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Comedian Bassem Youssef on the Risk of Alienating Everyone

This April marks the 10-year anniversary of Bassem Youssef’s final telecast of Al Bernameg. At its apex, the Egyptian satirical news show drew 40 million viewers and prompted comparisons between its host/co-creator and Jon Stewart before ultimately proving too controversial to remain on the air — or for Youssef and his family to safely remain in Egypt. They relocated to Los Angeles in 2016, and he’s spent the years since recalibrating, booking occasional acting roles and working on his stand-up.

He says he’s gotten his comedy groove back, now selling out shows across the U.S. and Europe. But that’s not why Youssef has been in the news so much of late. Starting with a viral appearance on Piers Morgan Uncensored, during which Youssef visibly unsettled the host with his dark satire of Islamophobia and critique of the Israeli government’s then-fresh response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Youssef has continued his pro-Palestinian commentary as the Israel-Gaza conflict heads into its sixth month. The criticism he’s faced, including accusations of antisemitism that he vehemently denies, might have cost him opportunities. Youssef even suggested it lost him a role in James Gunn’s Superman, but Gunn quickly blamed the situation on rewrites, an answer Youssef has publicly accepted.

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For the Egyptian-born Youssef, the situation in Gaza is deeply personal. Many members of the Palestinian side of his wife’s family remain in Gaza, and the updates he says they get are infrequent and harrowing. “They’ve been pushed from Northern Gaza to Middle Gaza and now they are in Rafah, in one apartment in a condemned building,” says Youssef. “They have been pushed against the border. As we speak now, one bomb from an F-16 can just annihilate all of them.”

A year ago, Youssef wouldn’t have expected his defense of the Palestinian people to be the arc of his return to public discourse. Meanwhile, by his own admission, making a living out of being funny remains his priority. So, over Zoom earlier in March, he navigated both impulses.

Well, we originally scheduled this conversation before the Superman casting became a thing. Are you satisfied with the way that was resolved?

I know people went with it, but I don’t want to be famous for the wrong reasons. I could have stayed quiet and let people rip DC and James Gunn, but James reached out to me, and he said, “I’m sorry. Nothing had to do with your things and whatever.” I took his word for it. The timing, the way that they dealt with me, sucked. When you do an audition, and in an hour the director calls you and says, “You have the role, I’m very happy to have you,” you’ve got the role, right? If they’re going to change the script, they tell you. But when I do the thing with Piers Morgan, and it blows up, and then they tell me, “You lost the role because we changed the script,” that doesn’t sound very right. I think it was mishandled, but I will take the benefit of the doubt. I told them I have no beef with anybody. I respect James Gunn. I like him as a person.

This came to a head after you did a subsequent interview with BBC, during which you primarily discussed what was happening in Gaza — and yet the major takeaway was pick-up stories about a comic book movie. Are you frustrated by that aspect of the news cycle?

The news cycle is the news cycle. The news cycle is a very democratic thing, where people choose what they want to engage with. You can speak about important stuff, but the important stuff doesn’t really resonate with people. They want something else, but I don’t let things like that bother me or get to me. I’m grateful for the live performances that I’ve been doing. Maybe the whole thing about Superman was for the best because maybe I would prefer to spend time touring.

What are your acting ambitions since you’ve moved to Los Angeles? 

I think that acting for me is something secondary. I am not a seasoned actor. I have had very good opportunities, and I appreciate the opportunities that were given to me, and I would love to do more. I bought the rights for a book, one that will come as a surprise to many people, and I want to turn it into a movie.

Tell me about the book.

It’s a story I’ve been chasing for seven years, and I bought the rights right before this Piers Morgan thing blew up. In German, it’s called The Muslim and the Jew — and it is translated to English as Anna and Dr. Helmy. It is written by a German author [Ronen Steinke], inspired by a true story. It tells the story of a group of Egyptians and Arabs who lived in Berlin, led by Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who saved 300 Jews from the Holocaust — including a little girl called Anna. He took her in, and he pretended that she was his niece and his nurse, taught her Arabic, and he paraded her in front of the Nazis for nine years. It’s a fascinating story about the connection between Muslims and Arabs and the Jews under Nazi Germany. So, that’s going to be a surprise for the people who called me anti-Semite. It’s a wonderful story that I think it can bring people together. I want to tell stories that have people get together. I have no place in my heart for hate or animosities. I just want people to know people as they are — as people and not as just an extension of a political movement.

In acquiring those rights, is that with the intention to act, write, direct or just produce?

I would love to find someone to write with me because I don’t have that much experience at that, and I would act in it, not the lead per se, but maybe a secondary role. We’ve been looking for funding right now. It’s just an incredible story. Just like the elevator pitch when I tell you or other people, they get blown away, because it is an incredible story of humanity and brotherhood in the most unlikely place.

I’d like to talk about that Piers Morgan interview, the first of two. Obviously, there was criticism and praise for what you said — but your delivery, satirizing Islamophobia, was a choice you made in advance of that sit-down with a rather incendiary media figure. How did you settle on that approach?

I watched the interviews that he did with other people to get a sense of where the direction would go. Then, I prepared responses. I planned them. I almost approached it as if I am approaching a live performance, stand-up comedy. I wrote the zingers, I wrote the soundbites and the jokes and everything. I even set the traps into the thing, because I was going in during a very precarious time where I could either lose my career forever in Hollywood — or lose my connection with my Arab people if I don’t do well. It was a lose-lose situation for me. I had to go in very strong, make an undeniable impact. I was like, “If it is good enough, it will cancel out any negative repercussion that I may get.” I wanted it to be a huge thing, and I still have my messages with his producers. I told them, “Put me on, I’ll make this viral, and I will return for a one-to-one interview afterwards.”

