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Bassem Youssef: Comedian
Bassem reflects on the moments that inspired him to leave behind 19 years in medicine for political satire, a show that was watched by 40 million people every week. Now, he tells us about what it’s like reinventing a career for himself in the US, and about the time long ago when he raised baby chicks.
This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Dana Ballout, with editorial support by Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!
See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
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HEBAH: Can you please tell me what you had for breakfast?
BASSEM: Well, I had a big smoothie, put a lot of greens in it: a banana, berries, spinach and kale.
HEBAH: And milk? No milk? Oh, you’re vegan! I’m so sorry, what a stupid question.
BASSEM: Well… a little bit of coconut milk.
HEBAH: This week on Al Empire, we sat down with Bassem Youssef at his home in Los Angeles, in California. His two adorable children Nadia and Adam were playing inside, so the quietest place we could find to record was outdoors, seated around a table in his garden.
BASSEM: Yeah, this is Adam crying in the background if you like because this is happening in my house. And my, and Adam is not very happy. He needs… he needs his, his lunch time.
My name is Bassem Youssef. I was born in Egypt, Cairo, and I’m 44 years old. I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a judge and my mom was a university professor and I after I finished high school, I went to medical school and, for 19 years, I studied and worked as a doctor. And then in 2011, everything changed.
DANA: During the Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef became something of a legend. His political satire show “Al Bernameg” reached 40 million viewers weekly. For context of how big of a deal that is, that’s nearly half the entire population of Egypt. Or, as another reference point, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, at its height, had an audience of 2 million viewers. So Bassem, 40 million, Jon Stewart, 2 million. Bassem was huge. And then, as many of us know, everything changed. Today on Al Empire, a story of reinvention. I’m Dana Ballout,
HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher. And you’re listening to Al Empire.
[AL EMPIRE INTRO STING]
HEBAH: Okay, let’s start at the beginning… if your mother had to describe you at the age of 12, how would she describe little Bassem?
BASSEM: I was very responsible at the age of 12. I was the younger of two brothers. My brother was five years older than me, but when they would travel they would leave the keys with me… because I was focused on like, getting things right. So yeah, I think I was a good kid. I think… I was a disciplined kid. Yeah, and I was a nerd and that’s why I went to medical school.
HEBAH: When you say that you were a nerd, what were your favorite subjects in school?
BASSEM: Biology and math. And I liked history, too.
HEBAH: Did you always want to be a doctor?
BASSEM: So, if you are in the Middle East you are only allowed to be an engineer, or a doctor, or a disappointment – those are the only three options that you get. And… I saw my brother going into hell in engineering and I didn’t want to go there so, so I went to medicine. So it was kind of more like an exclusion decision.
HEBAH: Process of elimination? [laughs]
DANA: So, what was your brother like, and what was your relationship like with your brother?
BASSEM: Oh typical two brothers – when we were much younger, it was not good. They were… he would hit me a little bit whatever, but like, actually we became very close, we… we are very close. We – we are I mean, he’s only one left for me. So I’m like, he’s a… he’s a great guy. Very sincere, very, very dedicated. So yeah, so it was, it was – and when I was old enough, I started kind of like, to play soccer with him. So that was like our bond. Yeah, because he was very good at soccer. I wasn’t very good, but I would, I would be very energetic in the field.
DANA: Were you funny back then?
BASSEM: I don’t know if I was – I mean, I was everyday funny. I was like, I was lively. I was loud. Maybe not funny. I wouldn’t stand out of other people who were much funnier than me. So no, not especially.
DANA: So before you decided to go into medicine, did you have any kind of jobs growing up?
BASSEM: Yeah, I did part-time jobs. At the – my last year of medicine, I was sick and tired of medicine and I wanted anything else to do – so, I borrowed some money from my dad and I opened a chicken farm. I bought 10,000 chicks, one day chicks.
HEBAH: Where did this idea [laughs] – where did this idea come from?
BASSEM: I… I have to say that maybe comes from like after seven years of medicine, I was not very happy with with being – like, I just like, medicine takes a lot out of you and I needed to do something different. I needed to do something that involves entrepreneurship, some sort of trade.
