When supporters of President Trump expressed outrage over Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, one interested observer kept a wary eye on the controversy. His name was Bassem Youssef and he knew a little something about the importance of political humor.
“Instead of being petty and getting all wrapped up in their egos, they should embrace the likes of Michelle Wolf,” Youssef wrote in a statement provided exclusively to Deadline. “[She] proves that not even the strongest man in the world is above satire. And that’s what makes America really great.”
Youssef, often called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” hosted Al Bernameg, a wildly popular late night comedy show that launched in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring. The documentary Tickling Giants—directed by Sara Taksler, a former Daily Show senior producer—tracked Youssef as he became a sensation in his country, and what happened when Egypt’s authoritarian leaders soured on his comedy. The film premiered on the Starz cable channel after a theatrical run, putting it in the running for Emmy nominations.
“This is a movie about free speech and using satire to shed light on abuses of power,” Taksler tells Deadline. “At the screenings we had, the audiences saw the film not just as something that happened someplace else, but something that had the potential to happen in the U.S.”
Taksler filmed Youssef, who was trained as a heart surgeon, as he transitioned to a different theater of operations—on a soundstage in the middle of Cairo. With surgical precision he lampooned political institutions in a country with little tradition of allowing dissent. Al Bernameg ignited controversy from the start, delighting some viewers and offending others, which put the host and staff in constant peril. The threat extended to Taksler and her crew.
“We would film all of our outdoor footage from a moving car,” to avoid being set upon by crowds, the director reveals. “People wanted to know whose side I was on. I was like, ‘I’m just telling a story about this comedian.’ Some people thought I was a spy. And one of our camera guys was beaten up for his footage.”
After a segment aired in which Youssef poked fun at then-President Mohamed Morsi, the democratically-elected leader who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, criticism of the show intensified and the TV network dropped it under apparent pressure from the government.
Al Bernameg switched to another network, but when it continued satirizing politics after Morsi’s ouster and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power, tensions rose to a boiling point. Demonstrators angered at any mocking of el-Sisi congregated outside the studio, some calling for Youssef’s death.
“It was frightening because [Al Bernameg staff] were worried they would blow up the office or act violently in some way,” Taksler recalls. “The first time there were protestors and I was shooting the second camera, I had to stop filming because my hands were shaking so much.”
She expresses admiration for the show’s writers and producers.
“They all managed to stay calm and keep telling jokes even though people were screaming death threats right outside the window,” Taksler remembers. “I was working at the Daily Show and I just couldn’t imagine any of this happening for us telling jokes in the U.S.”
Despite the personal risk, Youssef and staff remained committed to continuing the show, but his network caved in the face of pressure from the el-Sisi government (in an interview with Charlie Rose that appears in Tickling Giants, el-Sisi denies any role in canceling Al Bernameg).
Under threat of a $100 mil. judgment against him in a lawsuit filed by his previous network, and with his life in danger, Youssef fled to the U.S. with his wife and daughter. The experiment in political comedy in Egypt had come to a flaming end.
Taksler says it would be a mistake not to consider parallels between what happened there and the situation in the U.S., citing a president with a penchant for attacking the media, who has also tweeted disgust over an impersonation of him done by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live.
“I think America and Egypt are very different countries, and the U.S. has a long history of free speech and a free press, and most Americans I know value those things. But I think we’re screwing up massively how we protect those institutions and that speech,” she comments. “If you have a president who dismisses a comedian for doing an impression of him, news networks that dismiss comedians for telling jokes about a president, and ignore it like it’s normal, then you’re getting to the point where you can’t stop it anymore.”
As for Youssef, he’s now living in Los Angeles with his growing family. He recently began hosting a podcast as part of CAFE, a media venture launched by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and a prominent Trump critic.
Youssef laments that President Trump invited his Egyptian counterpart to join him at the White House last year.
“It is the cherry on top of a very big pile of s***,” he tells Deadline. “It kind of empowers and emboldens Sisi more in Egypt to know that he can go on with his brutality against dissidents.”
And he offers thoughts on the direction of American democracy that could either be interpreted as reassuring or chilling.
“You still have a lot to learn about how to become kind of like a respectable dictatorship. You’re still not there yet,” he jokes, adding with a wink to his native Egypt, “I think you need a good 20 years to develop a real worthy, red, hot-blooded dictatorship. And we’re here to guide you.”