He’s the funniest Egyptian online. Bassem Youssef, practising doctor, satirical YouTube superstar and soon to be OnTV star gives our own funny man Dagher Al Sakr a run for his money…
Arriving late for an interview is all good and well when you’re the subject. But when you’re conducting the interview, well, that’s a bit embarrassing. So walking into the studio designated for the shoot, I mumbled a quiet apology and conveniently used Yasmine Shihata, eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief (who accompanied me for the duration of the shoot and interview), as an excuse. Online sensations Bassem Youssef and his team were already there. At first, he seems quite stiff. A strong handshake, barely a smile escaping his lips and his piercing blue grey eyes have a serious stare. This I assure you (and myself) was not because he was kept waiting, for he had been busy preparing for the photoshoot. The first words to come out of his mouth were quite revealing. “I am a Doctor”, he says. “Not an ex-doctor but a current, practicing doctor.” To Youssef, that was first and foremost, and needed emphasising and underscoring. Here was a man who seems, at a glance, somewhat uncomfortable in his new skin as a show person, let alone a budding TV star. It’s through his team however, that he began to loosen up and give us a glimpse of the man who has had us in hysterics every time we logged on YouTube. His biting sense of humour, unbeatable wit and hearty laugh all come out in the company of his writers; with whom he works closest. Hend Radwan and Amr Ismail are his good friends and producers of his show (about to launch on OnTV) and Mohamed Khalifa is the director. It’s these real friendships – not some notion of politeness that TV stars mention in an attempt to be down to earth – that create the fantastic dynamic making The Bassem Show one of the most unique shows Egypt has seen in a long time. There was no leader to this team. Youssef was its face but in a strange way they all seem like the leader.
Having experimented with online productions before his popular show, it wasn’t until the revolution that Youssef realised his talents for satire and comedy. Yet the show hasn’t been without its critics. The events of January 25th were like a goldmine of comedy, with C-list ‘celebrities’ exposing their idiocy and bigotry on live TV. So there was no shortage of people to poke fun at. But when that dies down, and with the average Egyptian celebrity’s tendency for an exaggerated sense of self-importance and not suffering fools gladly, I wanted to know how he expected not to be sued, punched or both?
When this is all over, do you think you can still make fun of people?
First of all, I hate the term ‘making fun’, because it’s very demeaning. I prefer sarcasm or criticising in a funny way. I don’t want to turn this into a witch-hunt. We are making fun of concepts more than the actual people. Every now and then we will quote an unsuspecting victim, but all we do is quote or highlight something they actually said. If it was stupid, then it was they who said it. Again, it’s mostly about the concept.
You want people to accept being made fun of and even self-deprecation. But this isn’t the norm in our culture…
That’s a challenge that we’re willing to take on. My focus is very much like that of comedian Jon Stewart, which is basically to satirise and criticise the media. But at the end of the day, the media is representative of the people making the news. I may start by making fun of myself first to disarm people. In fact, I have made it clear to OnTV that I will make fun of OnTV, including the big man himself. And when I told him as much, Naguib Sawiris was very cool about it. I also plan to make fun of Yosri Fouda, but so far I can’t find much to make fun of! I hope people will realise that it is just fun and that we’re not trying to traumatise anyone. It is done in good spirit and it shouldn’t take anything away from who people are or what they stand for. We shouldn’t forget that we’ve always had programs like ‘El Camera El Khafeya’ and ‘Helhom Benhom’, and most people accepted them well. We hope we can host people that are comfortable with our approach. And the more successful we become, the more comfortable people will be with that approach. It’s a very difficult challenge but I’m looking forward to it.
Could this level of acceptance have to do with a person’s level of education and cultural background?
Maybe, but I believe it’s a mixture of your culture, education and personality. Someone might have a good background and education but won’t accept us coming near him. He may have been pampered for too long by the media and the people around sucking up to him that he won’t accept someone talking about him that way.
The show will stick to a studio format with some occasional outside reports. I read that you were talking about fake reporters as well…
Yes, fake reports and actors. I came from the online world and I want to keep that portal open. There is a whole underworld of people on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and bloggers who are truly amazing. We always want to keep our show open for the internet crowd and not forget our origins. For example, we found one of our writers on YouTube. All our team is made up of bloggers and people from the internet. We want to continue to shed the light on those people. We want them to appear more than once. We want something renewable. The internet is full of great talent and after the revolution (and the lack of heavy censorship), talent is exploding everywhere. We want this to be a show by the people for the people.
Is there any fear that once you’re going to be on a network the show will lose some of its edge or credibility?
This is a risk, but we can never satisfy everybody. If you’re on the internet, people will tell you to be on TV, then once you’re on TV they tell you ‘no the internet was better’. The show won’t change – we will have the same amount of freedom. We never crossed limits and we were never rude. Our content hasn’t changed at all since we were on YouTube. The only difference is that now we have bigger abilities and more people. Yet the mentality behind writing each script hasn’t changed.
Does your time allow for both your profession as a doctor and your talents for TV?
Well right now this is taking a lot of time because we’re preparing for the launch of our show. But once it normalises, my business will go back to normal. Anyone in the media is subjected to burn out very quickly so I never want to lose my real identity or profession.