And I wanted to invest and I lost a lot of money and I cried to my dad asking for forgiveness because they were hit by some sort of disease or something.
DANA: What was your dad’s response when you told him you lost the, all the chicks and all the money?
BASSEM: I mean my dad was… oh my God. My dad was great. I don’t know how he put up with me. Yeah. I lost 17,000 pounds, at that time. And I don’t – I don’t know how – just he was very… very cool about it. I think that my dad was one of the coolest people ever.
DANA: Let’s talk about your parents. What were they like? Your Mom and Dad?
BASSEM: Dad was very cool – didn’t care about anything. Mom; extremely strict. She wore the pants in the household. She was like, too strict, and too, like, I don’t know just like she was very, very, very controlling. It comes from the fact that when her father died, she took care of the land so she had to deal with all of the farmers and all of the people in the land and she was also a professor. She was like, kind of a leader so she actually has got like some of the strongest personality and that’s why she clashed a lot with my brother and that’s why I was watching from afar. I learned my lesson and I ended up doing what I want behind her back. So yeah… And my father was just like the coolest guy. He was like, he didn’t care. He was like, “do whatever you want.” My mom was the one who’s always stressed out about us.
DANA: Tell us about the moment when you saw your country changing and what that felt like? Is there a memory that you remember so vividly that you felt like, “I need to do more,” or “something is wrong?”
BASSEM: I mean the biggest memory is like when I was in the hospital and we were getting ready to a day of surgery and then the head doctor canceled the list because we, on television we saw the attack on Tahrir square. That is what actually started all of this journey for me.
HEBAH: What kinds of things did you see?
BASSEM: Well all kinds of things. I mean, I’m not going to do like a heart surgery in the field. So I would be doing simple surgical procedure like suturing… suturing faces lips simple injuries. Of course, they were like specialized bone doctors and eye doctors – we would triage them – so I was basically in the triage zone.
Like many people, I didn’t know. I was not very politically involved or active and I saw people coming down the street and I watched, and I didn’t do much – but what I did was just volunteering, you know, giving out food and clothes and medical… I used my medical expertise to be part of the doctors that were stationed in Tahrir square, fixing the people who were injured in the clashes.
HEBAH: At the time, Bassem had been accepted to start a pediatric heart surgery fellowship in Cleveland in the US. He was on his way out of Egypt, a bright medical future ahead of him. And, as he was waiting for his paperwork to process, his friend Tareq revived this idea that the two work on a project together.
DANA: Tell us about the conversation that Tareq, your friend, had with you when he was trying to convince you to, I guess, start the show.
BASSEM: Yeah, so my friend Tareq – me and him… we were friends for a very long time – and he was a YouTube partner and in 2010, he started talking to me to… about hosting a show on YouTube – that was before the revolution. And he said like, what kind of show… whatever show you want to do, I will produce it.
HEBAH: Why did Tareq come to you and say, “let’s start a YouTube show,” of all the people he might have known?
BASSEM: Maybe because I was cheap, maybe because he didn’t want to pay. I don’t know. I asked him this question, I said, like I said, like you have a way when you speak to people, people listen. And I think they listen because I was too loud [laughs].
DANA: They thought maybe they’d do a YouTube show explaining the world’s religions in 5 minutes. But, ultimately, with everything happening in Tahrir, they couldn’t stop thinking about making a show that was more immediately relevant.
BASSEM: The thing is, what kind of like, made me realize that there’s something really wrong is that I would spend all my day there and then I go back home and I watch television. And then I see how the state-run media was twisting and spinning the truth and saying that all of these people are traitors and paid operatives. And then when Mubarak stepped down, I… I started kind of thinking of how can I make people remember that?
I wrote the script in two days, and I collected videos on YouTube and then Tareq got me a director and the director like, looked at the, a handwritten scribble and he said, “what the fuck is this?” And, “I’m not used to this, I’m a professional director, why am I doing this?” And he was like, he was very upset like, what the hell – and then we released the show and like, we are the biggest hit and then, “yeah, let’s do it!” And he was the same director who directed the show when we came to television. So, he remained with us.
