If you want to see what courageous political satire really looks like, see Tickling Giants, Sara Taksler’s engaging new documentary about Bassem Youssef.
By Matt Hanson
Recently, The Atlantic ran a cover story about the role of satire during the Trump era, focusing on Alec Baldwin’s amusing impression of President Trump on SNL. The piece is full of colorful backstage glimpses, but gives Baldwin and the SNL writers too much subversive credit. It’s fun, but not all that difficult or risky, to ridicule Donald Trump, even if he is the President. For those of us who see the absurdity of Trump it’s reassuring comfort food; for those who don’t, the joke is lost on them.
For satire to be truly great, its practitioners need to challenge themselves and their audience — stretch their material out of bounds, put our worldview on the line, speak ugly truths to power, and draw lines in the sand. It’s not just about ruffling feathers; the worst our petulant POTUS has to offer by way of response is a few sorehead tweets. No one is going to be fired or thrown in jail for toothless lampoons, which is an unexpected reminder that America is still great — at least for now.
If you want to see what courageous political satire really looks like, see Tickling Giants, Sara Taksler’s engaging new documentary about Bassem Youssef, called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt.” It tells the story of the (almost) unstoppable force of Youssef’s satire meeting the (almost) immovable object of Egyptian dictatorship. Youssef’s Daily Show-inspired Al Bernameg (literally, “The Program” or the “The Show”) inspired laughter, outrage, and incurred the wrath of the powers that be during its three seasons on Egyptian TV. Currently screening across the country, the documentary can be seen on iTunes, Amazon, and, in a cleverly democratic move, DVD copies are available for request from the website so that those interested can host a screening of their own.
Speaking into the camera with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Bassem Youssef explains that he is a surgeon by trade (we see him cracking up his coworkers in the operating room like one of the doctors in M.A.S.H.) but a comedian by disposition. His unexpected career in political comedy began with five minute long episodes of “The B+ Show” (named after his blood type), which was filmed gonzo-style with a couple of friends in his apartment’s laundry room. The show poked fun at the absurdities of life under the decades-long Mubarak dictatorship and quickly went viral, clicked on by millions of Egyptians who were fed up with the lies of state-controlled media and craved Youssef’s unpretentiously incisive sarcasm after decades of official censorship. Youssef explains that living in a society under Mubarak’s rule was like literally living under Mubarak: the animated image of the dictator’s massive bulk — looming over frightened citizens — filled the screen.
After his sudden success on social media, Youssef became the host of Al Bernameg, which was heavily influenced by The Daily Show. It was written and filmed by a tenacious group of writers, directors, and producers (many of whom interviewed in the film) who wanted to take Stewart’s irreverent but informed style of comedy into the fray of Egyptian political life. The format proved durable enough to translate well in another culture: whole neighborhoods gathered in cafes to tune in and listen and laugh. The communal experience inspired fresh talk about democracy and transparency in government. Al Bernameg’s moral and comedic focus quickly made it one of the most popular shows in the country.
As a film, Tickling Giants is an amalgamation of a fun mix of styles, covering a lot of historical/political ground: it’s partly a biopic of Youssef, a documentary on the turbulent world of Egyptian politics, and a playfully animated primer on the necessity of freedom of speech in an autocratic state. The film’s tone is amusingly light, given the weighty subject matter — its quick punch lines and animation are clearly geared towards inspiring younger audiences.
When Jon Stewart arrives at Al Bernameg’s offices he is given a hero’s welcome, and then walked out to the interviewing desk like a Gitmo prisoner. He reinforces Youssef’s mission by opining that if “your regime can’t handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.” The statement is richly ironic, given the circumstances — if a government can’t handle a joke, than surely it’s clearly weaker than it wants to admit. At the same time, a government that cracks down on dissenting voices doesn’t go away quietly. Youssef mentions that Stewart’s barbs get him in trouble with the bigwigs back in America. Stewart’s response is telling: “yeah, but nothing like the trouble you get into, my friend!”
All kidding aside, the looming threat of cancellation (or worse) for everyone involved in Al Bernameg from its star on down was very real. Stewart is the first to point out that he’d never even remotely faced the kind of threats Youssef did. As Al Bernameg’s popularity intensified and became a cause celebre, Youssef’s detractors started protesting in the streets, albeit with a smaller crowd than what appeared on Egyptian news.
Youssef is a genial and knowing guide through Egypt’s complicated political history. He doesn’t brag about how successful his show was; commendably, he takes the mounting criticism in stride. Youssef’s natural wit and confidence only frays occasionally. Given the intimidating political pressures he and his staff were constantly under, their response is downright inspiring. His crew’s gritty but cheerful determination to stick to their comedic principles is palpable, especially as some Egyptians start to seriously protest against the satirist. One clip shows a suspiciously bearded TV pundit wondering aloud if Youssef, a proudly free-thinking Muslim, should be punished by death for his irreverence.
Youssef and Al Bernameg were hit with multiple lawsuits after he made the risky decision to rib his network’s owner — the idea was to establish that for Al Bernameg nothing comedic was out of bounds. This commitment to free speech was even more sorely tested when he lampooned then-President Mohammad Morsi (and head of the Muslim Brotherhood), teasing him for his linguistic gaffes. Egypt’s Prosecutor General issued a warrant for his arrest, triggered by his insulting Morsi and Islam. Fearing for the safety of his wife and family, Youssef turned himself in, offering to come in under his own power, unless the government would “kindly send a police van and save me the transportation hassle.” Luckily, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but Youssef had to return to his studio with a bodyguard walking behind him.
Things didn’t get any better for Youssef once the unpopular Morsi was deposed. He was replaced by Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the former Defense Minister, who disingenuously claimed not to have taken power via a coup. Al Bernameg waded into even hotter water when it made jokes about al-Sisi, some of which its network chose not to air. This created a vicious catch-22: Youssef was held responsible for creating “unairable” programming that his network passed on. It followed up that indignity with a fine for an enormous, unpayable amount because of violation of contract. Reading the writing on the wall, the show was canceled and Youssef left the country for America. The last few scenes of Tickling Giants show him wandering the snowy streets of Cambridge, where he was a fellow at the Kennedy School, in self-imposed exile. In an encouraging epilogue, we see that Youssef and his crew are currently working on developing new programming both in Egypt and abroad.
With our current political situation becoming increasingly farcical, we need our comedians to keep their wits razor sharp. Catharsis is an important weapon, of course, because it calls out the lies and misrepresentations of the powers that be. But we shouldn’t let laughter make us lazy or complacent. Our comedians must make the maximum use of the free speech that we so often take for granted. Watching Tickling Giants is an amusing and informative way of reminding us what can happen when the giant’s foot comes down.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.