‘Tickling Giants’ Documentary Shows ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’ In Action

Sara Taksler is more than a “senior producer” for The Daily Show. She is also a film director. Her first was Twisted: A Balloonamentary, a 2007 documentary she worked on with Naomi Greenfield about people who attend balloon twisting conventions, but her latest work is based on a subject matter that is more near and dear to her heart. Tickling Giants is about Bassem Youssef, a man you might have never heard of, but he’s huge in other parts of the world. Born and raised in Egypt, Youssef left a lucrative career as a heart surgeon to become a full-time comedian, something he says is every mother’s dream for their children.

Sara Taksler

Youssef is known as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” and has his own Jon Stewart-ish satire show called Al Bernameg, which devotes itself to discussing important topics and comments on hypocrisy in the Egyptian media, politics, and religion in the form of comedy. Bassem’s show is the most-viewed TV show airing in the Middle East with 30 million viewers per episode. To compare, The Daily Show averages only about 2 million viewers. However, unlike the American show, Youssef and his staff endure physical threats, protests, and legal action, mostly because free speech is a novel idea there and some people can’t take a joke. And unlike Stewart (and now Trevor Noah), Youssef spends time trying to keep his staff safe, avoid being arrested, and stay on the air.

Taksler says that she got involved with the Tickling Giants project in 2012 when Youssef was in New York to visit The Daily Show. He didn’t have a show recorded in front of a live audience at that time, but she found Bassem to be very interesting.

“I love taking a serious issue and finding a cathartic way to process it through humor,” said Taksler in a press release for the film. “Bassem was doing just that, but while under the microscope of a country where free speech was not yet settled law. Also, Bassem brought a few female producers with him and I was really curious about what it would be like to be my counterpart in Egypt.”

Bassem says that he watched Jon Stewart for about 10 years before he started his own channel in Egypt, but admits that he didn’t understand much about what Stewart was saying since he didn’t understand American politics and had to study it in order for The Daily Show to make sense to him.

“If I could do anything, I would have my own comedy show, and be like Jon Stewart. Make fun of New Jersey – whatever the hell that is. I would make fun of politics, the president. There’s only one problem. I live in Egypt,” Youssef said.

John Stewart

During that time, creating a similar show in Egypt would be impossible, but in January, 2011, the country faced a revolution and the president was forced out of office. It was then that Youssef taped his first Al Bernameg show for YouTube in his laundry room. When he was ready to create a bigger production, he took that trip to New York.

“He’s so cute and he’s so short,” said Youssef about meeting Jon Stewart for the first time.

Taksler admits that she was being a little impulsive, but asked Youssef during their first meeting if she could make a documentary about him and his show and he agreed. Unfortunately, she says that she also immediately regretted filming in Egypt.

“Not many people know this, but Egypt is located in Egypt,” she jokes. “I’m the kind of person who always wears a seat belt, a bike helmet, and if it were an option, I would wear a seat belt while on my bike. We were concerned about getting any attention while we were filming. Egypt is a dangerous place for journalists, so I did not mention going to Egypt on any kind of social media until we finished filming.” However, she does admit that she did fell very safe there.

Press materials for Tickling Giants explains that the small movie crew followed the staff of Al Bernameg while discovering that democracy is not easily won. Taksler says that the young women and men working on Bassem’s show are fearless revolutionaries, who just happen to be really, really funny.

Al Bernameg billboard


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On the set of Al Bernameg

The name Tickling Giants came about when Sara was interviewing a writer on Al Bernameg who is also a political cartoonist. After describing the film project to him, he came up with a drawing of Bassem holding a feather and tickling a giant’s large foot.

Taksler hope that people who watch Tickling Giants will appreciate how much work goes into creating a show such as Al Bernameg.

“I hope this film reaches a global audience so that people everywhere can realize the power of freedom of expression, the power of speaking truth to power, and how satire and humor are great ways to put their case forward.”

[Featured Image by Technicolor]