Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef on cancel culture and breaking taboos through his voice

He went from being a YouTuber in 2011 to having his own live show and now tours sold out shows across the US and Europe.


Husain Rizvi

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 27 Apr 2023, 6:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 7:51 AM

What is the one common factor between a heart surgeon and a comedian? Repetition and hard work, says Bassem Youssef, the widely popular heart surgeon-turned-comedian known for his rib-tickling political satires.

For him, comedy is about repetition, especially since he's not a natural comedian. He's just a nerd, he says, who repeats stuff and rehearses it many times. And it is the same energy that he applied to surgery and medicine.

The Egyptian comedian is currently in Dubai for his Arabic show debut titled Bassem Youssef Live, brought to you by Playfield Entertainment, taking place today at The Agenda from 8pm onwards.

"It is an Arabic show, so I am trying to break some taboos," he says in a chat with City Times on Thursday afternoon at The Theatre, Mall of the Emirates, detailing what fans can expect at the show.

"That and the barriers that are usually found in Arabic shows. I am trying to liberate stand-up comedy in Arabic, and I hope it works. It might make some audience uncomfortable, but it is a good price to pay."

Bassem is a household name in the Middle East. He went from being a YouTuber in 2011 to having his own live show and now tours sold out shows across the US and Europe.

We caught up with him and discussed his humour, how he is being held in the same regard as his inspiration Jon Stewart, cancel culture, and voicing strong opinions, as he recently did during an interaction with Piers Morgan.

Excerpts from the interview:

You are a cardiac surgeon who turned to comedy. From saving lives to changing people's lives through your voice - how would you describe your superpower today?

I have absolutely no superpower. If people don't laugh, that is my kryptonite.

To be funny is one thing, but facing a huge crowd and making them laugh is an entirely different ball game. Does humour come naturally to you or do you have to work hard for it?

No, it's about repetition. It's about rehearsing. It's about trial and error. It's about trying it many times. There are people who are born comedians, they are naturals who make it look very easy and spontaneous. I do not want to depend on being spontaneous or natural because it could fail you. That's another thing that's common between a comedian and a heart surgeon; you need to be prepared, you need to rehearse and you need to do that a lot, and you need to make it look as if it's spontaneous, as if it's natural. But it's actually a lot of repetition.

People look up to you and say you're the Jon Stewart of the Middle East. We know you, and countless others are inspired by him, so how does that make you feel: being held in the same regard as your inspiration?

It's an honour, of course, because he's someone I've watched all my life. When you watch someone you idolise, and then you find yourself on his show and then he comes and visits you on your show, for me, this is like the epitome of success. It is an honour to be mentioned with him in the same sentence, it is something that I wear as a badge of honour. And also, Jon is a very genuine and wonderful person in real life, not just on television.

Who would you say is the Bassem Youssef of the Western World?

No, no, no. There are so many people there that you don't need to carry my name.

Cancel culture has become so rampant in contemporary times...

Cancel culture is a myth. You find it on Twitter, it is just like a lot of loud voices. But at the end of the day, who has really been cancelled, you know? I mean, look at Louis C.K., he was cancelled for something that was supposed to be a crime, an assault. He's back and doing what he used to do, he just sold out Madison Square Garden a couple of months ago. Dave Chappelle, they tried to cancel him. Where is he now? So the whole thing about cancel culture, I think it's more of like noises. But I think very few people actually get cancelled. And if they do, they get cancelled because of something that is much more than what they say.

That brings us to our next question: How do you draw a line between what’s funny and what’s offensive?

I don't care if you're offensive, I care if you're funny. If you're funny, the whole thing about being offensive is a very relative thing. There are people who could be offended by everything. You cannot lower yourself to the lower denominator of people. You set your own standards and whoever does not like your material have the choice not to watch it.

Comedy has always been a way for you to deliver a harsh political message. What made you feel so strongly about delivering and voicing your opinion on the casting of Cleopatra, and calling out Kevin Hart on culture appropriation, in a serious tone?

I was just invited to the show a few hours before it aired, so I didn't really think it over. And I think as an Egyptian who can see the shifts in the American media and how they portray history, it was an important message to put across. And I don't think there was a place for comedy, especially when it's a serious tone and you don't want to come across as condescending, satirical, disrespectful or racist. So it's a very thin line, especially with this, because all the talk about colour tones and whatever, can really flip the other way. So you have to be careful, and respectful of the culture while at the same time defend your point of view. It was just like an opportunity that I was given and I just said what I feel.

Was it nuanced enough? Did you feel like you wanted to say something that you hadn't been able to say in that moment?

Well, networks don't usually give you that. It's all about sound-bites and you have like a 30 seconds here and 90 seconds there. So you try to pack as many talking points as you can without disrupting the flow. It's not easy and I think I was lucky. I'm grateful that it came out the way it did. But at the end of the day, this is a much longer process in which people who are more informed and more specialised than me should take the lead. I was just in that place at the time, but I'm not interested to become a representative of that topic because, again, I'm not qualified and there are people who are far more qualified than me.

Your voice today is like a superpower. In that sense, what is the legacy you hope to leave behind?

Well, I am very proud that AlBernameg, the show that I had in Egypt, actually changed the rules of entertainment and comedy in Arab television. And I hope that I can do the same in stand-up comedy in Arabic.

More news from Entertainment