Late for democracy

Meet the ‘Jon Stewart of the Arab World’

Comedian Yussem Bassef
Bassem Youssef launches his Late for Democracy 2020 Tour this Friday and Saturday at Punch Line Philly. | Image courtesy: Bassem Youssef

If there’s a “normal” path to the standup comedy stage, Bassem Youssef certainly hasn’t taken it.

He was a heart surgeon. Then he created the most popular political satire show in the Middle East. Then, since those in power in the region don’t always embrace political satire, he was arrested and had to escape his home country of Egypt. Finally, he made it to the United States – just in time for the Trump presidency.

So you figure the guy, at the very least, has a few entertaining stories to tell.

You can find out for yourself as Youssef will kick off his Late for Democracy 2020 Tour in Philadelphia at Punch Line Philly this Friday and Saturday.

“We are not that different, I tell you.”

–Bassem Youssef, who will appear Friday and Saturday at Punch Line Philly.

Youssef, dubbed the “Jon Stewart of the Arab World,” was the host of the popular TV show “AlBernameg” – which was the first of its kind political satire show in the Middle East. Unfortunately, not all people, especially those in power, were thrilled with the show, and he was issued an arrest warrant in March 2013. He turned himself in the next day, where he was questioned for five hours and released on bail. 

Finally, in June 2014, and after a six-week break, the “AlBernameg” team held a press conference where Youssef announced the termination of the show due to overwhelming pressures on both the show and the airing channel.

Oh, and if you go to the show and for some reason need medical attention, no worries. Youssef majored in cardiothoracic surgery, passed the United States Medical License Exam and is a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He practiced cardiothoracic surgery in Egypt for 13 years, before moving into comedy and political satire.

PW caught up to Youssef just prior to the launch of his tour to talk about his long, strange journey and life as a comedian in America.

You’ve gone from heart surgeon to comedian. Was that the career path you always envisioned? How did such a drastic change come about?

It is true that I was a heart surgeon, but deep down I wanted to be on TV. But that is not anything special. It’s like every little kid putting a blanket on as a cape and dreaming of flying like Superman. So it was a fantasy that had no way to be materialized. 

But in reality, the revolution happened in Egypt, and suddenly everything was possible. Even then, the dream of being on TV was a dream that will never happen. I just did these YouTube videos satirizing our ridiculous state-run media telling everyone that there was a conspiracy against us and that the revolution is carried out by a bunch of sex-crazed, drugged and drunk youth (you know like Burning Man), and overnight the videos became viral and I found myself on TV.  

After escaping a dictatorship in your home country of Egypt, you landed in America – just in time for President Donald Trump. Has your approach to comedy and satire changed since coming to the U.S.?

I think that made me draw more comparisons between what happened in Egypt and what is happening in America. The polarization, the divide, the ways the news is spun, the rhetoric, all that gave me a very clear and fun idea to draw the comparisons. We are not that different, I tell you.

Bassem Youssef, who’s gone from heart surgeon to comedian, will appear Friday and Saturday at Punch Line Philly. | Image courtesy: Bassem Youssef

There’s a politically incorrect comedy, and then there’s getting arrested for doing comedy and satire. Can you talk a little about how you dealt with lawsuits, arrests and the pressure to change or stop what you were doing?

I talk about this in my show, there is a whole scene where I describe my interrogation as they ask me to explain my jokes. 

It was a tough experience, but I have to say I was more stressed by trolls on the internet telling me I am not funny more than being arrested. I mean if I was thrown in jail or killed, I would have been a martyr. On the internet, there is no reward for being cyberbullied.

What will your Philly fans see when they show up for your Late for Democracy 2020 Tour launch at Punch Line Friday and Saturday?

This is not your usual standup routine with setups and punchlines. It is a mixture of standup, storytelling and a personal story all wrapped up in a one-man show style with videos and music and dancing and actual scenes of what happened to me there. 

It is still funny, I promise, but it will be something that is different from what you usually see in comedy clubs. I hope more people can come and share my story with me.

What’s next for you? What do you see yourself doing five or 10 years from now?  

Winning the Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy and a Tony … hey, why not? “Parasite” gave us all hope. 

But other than that, I want to have a mark in the American media scene. I think there are a lot of stories from my part of the world that need to be told, and I think that stories bring us together as we have learned from that scene in “Game of Thrones” given by Tyrion Lannister (what a bunch of bullshit). But, anyway, I do hope I would find a new home for me in this country, and I hope I would continue to do what I love: make people laugh.

Bassem Youssef’s Late for Democracy 2020 Tour | Feb. 28 and 29, 7:30 and 9:45 each night. $25-$35. Punch Line Philly, 33 E. Laurel St. Tickets and info: punchlinephilly.com

Need more laughs?

Also at Punch Line Philly will be Kristina Kuzmic, who has just come out with a new inspirational book titled “Hold On, But Don’t Hold Still.”

Her book tour continues on Saturday at 3:30. Tickets are $35.

Kuzmic is known for her hysterical and authentic take on woman and family, friendships, self-image and empowerment that are so necessary, especially in today’s climate. She is a huge influencer and Vlogger, and her videos cover every topic appealing to many people around the world – more than 900 million views on social media. She went on to have her own show on the OWN network.

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