Tickling Giants

Jon Stewart’s saving grace was always his humility. As the lionized host of the Daily Show, the comedian turned journalist turned media critic never pretended that his work compared with the real contributions of soldiers or civil servants or reporters or activists. When Stewart tried his hand at dramatic filmmaking with Rosewater (2014), he chose as his hero the real-life Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose appearance in a Daily Show segment had come back to haunt him when he was imprisoned in Tehran during the 2009 election protests. Now Sara Taksler, a longtime producer for the Daily Show, has directed Tickling Giants, which tells the story of Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef. A heart surgeon by training, Youssef became a national sensation after the 2011 revolution with a weekly TV show of political satire, but after the 2013 military coup he was driven off the air and out of the country. Like Rosewater, Tickling Giants acknowledges that political satire carries much higher stakes under a repressive regime.

Taksler’s background with the Daily Show gives her a unique perspective on Youssef, one that dictates the documentary’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. She began filming him in June 2012, when Youssef, who had completed his first season on Egyptian TV, appeared on the Daily Show and was allowed to spend a few days observing the operation in New York. She accompanied Stewart a year later when he traveled to Cairo to appear on Youssef’s hugely popular show Al Bernameg (The Show), and she made visits on her own to track Youssef’s progress as the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by the military and replaced, in a suspiciously lopsided election, by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Taksler understands the importance of satire in a democratic system and the youthful camaraderie that holds together a staff like Youssef’s, but her movie, with a healthy running time of 111 minutes, seldom pushes past the headlines to illuminate Egyptian politics or society.

From the start the two programs were inextricably linked. Youssef had been watching the Daily Show for years on CNN International when, amid the nationwide protests against President Hosni Mubarak, he ventured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to treat the wounded and realized that what he saw on Egyptian TV bore no resemblance to the reality on the ground. Six weeks after Mubarak ended his 30-year rule, Youssef and some friends created The B+ Show, a series of satirical YouTube videos that exploded in popularity, attracting five million viewers in three months. That fall Youssef quit medicine and made his TV debut as host of Al Bernameg on the Egyptian channel ONTV; in 2012 the show moved to the Capitol Broadcast Center (CBC), where it drew 30 million viewers a week (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart averaged only two million per night). Youssef enjoyed his greatest popularity poking fun at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Taking a camera crew out onto the streets of Cairo to interview anti-Morsi protesters, he reports, “In case you were wondering, Kentucky Fried Chicken is closed.”

To judge from the movie, Al Bernameg was a photocopy of the Daily Show: the space-age news desk set, the wacky street interviews, the host riffing on absurd video clips. Youssef even steals Stewart’s old gimmick of switching from camera one to camera two for a confidential discussion. Yet Youssef’s moment in history made him an even greater force than Stewart. One fan calls him “the most popular man in Egypt,” and another argues, “People now understand democracy because of Bassem.” That responsibility weighs more heavily after the coup, as Al Bernameg grows increasingly unpopular with the Sisi regime and its supporters. “It’s like 9/11 every day here,” Youssef tells Taksler, as security men with German shepherds check the studio for explosives. CBC drops the show, refusing to air “material that is distasteful or mocks the feelings of the Egyptian public or people of prominence.” Outside the Cinema Radio theater in downtown Cairo, where the show is staged, protesters accuse Youssef of “insulting the Egyptian people.” Al Bernameg is picked up by the Middle East Broadcasting Center in February 2014, but ongoing public protests and harassment of the staff convince Youssef to pull the plug later that year.

At heart Tickling Giants is a backstage documentary, and Taksler, whose press bio describes her as a 24-7 diehard at the Daily Show, includes plenty of sympathetic material about Youssef’s loyal staff, described by the boss as a motley crew of former attorneys, architects, and students who came to the show with no background in TV. After the election of President Sisi, as the protests mount, staffers are told they can work from home for their own safety; they show up anyway. Yet Tickling Giants has little to tell us about ordinary Egyptians outside this media bubble. There are shots of people gathering in public places to enjoy Al Bernameg, and a few outraged comments from right-wing protesters, but little hard information about the particular gags that ignited the public firestorm, the issues that consumed Egypt as Sisi was consolidating power, or whether the demonstrations against Youssef and his show were organic or orchestrated by the government.

Tickling Giants makes you feel lucky to live in a country where TV comedians needn’t fear for their lives, yet there are limits to free expression here too. Mort Sahl was blackballed from network TV in the 60s for talking about the JFK assassination, and the Smothers Brothers lost their CBS variety show because they wouldn’t shut up about the Vietnam war. Bill Hicks was excised from a broadcast of Late Show With David Letterman in the 90s for ridiculing the pro-life movement, and Bill Maher lost his ABC show Politically Incorrect for intemperate remarks following 9/11. Comedians can be the most professionally vulnerable social critics in the world, because no one is obliged to take them seriously in the first place and no amount of moral righteousness will protect them if the gatekeepers decide they’re no longer funny. As Youssef’s story demonstrates, a joke can be as liberating as a revolution, and every bit as fragile.  v