HEBAH: What were your – in some of the things that we’ve read you were inspired by political satirists here in the US – can you talk about one that… When did you first start getting interested in comedy and particularly satire?
BASSEM: So, I used to travel a lot to the United States and when in my travels I discovered The Daily Show and Colbert and… I just wanted, I just was watching them every night and I fantasized about having the same show in Egypt.
BASSEM: Because this was amazing, this was an amazing way to show politics. But, in the back of my mind like that will… we will never have this in Egypt. So, when the revolution happened suddenly everything came to place like, now we can do it.
So when Tareq said find a format, he was thinking of Ray William Johnson, who was, at that time was like a huge hit on YouTube. I said, I don’t want to do Ray William Johnson. I want to do John Stewart. He said, “I don’t think it’s going to work.” I said, I want to do it.
HEBAH: How did you– especially because you said growing up you weren’t, you weren’t considered the funny one – so, where did, where did it all come from?
BASSEM: I have to tell you, I can’t even know but like, I was watching the videos and I was trying to find links between videos and how can we categorize them? Kind of like making fun of what we saw during the 18 days.
The first episode was about like, how all of the different ways that people are convincing people to leave Tahrir square, and that was the first one. And I have to tell you when I watch it now, I don’t think it’s funny. I really don’t think it was funny. I think like, I know now much more that I can actually make this much funnier, but I think it was something new for people and people were mesmerized by it. Although, it was not – again – it was not the greatest thing, but it was new. So, and this is why, this is, this is just an example of how we can do something that’s not that great, but you were given the chance to build on it, and you reach something that was phenomenal, which is the show in its final form.
HEBAH: So describe to us the very first shooting that you did. Where – where was it shot? What were you wearing? How many takes?
BASSEM: That was in the spare room that was supposed to be Nadia’s room in the future. It was empty. So, we set up a desk, a banner. One camera and the director was there behind the camera – hoping that this will work out.
DANA: How did you choose what to wear, do you remember?
BASSEM: I had like, a limited number of suits I just like – I mean I can’t even like look at myself right now. I looked so, such a like, a nerd. Why did I even like – I don’t know. I mean, I have to tell you, like when I remember those videos, although that was like the beginning of everything, I get really frustrated with myself because I really looked so bad.
[Clip from the show]
HEBAH: So they had a script for their first episode, they made a makeshift set in Bassem’s future daughter’s room. They shot the video, and put it up on YouTube. They called this new show B+.
BASSEM: I didn’t think too much of it. I thought maybe 10,000 people would watch the show. And in two weeks, there was like hundreds of thousands, and two months, there were five million, and at that time that was a big number.
HEBAH: You said that because it was new and the circumstances in time with the revolution and people’s power and all of this, that a show like this was possible. Can you expand on that a little bit? What was it that you were doing differently? And why do you think looking back you say and the first show wasn’t even that funny but, it did so successfully because people were hungry for – for what? What was it that you were giving them that they never had before?
BASSEM: Making fun of power. And at that time power was media. So when you make fun of power, this is something that people wasn’t used to. And we were naming names. We were very direct; we weren’t playing around the bush. We were very direct and we were, for the first time putting people accountable, holding them accountable for what they say on camera.
DANA: What did Hala think, your wife?
BASSEM: Hala is one of the most supportive people on Earth. She – I don’t know why the hell she is on this ride with me – I’m gonna go to Cleveland, fine. I’m going to do YouTube videos now, good. Now I’m going to do a show, I’m not going to go to Cleveland. All right. We’re going to leave the country and escape and go to Dubai, fine. We’re going to leave Dubai and come to Northern California, okay. I’m gonna leave North California like live full time in Los Angeles, okay … she’s been around. She’s a trooper.
HEBAH: how did you and your wife meet? Can you tell us that story?
