Bassem Youssef spent the majority of his career as a doctor and surgeon in Egypt until the Arab Spring in 2010. In response to the revolution, he began to post on YouTube, poking fun at political leaders and commenting on news stories in the style of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Soon, he went viral and before Youssef knew it, he had TV producers asking him to star in his own show.
From 2011 to 2014, he went on to host the widely successful news satire show “Al Bernameg,” which had 30 million viewers weekly throughout the Middle East at its height. The show’s popularity, though, also made Youssef a target, and the Egyptian government began investigating and interrogating him. By 2014, he was forced to flee to the United States. Eight years later, Youssef is touring across the country with a new stand-up special focused on his journey.
“My stand-up is special because it’s not your usual joke telling,” Youssef says about his show. “It’s more of a one-man show, storytelling [and] stand-up comedy.”
We had a chance to speak with Youssef about touring, current events and why not all doctors should be public figures before his June 10 show at The Alden Theatre in McLean.
District Fray: Since you got your start with political commentary, I wanted to get your takes on some current events. What are your thoughts on America’s coverage of Ukraine compared to other conflicts?
Bassem Youssef: There are so many levels of hypocrisy. This has been happening in Palestine for years and nobody cares, because it’s Israel and Palestine. Then you have Ukraine versus refugees from Syria. But that’s humanity. People root for the people who look like them, and they relate. It’s terrible, but it is the reality. People just don’t care about people who don’t look like them and who are different than them. It is sad. I wish we were more idealistic as humans, but we’re not.
In U.S. politics, do you have any thoughts on TV stars putting their hats in for political races, like Dr. Oz?
Dr. Oz is a crook. Even before running for the U.S. Senate [in Pennsylvania], he was a crook. He is a doctor who has spread false narratives and pseudoscience on his show. The fact that he runs for the Republican party seems quite fitting. American politics has no shame. You have people who have terrible histories running for office. As long as you run on our side, we don’t care. We’re going to forgive you for everything.
You were dubbed the Jon Stewart of the Arab world. Now, you have a friendship with Jon Stewart and presented at the Kennedy Center when he received the Mark Twain Prize in April. What was the experience like?
It was amazing to actually share the stage with the likes of Jon Stewart, Dave Chapelle, Jimmy Kimmel, Pete Davidson, Ed Helms, Steve Carell and Olivia Munn. I was the only non-American person speaking on that stage in front of 3,000 people, and I told my story. I’m very proud of this moment because everybody was talking about what it was like working with Jon Stewart, but I thought about the different side, which is his impact outside the United States. I talked about him coming to Egypt to my show back in 2013. On my show, he came in in the middle of a lot of political turmoil. Even the State Department gave out warnings for Americans not to go to Egypt, but he came. And that, for me, was huge. It validated my work.
Often people who speak multiple languages notice they express themselves differently from one language to another. Does your comedy change at all when performing in English compared to Arabic?
I feel I am much freer when I speak in English than in Arabic, which is very weird. I think comedy follows language and language follows culture. [With the English] language, you can be freer to express yourself, and the satire is better. When you speak in Arabic, there are so many taboos that are linked to the culture and of course reflected in the language, sex, politics and religion. If you curse in English, nobody flinches. But if you drop a curse word in Arabic, everybody’s very uncomfortable. It follows the language. Even if we did a joke about religion in English, it is much easier to do than they do it in Arabic.
What do you want audiences to take away from your show?
I think the best way people can relate to other people and understand the struggle of others is to put themselves in their shoes for a minute. All of us, regardless of where we come from, or whatever [are] our daily challenges, our stories are essentially the same. I hope people can leave [my show] with more sense of empathy and understanding not just to other people’s struggles but their own struggles, knowing that we really are the same people. There’s always a way to come together with a common ground, and hopefully, that common ground is comedy.
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