“I love sarcasm,” says Bassem Youssef, who wields it with the precision of a scalpel. “It allows me to cut through through people’s facades without spilling any blood.”
Once upon a time, when he was a heart surgeon minding his own business saving lives in Cairo, real scalpels were Youssef’s only tools. Then the Arab Spring happened and Youssef’s life, and the entire Middle East media landscape, were never the same.
Though it seems as improbable as the plot of an old-school Hollywood movie, Youssef went from hospital staff to host of an unprecedented Egyptian political satire program, a TV show so successful that at its peak it had 30 million weekly viewers, 40% of the country’s population.
“Tickling Giants,” directed by Sara Taksler, takes us through the history of Youssef’s show, called simply “The Show ” — how it started, what made its audience and influence grow so dramatically and where it ended up.
Given that Youssef’s goal in life was to “have my own comedy show, like Jon Stewart, to make fun of New Jersey, whatever that is,” it’s fitting that the director of “Tickling Giants” has been a senior producer on “The Daily Show” for the last 10 years.
Taksler met Youssef when he was a guest on Stewart’s show in 2012 and committed to the documentary a few months later. She ended up embedded with the host and his staff on and off for nearly two years, making her exceptionally well placed to reveal what went down behind the scenes.
“Tickling Giants” surprises us on several levels. It reveals Egypt’s familiar Arab Spring experience through a lens, that of satiric comedy, which is very different from the way we usually see it. And it has the personal element of Youssef’s involving story, showing what can happen when your dreams come true to a completely unexpected extent.
Seeing Youssef both cracking wise on his TV show and doing on-the-street interviews at Tahrir Square, joining the confidence of a surgeon with the quick wit of a professional comic, leaves no doubt as to how sharp and magnetic the man is.
Youssef first went to the square as a doctor, to see if he could help the injured, but what he saw there, the gap between what he experienced and how Egypt’s state-run media portrayed the events, opened his eyes.
At the urging of a friend, Youssef started an on-line political commentary show from a desk in his home’s laundry room after Egypt’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, who’d gotten 98% of the votes in elections, left office. (“Two percent voted for hummus,” Youssef cracked. “We love hummus.”)
Much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Youssef’s show caught fire, getting millions of hits and leading to an actual TV show before a live audience. A program that said the unsayable, that held people in power accountable, was unheard of in Egypt, not to mention the rest of the Arab world, and the show’s popularity skyrocketed.
Because there was no precedent for the proceedings, Youssef was always in trouble with the establishment, no matter who the establishment was.
When Youssef mocked the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, an arrest warrant was issued for him for insulting the president and contempt of Islam, charges he beat in court. Things took a different turn, however, when army leader Abdel Fattah Sisi took over the country.
For one thing, the comic learned that for most citizens “personal freedom tops freedom of expression. People are happier with the military because they’re not telling you what to wear.”
For another, the army turned out to have wider and deeper support in Egypt than the Brotherhood, and that made Youssef’s line of work increasingly difficult. The resulting lessons in how totalitarian leaders get things done are painful to contemplate no matter what country you’re in.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Playing: Lammmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.