BASSEM: Yes. I’ll take you back a little bit. I always liked dancing. Then I always… was a dance salsa dancer and I actually taught salsa for a few years in Cairo. I was – I had the biggest salsa classes in Cairo, as I was being a doctor. And then 2007, I discovered Tango and then I got into Tango. I would look for Tango festivals, tango teachers all over the world when I was traveling. And then I came back to Egypt and there was like a small Tango community and my wife, at that time, was one of the new ones there and I came in and I started showing people how Tango is really danced and this is where we met.
She came up to me because I was I was the cool guy coming from abroad and I was teaching everybody and she cannot cannot deny that [laughs] like, because, no, she was interested in the dance and like other dancing, the music, as a matter of fact, she hated the music I put like, “who’s that?” Like, I don’t know, so that guy who’s running the tango class like, it’s not me, it’s him. And, she looks like ooh, and, but then we became friends, and from friends who became more than friends.
A year later we were – a year and a half later – we were married, and we had a tango wedding.
HEBAH: What does that mean?
BASSEM: A tango wedding, which like we invited all of our Tango friends and the theme of the wedding was Tango and we were dancing the whole night, Tango. It was not one of those like, very noisy weddings. It was very classical very – and our families was there and we’re very enjoying it and they said like, is this like a band? And we’re like, no, these are our friends.
DANA: I love that.
HEBAH: Did you have a conversation with Hala about wanting to – who did you talk to – about wanting to start the show?
BASSEM: I talked to Hala, of course. I talked to my father and mother and like… but like, no one, me or the director or Tareq my parents ever expected this will go that big. Nobody expected this. I mean, that’s why when people say, how did you –? When you ask people who, who were successful… nobody has a formula for success. This is all nonsense. Nobody. Because it just worked. It happened – circumstances, stuff. I’m not saying that it is… I’m not saying that you like, you don’t have to put hard work and everything, but there’s a lot of people put hard work and they don’t make it… it just happens. I cannot give you a formula to be… to do what I did because I cannot even recreate that. So, when we talked, nobody expected that it would be that successful.
And five million people watched the show online and suddenly I have all of these networks approaching me to do a show on their platform and I said, but I’m a doctor, I’m waiting for my papers from Cleveland and then – I said, you know what, maybe I will – I will do it.
So we made an agreement with my mom – because my mom had to approve everything – that I’m going to put that project, going to Cleveland off for a year, but I’m going to still going to be a doctor and go to the hospital. So, I did that. So, the first season I continued to go to the hospital while doing the show.
DANA: What was that first phone call like? when you were offered a television show?
BASSEM: So it wasn’t… it wasn’t really a call. It was – we were invited to meet different executives, different TV stations. And then it was like, people were very difficult because they didn’t want to put like a good decent budget. They just wanted – I’d say, YouTube video, who the –? At that time taking someone from YouTube, putting it on television was unheard of. So they said, like I’d something from the Internet it’s gonna be like flaky, it’s not going to go anywhere. So, he’s a little bit too – no, we want to do like a good production. So, people started to think that I’m arrogant. And I am… and I’m materialistic and I said guys, you know, if that doesn’t work, I’m just going to go and travel to Cleveland. I don’t care. It’s either done correctly or not. So then we went to… on TV and Naguib Sawaris, he was the owner, and he said all right, you know and he told me that listen, we’re not going to make any money out of you. But like, I like what you do.
[clip from show]
HEBAH: What was it that Al Bernameg was giving you in a way that you – because Cleveland is very prestigious and talking about being a doctor for status, that’s like status of status coming to the US, all of this – what was it that Al Bernameg that was fulfilling you that medicine wasn’t?
BASSEM: Well, when you get into media and you find that you have a voice and that people listen to that voice, that’s a big blessing. It’s a responsibility, but it’s also now an amazing feeling – it could be toxic. It could be very dangerous. But, I was appreciative of ever having this kind of opportunity. So you say something and people share it. And people agree or disagree, what you say matters. So in medicine it’s a very individualistic stuff – you treat one patient at a time. But, in the show you affect many people at the same time, a whole lot of people so that’s, that’s, that’s a big blessing.