I then told Youssef about a list of questions I received from eniGma readers eager to get to know him better. And I stated I bear no responsibility for their content. Graciously he agreed to play along:
Has your sense of humour ever worked against you in your professional job? – Heba K.
Working in medicine is like being in an army, so you really need to take care of what you do and say. But part of your bedside manner is to be a little humorous and nice to the patient. So a sense of humour always helps.
Do you have any useful hobbies other than making strange videos and posting them on the interweb? – Gedo Hassan
Useful? I don’t know the definition of useful (he laughs). I play sports and that’s the only other hobby I have. I play soccer, work out, run and swim.
What in your opinion is the perfect revolutionary outfit? – Yasmine S.
Youssef seems very confused with the question and asks if it’s serious. I then sneak an accusing look towards our very own Yasmine Shihata (even though it wasn’t her question) and explain to him that after all this is eniGma and we try to focus on the, ahem… important issues. He humours us…
Jeans and a t-shirt. Something that you won’t be very sad about if it got torn to shreds while you’re getting arrested.
People say you should never ask who or what, but the important question is the why. So why and on who’s behalf did you start this revolution? – Hosny M.
What revolution? The January 25th? I didn’t start it! He’s asking the wrong person! He should go ask the people who started it.
I know you said you were a doctor, but some people seem confused. How does this new job compare to your past experience as a lawyer? – Suzanne M.
Well it’s the same as my third job as a fireman, and as my fourth job as a butcher…
Do you think Bin Laden has the ability to capitalise on the current situation in Egypt? – Aheb N.
First YouTube, now OnTV. What’s next? Feature films? Hollywood? – Tamer G.
I’ll be very happy and very lucky if I don’t get kicked off TV.
Bashar Al-Assad, Moammar Qaddafi and Zein Eldin Bin Ali . Which one of those three do you think has the best opportunity to lead the Arab world into the 21st century? – Mohamed A
I think it will be Ali Abdullah Saleh. Because he’s really up to date. His hairstyle always changes. He used to have an Afro but now he has like this rough ‘Prison-Break’ look.
Who has been your biggest inspiration, Jon Stewart, John Travolta, or John the Baptist? – Father Mena
John Travolta… No, I’m joking, Jon Stewart.
Salafis have called for a million-beard march…
(Interrupts) No… it’s a million-beard campaign.
So now others are calling for a million-bikini march in return. Where do you see yourself on that ideological spectrum? – Amy M.
Watching… (the bikinis of course).
If you were still a lawyer would you have defended Mubarak? And what’s the minimum amount of cash for you to reconsider? – Suzanne M. (again)
Who is Suzanne M.? Again I will answer this as I answered her first question. If I was a fireman I would actually have put out the fire in Imbaba first.
Who do you consider you biggest professional threat, Amr Waked, Amr Hamzawy or Amre Moussa? – Anonymous
Amre Moussa, because I’m running for president. I announced it on live TV before with Mona El Shazly.
Having married his daughter (Hala) to a Doctor can your father-in-law claim any compensation now that you’ve changed careers? – Abou Hala.
Please tell uncle I’m sorry I disappointed him and I hope he has it in him to accept the new me.
The Salafis are calling for Ekamet El Hadd (applying Islamic punishment). Do you think picking ‘El Hadd’ (Sunday) was insensitive to Christians? Wouldn’t ‘El Gomaa’ (Friday) have been more appropriate? – Egyptian girl with the funny American accent on YouTube.
(He laughs) This is the funniest and strangest interview I have ever had… still, I’d rather not talk about the Salafis. Sore subject…
Of Egypt’s two revolutions; 23rd of July and 25th of January, which will produce better movies and TV series? – Afaf.
25th of January. And I’m sure Tante Afaf will have a huge role to play in most of them.
How do you see the role of the next President, will it be Abla (professor) Nazeera or more Dada (nanny) Aneesa? – W
Dada Aneesa. Because its really hard to get another Abla Nazeera. And I think the next period needs a Dada Aneesa. Basically, someone to baby-sit. The Egyptians need someone to be kind to them right now.
Mohamed H asks: In a movie about the January 25th events, who do you see playing the following roles:
Nadia El Guindy
Nadia El Guindy
These questions are beginning to annoy me!
Mahmoud El Meligy
The man behind Omar Soliman?
(He just laughs).
Considering people have lost their livelihoods or steel-empires because of the revolution, how do you feel about becoming a superstar? And shouldn’t you be considering an immediate pay-cut from your OnTV contract? – Mr. Naguib S.
Youssef and his team burst out laughing. At this point not even eniGma’s professional honour could convince them that any of these questions were real. But I can’t imagine real questions could have better highlighted the characters of the man or the team.
Bassem Youssef, it seems, was too worried about coming across as a stuffy media type that it made him stiff with politeness and impeccable behavior. But it only took a few minutes to realise that he was a genuine gentleman and truly one of the ‘good guys’. And I assure you; you’re not likely to come across a more modest person, be it on TV or on the street. So he needn’t have worried. The Bassem Show will be a breath of fresh air in a vastly improving TV landscape. And yet another reason to think fondly of the January 25th revolution…