Egypt’s Bassem Youssef and Iceland’s Jon Gnarr Know the Power of Political Satire

The Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef
The Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef Photo by Coucla Refaat

Writer, performer and political comedian Bassem Youssef, known best as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” is making his Houston debut with a special Monday night performance of his one-man show Bassem Youssef: The Joke Is Mightier Than the Sword at University of Houston’s Wortham Stage.

The performance will be followed with a Tuesday afternoon staged conversation, The Power of
Political Satire: A Conversation with Bassem Youssef and Jon Gnarr,
which will feature a lively debate between Youssef, School of Theatre & Dance director Dr. Robert Shimko and Icelandic comedian turned politician and founder of The Best Party, Mayor Jon Gnarr.

Shimko, himself an award-winning playwright and dramaturge, frames the comedians’ appeal elegantly. “I think speaking truth to power is deeply ingrained in the American tradition. It’s an attitude that we rightfully cherish and celebrate. And Bassem represents the type of personal journey Americans love – self-reinvention in difficult circumstances.”

Comparing Youssef to Mark Twain, who Shimko considers the “quintessential example of that sort of comic attitude,” the professor, who will moderate the discussion, thinks that the Egyptian-born heart surgeon “transformed into a political satirist because he felt compelled to.” And to compliment Youssef is the Icelandic Gnarr, who ultimately ran for office in a parody of elections themselves, and has (to the surprise of many) slowly transformed into an actual politician, who remains, as Shimko puts it, “still pretty funny.”

While the long road to get to the Houston main stage has been fraught with difficulties, the now 43-year-old Youssef found his roots during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. What began in the spring as a simple YouTube series (The B+ Show, named after the host’s blood type), designed to create open dialogues about the protests and the eventual overthrow of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, had by the fall
developed into a nationally broadcast late-night television show, Al Bernameg (which, translated, means literally The Program).

With his small band of writers, who Youssef points out were “all Egyptian,” the comedian strived to carve out a niche on ONTV-CBC that offered sharp-tongued criticisms of new President Morsi, his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the contradictions of certain harsh Islamic laws. His honest words came with some risk, but his gambit paid off. Nearly overnight, the Cairo-shot series became the No. 1 program on Egyptian television (with 30 million people watching), making Youssef an instant national sensation. Youssef is humble at the reasoning behind the show’s meteoric success, saying: “Political satire has always been of Egypt’s taste.”

The young upstart’s versatile wit and impassioned direct addresses even caught the attention of Jon Stewart, and soon the Egyptian was invited to guest on his American counterpart’s Daily Show. “Jon Stewart was incredible,” raves a thoughtful Youssef, who clearly made a deep impression on the former Comedy Central star. From that 2012 interview on, Stewart always referred to Youssef as “his brother in comedy.”

But following his rise to the top, Youssef suffered blowback from his newfound point of influence. After a convoluted joke involving mocking the president’s oversized hat, Youssef was arrested and his show was pulled from the air.

Fearing for his livelihood and his freedom, Youssef fled his homeland for America – just in time for our own messy, ugly political comedy revolution. When asked to compare covering Egyptian politics to America politics, Youssef is cagey. “It’s just different,” he explains. “You can’t say one is easier or harder [to lampoon] than the other. They’re just a totally different set of narratives.”

But Youssef is quick to point out that by traveling the country during the election season (both with his one-man show and for his short-lived Fusion series Democracy Handbook), he’s had a unique opportunity to view the electoral process up close and personally. “While it’s not like I was ignorant of what was happening in this country, since I’ve been following the politics forever,” he says, “I was not so surprised. It was a great experience [to travel] and something you learn from more and more, the more you do it.”

Wondering aloud if Houston was that different from New York or L.A., the joker laughs to himself: “We’ll see!”

While Youssef is free to criticize governmental policy in the United States, the performer is not 100 percent sure he’s completely rid of the Egyptian interference. “They’ve [kept tabs] on me in the past,” he admits. “They sent people to heckle me in New York and London. There is a whole piece in The New Yorker on this: "The Heckling of the Jon Stewart of Egypt." It’s very interesting.” Apparently, to keep the comic from having too much influence in his homeland, the powers-that-be in the Egyptian government have taken to paying American Egyptians to yell at the comic mid-routine, then cell-phone film the assaults to make Youssef look unwelcome abroad.

If the propaganda is taken at face value, President el-Sisi may convince rebellious Egyptians that Youssef’s ideas are being rejected in the West and are thus impossible in the conservative East. “The reporter [Andrew Marantz] was actually there when that happened,” Youssef continues. “And I’d also like people to read an article I wrote for the New York Daily News called Sisi and Trump: Two Sides of a Bad Joke.”

As Shimko is quick to point out Youssef and Gnarr have a specifically globalized perspective on this unique moment in modern history. “I can’t wait to talk with them about where they think the world is headed and how satire will fit into that future. I think it’s safe to say politics and entertainment seemed to be merging in an interesting way.”

With luck, we’ll all survive long enough to hear the wisdoms of these brilliant funny fellas. 

The performance of Bassem Youssef: The Joke Is Mighter Than the Sword is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 1 and the performance of The Power of Political Satire: A Conversation with Bassem Youssef and Jon Gnarr is scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 2 at the Wortham Theatre, 3351 Cullen. For information, call 713-743-3003 or visit Free.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee