I would argue that the way we watch political documentaries has changed in the last two months. Before that, if I had seen a movie like “Tickling Giants,” an ebullient portrait of Bassem Youssef, the heart-surgeon-turned-comedian who became known as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” (or, at least, he did until his show was squashed by the regime and he felt like he had to escape the country), I would have been drawn to Youssef’s barbed glee and charismatic cunning, and to his extraordinary fearlessness. But I also would have thought, as a documentary about a repressive government can lead one to think, “How lucky I am to live in America,” and also, “There’s no way that could ever happen here! We value our freedom way too much.”
I still believe those statements are true, yet after two months of President Trump — his menacing autocratic style, his overt hostility to an unrestricted press, the testy threat encoded in his scowl — it has already been demonstrated that the it can’t happen here mentality is a form of complacency. The place where “it” can happen is…anywhere. Watching “Tickling Giants,” which unfolds during the three years that followed the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that was one of the key effusions of the Arab Spring, one observes not just the terrible fact of repression but how, exactly, repression works. Youssef was able to create his own show and turn it into a national phenomenon because Egypt, for a while, was free. Then the clampdown came again — not overnight but slowly, by increments. That makes a film like “Tickling Giants” a lesson to us all.
The movie was directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer on “The Daily Show,” and under her assured and inquisitive hand, the whole Jon-Stewart-of-Egypt thing comes off as more revelatory than you expect. The way we commonly regard the Middle East — I’m intentionally putting this in benign prejudicial terms — is: They barely even have comedy over there. They do, of course, but in America it’s not just the entertainers who are funny. We’ve become a nation of reflexive snarkers who worship Kimmel and Fallon as if they were demigods; the class clown is now everybody. Whereas the representatives we tend to encounter of a place like Egypt are deeply earnest and unironic people (no insult).
That’s true even of Bassem Youssef. When we first meet him, he’s in his late thirties, handsome in a professorial way, with a hawkish profile, thick steely grayish hair, and an engaging overbite, and he knows from the start what the stakes are. The convulsive uprising in Tahrir Square results in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, who had been the president of Egypt for 30 years (or as Youssef, with cheerful derision, puts it, “his first term”), generally re-elected by 98 percent of the voters. That kind of power won’t allow itself to be mocked, and the sweeping away of Mubarak kicks open the door to Youssef’s dream of launching a national satirical news program, transparently modeled on “The Daily Show,” to be called “Al-Bernameg” (literally “The Show”).
It starts off as a homemade broadcast that gets 35,000 visitors on the day it’s launched and five million visitors by the end of two months. That’s enough to seduce a major Egyptian television network, and soon Youssef is seated behind a desk, on a very sleek and dazzling and American-style lit-up set, with no studio audience (though that will come). On each broadcast he says “Welcome to the show ‘The Show’,” which sounds like a joke that doesn’t quite translate from the Arabic, but there’s something rightly momentous in that title.
Yousseff is planting his comic flag in a society of fake news: the cautious and controlled national media broadcasts, which range from outright propaganda to “legitimate” news that’s still designed and packaged not to ruffle feathers. Youssef isn’t just tweaking the powerful. He’s bringing the news (which is one reason why he sometimes lapses into a mode of oratory as passionate and full of outrage as it is funny). He may see himself as a Jon Stewart figure, but he’s also a lot like Lenny Bruce: a comedian who dares to utter the truths that no one else will. At moments, he scarcely even has to make jokes. Just reporting the entrenched corruption of Egyptian political culture with a “Can you believe this?” smirk is enough to spasm his viewers into cathartic laughter.
How many people are watching? Before long, he has amassed a nightly audience of 30 million (total population of Egypt: 82 million), making “The Show” the most blockbuster TV program in the nation’s history. Youssef himself becomes the most popular entertainer — the most popular person, period — in all of Egypt. Each night he’s on, the very fact that he’s on, saying these things, is a declaration of freedom. There have always been political comedians, but Bassem Youssef is something new: a freedom fighter using television comedy to blast holes in an autocratic society. Every laugh line is a bullet.
Because we know how high the stakes are, “Tickling Giants” has an unfolding suspense. What will happen to Youssef? And to the nation? For a while, of course, it looks like the Arab Spring will take, as the first democratic elections are held, with Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, emerging as the winner. Youssef describes Morsi as “the George W. Bush of Egypt,” and that makes sense: It’s still a divided nation, with the liberal protesters who flooded Tahrir Square and the more traditional, reactionary forces outside the urban areas lining up in a rough sort of blue state/red state divide. Morsi allows freedom of speech — a revolution in itself — and Youssef looks like a hero. He’s even invited onto “The Daily Show,” and is as giddy as a 10-year-old when he arrives there; later, Jon Stewart goes to Egypt to be a guest on “The Show,” walking on — hilariously — with his face concealed in a black prison-torture hood. Now that’s a scandalous joke. It’s also what freedom looks like.
But as the country’s warring factions begin to clash and boil over into chaos, all that discord paves the way for the military coup that took place on July 3, 2013, when the Army Chief General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi assumed command. Sisi is a dictator, even more hard-line than Mubarak; hundreds of thousands of dissident voices are jailed, including journalists. It’s in the first year of Sisi’s reign that Youssef is at his most scalding and inspired. “The Show” is still on, though it has to jump networks, and Youssef, leading the program’s writers, a cool and youthful-looking (and impressively gender-balanced) bunch, refuses to tone down his honesty. To him, it’s all or nothing. He recognizes that this isn’t even about him — every joke he makes is about whether Egypt can breathe the air of a free society. But Youssef is also married, with a toddler daughter, and he’s not drawn to martyrdom. He does “The Show” until it’s taken away from him.
When his first TV network sues him, on a bogus charge that one suspects was triggered by the regime (though the film never comes out and says so), Youssef loses the case and faces crippling fines that could send him to jail. So he sneaks himself and his family out of the country. “Tickling Giants” is a terrific movie that leaves you cherishing (a little more) the freedom we have, and holding in contempt (a little more) those who would compromise it. Mostly, the movie makes you understand how every society — and ours more than ever — needs people like Bassem Youssef to demonstrate that laughter will always be one of the essential ways to keep power in check.