And I don’t know, kind of like, that you know, satire isn’t just fun and games. It’s about what kind of message you want to spread. So you can do like a, like a sketch that is funny but doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t leave people with anything. Every single sketch, every single… joke, every single episode has to mean something and have to have a certain impact. So that was the responsibility.
HEBAH: Can you give an example? What was the kind of impact that you wanted to leave people with, to leave – what kinds of thoughts did you want your viewers to have?
BASSEM: I mean, the… the main thing is about basically taking our problems lightly, especially in politics. That was the main thing, the thing that we can laugh on our like, at ourselves and about like, and not take things too serious. But, sometimes, like, the authority would misuse its authority, and you have to speak up… you want to like, alert people to that. And that was the part where people would start hating you.
DANA: In the documentary you, you say some people, you know like fame but, for me, fame comes with a lot of anxiety – do you feel that way still?
BASSEM: Yeah, at a certain point it was a big burden, especially in Egypt, because it’s… it’s anything that you say, you’re going to be – it’s kind of damned if you do damned if you don’t – and, and because people get disenfranchised with their politicians and news media people, they just like turn to satirists, which is very dangerous. And then you try to tell them, it’s just a satirical program. It is just having fun. It’s having fun with a message but still: comedy. But it’s just like, people just like, unload their stuff on you. And, and at the end of the day, you’re – you want to take a break, you can’t. You want to like, get out of it, you can’t. And… and to be judged 24 hours about everything that you say or even about the jokes that you say just like it’s very, very, very difficult – so it’s just like a continuous pressure. So it was toxic, in that sense. But, at least I didn’t let myself – I, I mean that’s the one thing that I kind of, I was aware of from the get-go. So, I didn’t make it kind of… I kept myself grounded, so I didn’t really consider myself, as I said, everything. I didn’t go to the celebrities hang outs or anything.
HEBAH: And, how did you recruit your team? Because this was a new kind of comedy.
BASSEM: We recruited our team based on passion. Not on experience. Actually, there’s some of the most experienced people who were – we kind of ditched them because they were not passionate enough. They were doing the same old thing that they used to and we didn’t want to do that. So, we interviewed a lot of people and they came through.
HEBAH: And do you – how did you teach yourself comedy? Was there… was there any sort of conscious, okay, I need to take workshops now, this is serious? Or was it all just natural skill?
BASSEM: Take workshops with whom? There was nobody – there was no industry. We… we created something where there was no precedence in in Egypt. And the Old Guard were just like, belonged to a different era, a different thought so who would you go to? So we basically, we trained ourselves. We’d just watch more and more Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and try to be inspired.
DANA: Bassem what made you keep going week after week, especially at the times that got really rough, the times where you had to send your wife and daughter to sleep somewhere else because there was fear? What made you go back every week, until you couldn’t anymore?
BASSEM: Yeah, well – the fear was there, but you just have to eliminate that and continue, because you… you will either live with it or you let it control you. At the end of the day, we have a deadline every, every week. So if you produce a bad show nobody would say, “oh he was afraid” – nobody cares. People just care about the end product. People are not gonna make any excuses for you.
HEBAH: What were the conversations that you were having with Hala though, when things started to get really bad towards the third and the fourth season?
BASSEM: Well, Hala was, was very careful not to put more stress on me. I mean she was like, she was there for support but she was… she, she didn’t want to be an extra burden.
HEBAH: What about with your parents? What were the conversations?
BASSEM: My mom was very, very, very – that, the whole time – she was very agitated. Very nervous. Very worried. She wouldn’t ever – like she would say, “Oh, that was a great show. But like, I’m worried about you.” She was always worried, always worried. Sometimes, like, especially in season 1, when I kind of like hinted, made fun of the military. She called one or after one of the shows and she was furious. “How can you make fun of it? Of – of the army?” She just, yeah, she was… she was, she was having a huge problem with me and like there are that old generation, the military was untouchable. My dad was very cool. He was very proud, he’s like, “yeah, my son’s a celebrity. I got tickets for his show.” So, that’s a totally different attitudes.
HEBAH: We’ve heard, we’ve heard in, in the film and the book, some… your childhood friends towards the end of the fourth season sort of doubted your intentions and were questioning the comedy because it was so vocal against the military –
BASSEM: Not just my childhood friends, my – members of my family.
