelf life of an egg salad.” He smiles.
The authorities have tried to silence him before. In March last year, he was arrested and the investigators recited his jokes back to him, line by line, asking him whether he meant to insult the president or mock Islam. Meanwhile, others in the room were laughing at the farcical situation. He was released on bail and the charges were dropped, though he is currently under investigation by the interim government for supposedly insulting the president and the military, disturbing the peace and threatening national security. “I was on TV just recently and I said, ‘Please don’t put me in this situation again. Don’t put the justice system in this situation again, because this is an insult to the general prosecutor. I come from a long line of family lawyers and judges and I will feel very sorry for the judge that has to diminish himself to ask me whether my jokes will threaten national security.”
Everyone wanted to know how Bassem Youssef would react to the new army-backed government when he returned with the third season. Aside from the cupcakes gag, his response was as short as it was bittersweet: “Nobody will tell us what to say. We shall say what we want,” he deadpanned to the camera as a hand reached from beneath his desk to replace his script with another.
“I think it was the highlight,” he says of that show. “It proved to everybody that we are not working for pretend change; that we have a higher message of using satire as a freedom of expression.”
Jon Stewart also spoke about that same episode at the Press Freedom awards. “People took to the streets at the end of June, and they drove Morsi from power and the army took over. And Youssef had a choice. Youssef could stop doing his show at that moment, and leave a hero. He was beloved. He had his name chanted at him by all the people that took to the streets and called for Morsi’s ousting. Or he could stand for a higher principle. Which is not that his satire was purposeful for regime change, but that his satire was purposeful for expression.”
Youssef didn’t take the easy path, of course. He made fun of the new regime, exposing their foibles just as he’d done with Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak. And the fact that he was silenced afterwards spoke volumes about the country’s new leaders and showed yet again why Al Bernameg matters. The show has become a litmus test for the fragile freedoms won during 2011 and those freedoms must be defended. “It’s better than throwing Molotov cocktails at each other,” he says of comedy’s role in the new society. “Everything is up for questioning, everything is up for satire. It helps you grow as a person and as a country.”
Voltaire once said: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.” Bassem Youssef likes this quote and he also recently learned that the word “sarcasm” derives from a Greek word, sarkazein, which means “to tear flesh”. It seemed to neatly tie his two lives together and is also a neat summary of everything he has done over the past three years.
Bassem Youssef has used satire as a tool to cut as precisely as his scalpel once did. That put him on a collision course with Egypt’s leaders who fear the painful truths he exposes. The operation was never going to be without risk or pain, because his country had resisted this kind of treatment for so long. But only by exposing those inner workings did those inner workings stand a chance of being saved. The doctor was duty-bound to intervene.