Once upon a time, the press couldn’t stop referring to Bassem Youssef as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” and for good reason. As the former host of the weekly news satire program Al-Bernameg (translation: The Show), Youssef took the shtick Stewart perfected on The Daily Show — eviscerating and lampooning newsmakers and the news media, but always with a smile — and let it loose over Egyptian airwaves.
Sara Taksler’s documentary Tickling Giants chronicles Youssef’s unlikely rise from heart surgeon to viral-video wiseguy to satirical savior to free-speech outlaw. The cutesy title is misleading: The giants — the political leaders Youssef makes fun of on his program — are more annoyed than tickled by his wisecracks. These thin-skinned tyrants initially say they’re not out to silence voices like Youssef’s, but they eventually, inevitably, cry foul when he goes after them with his goofy antics. Unlike his idol Stewart, who eventually becomes a stateside ally, Youssef is more wily jester than mad prophet. It’s almost surprising that his mild, lightweight barbs would piss anybody off.
Tickling Giants comes off as both a fact-based look at fighting fire with funny and a prescient cautionary tale. Al-Bernameg is no more, as Youssef has lost the battle to mock higher-ups whose egos bruise too easily. Could our late-night TV satirists suffer the same fate now that President Orange Crush is in the White House?
Written and directed by Sara Taksler
Opens March 15, IFC Center