In terms of that risk of alienating part of your audience or losing your career in entertainment, you’ve been incredibly outspoken in the months that followed — deeply critical of both the Israeli government’s ongoing response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and American involvement. Getting into that discussion, in your own words, can be a lose-lose. Now that you’ve lived in America for nearly a decade, have you been able to diagnose why Israel and Palestine, specifically, is the most challenging foreign policy issue to navigate in conversation?

Well, it’s a lot of things. First of all, America is quite involved in the Middle East and is quite involved with the Muslim and Arab countries — whether as an aid provider, ally or enemy. [America] is coming in, and you’re throwing your full weight and full support behind the nation that has taken other people’s land. You cannot dispute that. They have been putting people in a horrible condition. I’m not just talking about Gaza. I’m talking about the West Bank, the Arabs inside Israel, the Arabs in Jerusalem.

I am someone who loves America. I am here. I live here. I am very grateful that I am an American citizen. But, as an American, I am dealing with this from one point of view and one point of view only: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the hallmarks of American politics and American social life. You can curse Biden, say the most horrible thing about Trump, talk anything about the politicians. But once you start to talk and criticize Israel, which is a foreign country that receives aid from the United States, suddenly you are being accused of being antisemitic, anti-Jewish, a Jewish hater. Why do we have this only with Israel? Israel is a government that should not be above reproach. I can talk about Biden or Trump, and I’ll be a patriot who’s advocating for free speech, but when I talk about Israel and what they do, instead of discussing this with me, you call me all kinds of things — antisemitic or a terrorist. If you criticized Egypt or Iran or Saudi Arabia and I call you Islamophobic, that would be very stupid of me because that would be untrue! I don’t want to put down Israelites, but I just want to have an open discussion where nobody is just using things to shut down the conversation by accusing me of stuff. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Bassem Youssef
Bassem Youssef preparing for a segment on Al Bernameg, which aired from 2011 to 2014 — when Youssef and his creative partners ended it after their then-broadcaster suspended telecasts during the run-up to the Egyptian presidential election to avoid “influencing public opinion.”

There were a lot of comparisons between you and Jon Stewart when you were in Egypt making Al Bernameg (The Show). Seeing as he’s back on The Daily Show, do you miss having a similar platform — and could you see yourself doing it again? 

I’ve always wanted the universe to reward me by having a show like that when I came out from Egypt. It kind of felt like I deserved it, like I needed to be at that kind of desk. But now I’m looking at things differently. I maybe enjoy the live performances more, so it is not one of my priorities. I would love to, of course, if I get the opportunity, but I am not hooked on it anymore. Maybe part of it is that I don’t want to be disappointed if I don’t get it. I’m trying to focus on the things that I have instead of the things that I want because maybe it lowers your satisfaction and your self-esteem and your self-love. I think one of the reasons why we, as humans, are sad sometimes is that we get hooked on the outcome of the future or things that we should get. I’m extremely happy and grateful for what I have achieved. I have a second wind in my sails now after everybody let me go as a has-been or someone who has his best days behind him.

When were you called a has-been? 

Oh, when I left Egypt. I had the biggest show in Egypt. I had 40 million people watching it, so there was a very dark period when I left Egypt. I had nothing to do. I didn’t know what to do. There were three or four years of nothingness. The higher you rise, the harder you fall, and you always have people in your lowest point poke into you. That leaves marks. It affected me personally and emotionally for a very long time.

Tell me about how you found your voice or groove with stand-up here in the United States? Because I’ve heard many interviews where you discussed what a difficult adjustment it was for you.

By mid-last year, I think I got my rhythm. It’s very difficult to create that hour of stand-up, especially if you’ve only been doing it for five years. I have a solid hour to tour with, that’s not very easy. For three, four years, I was still trying to find my mood, my pace. Now I see recordings of me in the last six months, and I see how I developed. It’s like I found my groove maybe last year before all of that blew up. If what happened with the Piers Morgan thing happened maybe two years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready and people would come in and would not have the same amount of fun that they have now in my shows.

You’re touring globally, so how is the current material translating in different parts of the world?

I can play the same exact show in Detroit, Paris, Munich, London or even in Dubai, and people will relate to it because it’s a story of a fish out of water. That’s the rare kind of personal story that everyone can relate to.

Stand-ups have been pulling eight figures for streaming specials for a while now. Has anyone come knocking, even if not for that much money? 

Eventually, we want this to be a special sold to Netflix or HBO or Amazon. It really depends on if they’re ready to take me or not. They pitch me over the numbers and whatever. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not the right time for them. But I’m fine. I can still go and do the live performances — and, when I’m done, I would love to put it on a platform if they would have me. I’m not one of the people who is considered one of the big comedians. Also, the buying of the specials has been very different in the last two or three years. The big names like Dave Chappelle, they take tens of millions for their shows. The smaller ones get very, very, very, very, very small amounts of money. Economically, maybe this is something I would do if the offer is better or if I’m done with touring.

You have a much bigger social media presence than most comics. Is that something you and your team ever talk about as an asset for marketing a potential special?

We do, but I don’t know how the industry works! At the end of the day, we are under the mercy of whoever holds the keys to the door. It’s just a bunch of executives in a room and they decide what to take and what not to take. So, you either wait around till the industry looks at you with a kind eye or you just do your own thing and then maybe they come when they are ready.

I’m sure you’ve learned something about how the industry works. What’s been the biggest lesson for you since settling in Hollywood? 

Everything is temporary. Don’t be too happy with success because it is fleeting. Be happy with what you have and appreciate it, because we eat ourselves up with anxiety, with wanting more, and it takes away from the joy of it. It’s a difficult load on you psychologically to have all of this. I’m trying to enjoy the life as I have right now because I have been through the other side of killing myself and kicking myself down for not having everything at once. Just be happy what you have.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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