Knock, Knock: Bassem Youssef goes global

As the Egyptian comedian's popularity skyrockets, the key to his future relies on him mastering his own internal struggles
Published: 8 April 2024

For the longest time Bassem Youssef was motivated by revenge. Not exactly of the arch kind—there were no cunning plans or dastardly schemes—this vengeance was career motivation, plain and simple. The way he looked at it, if he could succeed as an Egyptian stand-up comedian in the US—after everything he’d been through—he would prove everybody wrong. There was only one problem: He wasn’t actually very good.

“I started five or six years ago and, like anything new that you try, in the beginning you’re not good. So, yeah, I sucked big-time,” confirms Youssef via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “The problem was that I had come from a point of high expectations, especially from an Arab audience who had seen me on Al Bernameg. Many people would come to my show and be disappointed. I got it—I was disappointed too. I was in my mid-40s competing with kids in their 20s doing shitty open mics and stand-up comedy clubs. To be honest, it was a little bit humiliating.”

The move to stand up was meant to be Youssef’s big pivot. Well, his second one if you count the initial transition from cardiac surgeon to TV show host in 2011 (and you really should). But in 2014 he had cancelled Al Bernameg—his groundbreaking Egyptian show that dared take a satirical sideswipe at the country’s elite—as the pressure had simply become too great. The show had been a staggering success, regularly attracting 30 million viewers across a three-season run, but the country’s Mohamed Morsi-ran government was fragile in ego. In March 2013 a warrant was issued for Youssef’s arrest, claiming he had ‘insulted Islam’ as well as the current president. Four months later Morsi was deposed by military coup, but Youssef believed that his own fate was written, too. In 2014, for the safety of his family, he left Egypt for good.

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When it came to stand up, Youssef got better. “Bit by bit things improved,” he says. “I became more comfortable with the material, and the nuance of doing the show in English.” But while the Arab audience was where his fame lay, there was a time when he refused to perform in Arabic at all. That choice feels like it stems from somewhere raw. Perhaps a subconscious kickback to the treatment he received on leaving his homeland.

“What happened to me in Egypt, when I quit for the safety of my family,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was just too much pressure. But I was called a coward, a sell-out. The epitome of love [from the people] had turned into the depths of hate.”

But of course you can only deny self for so long, and eventually Youssef began performing in Arabic again. Now he tours two shows at the same time, one in English, one in Arabic. “It was hard to begin with,” he admits. “A couple of times they [the Arabic shows] didn’t go so well, but eventually I found my voice. But they are totally different, the Arabic show has nothing to do with the English one. Doing this is difficult.”

There’s a tension that often lies beneath the surface of the best comedians. A dark that fuels the light. You sense it in Youssef, too—and not just because he’s under the weather today and with a big show at the weekend. The experience with Al Bernameg almost broke him, being labelled the ‘Voice of The Arab Spring’ could do that for you. You still feel that a big part of him wants to speak out on issues surrounding the Middle East—his actions tell you that—but he hates it too. The pressure, the expectation. That kind of weight can be debilitating.

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On October 18, 2023, Youssef was interviewed about the Israel-Gaza war on Piers Morgan: Uncensored. It would have seismic results.

“The producers at Piers Morgan: Uncensored had actually approached me to discuss [the situation in Gaza] twice, but at that moment it just felt like any comment would have been career suicide,” he says wearily. Youssef had appeared on the show some months earlier, speaking out on the Afrocentrism row that surrounded the Netflix docu-drama Queen Cleopatra, and had put in a typically indefatigable performance.

“But at that point it just seemed impossible to speak out against the narrative that was being told [on Palestine]. That changed when I saw Ben Shapiro’s comments going out on his show. I got very upset. When the producers called me a third time I said ‘yes’.”

The interview currently sits with 21 million views on YouTube (the most-watched Piers Morgan: Uncensored episode of all-time) and saw Youssef engage with a typically satirical approach, exaggerating all the points made before him. It was a tactical strategy that took guts.

This is how the conversation with his wife, Hala—herself half-Palestinian—went prior to his appearance on the show.

Bassem: “Hey, I’m going on the Piers Morgan show tomorrow to talk about Palestine.”
Hala: “Are you sure—what are you going to say?”
Bassem: “I don’t know.”
Hala: “Good luck.”

And then after the show (after he had joked how Hala, as Palestinian, was indeed ‘difficult to kill’)…

Hala: “Don’t do a second one.”
Bassem: “I’ll just do one more.”
Hala: “OK, do what you want.”

“This is why our marriage works,” he smiles. “We give each other the space to be ourselves.”

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Youssef’s strategy was something approaching shock and awe. A first, slightly-over-the-top exaggerated first interview that would lead to something deeper; a face-to-face with Morgan which duly came on October 31.

“To be honest, the whole thing really felt like a lose-lose situation to me,” he admits. “I thought, ‘If I do well I could lose my whole career, and if I do badly I could be cancelled by my own people’. But I took a chance. For the first interview I wanted to make a splash. But for the second I worked with some amazing people around the world to educate myself further on the situation. There were so many nuances we don’t know, even though we’re Arabs.

"The first [interview] was sensation, the second was education. This approach was risky from beginning to end and I can’t sit here and say that I planned it all. I could have lost everything; but I got lucky. If you look at the videos, the first is on 21 million views while the second has 11 million, but the second has more clips being cut from it, and has been viewed far more.”

The fallout from the interviews has been mixed. “It’s been mostly positive from my people,” he says. “I’ve actually been selling-out shows because people saw it. But I’ve had to tell them that one has nothing to do with the other. On the negative side, I lost a couple of jobs in Hollywood. Movie roles that got cancelled, I’m still working out whether I want to make a fuss about that yet. On a personal level, people have been extremely nice. Although I did have a couple of incidents where some comedians I had worked with were a little nasty about me. I didn’t respond. Why give them any fuel?”

