“Tickling Giants” – an eye-opening documentary directed by Sara Taksler.
Taksler recounts Bassem Youssef’s journey. A man who was a renowned heart surgeon in Egypt. He quit surgery to host his own satirical/comedy talk show, was then hailed “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” and through it all, had to escape Egypt and seek exile in America. The reason being, his opinions and views did not sit well (at all) with the Egyptian authorities.
The “Tickling Giants” documentary was screened at the IFC in New York. Throughout the screening, one could hear members of the audience react in sympathy to unfair decisions Youssef was subjected to, laugh at Youssef’s jokes and applaud the bravery that he showcased throughout.
Right after the screening, a panel was held with Bassem Youssef and Sara Taksler; moderated by Jordan Klepper.
The conversation between the three individuals on the panel was rather interesting and it engaged the audience to ask questions as well.
So much was said and discussed but certain points of discussion, definitely stood out.
Jordan Klepper: What is it like to watch this film? How do you look back at this experience?
Bassem Youssef: I have to be honest, I can’t watch the movie. I watched it once at Tribeca when it premiered and I couldn’t watch it again. It’s such an emotional experience. So, every time we have a screening, I would either wait outside or on the other side of town and then just come to the screening. It was just very hard. But when I watched it for the first time, there’s one scene, that affected me. By the way, I watched the movie like everybody else. I didn’t have a preview of what the movie would look like. So I went there at the premiere at Tribeca and didn’t know what to expect. Sara did a wonderful job of putting the story together.
There’s this scene where people are out there cursing me and calling for my death and we are celebrating a birthday party inside. I kind’ve forgot that, but it was kind of a representative of all of what we were doing. The whole world was falling apart and we were trying to live in our parallel universe writing comedy. We didn’t care about what was happening. It’s like oh we would look at something outside and just brush it off and go in and write comedy. It’s crazy. We were having a double life and once the lights were on, we forgot about everything that was happening out there and we tried to do the best show that we could. This was basically the part of the movie that resonated with me.
Jordan Klepper: You took a lot of inspiration from Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart talks in Q&A’s often times, people ask ‘what your point of view is when you’re working on the show’ and he often reverts to the idea – ‘we are comedians, our focus is to make jokes’ – I know sometimes he even gets criticism around that idea. It feels like you’re in such a position that is so elevated, so much more dangerous. Did you approach it in that same way?
Bassem Youssef: We tried to approach it from a purely satirical point of view but you can’t really just do that especially in a country where the stakes are so high. Where safety was threatened on a daily basis. We tried to say – “we’re just here to give a different perspective” – but, this happens here too, when people see that everything else is failing, journalism is failing, media is failing, and politicians are failing, they turn to comedians. And they kind’ve elevate them to a position that comedians themselves say ‘that’s not my position’ – and they try to put so much weight on them and that’s dangerous. Because, we don’t have any solutions. We have no idea how to fix it and people always ask ‘what are you going to do’ and I don’t know. I just point out for the absurdity and I just show it to you and it’s up to you to make a difference, not me. If the system is failing especially in a country like mine where the system was really failing – They look at the successful side of a story which in this case, a good comedy show. So, now, everything is about the comedy show and I tell them it’s not. We’re just here to give you good, thoughtful entertainment, not just empty entertainment.
Furthermore, an audience member asked Bassem Youssef about what he’s currently working on.
Bassem Youssef: I have my own one-man show I take it around the United States. I wrote a book called ‘Revolution for Dummies’ you should buy it on Amazon. I’m promoting this movie with Sara. If anybody here knows any Oscar judges, we are promoting. Last but not least, me and Larry Wilmore just sold a show to ABC, it’s a pilot, I’m not celebrating yet! When it goes into series, I’m going to celebrate. Now it’s just a pilot, hoping it’s going to get picked up by the network.
Jordan Klepper: A pilot is a different format than say a late night show, it’s still playing in satire but more of a narrative structure. What is that next step? Is there something about your story through something that is more narrative that appeals to you?
Bassem Youssef: Yeah, because I don’t think America will listen to another guy who tells them what is going wrong with politics because you guys have been there for a very long time. I cannot do here what I was doing in Egypt because I cannot compete with the Jordan Kleppers, the Trevor Noahs, the Jon Olivers of America. I mean why would you listen to me rather than a tall white man? I mean I don’t know, maybe. But what I’m trying to do is try to get a foothold for myself and people like me in media so maybe this show will be the Arab “Will and Grace” (audience laughs) – without being Will and Grace. I wish I can talk more about it but I don’t want to jinx it. I hope it works.
One of the final questions from the audience was a woman who asked whether Yousseff was pessimistic or optimistic about the state of Egypt going forward (now that he had time to think about what happened thoroughly)?
Bassem Youssef: Here’s what the revolution did. This is not a story about the show. The show is a reflection of what happened to so many people. A lot of Egyptians watch the show, they see their story reflected in this movie. I talked maybe with a little bit of negativity about what happened and that we’re back to square one, but here’s what happened – before 2011, people didn’t have a reference to what freedom of expression looks like… We’ve seen the light for once and we want to get back to it. The reference point, maybe that’s what the revolution created. This reference point. Now people are not taking whatever the government is giving them anymore. There’s always work to do. That was not present until 2011, people are questioning everything now and that’s important.
Audience member: Have you thought about going back online and going back to how you started: having an online show?
Bassem Youssef: I think in all honesty, being removed from the country and being away, I’ll feel very disconnected to do stuff online when I’m away. The show in all its might with 30-40 million people watching the show, it was removed overnight and nothing happened. Maybe I would just focus on this new battle. I’m an immigrant, I’m here. There’s obviously challenges for people like us. So maybe focus on that , maybe that’s my next chapter.
The film is one to watch this Awards Season and has tremendous Oscar potential.