Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The fine art of laughter

Bassem Youssef has become one of the opposition’s loudest voices courtesy of his sharp-witted satire. Rasha Sadek enjoys a condensed dose of political hilarity

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nothing is sacred on Bassem Youssef’s show. Islamists, liberals, revolutionaries, the president — no one is immune from his scathing criticism. His satirical news programme is at heart political, yet provides comic relief from the tension keeping Egypt on a knife-edge. Meet Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart.

Youssef’s comedy format is new to Egypt. He unleashes a deluge of sarcasm on Egypt’s politics and politicians while at the same time bridges the gap between real life and its portrayal by the media. He uses subtle wordplay and a rubbery face, aided by a variety of Internet clips, props, graphics, montage and sound effects.

Until March 2011 the 38-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon-cum-host had no previous experience in media. The revolution, however, ushered him onto our screens. Youssef had joined protesters in the 25 January revolt, serving in the field hospitals of Tahrir Square. He was appalled by the Egyptian media’s coverage of the revolution, especially after witnessing events on the ground.

“What happened in the revolution was unprecedented... the hypocrisy and misleading information were too much,” he says.

Using a “gold mine of material on YouTube”, Youssef shot a few eight-minute episodes in a room in his house and uploaded them on YouTube. His goal was not only to expose the lies fed to the people during the revolution but “to get people thinking critically” about the news instead of taking what is broadcast at face value.

“Our aim is to inform, but also to entertain people.”

Youssef became an instant Internet sensation, and his Facebook page attracted over a million fans. He moved from the room in his house to a studio at ONTV channel, the “B+ Bassem Youssef Show” became “Al-Bernameg” (The Programme) and the rest is history.

“We couldn’t find a better name,” he told his viewers, “or a worse one.”

The choice of channel, says Youssef, was “perfect”. He turned down offers by non-Egyptian Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, opting for ONTV because “it’s the only channel that has been consistent with its politics, that’s been siding with the revolution since day one.”

Youssef makes no secret of the fact that his programme is modelled on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”. “He is my idol,” Youssef said when he appeared as guest on Stewart’s show in April. Many will argue, though, that Youssef’s delivery — all eyebrow movement and pokerface — is more Stephen Colbert.

“We’re kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart,” Youssef insists.

For his show he borrows Stewart’s trademark segments using politicians’ contradicting statements, and interviews guests.

Three Fridays ago Youssef premiered his show on CBC satellite channel. This time he didn’t get a studio — something he always nagged about at ONTV, telling the viewers jokingly that celebrity talk show host Youssri Fouda had a much more spacious location than him. Instead he got a theatre in the downtown area with a live audience, a rarity on Egyptian TV. Youssef devoted the opening of his new show to a brutally funny takedown of his fellow hosts and the owner of CBC. He also poked fun at himself for joining a channel perceived by many to represent the viewpoint of fulul, or the remnants of the old regime. He laid out bags of cash with dollar signs on his desk to mock his fat paycheck.

In last week’s episode Youssef took on all parties on the current political scene. Opponents of Mohamed Morsi’s presidential declaration and draft constitution who took to the streets, demonstrating in front of the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square, are caricatured as lightweights who care more about their personal hygiene and receiving supplies of clean underwear during their sit-ins than they do about hardcore protest. A show staffer strutted down the on-set catwalk wearing white “revolution underwear” over his trousers to the beat of “I’ve got the Power” while Youssef noted that “revolution underwear can double as a protest banner or a tent for sit-ins”.

Islamists came in for their own share of ridicule. Youssef showed the audience clips of Islamist leaders boasting that last week’s million man rally organised in front of Cairo University in support of “Sharia and legitimacy” attracted three million, then another clip of an Islamist leader insisting the turnout was five million, another saying six. Youssef holds an auctioneer gavel while speaking to the audience. “Do I hear seven million, who has seven million?” he asks. “Do I hear 7.5 million? You sir, at the back, eight million, thank you, nine million, who has 10 million?” He then plays another clip of the governor of Giza pointing out that the area where the Islamists had gathered was large enough to hold a maximum of 50,000 protesters.

Another clip shows an Islamist leader telling the crowds that same day: “I bring two news items for you. The first is, Bashar Al-Assad is dead.” The crowds greet the news with hysterical chants. “The second news is, Bashar Al-Assad fled Syria.” Again the crowds cheer. Youssef’s eyebrows and rubbery face speak volumes.

For all the laughs, Youssef ended the episode on a serious note. “We are not the ones who turned this into us versus them, we are not the ones who turned a political conflict into a battle between heaven and hell. It is others who have turned this into Muslims versus infidels.”

Al-Habib Ali Al-Jafri, a moderate Islamist preacher from Yemen, said on his twitter account: “With his satirical comments on some preachers’ speech, Dr Bassem Youssef made his audience laugh, but what made me cry is that his comments are true.”

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