Bassem Youssef has become one of Egypt’s first YouTube sensations. A heart surgeon by day, Youssef now moonlights as the host of On TV’s new political satire “Al-Bernameg” (The Program), a spinoff of his widely-seen home-produced political spoof, “The B+ Show.”
Less then 10 episodes were produced at home with help from friends, poking fun and forcing viewers to ask questions about the conflicting news and the myriad absurdities that emerged before and after the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in mid-February.
“The B+ Show” was an instant hit, seen by millions on Youtube. It wasn’t long before producers came calling. “Al-Bernameg” premiered in Ramadan and now reaches an even larger audience.
It has been a long drawn-out year for Egyptian politics but also a year of great hilarity due in large part to Youssef’s acerbic sarcasm, wit and general lighthearted affability delivered with so much ease.
Covering topics that range from reactions and commentary on Syria to criticism of local talk show hosts and media personalities, the show might not implicitly aim to be informative, but it ultimately does succeed in highlighting key issues and news for viewers.
“The segments and monologues on the show are inspired by real events, nothing is a sketch,” Youssef told Daily News Egypt. “We’re not acting. We’re using real news; it’s about real journalism. If it doesn’t fly in terms of its credibility and its source, we can’t use it.”
The show’s writing is a shared task.
“I’m a bit of a dictator and I write most of the stuff myself but I’m trying to learn [to rely on my team],” Youssef said. “It’s mostly based on research and I had some very talented writers earlier on but they could not continue working with us because they were trying to make up the comedy instead of trying to extract it from real events. For every segment of five minutes that you watch, we’ve watched 12 hours of material to be able to get the little details.”
With the show’s political angle, guests who have appeared on the show have various political ideologies and backgrounds, some are relatively unknown.
“I planned on having interesting people, people who are either known by the public or else totally unknown [but] have something interesting to offer. I didn’t want to be the typical talk show host who hosts only big stars,” he said.
I visited the channels’ corporate offices during Ramadan, where Youssef and his team had just broken their fast after a long day of research and writing. As the show aired that evening, his young team of producers, researchers and writers watched the fruits of their labor.
Youssef refuses to watch the show, explaining that he doesn’t like to watch himself but only relaxes after receiving feedback from his team and some executives of the channel present in the office. A call from his mother is also a must.
Considering the contentious nature of current politics in Egypt, it does beg the question of topic choices and censorship. “Everyone has his own [self-] censorship and every channel has its own censorship department yet the censorship department here doesn’t have to cut anything from my show,” he said.
“I enforce my own censorship: I don’t make fun of religions and I don’t attack the military right now. If you’re going to do it you’re going to do it in a light way, yet I’m not willing to cross that line right now.
“We are in an interim period, and it’s partly a personal responsibility as a civilian to be careful. I don’t even know if the channel would allow it if I say something against the [ruling] military council,” he said.
The most common praise one hears about Youssef’s show is its straightforward and clean-natured appeal. His jokes are never crude; instead, they rely on pure wit and sarcasm.
“I never feel like I compromise any of my content, I’m actually not ashamed of my show if my mother were to watch it. I think if my mother can watch it, then it’s a pass. If I had kids and thought they could watch it, then I’m ok with it.”
Still not everyone is as keen about his show. Some criticize it for delivering humor and news in a manner that is styled on a western model of comedy; news talk shows have also said his show is irrelevant to the average Egyptian viewer.
The accusation is not unwarranted; Youssef gives full credit to his comedic idol Jon Stewart, the comedian, political commentator and talk show host of “The Daily Show.” Yet, this new style of news reporting and political discussion has been refreshing and novel to many viewers in comparison to the staid commentary of Mona El-Shazly or the overegged sense of righteousness and do-goodery of Amr Adib.
Last month, Youssef hosted citizen journalist and activist Mohamed Radwan during the first episode. Radwan was detained by the Syrian government for a period of six days during the first month of the ongoing uprising and, as he explained in Youssef’s show, was tortured before being released.
When asked why Youssef felt compelled to start with the Syrian uprising, he replied: “We wanted to show that we are a program with a message, we’re not a program that’s just slapstick comedy. We’re people who are involved in daily life, we have a message about what’s happening in the Arab world and we’re not just here to grab a few laughs, so it was a message towards that point.”
When asking colleagues and friends about their favorite moments of the show, the sketches of talk show host Tawfik Okasha and singer/songwriter Amr Mostafa topped their lists.
As Youssef poked fun at Mostafa’s paranoid views and Okasha’s outrageous counter-revolutionary commentary, viewers took delight in seeing the ludicrousness of the pair given a proper send-up.
Youssef though found his interview with political commentator Amr Hamzawy to be a personal highlight. “It was a challenge. Amr Hamzawy is a politician and you’re taking someone who is [by nature] very serious and forcing him into a satirical setting, which is not something we are used to. The challenge was: if you are to take someone so articulate and put him into a farcical situation, would he accept it? Are other people going to accept it?”
“I’m trying to be someone who delivers a message to [prompt] people to think before they laugh, and if they smile, that’s enough,” Youssef concluded. “I want people to accept sarcasm as a way to solve conflicts …we’ve just become so tense about so many things. If people deal with serious issues through laughter and sarcasm, it would be a great thing.”
“Al-Bernameg” is scheduled to air twice a week on On TV in the upcoming weeks. http://www.youtube.com/user/albernameg