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Years ago, while Dr. Bassem Youssef was waiting in Egypt for his US work visa, he posted a video to YouTube imitating the comedic satire of John Stewart. This video launched an unexpected career as the most famous comedian and television personality in the middle east, at least until the government began a war to take him down.
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How a heart surgeon became the most famous comedian in the middle east
Revolution for Dummies with Bassem Youssef
Welcome back, listeners. We have the absolute pleasure of hosting Bassem Youssef. Bassem, thank you so much for coming on. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?
I was a heart surgeon, nineteen years of medical school and twelve years of practicing. Then 2011, the Arab Spring happened. I did some satirical videos from the laundry room of my house, satirizing the media that was brainwashing the people. Then out of nowhere, I became the host of the biggest political satire show in the history of Middle East with 40 million people watching the show. I managed to piss off authority, whether Islamic or military. I ended up having to leave my country because my jokes were too harsh for them. I am now in the United States.
This is an absolutely incredible story that’s almost hard to believe. Weren’t you waiting for an acceptance letter to work in the US as a doctor?
I already got accepted. I was waiting for the H1 visa papers. I already got accepted to be a pediatric heart surgeon fellow in one of the American hospitals. I was just waiting for some papers to come so I can get my H1 visa.
On a whim, you decide to recreate a daily show experience on YouTube, but you have cutouts rather than digital graphics. This show ends up becoming so popular that over five million people viewed this six years ago on YouTube in the Middle East. That’s complete insanity.
I ended up doing three seasons of the show. Not just that, we’ve transformed television. Television at that time was locked in the 80s. It was very boring, very static. Then suddenly, we’re having live shows, live comedy shows, live performances and people were amazed because this is something that nobody has seen before. With great exposure comes great push-backs. We ended up being in a tough situation with the authority.
You did this in the midst of the Arab Spring. If memory serves, Egypt went through two different changes of power.
Basically three because after Mubarak, there was the military council who was an interim government. Then the Islamist came, then the military came again. With each time, they didn’t really like me that much.
One of the things that I found fascinating was I was talking to Peter McGraw who runs HuRL, the Humor Research Laboratory. This is a person who’s a scientist who studies humor as his career. One of the things he talked about was that if there’s a dictatorship or a military power, the last thing they want is comedians. When you’re laughing, you can’t be afraid.
Yes because really don’t have any other thing going on from them. They need people to submit, to succumb, to fear them, to respect them even if they’re not doing their job as a public servant. They don’t understand the concept of being a public servant. They just want to be respected and feared just because of all the merit of their own position. Satirists and comedians disrupted this dynamics. Basically, these are the ones who’s saying to everybody that the Emperor is naked, and they don’t want that.
With all that you’ve accomplished, you have a bestselling book out too, is that right?
It’s a book called Revolution for Dummies.
I remember attending the event in honor of it. As somebody who mostly lives in Western culture, the video footage you shared was incredible of actual news clips of the mainstream news in Egypt during the revolution.
It’s like it was Breitbart, InfoWars and Fox News were on steroids. This is what our news actually look like now. If you would have a chance to flip most Korean media into Egyptian, that would be the news that you will see. Everybody is conspiring against us. Everybody is out there as a traitor. They’re all paid operatives. The army claiming that they have found a cure for AIDS and anybody who would stand against that claim will be labeled as a traitor. The president is becoming almost a demigod. You are upset with Fox & Friends when they come and kiss Trump’s hands. Look at our media, it does much more than this.
I remember one report claimed that the Israeli Intelligence Services was working with Hamas and Qatar and Iran and the CIA to create sex camps.
They were paying operatives in the streets so they would revolt. While they were revolting, they were just having open sexual relationships because this is what paid operatives do.
When people discover everything that you’ve accomplished, what’s the common question they have for you?
Some of them are very sympathetic like, “You have to get your own show here.” Some of them they don’t believe me. They think I’m making this up. Some of them say, “Cool, good for you.”
There are probably people that their dream would be to host their own show. To have something to share that could be shared in a humorous way that could change public opinion and impact culture. What advice do you have for them?
Their dream should not be hosting their own show. Their dream should be to express themselves. If you want to express yourself, you’ll find a way, whether that’s a podcast, a show, TV show or a radio show, a vlog. If you find a way to express yourself and this way is creative enough, things might come along or might not. At the end of the day, people who host their shows on big networks or people who do Snapchat, they have one thing in common. They have something to express. They want to express themselves. It really starts from expressing yourselves. Whatever is there that’s destined for you will follow.
What are some of the pitfalls that you weren’t expecting as you went through this journey?
You’re not just up against an authority, you are also up against a very conservative society. A society that is used not to disrupt the status quo, and would consider that a threat to the very fabric of society that they are a part of. It really depends on the ideology of the people listening to you. If the ideology of the people listening to you is religious and you are making fun of the Islamist president, the authority will make them believe that he’s not making fun of the president but he’s making fun of religion. If you are making fun of the military presence, you are making fun of our military and our troops and the honor of our army. That kind of separation between ideologies and people doesn’t come easy. That was one of the things that was difficult for us to get our message across. We’re always walking on thin ice. That was part of being a TV host of such a show.
