Breakfast with Mada: Bassem Youssef on cracking the walls

Every Thursday Mada Masr invites someone interesting to the office on the promise of a hearty and fulfilling breakfast prepared by Mada receptionist Osama. It is a ruse that has proved wildly successful, and last week we had in Bassem Youssef of Al-Bernameg fame.

Youssef and the Bernameg team are three episodes into the latest season of the satirical news show, currently airing on satellite channel MBC Masr after they were unceremoniously booted off CBC last November.

As a vegan in a nation of animal carcass enthusiasts, it warms my stony, plant-fuelled heart to say that Youssef shuns the meat. He recently declared on Twitter that he has been a vegan for five months. As we pursued a meandering conversation about Al-Bernameg, the minefield that is political comedy in Egypt and his run-ins with middle aged ladies at the Gezira Sporting Club, Youssef ploughed through the offerings in front of him with an impressive gusto. It was gastronomical carnage, and the falafel were the primary victims.

We wanted to know what the Bernameg team is like. Youssef likened them to a family, and said that he tries to employ a non-hierarchical “flat structure” where he is like a “moderator,” only intervening when really necessary. It results in “endless discussions,” Youssef said, something that sounded very familiar to us at Mada, where entire centuries can pass in meetings. 

This horizontal set up, and the reciprocal criticism between him and his team, also means that he has “no ego” because he subjects himself to their continual criticism — which is lucky, because since he hit the big time Youssef has been the target of continual criticism amidst an atmosphere of extreme and heated political polarization, with each side variously eulogizing him when he reflects their opinion and excoriating him when he doesn’t.

Compounding this is that even Youssef’s fans lash out when the show fails to meet their expectations, he says, and complain that “he’s not as angry and revolutionary as we are!”

“At least I’m on your side,” Youssef answers his angry fans.

“Maybe I’m not as loud and vicious as you are, but that’s maybe because I’m in mainstream television. I have to be a bit more careful. This is a very unhealthy environment. At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment show. We never claimed that we’re freedom fighters. But people put so much weight on the program that we cannot bear. People use us as a boxing glove to hit whoever they’re angry at.”

Youssef describes his approach as, “nibbling at the wall of consciousness” rather than hurtling headfirst into it. 

“There is always a way to go and get your message without [insults]. You nibble at the wall of the consciousness and you get your message across. You have a choice to go full speed ahead into the wall, and the wall is so thick and you’re going to crack your head. And the wall will be cracked a little bit and then be mended. Or you just nibble a bit and have more time.”

Compounding this stress is the pressure to be both funny and deliver a message, and package the comedy in a way that all of Egypt’s socially diverse society can understand. 

Youssef says that 35-40 million people watch Al-Bernameg. The working man watching in a cafe may not be au fait with references that westernized Egyptians relate to. Youssef gives as an example the time he made a joke involving Mohamed ElBaradei and Twitter during rehearsals, and the studio technicians in front of him looked blank and asked each other what he was going on about.

“Writing comedy for a big audience is extremely challenging. To make a program that both [lower and upper-class] groups understand is extremely difficult. Being in a zone that everyone understands and at the same time is funny is very difficult,” the satirist explains.

Youssef’s own background is well-known. A surgeon and Jon Stewart fan, he Egypt-ized the Daily Show format on YouTube before he was snapped up by television. 

Youssef says of himself that he “isn’t the funniest person in the room,” but makes up for that with hard work and organization, the legacy of his years in medicine. But there is nonetheless a natural goofiness (“at heart I’m a nerd”) about him, and this coupled with his talent for doing ridiculous voices makes for entertaining listening. 

The first time he recorded a show in front of a live audience, Youssef froze when they roared with laughter for the first time. He says that he and the team continue to judge the success of an episode by the laughs it gets during recording, rather than postmortem responses to it afterwards.

Responses to the show are heavily shaped by the media, Youssef says. He recalls going to the Gezira Sporting Club — an exclusive club in the upscale Cairene district of Zamalek — the morning after one controversial episode, and people were shaking his hand.

After 24 hours of the media doing its work, he went back and says he was getting the stink eye.

Youssef is highly critical of Egyptian media.

“The whole system of creating a TV show is that 90 percent of the budget goes to the anchor, to the star. And then you sell advertising in their name. The 10 percent that is left goes to the production. So they spend like a million pounds for a very stupid decor. At the end it comes back to a guy behind a desk talking to a camera and receiving phone calls,” Youssef explains.

He is equally critical of the lack of diversity and imagination on Egyptian television, the majority of whose programming consists of chats shows and anchors receiving phone-ins. Very few programs veer away from this model with, say, documentary reports or other formats. 

“My problem with Egyptian media is that you don’t have Egyptian TV. You have Egyptian radio. If you close your eyes totally and you follow the mainstream TV you’ll not miss anything. There is nothing visually stimulating about it. Even when you do phone calls on CNN there are reports and graphics and so on. For the past ten years Egyptian television has been spending all its money on radio,” Youssef says.

But the media, despite the narrowness of its artistic vision, has been used to great effect to (mis)inform and shape public opinion, particularly during fraught days following the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that followed. 

“In September and October, the anger was horrible,” Youssef says — but he recounts an encounter with a lady at the Gezira Sporting Club (again) whose comic absurdity takes a considerable edge off the tragedy of it all.

Youssef was doing pull-ups at the running track one morning when out of nowhere a formidable middle-aged woman doing laps came speed-walking past. 

“‘You traitor! You foreign agent!'” he says, imitating her in a rapid high-pitched shriek.

“The first thing I thought was, where is this sound coming from? The next time [she speed-walked past] it was, ‘How much did Obama give you?!’ She had 400 meters to think of something to say each time. A girl objected and the woman screamed, ‘Is she Muslim Brotherhood or what?!'”

“I’m in a position that I can’t really answer back. I’m being put in a position that I can’t really answer anyone because it will be taken against me,” Youssef says.

There was a more cheerful incident at the Gezira Club when a woman approached Youssef and said, “I’m a fan of yours despite the fact that you make fun of my son.”

The woman turned out to be the mother of Tamer Hagras, an actor who Youssef had made fun of because of his deep orange, George Hamilton-type tan.

“The funny thing,” Youssef remembers, “is that she was wearing orange.”


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