Do a Google search for the name “Bassem Youssef,” and pages of press will come up: a profile of the heart-surgeon-turned-comedian in The New Yorker, transcripts of interviews with him on public radio’s “Fresh Air,” Time magazine’s listing of Youssef among the “100 most influential people in the world” in 2013.
It might not come as a surprise, then, that Youssef has been labeled as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt.” His Arabic-language satirical news show, “Al-Bernameg” (“The Show”), was inspired by Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and during its three-season run became Egypt’s most-watched TV program. Its biting commentary, however, soon rankled national leaders.
Compared to the voluntary departure of Stewart from the helm of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 2015, however, Youssef had to abandon his “comedy news” anchor’s chair under political pressure two years earlier.
Youssef will be talking about that journey – which brought him from a career in medicine to a life of satirical comedy to living in the U.S. – at 8 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Distinguished Lecture series.
Youssef’s book “Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring” was published last March. He’s the subject of Sara Taksler’s documentary film, “Tickling Giant,” which profiles his unusual road to fame. And he’s been a familiar face on talk shows ranging from “The Daily Show” with both Stewart and Trevor Noah, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Today the multi-media Youssef is based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and daughter and is working on developing a TV series, a digital series and a movie.
“You know, when you live in L.A. you’re always working on something – scripts, screenplays,” he said from his home in a September phone interview.
“I’m working on a few projects, and when it’s time to announce it, hopefully it will be good news. …It’s all in the sea of comedy.”
In Madison he’ll perform his one-man show, “a mixture of stand-up and storytelling and commentary,” he said.
“It’s basically giving an idea about what happened in the Middle East, from the angle of the media, our media. We have our share of big news, too. I’m relating it to what America is going through, and what my new life in America’s been. So it’s kind of a personal journey, going from the Middle East to here.”
Youssef’s satirical “Al-Bernameg” sprung up from the Egyptian revolution of 2011, but its sudden demise also reflected political realities, he said.
“We are two steps behind North Korea, basically,” Youssef said of his homeland.
“It’s kind of like if you (asked) someone under Hitler or Mussolini, ‘Can you make fun of the president?’ (they’d reply) ‘No, you can’t.’
“And under authoritarian regimes, it’s not just the president,” he said. “It’s everything: the symbols, the army, the government, whatever ‘moralities’ of the fabric of the society — everything is taboo.
“We kind of find a glimpse of that here,” he said. “People make a big fuss about the flag, which is basically a piece of cloth. What matters is what it stands for. And when people are full of empty rhetoric, this is when they return to idolizing empty symbols.
“This is all fake patriotism. People who are the loudest when it comes to patriotism are the least patriotic,” he said.
“They just use this as a tool to oppress free speech and free expression. I have had this in my country for maybe 60 years. We had a window for a couple of years after the revolution, but it’s all coming back even worse” than before.
Through his stage show coming to Madison, “hopefully people will (learn) things about the Middle East they didn’t know before,” Youssef said.
“And they will actually relate that to what they see in the media here. It’s meant to have people laugh, but it’s also meant primarily to make people think. It’s informative, with humor.”