To imagine that you actually started doing this only a few years back is incredible.
With absolutely no background or training, nothing. I think I was just lucky.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
Having 40 million watching each episode, that was something absolutely unexpected. Having a whole government mobilized in order to shut you down is unexpected. There was actually an article written about me in The New Yorker. It’s called the Heckling the John Stewart of Egypt, where there was a reporter of The New Yorker who was there in New York. I was doing my one-man show. I tour around the states. He saw people heckling me in the audience. These were paid people by the Egyptian Council to come and heckle my show, just to get a five-second clip so they can play it in the local news to say how “faithful patriotic Egyptians” kicked me out of the seat, which never happened. It was a bunch of nine people who were basically heckled back by the rest of the audience. To think that a whole regime is so trapped in the mentalities of the 1960s, it is just crazy.
I couldn’t imagine anybody carrying that much about what I have to say. I’m curious what inspires you. In the face of all this opposition, is there a certain quote, maybe an author, a book or even a specific person that really inspired you in the process?
I don’t like to have an answer that folds within the regular norms of like, “This book inspired me. This quote inspired me.” I think you are inspired by many things as you go on. There is not like a mantra that hangs over my head that keeps me going. I think I’m inspired by the will of the human ability that can make something incredible out of the unexpected.
I have to say I’m a little surprised when I asked you which book inspires you and didn’t say Revolution for Dummies. That’s just my favorite.
I could have said Revolution for Dummies so I can shamelessly promote my book and myself like what all the American citizens would do. Revolution for Dummies came, it was the result of their journey, not the cost of it.
I often like to give the guests the opportunity to use this podcast as a way to promote a social cause that they really care about. I’ve sat and eaten with you and I know that there’s something that you’re really passionate about, and it comes back to your roots as a doctor. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been working on?
As much as I’m very interested in political satire and comedy and politics, I also have a passion of mine. It’s like my lifestyle. I like to have people change their minds of how we eat and how we view nutrition. It’s a revolution in its own way. I think it’s also very disruptive of how people view things that they think are untouchable or unquestionable. I am on a plant-based diet. For simplicity, I’m vegan but I would like to call myself a healthy vegan. Many vegans eat really bad things. I use that in order to have people get over their chronic diseases. I’m working on a few projects to promote this kind of lifestyle. I think that we are eating ourselves to death and we are eating our little kids to sickness. I’m very interested to give more exposure to this kind of lifestyle because the indices and the figures of people’s health and disease is just scary. It’s totally unsustainable.
I want to really dig into this. You’ve had incredible results in reversing diseases ranging from obesity, diabetes, all the comorbidities. Can you share a little bit about what results you’ve been able to produce for the patients? I also know that coming from the Middle East, there’s a huge, sudden rise in obesity and diabetes as a byproduct of the Western diet coming in.
An American doctor told me once, “You guys in the Middle East always want to live like the West, now you’re dying like the West.” I think six or seven out of the top twenty countries in diabetes are Arab countries. I have had people get over their chronic diseases like arthritis, alopecia. I help other people to get rid of their diabetes or cholesterol in a very short amount of time, just by eating the right thing. What I want to do is to bring that into a medium like the internet, Facebook, YouTube in order to speak to people about it. I’m not the first person to do that. I was also inspired by the amazing documentaries of Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, What the Health. I’m actually working with some people that are featured in these movies in order to produce the additional product that is short and it’s fast and is informative. I want to do it in Arabic and in English so people from my part of the world can benefit out of it. It’s going to be an uphill battle because you’re not just talking about habits, you’re talking about culture and religion that might hinder the success of the spread of such a message.
I think that it’s incredibly important work. Personally, it’s something that I struggle with because I would love to be on a vegan diet and I have not been able to figure out that gap between vegan and being healthy.
A lot of vegan people will eat really bad food like oily food, fried food, processed food and they think they’re eating healthy, like sugary stuff. These are all vegan but these are horrible food. There are studies that showed that vegans are more vegetarians are not healthy. I said, “That is completely true because they are not choosing the right types of food to eat.” I have a plant-based whole food diet. Plant-based meaning vegan, whole food meaning real food. If you go and eat chips, that’s not food. That’s basically fried stuff that you should not eat. If you go and drink juice, that’s a lot of sugar. It is difficult and I understand that people are used to certain diets that give them pleasure. It is very pleasurable: dairy, sugar and meat. It actually hits your pleasure centers. It’s more like hard drugs. I think it’s even more difficult to quit cigarettes.
I’ll cut a deal with you, Bassem. If you can create a plan for me in a methodical way go on a plant-based diet. Going overnight wouldn’t work for me. I can cut out sections of diets piece by piece and that I maintain health. My biggest issue is that I travel so much that after two or three months of eating vegan, I end up just getting sick. If you could do that, I’ll take it on. Not only that, I will popularize it and I will share the plan on social media.
