Tribeca: "Egyptian Jon Stewart" Bassem Youssef Talks 'Tickling Giants' Doc About Rise and Fall of Satirical Show

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
'Tickling Giants'

The heart surgeon-turned-comedian whose 'Al Bernameg' or 'The Show' became the most viewed series in the Middle East before he was forced to cancel it amid a political climate no longer accepting of satire, weighs in on whether Donald Trump is a threat to free speech in the U.S.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring series of revolutions in the Middle East, Egypt's Bassem Youssef quit his job as a heart surgeon to become a full-time comedian, creating a satirical program modeled after The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

Al Bernameg, or The Show, became the most viewed series in the Middle East, with 30 million viewers per episode, but Youssef, known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," often found himself under fire for poking fun at Egypt's government. When president Mohamed Morsi's regime filed criminal complaints against him and issued an arrest warrant, Youssef was questioned and quickly released. But in 2014, after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became Egypt's third president in three years, the government brutally cracked down on dissenters and media criticism. There was so much pressure on the channel airing The Show that the program was canceled. Youssef and his family also fled to Dubai, fearing harsh retribution for simply telling jokes.

The documentary, Tickling Giants, which makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, chronicles the rise and fall of Youssef's show and checks in with him while he recently served as a resident fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His American counterpart, Jon Stewart, with whom Youssef became friends, is also featured, as Youssef visits The Daily Show in New York and Stewart makes an in-person appearance on The Show.

The Daily Show connections go beyond that, with longtime senior producer Sara Taksler directing Tickling Giants.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Tickling Giants' Tribeca premiere, Youssef reflects on his time as host of The Show, explains how the doc came about and whether Donald Trump is a threat to free speech in the U.S.

How do you feel about being the star of this documentary? Not many people in the world can say they have a documentary about them. I'm very excited. I mean someone actually taking the time. Sara has been following me for four years, and I really hope that she has invested her life in something good.

When you look back on your time hosting The Show in Egypt, how do you feel about that? I was a heart surgeon and then I put myself in front of the camera. We were the most popular show in the Middle East and I'm very thankful for that. When people ask me if I have regrets, I think we did the right thing because you always have choices. You can't really be a media person in the Middle East without brown-nosing the authority and you just survive by knowing that. And I'm happy that I didn't have to do that. At least I left a legacy to my children when they grow up that I didn't sell out. I hope they understand that. I could have stayed and I could have continued, but in this way, my comedy would have been used as a distraction and not as a tool for satire. Political satire was actually suppressed big time after the show was taken off the air. I'm happy that I respected my choice and the people that worked on the show and I stopped. It's not the best thing in the world to have something that you worked for taken away from you.

If you had to do it over again would you do anything differently? Absolutely not. I actually would have pushed the boundaries even more. I'm happy that they actually showed their weakness by going after a comedy show. I have absolutely no regrets.

Talk about the production of the film. How did you work with Sara Taksler to create this documentary? Basically it happened when I walked into Jon Stewart's office the first time. She was there and out of the blue she was like, 'Oh you're the Egyptian Jon Stewart, would you mind if I did a documentary about you?' I said, 'Yeah, go ahead.' I thought this would maybe be a five-month project, but with everything that's happened, it actually extended for four years. She had someone to shoot when she was not in Egypt. We gave her some behind-the-scenes stuff to use.

What does it mean to have Jon Stewart involved in this doc? To have his name on my documentary in any way, this is an honor. He has always been a great support. He's like a big brother to me. Off camera he's 10 times more genuine than he is on camera. He's amazing.

We've seen Donald Trump go after the press and say he wants to "open up" the libel laws. Is that something that concerns you? Oh no. Donald Trump is just one person. There's a whole constitution that will prevent him from doing that. I think Donald Trump is all about the show. He is just a guy that is seeking attention. The foundations here for free speech are so deep that not one person, even a buffoon like Donald Trump, can actually mess with it.

What do you hope people take away from the documentary in terms of satire and taking on powerful forces? It's really different depending on where you come from. If you come from the Middle East, I want the documentary to be some sort of documentation of what happened. I need people to know because it's part of our history too. Even if the ending was sad, out of sad endings there's a lot of hope that can come out of this. And if someone from our side watches it, I want them to really watch and appreciate what they have. The right to offend through satire, if used correctly, is a tool that is very important in building societies and holding authority and media accountable. We should preserve it and use it well.