There were also other issues at play here. Since leaving Egypt in 2014, Youssef had made LA his home and is now officially a US citizen—something that he remains positive about the situation. “I haven’t really worried about my position here,” he says. “I’m an American citizen and I do believe in this country. Of course, like anywhere, there are problems. But I would rather live here than any other country. I think that the people growing up in the US can make positive changes. I still believe in the idea of America.”

“I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve a cause in some way.” BASSEM YOUSSEF

Inevitably, since the interview, there has been the inclination to push Youssef to the forefront of the conversation when it comes to Palestine. And to an extent, he has continued to highlight the plight of the people. Things like Instagram live check-ins with Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, for example, show his desire to do something. But there’s a level of unease you see on his face when he discusses it. The shadow of that Al Bernameg pressure creeping back into his life.

“I’m not exactly sure what I will do next. It would really be up to people like Motaz—he has to figure out that risk,” he says before trailing off… “I don’t know if it’s even helpful.”

There’s a real internal struggle at play here. In our social media age, any perceived missteps are publicly called out. And the pressure heaped on high profile accounts can be unbearable for anyone. For Youssef it’s a frustration.

“I don’t like doom scrolling or posting. If you look at my feed I don’t really put ho­rrific images there. Because, at the end of the day—and this is a problem with Arabs especially—we just want to be doom, doom, doom [mimics scrolling on a phone] and then we cry with each other. I’m not saying that people should stop doing this, maybe it is effective.

"But from my point of view, if people started unfollowing me because of that then it doesn’t matter what I’m posting, because it’s not going to be seen. I want to continue working, to become more successful, more vocal, so I will be invited and asked to talk at higher profile shows and opportunities… Piers Morgan, Joe Rogan… suddenly your message can reach a lot more people. But right now I have people cursing me, and judging me if I post about my upcoming shows. ‘You didn’t post about Gaza today’. But they forget that this is my livelihood.”

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So the internal conflict continues. The desire to simply be himself, a comedian, and not have the pressures of a people, versus the knowledge that sometimes he cannot remain silent.

“I do what I do because you feel it’s the right thing,” he says. But then it comes: ‘you are our voice’. Basically you are putting all your expectations on a human being and, at a certain point, maybe they won’t be able to speak up. Maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re afraid. But people are so frustrated by politicians that they come to comedians, actors, footballers. There is a weight on us because people follow our work. But really, we don’t have the solution.

“At a certain point you start to become erased for it, too. For the cause. You’re suddenly responsible for talking only about this subject. I’m not a news agency, I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist. I’m just a comedian that was in a position to serve the cause in some way. Maybe I will do it again. This is life. Life is variable.”

The variable of Youssef’s life has certainly been evident since leaving Egypt; from Netflix documentaries to appearing twice last month in the UAE at COP28, to working his way up to become a successful—as he puts it—‘mid-level’ comedian in the US. But that profile has suddenly gone stratospheric. It’s an uneasy career boost, in all honesty. But he has too many years on the clock to take it all too seriously.

“Before Piers’ show I was doing well. I was filling theatres, shows in Europe, the Middle East, which is great, a good life. Then that show catapults you to a totally different level. But you remain humble. You don’t take this world too seriously. It’s better to enjoy what you have right now, and not to get too hung up about your achievements. Nothing stays forever.”

The sheer exhaustion felt by Bassem Youssef when he left Egypt for the safety of himself and his family over a show that would, anywhere else in the world, have presumably seen him honoured. How do you come back from that? The frustratingly simple answer is: with time. But the years only attach a band aid, they don’t erase. If you’re lucky, however, those scars can take you someplace else.

On November 17, 2023, Bassem Youssef’s stand-up show sold out the Sydney Opera House. Nine years, pretty much, to the day that he had left his homeland. It was a groundbreaking experience that followed a wildly popular extended tour of Australia. In those moments, when we actually get what we dream about, we’re often drawn into introspection and reflection. But when you ask Youssef if he misses Egypt you get a quick-fire “no.” Almost as if he’s trying to say the word before anything else slips out (although he does caveat it with Red Sea beaches and Egyptian mangoes). As for the haters, well those nine years have brought perspective.

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“I’ve been on a lot of rollercoasters,” he says before quickly adding the word “emotional” to ensure we don’t think he’s been obsessing over theme parks all this time. “I think when I left Egypt there was a lot of bitterness and a lot of anger. I felt that I was treated unfairly, that I had done something spectacular for the Egyptian media and was punished for it. So, you want to succeed to show the people back home who doubted you, who celebrated your failure, that you’ve still got it. But you know what I found when I did it? Nothing. When you get to that good place, you really don’t care anymore.”

At the Sydney Opera House Youssef had once again done his research. He had spoken to the Arab community and was sad to hear that they felt the Palestinian flag was becoming synonymous with terrorism. Determined to do something special in their honour, he promptly learned a traditional Dabke dance; something to perform on the night at the end of his show. And so, he duly danced with Palestinian dancers in a rare moment of hope. “It was a way of humanising Arabs,” he explains, before pausing. “Maybe if they see some of our culture (before they steal it) they might actually respect us as humans and, hopefully, allow us to live.”

And there you have the complex realities of Bassem Youssef wrapped up in just a few lines. The funny and the fundamental, the gag with a sting in its tail, his art and identity combined. It’s an internal struggle that you feel could play out for some time. Ultimately, the man from Cairo might not want to be a hero. The truth is that he looks set to play the role for the foreseeable future.

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Originally published on Esquire Middle East

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