Let’s start by one thing. Cut off dairy. I’m asking you to cut off dairy, that’s it. Dairy including yogurt, including cheese, including milk. Cut off dairy including anything that has dairy in it, like not whole wheat pasta or bread that is regular bread, white bread.
I don’t need any bread to begin with. I keep on a ketogenic diet. You’d rather I’d cut out cheese than meat?
Yes, for now. Cut off dairy, that’s it. I’m asking you to cut off one type of food: dairy. That’s it.
Then the question becomes where do I get fat?
Nuts, that’s the easiest answer. Raw nuts, not roasted nuts because they are roasted in olives; raw nuts, raw cashews, raw avocados.
Last question, if you could get invited to dinner and sit down with three living people, who would they be?
This would be Barack Obama, Jon Stewart and Donald Trump. I will be just sitting there, not speaking at all. I’m just going to be watching them.
I hope the cameras would be rolling. I don’t think you would be able to contain yourself. I think that Trump would say something and you just wouldn’t be able to help yourself.
I will leave it to Jon Stewart. I’ll just sit there and listen.
Bassem, where can people find out more about you? Obviously, they should pick up a copy of your book, Revolution for Dummies especially for Westerners. The stories that Bassem shares, it’s literally mindboggling because we’re so not used to a controlled media system that way that he experienced in Egypt. Where else can they find you?
I have a website, BassemYoussef.net. It has all of my social media links: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can order the book from there. You can watch me on Tickling Giants. Tickling Giants is a documentary that is directed by Sara Taksler who is our senior producer of The Daily Show for ten years. She followed me for four years on my journey from being a doctor all the way to be a political satirist.
Congratulations, Bassem, on all of your success. Thank you for choosing to live in this country so we get to enjoy your humor and your expertise. Listeners, stay tuned because next is the anonymous interview.
About Bassem Youssef
Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian, writer, producer, physician, media critic, and television host, who hosted Al-Bernameg (The Show), a satirical news program, from 2011 to 2014.
The press has compared Youssef with American comedian Jon Stewart, whose satire program The Daily Show inspired Youssef to begin his career. In 2013, he was named one of the “100 most influential people in the world” by Time magazine. Youssef’s current projects are Tickling Giants, The Democracy Handbook, and Revolution For Dummies.
Anonymous Guest Interview
We get to interview one of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of hosting at the dinner. The reason is he has fundamentally changed our perception of the universe. I’m not even kidding when I say this. There are some people who shared mind-blowing information or achieved incredible things. Konstantin literally changed our perception of the universe. Konstantin, thank you so much for coming on.
It’s my pleasure to be here, Jon.
First of all, let’s get down to the very basics. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Moscow which at the time was Soviet Union. I grew up more or less in Japan. When I was eight, we moved to Japan, the Tokyo area, where I lived for six years and attended a conventional Japanese elementary school, which was a trip. Then, we moved to California when I was in middle school. No joke, I met my wife the day that we arrived.
You grew up the rest of your life and you currently live in California, is that right?
That’s right. Work has taken me around over the last five years or so. I’m very fortunate to have ended up back in California now where I think I will spend the rest of eternity.
Without getting into too much detail, was there an accomplishment in your career that you are most proud of?
There’s an accomplishment to where you look at evidence, which seems to be secondary. There are a few different lines of evidence without giving away exactly what I do. You look at evidence which is available to you in the night sky. Then you infer that there exists this unifying explanation for why we see patterns in the night sky. That is something that I’m quite proud of indeed.
Essentially, it sounds, at least to anybody who doesn’t know who you are, that you are laying down on the grass looking at cloud shapes and when something came by, you’re like, “That’s a ship and that one’s a bunny rabbit.”
Surprisingly close to reality except for replace the clouds with stars. What I do is look for interesting patterns in astronomy and try to infer what is going on in the background.
To give the listeners a sense of what you look like, if there was a movie about your life, who would play you?
Realistically, there was a movie about my life, it’s called Constantine. Keanu Reeves already did a good job. I would like to imagine that they would get Arnold to play me from the ‘80s but I think that might be a bit of a stretch.
Because you’re originally from Moscow, what about the guy who played the Russian boxer in Rocky IV?
That guy is a little too blonde. Let’s go with Zach Galifianakis. That guy is my hero anyway.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done that led to some success in your life?
I only have unsuccessful stories. About three years ago, I found myself at 3 AM in the middle of a field, a little valley between two mountains, chasing after a guy, trying to restrain him to bring him back to civilization. This was because the drummer from my band just lost it and quit while we were driving down from this really tall mountain where we did a gig. He ran out and ran away. I thought, “We’re the last people to have seen him alive. I should go and catch him and restrain him.” This was 3 AM, like slapping away coyotes as they tried to. I’m not sure that it led to any success but it was memorable.
What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
If you believe that there are nine planets in the solar system, you are right, but if you think one of them is Pluto, you are wrong.
Listeners, you have plenty to go on. We are in for a treat next episode when we get to have a full interview with Konstantin. Good luck on figuring out who he is.