It’s been close to three years since Bassem Youssef was forced to flee his home country of Egypt and start his life over in the United States. These days, he and his family are living in a gated apartment complex on a quiet tree-lined street in the heart of Los Angeles. There’s a pool where his daughter can swim. When I ask him how he likes his new neighborhood, he replies, “It’s safe.”
Youssef and I are sitting by that pool on a sunny June morning, discussing how he became known worldwide as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” — a nickname in which he still takes pride—and how he went from being one of the most famous men in Egypt to just another comedian trying to get a project off the ground in Hollywood. It’s a story that is told in the compelling new documentary Tickling Giants, now available to view online, directed with deep patience and care by Sara Taksler, a senior producer at The Daily Show.
“We thought it was going to be a nine-month project and it ended up being a four-year journey,” Youssef says.
Taksler, who has been working at The Daily Show since 2005, first met Youssef in 2012 when he and his producers traveled to New York to shadow her team for a few days. They were just about to start presenting their Daily Show-inspired program Al Bernameg in front of a live studio audience and wanted to see how it was done.
“I was impressed by the stakes they were going to have to face just to tell jokes through a political satire show,” Taksler tells The Daily Beast by phone from her New York office. “I couldn’t imagine the pressure of working in that environment.”
At the time, Youssef still had his day job as a heart surgeon. “It was hard to picture Jon working as a doctor during the day and then doing a comedy show at night,” Taksler adds. She wanted to approach Youssef with the idea of making a documentary, “but I was kind of scared because I knew it was going to be a huge project and I’d never been to Egypt. But I didn’t want the opportunity to pass me by. So before they left that day I asked Bassem if I could make a movie. And he said yes!” The only other documentary she had made at that point was about balloon twisting.
“I didn’t know who she was, really, but I didn’t want to say no to anyone from Jon Stewart’s staff,” Youssef admits, five years later.
Youssef’s show, Al Bernameg, which was modeled on The Daily Show, came to prominence after Egypt’s long-serving president Hosni Mubarak was ousted during the Arab Spring. The government’s efforts to censor the show only escalated under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and again after current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Morsi in a military coup in the summer of 2013. It was under intense pressure from Sisi’s government that Youssef came to the conclusion it was no longer safe for him and his family to remain in Egypt.
At the beginning, Youssef says he was more worried about “running out of material” than he was about getting shut down by the government. “I didn’t really think about what I can or cannot do,” he says. In those first few months after Mubarak was ousted, he felt like “anything was possible.”
Neither Youssef nor Taksler had any idea when they were making the film that it would be coming out under a U.S. president who has his own problems with satire. Any leader who “gets annoyed or angered by comedy” has probably surrounded themselves with “fake respect and fake fear,” Youssef says. “When you make fun of them, you take this away from them. You undermine their image. And they only have their image to rely on, they have nothing else.”
In the months since he took office, President Trump has repeatedly praised Egyptian President Abd El-Fattah Sisi, saying he’s “done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” In return, Sisi described Trump as “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.”
Youssef suspects that Trump is “jealous” of Sisi. “He’s envious,” he says. “Because Sisi can do whatever he wants with no checks and balances. He has shut down the opposition. He has shut down all methods of freedom of expression, so of course he’s quite jealous.” Does he think Trump would do the same here if he could? “Oh, absolutely,” Youssef says confidently. “100 percent.”
“We’re different countries,” Taksler adds. “The U.S. has a long history of free speech and that’s something most Americans really value, I think. But there’s a lot of shifts going on where free speech doesn’t seem as safe.”
“The idea that this movie is coming out at a time when the president of the United States seems threatened by Saturday Night Live is crazy to me,” she continues. “And makes me realize that it’s important [for people] to watch and discuss and speak out when they see abuses of power.”
Under Trump, she sees people on both sides of the aisle, whether it’s those who align conservatively on the college-campus issue or progressives with the media, “becoming more keenly aware of the fact that free speech will only exist if we make sure it will continue to exist. Otherwise, the people who want to abuse their power will try to limit it. The movie is about a different place and a different time, but it shows what happens if societies don’t protect their freedoms.”
Taksler says that directing the film while simultaneously working at The Daily Show also made her “very aware of how lucky it is to not just work at a political satire show, but to do it in a time where there are a lot of them.” Typically, you hear late-night hosts bemoan the increased competition, because it means they have to fight to be first with their comedic takes. But she sees it very differently now.
“Part of what made it hard for Bassem is there was one voice that was an outside observation of the government and the media,” she says. “So everything he did was under scrutiny. We have lots of comedic voices and that makes it easier for them to be safe and strong.”
But while that may have been true for Youssef when he was in Egypt, now that he is living in America, he is discovering the downside of that type of competition as well. After teaching a course as a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Youssef made a handful appearances as a contributor on The Daily Show and hosted a short-lived web series for Fusion during the 2016 election. He has yet to find the type of platform he enjoyed, albeit temporarily, in Egypt, where his show was watched by upward of 30 million people each week.
“It’s much more competitive here,” he says of the difference between life in Egypt and in America. “There I’m the biggest star in the world, here I have to start from scratch. But four years ago, I was nobody. I didn’t live a life of famous excess in entertainment all my life, it was an overnight switch.” Whereas just a few years ago, he was still practicing as a heart surgeon in Egypt; he’s now taking improv classes.
“This is the life of Hollywood, you have different projects, you pitch stuff, you live the life of rejection and of hope,” he says, reluctant to offer any specifics about his potential next move for fear he will “jinx” it.
“I never thought that I would be running from Egypt that fast, that abruptly, but it happened,” Youssef says, adding that the adjustment has been “hard.” He ultimately felt like he had no choice but to leave, even though at first he says the people around him had to “convince” him that he wasn’t safe there anymore. He didn’t want to believe that his own country would put him in jail for making jokes.
Taksler hopes that because the film is coming out amid Trump’s call for a Muslim ban in the U.S., audiences will connect with Youssef as a Muslim immigrant who couldn’t live safely in his home country anymore and found a home in America. “I’m hoping that if you haven’t had a chance to get to know Muslims in your own community that Bassem can be a little example of the kinds of people we’re talking about when we talk about a travel ban,” she says. “Just as Oprah Winfrey became a lot of white Americans’ ‘first black friend,’” she wants Youssef to be their first Muslim friend.
Yet Youssef doesn’t like the idea of people viewing him as “just a Muslim,” explaining that he views “Islamophobia” as nothing more than an “excuse for racism.” Trump has claimed that he wants to keep Muslims out of the country because of terrorism, but Youssef could see him finding different “excuses” to keep out other groups. “The same people who support the Muslim ban would also support kicking out many of the Hispanic population,” he says. “So it’s much more than just being Muslim.”
If America is in danger of becoming like Egypt, Youssef argues that Egypt is heading in an even more dangerous direction. That’s why he can’t see returning home any time in the near future. “It’s not just the president,” he says. “The whole system is turning Egypt into North Korea.”
“Freedom of expression is an important commodity that is so easy to lose,” he adds. Americans may take those freedoms for granted, but thanks to President Trump, those days could be behind us.