HEBAH: Can you… can you describe what that’s like, on the receiving end and then, how you dealt with that?
BASSEM: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who… who kind of like, grew up with me and they were even big fans and they got tickets to my shows and people who were part of my family and then they would like, suddenly believe… the, the lies about the military, about me, you know? And it was… just like the whole thing about like – I’m a traitor, stuff, just like it was horrible. And so to do that, there were people like, they were writing on Facebook stuff about me, like come on! Yeah, it was a good… it’s a good excuse to block your family members on Facebook.
HEBAH: How do you… how do you shield your heart – or can you – from things like that? Like how do you –
BASSEM: It was just overwhelming. It was like one hit after the other. The death of my mom, the death of my dad, the turn of the tide against me. It was just like too much. And I think by that time, I just had to either pretend that I have a thick skin or actually act as I have a thick skin, because you couldn’t afford it because – and also and add on this seven years of cyberbullying that did not stop at a single day.
Seven years of cyberbullying and I’m not saying about cyber bullying like people leaving comments, I’m talking about also media bullying. Imagine like you do a show and every single late night show, you being the headline and they’re tearing you apart. Imagine waking up the next day and there’s seven… 700 articles written about you in one week – 714 articles – somebody actually counted. When you do your best and you… you can’t and then everything around you falls apart and then you cannot have the support anymore and you choose to leave… Those followers call you a coward. “You left us. You could have done whatever you want from the outside” – it’s like, so why? Even if I could – why?
I was there with 40 million people watching the show and you were like, just like, watching and just like, laughing every single weekend and then you want me… to just use me as a tool, so I’m not going to get into this anymore. So, for example right now when I do – when I advocate for plant-based diet it’s like, “oh, you left politics and now you’re doing a cooking show.” I don’t even care. I’m doing what I want to do. I’m still working in politics in my own way. I do stand-up. I… I tour around the States. I talk about politics the way I want. I am not going to have to talk about the people that you want me to talk about. I – I just decided to live my life as I wanted, not as like, what people expect me to do because this is very destructive. And, this is a sure spiral weight into depression. So, I… I’m done with that. I don’t care.
DANA: Bassem, did you ever deal with depression?
BASSEM: Well, I think I… I’m absolutely certain that I have some sort of depression. I’m not clinically diagnosed. I didn’t, I didn’t go to therapy. I think I should. But, I’m – I think if you’re that exposed, you should be dealing with depression. There’s nothing positive coming out from that much exposure.
HEBAH: I heard in one of you the the interviews that you did previously that, when the fourth season was taken down, you had repeat offers to do – to continue the show conditionally, not, not saying the things that they didn’t want you to say – can you walk us through why you refused that, or why you refused doing the show abroad?
BASSEM: So when I left the country, I got like, so many offers, offers from outside the country, from people who don’t like the regime, to do the show. And I said, I’m not going to be a tool in other people’s hands. And, I got offers from the regime to come back, to have kind of a watered-down version of a political satire show and I said, I’m not going to come and go there. And I had shows from people from Dubai and Lebanon to do a game show, or late night show or kind of a fun and play show. And I said, that’s not me, and I couldn’t. Just like, I told them, guys this is not about politics, this is not about moralities. It just – it’s, it’s, it’s a pure business position. You are buying me, because I represent something. So when you put me on television people expect something, when they don’t see that, it will be a failure. So, I’m talking to you in a business that you – in a language that you understand – it’s not about like, what I believe in, morality or, that I’m a fighter. I’m just going to put it to you in very simple business terms. And other than that, I’m not gonna be happy because I… I, I’m used to saying what I want to say. And I believe that comedy means that you should be liberated from all forms of control. So I will end up doing a bad show, and this is something I fought all my life not to do.
HEBAH: Can you tell us the first time you met Jon Stewart? What was that – what was that like?
