ABDALLA F. HASSAN | The New York Times | April 28, 2011
Bassem Youssef’s YouTube programs have gotten more than four million views
PHOTO BY ABDALLA F. HASSAN
CAIRO — Bassem Youssef, a 37-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon, is closing a television deal that would make him one of the top paid talents on Egyptian television, a rise to stardom that began less than two months ago — on YouTube.
“I was born for this life of media,” Dr. Youssef said wistfully, although new to appearing before a camera. He is still getting used to being recognized everywhere he goes. “It is a bit scary,” he said.
As Egypt’s revolution unfolded, the bizarre coverage by the local news media became the stimulus for a show that drew its inspiration from two staples of the American cable channel Comedy Central: “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
Shot in a spare room in Dr. Youssef’s apartment overlooking the Nile in the Cairo neighborhood of Maadi, “The Bassem Youssef Show” started as an Internet production created on a shoestring budget with the aspiration of making it to television.
“We want it to be as close as possible to a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert kind of show. Then we will try to modify it according to our culture, according to our topics,” Dr. Youssef said of his move to television. “We would want to get our own fake correspondents, our own fake speakers, we’ll have our own vox pops in the street.”
When Dr. Youssef made his Internet debut on March 8 in an episode that humorously exposed the absurdities of Egyptian television’s coverage of the events of the revolution, he was not entirely prepared for what came next. Dr. Youssef was counting on 10,000 hits to his channel within a couple of weeks. Instead, he got a million.
That quickly got the attention of television executives, and Dr. Youssef was flooded with offers. So far, his YouTube channel has gotten nearly four million views and gained more than 25,000 subscribers, with word of mouth being his only marketing strategy.
Even with a television show in the works, Dr. Youssef maintains that he will remain true to the program’s roots.
“We have to have a presence on the Internet,” he said, adding that he planned to create content specifically for Internet audiences. “The interaction on the Internet is what keeps you grounded.”
Dr. Youssef’s brand of political satire presents a funny yet serious take on the issues Egyptians are talking about. He said he watches about 10 hours of videos to come up with a five-to-six-minute video segment and spends another four to five days writing the script.
“The revolution exposed a lot of creative talents among Egyptians,” Dr. Youssef begins one show, citing “the amazing acting that came out during the revolution.” Wild imagination, anger, hysteria and drama, were some of the talents on display, Dr. Youssef said, but Tamer from Ghamra was a unique case.
Sobbing uncontrollably, Tamer is heard making an on-air call to Egyptian television. “The nation is in ruins and we are the reason,” he cries. “No, no, by God, no.”
Dr. Youssef then says, “Tamer was not only emotionally affected, he had a theory that was so different from those who preceded him.”
Between sobs, Tamer tells the presenter: “They are foreigners who speak the English language very well. No one speaks other than English inside” Tahrir Square.
With a mountain of tissues on his desk, Dr. Youssef is brought to tears only to find out that Tamer from Ghamra was a staged performance concocted by the state news media. Dr. Youssef ends the clip by awarding the caller a faux Oscar.
“I have no problem if you want to take the side of Mubarak,” Dr. Youssef said in an interview. “I have no problem if you want to be against the revolution. But if you want to do this you should not propagate ridiculous rumors and make people think that these people are worthy of being killed or they are traitors or they have been trained abroad.”
In his longest episode at 17 minutes, Dr. Youssef tackles the divisive debate on the referendum for constitutional reforms held on March 19, Egypt’s first democratic vote since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
“In sum, if you voted yes, then you are a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Salafi, or the two of them played a joke on you, you’re dumb, or you’ve betrayed the revolution and the blood of the martyrs,” he says. “And if you voted no, then you don’t understand anything, want the country to go up in flames, want the army to stay in control and you are an infidel. That is democracy — to present the other side as a traitor, always placing them in a position where they are defending themselves.”
In a serious tone, he says that a boot was on the necks of Egyptians for three decades and that it is natural to hear things we don’t like when it’s finally lifted. “Call me what you want, but I remember all these people stood together a few weeks ago in something called ... the revolution. Those were great days,” he says as images of unity in Tahrir Square flash across the screen.
“We were trying to make people think first and laugh later,” Dr. Youssef said in the interview. “When we are talking about the tensions between the different sects of the community, Muslims and liberals and Christians, if you would come and preach to people from the first second, they will not actually watch. I had to make people laugh a little bit and then talk straight to the camera and tell them, you know, everybody is mistaken.”
