Downtown Cairo is busier than usual for an otherwise dull weeknight. The crowd is different from the motley crew of regulars that tend to line the streets, and vendors watch curiously as unfamiliar people head down the narrow ally leading to the Radio Theater. The theatre is the historic venue where Om Kalthoum, Egypt’s legendary diva, sang some of her most famous masterpieces and actor Mohamed Sobhy performed some of his most popular plays. Yet tonight it is hosting a totally different form of entertainment…
The theatre, built in 1939, is a living testament to Cairo’s glory days. Recently it’s been transformed by the architect who renovated New York’s Radio City Music Hall into a state of the art talk show studio for Cairo’s ‘man of the moment’: Dr. Bassem Youssef. Youssef describes himself as a ‘political satirist’ and has cleverly marketed himself as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart’. To his credit, it is a role that until now, no other Egyptian has been able or interested to take on. And as a testament to his new found fame, a huge picture of Youssef adorns the façade of the once discreet theatre, letting guests in for quite a show…
Inside the studio, huge screens surround the stage floor on which sits a question-mark-shaped desk. Spotlights blink red to blue, stoking the anticipation of an already eager crowd. They’re all now in their places waiting for one man: Dr. Bassem Youssef.
Its hard to imagine that just two years ago Youssef, was an unknown heart surgeon, who only started creating comedic YouTube videos from Tahrir Square, after Egypt’s historic revolution. Since then he has gotten his own show on ONTV the Egyptian news channel and last year he signed a lucrative deal with Egypt’s new CBC channel, which included the renovation of the landmark Radio Theatre as his own personal studio and office. From this deal alone, it became clear that Youssef was in a league of his own, acutely aware of his worth and potential, and with the vision to do things “his way or the high way.”
And for Egypt’s ordinary Egyptians, trying to make sense of an ever changing and severely challenging political landscape, Youssef has become a temporary escape of comic relief in a politically troubling situation, to say the least. Fans laugh with him at the country, the politics and mainly at themselves; and they love it.
Youssef isn’t your ordinary comedian. In fact if you call him that, not only will he correct you, but his producers and PR team will make sure to correct you as well. “Don’t call him a comedian, it pisses him off,” I’m told by his PR manager.
Ironic coming from the man who pisses everyone off, especially those in power.
Backstage Youssef is in his room getting ready, while his bodyguard stands at the door. He practices the script he wrote with his team one final time. He is calm; his face is relaxed as he waits for his cue.
When he sets foot on stage, all lights are set on him, and he is suddenly transformed from a pensive and private citizen to a charismatic and confident natural entertainer on stage. His piercing blue eyes beam with enthusiasm and he soaks in the applause that greets him. For the next two hours of the live show he tapes to air every Friday night, he keeps his audience totally engaged and excited; he is in his element, and the laughs flow easily. The crowd loves him, these are his ‘people’ after all. They are his loyal fans who waited until 11pm to watch the much coveted taping of his show.
After he wraps up, Youssef gets a standing ovation, waves his goodbyes then quickly disappears off stage. Back to the privacy of his own room and his ‘other life’.
Just minutes after he leaves the stage and all its energy, a breathless Youssef sits down casually and resumes his pensive nature, playing back the show in his mind. His whole demeanor now changed, he is no longer the entertainer, the satirist and the natural superstar. Instead he is serious, focused and exhausted, drained from the week’s worth of preparation for each episode.
“It’s a very hectic job,” he says, as we can still hear the audience applauding outside. Even so, he’s not bemused or fazed by any of the adulation he receives. “Every time we finish an episode, as everyone is applauding and cheering, all I can think about is whether my critics are going to attack me after my next episode. I am not fooled by what I see. This is the truth of our country; we’re very critical and very cynical,” he says.
This is a very different Youssef than the one we interviewed a year and a half ago for the magazine. Back then he was an enthusiastic surgeon-turned-YouTube-star who was getting ready for his first show El-Bernameg (The Programme) on ONTV. Youssef’s life changed dramatically since the January 2011 revolution, and the fast paced changes have taken their toll. In less than two years the 38 year-old doctor has become a phenomenon. He’s on TV and the internet, and has even been interviewed by his idol Jon Stewart for Stewart’s Daily Show in New York. It’s a lot for him to grasp, and he doesn’t seem very happy about it.
It’s quite striking to see that behind this larger than life entertainer is a man with fear. A man whose destiny put him in a position to make millions laugh at their own misery, but without a manual for this unique type of fame. With Youssef, fame just happened. No one expected him to become so big in such a short period, not even himself. “We were growing so fast that sometimes we couldn’t handle the press or the attention, it was very scary,” he admits.
In no time Youssef’s life turned upside down. And fame, which not so long ago was just a passing thought, is now something he must deal with constantly. “I am no longer free to roam the streets; I can’t be myself too much because someone might take a picture with their cell phone. I am not used to this fame, it is too much,” he says.
Youssef is no longer just one man; he is a brand with a company behind him and a lot of people investing in his success. A big team of 37 helps with research, monitors TV channels, helps him write scripts and perfect one-liners. As he explains, this is not just a one man show – he’s simply the face of it. “I need to perform for their sake and for the show’s sake, not just for me,” he says.
And what a performance he gives. His show is so controversial, that a lawsuit follows nearly every episode, be it from angry politicians, angry media personalities or angry actors – all of which have been subjected to his stinging satire. He knows how to get under their skin, but denies having bad intentions. “I am driven by the material,” he explains. “I say what is going on and what people on the streets feel, I don’t make it up.”
Yet he still receives a lot of flak, especially for coming down hard on the Islamic groups in general and the Muslim Brotherhood, currently in power. To him, it is all part of the show. “Satire is always against certain things; authority, majority and the right wing. They need to accept this; with great power comes great responsibility and with great authority comes more satire.”
Youssef has modeled himself after Jon Stewart. After all, the American comedian did the same sort of thing when he developed the Daily Show back in 1993. But one could argue that Stewart had it a bit easier, with an already established democracy and a culture accustomed to freedom of speech. Youssef, on the other hand, hangs by a thread; in a minute he could be imprisoned or his show could get cancelled. Or he could even get physically hurt. No wonder Jon Stewart called him his hero.
Yet he is not just a hero to Stewart; he continues to inspire the millions who watch him every week, the hundreds of thousands of followers who read his tweets, and his million plus Facebook fans. They love him for telling it like it is, and look up to him as a courageous role model for the newly ‘free’ Egypt.
Of course, Youssef is modest and balks at the accolades. “I don’t like the term ‘role model,” he says. “I don’t like to use it and I don’t like to be described as such, because it means you want to become like someone else, a replica. You should want to be your own self and establish your own views… There’s a mix between when you love someone and when you consider him a role model.”
It is hard to ascertain who Youssef really is. Is he the satirist or the cynic? The surgeon or the entertainer? Even he doesn’t seem to have the answer, “I don’t define myself by what I do; I define myself by who I am. What I do is changeable, what I am is not. I was a person who was practicing medicine, now I am a person who is doing media and tomorrow, who knows?”
Until then, Youssef will keep us on our toes, waiting for his next show and his next career move. After all when you live many lives, anything can happen…
ART DIRECTION & STYLING: Maissa Azab
PHOTOGRAPHY: Emad Kassem
WORDS: Omnia Zaied