“When you stopped being a doctor to do YouTube videos, was your wife upset?” I asked.
“It didn’t happen this way,” Bassem Youssef said. “I didn’t just switch from medicine to YouTube videos.”
He was living in Egypt. And a revolution was happening. So, everyday, he would go to the protests to help the wounded.
Then he’d go home. And watch the news. And he’d see how the media spread lies and brainwashed the people. “The way they were running the media was very stupid,” he said.
So he started making fun of it. He created satirical videos. And posted them to YouTube.
He never thought they would get a lot of views. But they exploded. He got millions of views in just two weeks. And then the networks started calling him to have his own TV Show.
So he said, “Yes.”
There are 80 million people in Egypt. 30 million were watching Bassem’s show.
“Why was it so popular?” I asked.
“Because they were waiting for us to tell them what was going on in the country. They reached out for guidance, which is interesting and flattering, but also very dangerous because you have all of this responsibility laid on you. People want you to be the changer, but we weren’t that. We just liked telling them what was happening.”
And the weird part is he had no background in media. Bassem was a heart surgeon turned satirical truth teller. And he was rewarded for it.
In 2013, TIME magazine named Bassem Youssef “One of the most influential people in the world.”
“I didn’t have entertainment on my mind,” he said. “I didn’t have YouTube on my mind. But every day I would go back home, I would see how the media skewed the truth… how they spread fake lies. And brainwashed the masses. I was upset. And then the videos caught fire.”
And eventually the government started closing in on him.
“The Islamists tried to stop the show, but they couldn’t because they were not strong enough. Then the military came.”
He said he was scared… not because of what they could do to him. But because of what they could do to the people around him.
They took his producer’s father and brother. “They were very hostile,” Bassem said.
And they even stopped his show.
“They jammed my satellite signal,” he said. “They control the communication.”
“Why couldn’t they just throw you in jail and shut you up?” I asked.
“Back then they wanted to show legitimacy in front of the world. They wanted to prove they were not a coup. They wanted it to be as underhanded as possible.”
So they created a lawsuit against him.
“It was a politicized verdict,” he said.
And then, after the verdict, they gave Bassem 90 minutes to pack up and leave Egypt.
He flew to Dubai. But still didn’t feel totally safe. Because the Egyptian government had reach there.
“I felt that if I stayed in that area, then I wasn’t going to be able to do and say what I wanted.”
Now he’s in America. He came here right after escaping to Dubai.
I wanted to backtrack. Because I feel like a big portion of Bassem’s success was in his creativity and expression.
I went back to the origin…
“Describe that very first video,” I said.
“The video was satirizing how the media was very creative in telling people not to go down to the streets. They were using all kinds of stupid lies.”
I asked for an example.
“They were telling everyone not to go down to the streets because people were dancing and having sex at the protests.”
He made fun of that and everything else that seemed off. They started calling him the “Jon Stewart of Egypt.”
“It was the most organic democratic spread of an idea,” he said. “It was as if there was a feeling like we own this now. We can actually push what we want as content. Not waiting for the government to tell us what to push or not.”
“At what number did you feel your life had changed?” I asked.
“The trigger was when networks started calling.”
So, two weeks in.
“I always felt undeserving,” he said. “The self-doubt was, ‘Am I good enough? I have no experience. I have no history. Why am I doing this?’”
“How do you overcome that?”
“To this day, I never overcame it. Because out of nothing I became a TV host with the biggest show in Egypt’s history.”
TIME named him “one of the most influential people in the world” and yet he couldn’t see himself that way. You can have 30 million followers. You can create something that offers relief and joy in people’s lives. You can make an impact on others. But making an impact on yourself is something else…
Now Bassem’s in America.
He’s pursuing stand-up comedy here. Plus he wrote a book, Revolution for Dummies. And he has his own podcast with the perfect name for him…
“Remade in America.”
Links and Resources
Listen to Bassem’s podcast “Remade in America”
“Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring” by Bassem Youssef
Follow Bassem on Twitter
Tickling Giants – the documentary about Bassem directed by Sara Taksler
The Daily Show
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell