'Tickling Giants': Film Review

As amusing as it is incisive.

Sara Taksler's documentary profiles Bassem Youssef, the political satirist known as "The Egyptian Jon Stewart."

Political satirists in America generally don’t have to deal with anything more threatening than internet trolls. Such was not the case for Bassem Youssef, popularly known as “The Egyptian Jon Stewart” for his acerbic televised satire. During his several years hosting a political comedy show in his native country, Youssef and his team were faced with threats, protests, lawsuits, government oppression and eventually cancellation. His fascinating and often amusing story is well recounted in Sara Taksler’s documentary, Ticking Giants.

The director has no small affinity for her subject, since she’s a producer for The Daily Show who became inspired to make the film after Youssef appeared on the show while Stewart was still hosting. While Youssef clearly idolized Stewart, he actually managed to outdo his inspiration in at least one respect: While Stewart averaged two million viewers a night, Youssef’s The Show attracted roughly 30 million a week.

Youssef was a highly successful cardiac surgeon before deciding to pursue his love of comedy — much to his parents’ horror, he jokes. Needless to say, it was a daunting proposition because, as he says, “there’s only one problem ... I live in Egypt.” His show began as a video filmed in his laundry room and shown online, where it attracted 35,000 viewers on its first day. Encouraged, Youssef abandoned his medical career and started Al Bernameg (The Show), which quickly became a sensation on Egyptian television.

During the show’s relatively brief run, Youssef had the opportunity to make fun of no less than three Egyptian presidents — Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi — as the country experienced the Arab Spring. One of the film’s most powerful segments shows Youssef providing medical assistance to protestors in Tahrir Square and needing help himself when he’s tear-gassed. Despite his attempts to be light-hearted, he’s taken aback when another doctor there tells him, “Sorry to ruin your comedy, but the patient I was treating died in my hands.”

Youssef’s fame became such that he was invited to appear as a guest on Stewart’s Daily Show, where he’s seen reacting with giddy delight to his first sight of the set. He and Stewart clearly hit it off, as evidenced by the latter traveling to Egypt to appear on Youssef’s show and, while presenting an award to the Egyptian satirist, describing himself as “the Bassem Youssef of America.”

After Sisi assumed power, Youssef's situation became even more precarious. He soon found his show sued by one network and cancelled by another, and he eventually left the country to live in the U.S.

Tickling Giants provides a comprehensive examination of Youssef’s career highs and lows while providing a vivid personal portrait of its subject whose cheerfulness and resolve began to wither in the face of constant threats to himself and his family. His mental strain is clearly evident in his poignant farewell speech during his final broadcast. Fortunately, the film also includes many examples of his antic, charming humor that make clear why he was so beloved by millions of fans desperate for political satire.

Featuring frequent doses of clever animation, the nearly two-hour doc could have used some tightening. But it effectively fulfills its goal of shining a well-deserved spotlight on its subject, who one hopes will someday be again given the opportunity to entertain his fellow Egyptians.

Production company: Sarkasmos Productions
Director-screenwriter: Sara Taksler
Producers: Sara Taksler, Frederic Rose, Maziar Bahari, Monica Hampton
Executive producers: Sara Taklser, Technicolo, Hassan Elmasry
Director of photography: Wail Gzoly
Editors: Jamie Canobbio, Thomas M. Vogt, Tyler H. Walk
Composer: Paul Tyan

111 minutes