Through a series of complicated events, Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef – known to many as the “Jon Stewart of the Arab World” – arrived in America for good at a very bad time.
“You understand, that I came to America after I had my own share of turmoil in the Arab world,” the 46-year-old comedian says ominously. “We had the Arab Spring, I had a new show and I was kicked out because of my jokes. I came to America...as Trump was becoming president. So you have to understand my feeling of being jinxed, and jinxing America. Someone is jinxing someone.”
Jinxed or not, the comic pot-stirrer, suddenly had a front row seat to what he refers to as “the most interesting political times” in the history of the republic. Describing the “one man show” he’s been developing since arriving in 2015, Youssef is quick to elucidate what audiences who see him at Houston Improv on February 19-21 can expect. “It’s not really your standard stand up comedy,” he clarifies. “I don’t go there for an hour and just throw up jokes, I’m really telling my story. And my story is like two big acts.”
“The first big act happens to me in Egypt: I’m someone who is a doctor, someone who absolutely had nothing to do with media or comedy. The suddenly my world is turned around, I’m on television, I’m the biggest show ever. I’m on Jon Stewart’s show, Jon Stewart comes to my show, I remember him landing in Egypt in downtown, and people were going crazy. He was like a rock star. He said the last thing he ever dreamed of was ‘me, a short Jewish guy from New Jersey, having people from Egypt cheering him.’ It was an incredible experience! Then suddenly, I get into trouble because of my jokes... whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or with the military, they both hate me — which I carry with me as a badge of honor.”
While leads the sharp witted provocateur into his show’s (and life’s) second act: an immigrant in a country with a complicated relationship to immigrants. While he made a few viral appearances on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central landmark during the New Jerseyan’s final few months – Youssef found himself in a much bigger pond overnight.
“I have to leave everything, I come to American and I see Trump. That’s my second act. I describe what I go through: my time going to a Trump rally, or being caught in a guns militia demonstration, or being pulled into this whole new life raising my kids in this new country. I’m literally fresh off the boat. It’s more an autobiography of my life so far in America. And of course, its always updated because thing are crazy happening all the time, whether it’s the pandemic or what happened with the Capitol or what happened with the election. It was always related to what I go through.”
As captured in the acclaimed documentary Tickling Giants about the rise and fall of Youssef’s Egyptian talk series, this jokester knows what it REALLY means to be "‘canceled." Discussing the natures of sensitive topics broached through humor for American audiences, Youssef’s point-of-view is illuminating.
“Ricky Gervais said it best. He said: ‘You can say whatever you want, you just have to deal with the backlash.’ Nobody will tell you: ‘don’t.’ But sometimes you have people who are upset. And [comedians] worry about telling certain jokes because they don’t want to have a heckler not liking the joke. Whether that heckler is a right wing, or a left wing, maybe they think this joke is too politically incorrect, or this joke is sometimes too sensitive. I will have people at my show who are huge Trump supporters, and I don’t make my show about Trump. But the thing is, I make fun of everybody: I make fun of Muslims, Americans, white people, brown people. And I had Muslims [and] Christian Egyptians coming to the show and getting offended. People will send me a very long email telling me [what it was like] seeing a piece of shit like me coming here and make fun of American and if you don’t like it why don’t you leave. And I say this is the exact thing that was told to me in Egypt!”
Youssef continues, noting a clever paradox. “If you don’t like it, leave! And I find it very interesting, in Egypt, this is used to shut down the opposition. Telling you that you are not patriotic. And the First Amendment is Freedom of Expression. Freedom of expression is the most American thing. But the thing is: when you come from somewhere else, they tell you to be American. And actually making fun of everything, including being American, is the MOST American thing. But when it comes from the wrong one – no, no, no, you have to leave the country. So it kind of is like: where is the contract? What makes me American and what makes me an ungrateful son-of-a-bitch immigrant?”
While in the States, the funny man has not lost his interest in watching America’s sharpest comic minds tackle touchy subjects. Thinking back to his days hosting an Egyptian Daily Show-like YouTube series, Youssef has biting comments on the parallels between hosting an online series in his apartment to what many major late-night series have been forced to do: record from home, without an audience. “Doing a show without an audience is just death. It’s death. It’s death! I love Colbert and I love Trevor Noah, and I love all of them. They’re like amazing people – Jimmy Fallon, and Seth and Oliver. And the thing is when they do that without an audience it just like, kills your soul. That’s why I have been avoiding doing all these Zoom comedy shows. I just say I can’t – I can’t do it. It’s just death. They are amazing comedians doing it, and they have been doing it. Kudos to them - but this is something that I can not do.”
At the critical juncture in American politics, with so much unknown about what lies ahead, Youssef is not shy about offering his two cents about what satire needs to learn to manage the next Donald Trump type figure entering public life: comedy won’t save us.
“Let’s not give too much importance to comedy,” the comedian says somberly. “I know people like to romanticize satire and comedy, but Trump left not because a bunch of late night show’s comedians that were bashing him and making fun of him. He left because he lost the election. There is a very dangerous trend where people kind of rely on comedy and satire thinking it will solve their problems. It gives you a fake sense of accomplishment seeing someone else making fun of the fascists, but come election day they get complacent and don’t go. At the end of the day, you will not get rid of fascists unless you do something active. Making fun is great. Satire is amazing. But every single satirist or comedian will tell you that my power ends at the edge of the TV set. I am giving you perspective, and you can whatever you want with it. People always say that prayer doesn’t change things, it changes people and people change things.”
And change has been on Youssef’s mind since landing in America just to see it unravel itself. Formerly a medical doctor, Youssef has been building a network of programs designed around the vegan life style called Plant B, that’s “away from comedy [and] politics that I’m truly invested in.”
He’s also expanded into the much needed world of escapism, writing his first book for children called The Magical Reality of Nadia, inspired by the Americanization of his own daughter. Nadia, the author explains, “is the daughter of two immigrants from Egypt coming here. I wanted to give something for people who are here – not just immigrants. But people struggling for where they come from... because we all come from somewhere. So instead of making it on the nose, I used Egyptian mythology, history and magic! So it’s this beautiful magical story where you have this teacher who was trapped, cursed for 2000 years and he comes back to live to help her. So they go into comic book guise and goes in through history, and he teaches her about history and through that, she learns more about her present life in America.”
While an animation series is set to be shopped by Powerhouse Animation, the first book in the series from Scholastic hit shelves in February, co-authored by Catherine R. Daly and illustrated by Douglas Holgate. And yes, Youssef will be signing copies after his run of show at the Improv. “I’ll be signing anything,” he says with a laugh. “People’s bras, shirts – anything they want!”
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, February 19, 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 20, and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 21 at 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $50-300