Bassem Youssef is a comedian who doesn’t always have to be funny.
Rather, the former TV host, often called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” has transformed himself into an educator as a fellow at Harvard University—and a hilarious, biting “senior Middle East correspondent” for Stewart’s The Daily Show. In both cases, he makes quips, observations, and incisive commentary about the state of play in the Middle East—each time to an audience that expects an education punctuated with a laugh.
On Monday’s episode of The Daily Show, for example, he was tasked with summarizing the various regional proxy wars. When the facts proved too tangled—like in his breakdown of where Shiite and Sunni Muslims are fighting each other—Youssef presented a Middle East bracket, instead.
“Let me put this in terms your understand. You know March Madness? …Consider this Constant Intractable Madness,” explained Youssef (no relation) to Stewart, with his version of a bracket on the screen. In the final match up, the winner goes “head to heat with the great Satan, you.”
Since his banishment from Egypt after three seasons of al Bernameg, his weekly satire news show, Youssef, 41, has taken that format and transformed it into a class. A fellow of the university’s Institute of Politics, Youssef is teaching a 90-minute study group class called “The Joke is Mightier than the Sword,” an off-the-cuff discourse about comedy, freedom of the press, and the state of the region.
At Harvard, the audience is roughly 30 undergraduate students. Perhaps because they are the first generation of college students that have grown up with Stewart’s The Daily Show essentially there all of their lives—the show has been on for 17 years—there is a bit of an assumption that a laugh should be part of an education on world events.
“You have to create a sexy concept. …It is a total free market. There is no academic obligation for them to attend or not attend the classes. And that is what I find intriguing,” Youssef explains.
The Kennedy School of Government, which includes the Institute, has long been a collection of former top officials and the Ivory Tower’s brightest lights. Current members of the faculty include former North Carolina senator Kay Hagan and former Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley. The classes are strictly off the record and this reporter was only allowed in as Youssef’s guest. That is, I had to become a part of the lecture and agree to not report what the students said. But Youssef’s description of them as intrigued, optimistic, and inquisitive was spot on.
Whether at his desk or in front of an audience—in this case students, Youssef peripatetically moves from the issues that he tackles in classes as a fellow—comedy, satire, hyperbole, perception, and the Middle East—often in commentary delivered with the same cadence of a joke. His arms spread out as enthusiastically as they used to when he would makes a point on the show; his face as demonstrative as it was when he was on a Cairo stage, shocking Egyptians with an unheard of form of comedy.
His students take the class for no credit, rather, he explained, they frequently turn to him—a doctor by training and a satirist by accident—to explain the Middle East’s most important events: the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak; press freedom of in wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks; and the rise of the so-called Islamic State.
And like on al Bernameg, his class is split with lectures that are often ad hoc or led by guest speakers, who often are interviewed as though they were on the show.
“I invite ethnic Middle East comedians because I want the people of Harvard to get exposed to this kind of discussion. And I choose comedy because it is the fastest and most effective way to get to people’s minds and souls.”
(The title of one class: God and Conspiracy Theories.)
Youssef was a heart surgeon when the uprising, often called Arab Spring, began. He started treating injured protesters in Cairo’s infamous Tahrir Square. Driven by the events of the day, he created a makeshift Daily Show on YouTube. Within three months, it had 5 million views and a few months later he had a weekly show.
When Stewart appeared on Youssef’s show in 2013, the American was introduced as if he was one of the many spies infiltrating Egypt. Thugs carried in Stewart, who was donning a balaclava, and only announced him once he removed it.
“Our audience loves spies,” Youssef told Stewart to explain the cheers that welcomed him.
Later, Youssef turned to the crowd and explained, in Arabic, to the crowd that Stewart “was the Bassem Youssef of America, and tries to imitate me.”
“I just said you are awesome,” Youssef translated to Stewart.
His show—and the degree it could push boundaries—became a metric of the evolution of freedom in Egypt. And as the trappings of a crackdown and old practices returned, so went the freedom to mock politicians. By June 2014, around the time General Adel Fatah al Sisi, a former defense minister and intelligence chief emerged as president, and Egypt’s crackdown on dissidents began, Youssef announced that he had to end the show, under pressure from the government and on the channel that featured the show.
Perhaps the only topic Youssef hesitates to discuss is his own future in Egypt. He does not answer the question the first time asked. When pressed, he simply said: “Nobody chooses to leave his country.”
For now, his focus is on broadening the discussion here. April 7’s official guest speakers were comedians Josh Zepps, originally from Australia, and Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed, who along with three other comedians, was among the first to bring the Arab-American community into comedy and the world of entertainment with his 2005 Axis of Evil comedy tour. Together Youssef and Ahmed are trying to move the conversation into Hollywood, creating a script called The Comedy of Arabs, which is in its early stages.
In addition, Youssef is raising funding for a documentary about him and the making of his show that followed him from Egypt to here called Tickling Giants.
“We have dealt with the Arab/Muslim problem in the American media in every single way but through comedy,” Youssef explained. Hollywood has always been lagging behind comedy. … We can make fun of ourselves too and I’m inviting us to laugh with us—and all the misconceptions.”
In preparation for the class, the three sit down for about 15 minutes and exchange a series of jokes and quips to test what could work in the class. Ahmed told a joke that just starts with an awkward silence when he asks about how many Arabs are in attendance at the class. When he’s met with an awkward silence he tells, the skittish audience, “Well, it only takes one of us”—a clear riff on the American fear of Arabs-as-terrorists.
“You should talk about that,” Youssef said.
Zepps described how an interview about political correctness on his radio show went awry because his interviewee was too politically correct. But by then, Youssef was done plotting the script. It would be funny, he was certain, and informative. That was good enough for Youssef.
The lesson plan hinged on a laugh. Indeed, Youssef told Ahmed and Zepps that laughter resonated best with the students. But Youssef is quick to say he is not a funnyman.
“I never thought of myself as a comedian,” Youssef said. “That is a label—make me laugh. I want to make you think.”