BASSEM: 2012. Summer of 2012. I was there shadowing his team. I didn’t even expect that I’m going to see him. Maybe I was just hoping for a selfie. And I remember the first selfie I got with him was very blurry because I took it very fast. But then, he invited me to his room, to his office. And we talked. I thought it was 15 minutes, it went to an hour and a half. And then we became friends, and that’s how it started.
DANA: How has your decision to move to America or even your decisions to leave Egypt, to go somewhere else, were they at all influenced by him or what influence has he played in your life since then?
BASSEM: Well, he said one thing that has kind of resonated with me when I was – before the final season – the season that was a problem. He gave me two advises, one before that show, where he said, “make fun of what you’re afraid of.” So if you remember the first episode coming back, we made fun of things that we cannot talk about without talking about them. And that was I think one of the most genius episodes that we have ever done. That we were not actually talking about things, but people will know exactly what we’re talking about. The second thing he said, after like, my show was done, like he said, “don’t try to recreate Al Bernameg because Al Bernameg has its own legacy. And you need to move on.” And I think that actually made the big – I kind of like, I didn’t follow that by that time I still kind of a still have residues – but after years I can actually see what he meant. I cannot continue to identify myself as Bassem who did Al Bernameg only. There’s so many other things that I am doing and I don’t have to lock myself into that.
HEBAH: When, when you and your family decided to leave Egypt, can you walk us through what happened next?
BASSEM: So we got… I got the news that the verdict against me was final. That I was fined by a hundred million pounds, which is 13 million dollars, which is ridiculous, and everybody thought this is a political verdict. So, I escaped the country. And I escaped to Dubai, 5 hours after the verdict.
We were going to the airport, with me, my friend Ahmed Abbas, and I was wondering if they would let me in if they actually already put my name on the list, but we were checking the Twitter every five minutes to make sure that we didn’t make the news. And, because once we were out there, they were gonna like, use the pressure of the public to actually put some kind of restraints on me. And thankfully that didn’t happen. So I was on a plane, went to Dubai and stayed there for a year. And in this year, I got all of these offers and then I thought this is, this is going to be my future if I stay here. So I’m going to leave. And I left. And I decided to come here to the United States to start from scratch and I decided to do that in English – talking to people from a different, different language, different audience that’s not my audience. I had to teach myself how to do stand-up in English. And I even didn’t do stand-up in Arabic. So, that is like again in the… in the span of four or five years, I changed my career for the third time.
HEBAH: Can you describe what that process of reinvention has been like for you? So from, from medicine to comedy and then from Egyptian comedy to, now, American tailored comedy.
BASSEM: So from medicine to comedy I’ve already talked about that. This was all very coincidental, and then like, here, It was just like a survival, because I couldn’t just be a guy in… in the diaspora doing stuff that is related to a place that I’m not living in anymore. I – there’s a new reality, reality for me and I need to address it. And, I need to speak to the people living in the country that I’m living at, not to the one percent minority but to Americans. So, I would go to small comedy clubs where nobody knows me and I try my material and sometimes I do well, sometimes I do horrible, and I learn, and I do go again.
DANA: Did you ever consider that you would still do Arabic comedy from here?
BASSEM: Yeah, but for whom?
DANA: I mean, it’s the internet…
BASSEM: Yeah, but look for whom? I mean, but talking about what? What’s happening in Egypt?
BASSEM: Why? I already did that for four years. I already did that. And here’s the thing: people think that satire will – satire can work in a place where there is dynamics – so political satire in America is strong because you have a free society. It worked in Egypt, the three years after, because there was at least the illusion of a free society. So you can actually make an impact, you can change stuff and there’s also no danger for yourself. All of the people who fled Egypt and did stuff from outside Egypt, how successful are they? They’re not. It doesn’t work unless you are there and you are in touch with what’s happening and you can make an impact. Otherwise you’re just going to be an outlet for people’s frustrations and it’s not gonna work. I’m not gonna progress. And it can hurt other people that are related to me, right? So there’s no point.
HEBAH: What is the hardest part about comedy, here?