For Dr. Youssef, the show is about bridging divides, offering a different perspective and maybe even making people laugh all at the same time. He sees the failure to communicate as being the major barrier.
“I actually believe that there is a middle ground between everybody and they can meet,” he said. “I direct my criticism for the extreme of each one of them.”
“The thing I like about Tahrir Square is that this is the only place that people talk to each other,” he said. “We do not talk to each other. The extreme Muslims and the frightened Christians and the uppity liberals, they don’t talk to each other. Everybody thinks that he is right. If you think that it is only the Salafis or Ikhwanis or extreme Muslim’s fault, no, it is the liberals’ fault as well. We are as mistaken as everybody else.” The Ikhwanis are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In his latest YouTube clip, Dr. Youssef goes to Tahrir Square and talks with protestors demanding that the former president be put on trial. The day is Friday, April 8.
“The ceiling of your demands increases every day!” he tells one protester with mock astonishment.
At the end of the 13-minute segment, Dr. Youssef turns to the camera and says: “Laughing and sarcasm aside, Tahrir Square is what we have left. What are our demands? Our demands are the same as they were from the first day: The people demand the downfall of the regime. I don’t see that the regime has fallen.
“As long as the regime is in place, merely a change of faces and a change in seats, people will continue coming to the square.”
Dr. Youssef ends the video segment with this: “That was the square in the morning. So what happened at night? And for who’s benefit did it happen? Tell us what you think.”
The army and security forces raided Tahrir Square in the predawn hours of April 9, detaining dissident army officers who had joined with protesters. Days later, on April 13, Mr. Mubarak and his sons were under arrest for questioning.
If it were not for the revolution, Dr. Youssef would most likely be in the United States right now. He was awaiting his visa to work at a pediatric heart surgery hospital in Cleveland when he started writing the show.
“This could be my new career,” he said.
This does not mean that he has any plans to forgo the medical profession.
“I will never leave surgery,” Dr. Youssef said. “It is very important as a person that you feel different. I feel different because I am a doctor. This is something that I have invested my life in for the past 20 years.”
Dr. Youssef tended to the wounded in Tahrir Square on Feb. 2 when pro-Mubarak ruffians descended on the square in a violent confrontation with protestors that would become known as the Battle of the Camel.
Dr. Youssef spent a year and a half in the United States working for a company that makes medical equipment related to cardiothoracic surgery. Afterward, he spent a year in Germany, including three months of training in cardiac and lung transplantation. He returned to Egypt to complete a doctorate and get married; his wife, Hala, is all too familiar with his passion for Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert.
The news parody show was not Dr. Youssef’s first attempt in front of a camera lens. Last November, he started working on a YouTube show that explained cults and world religions to Arab audiences. He produced three episodes last year, but they were shelved after the terrorist bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.
“All right, no talk about religion whatsoever,” Dr. Youssef said he decided.
He said he still hopes to bring the concept to television, perhaps after he has more fame and money.
“Instead of doing it a room and using clips from YouTube,” he said, “I will go to Utah and do an episode about Mormons. You don’t have this in Arabic media. No one speaks about other cults or religions.”
Dr. Youssef was encouraged to work on a YouTube show by a longtime friend, Tarek AlQazzaz, managing director of QSoft, a YouTube partner and Internet production company. The plan, according to Mr. AlQazzaz, was to produce a star on the Internet.
“I understand the performance of videos in our region,” said Mr. AlQazzaz, who said he plans to launch as many as 30 shows through pilots on the Internet. “I know that if I produce something and give it just the right amount of money, it will make sense.” He estimated that two or three may be a success and perhaps one may make it all the way to television.
Politics and freedom of expression were topics Dr. Youssef was asked about during an appearance at the American University in Cairo.
“You can speak your mind, but you have to know who you are talking to,” he told the students. “Actually freedom is a little bit limited. It is a little bit limited in how you express yourself. Who are you talking to? What kind of message do you want to convey?”
“Before you are free, you have to be smart. You have to choose your battles. It takes nothing away from your courage that you are not able to speak about a topic,” he added. “Until there is a president and a people’s assembly, you are under military rule. In any place in the world, military rule has restrictions.”