BASSEM: I think the hardest part of comedy here, as someone as – you see like, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader, all of these people actually English as their first language. I have to think in a language that’s not mine. So no matter how you think – “oh, you speak language very well.” Yeah, it doesn’t matter. Doing comedy is a third language. And you have to be very good in the second language, and actually in order to do the third language, so that’s, that’s, that’s tough.
HEBAH: Are there things that you miss about Egypt?
BASSEM: Well, a lot of people ask me this question and I answer the same way. I say that the Egypt that I miss, is not there anymore. So as sad as it might sound but it’s true.
DANA: Both your parents passed away, and your father passed and you weren’t able to go to the funeral. What are some of the memories from your parents that stay with you everyday?
BASSEM: I remember like, that when my dad was very adamant to come to every show. He came to all of my shows, which I really appreciated. To do it with him sitting there, it’s something amazing. My mom came to one show. Yeah, and she was very happy. At least she got – she came to see me in my element. Their untimely very early death was kind of like, it’s a blessing in disguise, because I saw how my grandparents on both sides died a very painful, long death of old age, of Alzheimer’s, of Dementia. And they died very young and they died healthy. So, I think I’m blessed that I don’t have bad memories about them being disabled. That’s the best thing that like – so if you tell me what are the good moments? The good moments are that we didn’t have those moments… I didn’t have bad memories about their health, that’s the best thing because I’ve seen how my grandparents suffered, and they didn’t.
HEBAH: There is something that you said… that I’ve heard you say in an interview. I think an Egyptian American asked you a question of what… what can, what can we do from abroad? And your response to him was, well you know that, even though, as an Egyptian living abroad, Egypt still consumes you. Do you still believe that?
BASSEM: Yes, I think so. I think you should stop making this happen. You should stop making Egypt consume you. You should really focus on yourself and your well-being, on your success and when Egypt is ready for your skills, and for your expertise, you can go. But you should not let that chase you. It’s very, very consuming. It’s very draining.
HEBAH: What would be the first two lines of your obituary?
BASSEM: I… I have to be very honest with you, when I’m dead, I really don’t care. People are so obsessed about what are they going to leave after they die. When we die, we’re not gonna – that’s not gonna even like, matter. And it doesn’t matter if you believe in a second life or not because if you believe in the second life, the second life is much, gonna be like, the first life would be dwarfed by that second life. And if there is no second life, you’re dead, you’re gone. Why do you care about what is going to be written about you? I think you should be worried about like what is actually being said about you, as in your contribution from the people that you trust and you appreciate when you are living. But like, seriously, obituaries, I don’t know. Why would you even care? You’re dead. And you don’t feel anything. And if you do… because there’s a second life, you’re going to have much more important things to worry about, than an obituary in a newspaper that’s going to be circulated for a couple of days, and then it’s gone…
DANA: Okay, fine, fine, fine, fine, tayeb [laughs]. How about –
BASSEM: I know it’s very nihilistic and I know it’s very – but it’s kind of like, it’s the truth, guys.
DANA: Okay. If you didn’t answer that question, I’m going to ask another question, in return – if there’s a second life, what would you like to be in the second life?
BASSEM: What I would like to be in the second life? I would like to be me. I like to be happy. It’s just like, I would like to be content. That’s, that’s, that’s what I’d like to do.
HEBAH: What does… What does contentment mean to you?
BASSEM: The, the absolute absence of need… that’s contentment. Because need is like, the precursor of greed, of want of like, you know? And that stress. So if you don’t need anything, you’re happy, happy with what you’ve got, you’re satisfied. See Nadia? That is content. She doesn’t need anything. She’s just jumping on the thing.
DANA: She’s jumping on the couch, just for our listeners.
Catch Bassem live at some of his upcoming stand-up comedy shows, or his latest video series Plant B, a series looking at improving the current global health crisis through plant-based diet.
HEBAH: This episode was produced by Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher, with editorial support by Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. Al Empire is produced by Kerning Cultures. And, next week on Al Empire…
DINA: They say that TV shows have had more of an effect on American fear of Arabs than anything else, and so that’s something that I’m very wary of – things that are terrorist plots – because I have no interest in continuing to build on the fear people have of Arabs.
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