“Dude, chill out. We’re having fun.”
Less than 10 minutes into his London performance last week, Bassem Youssef’s plea for calm fell on deaf ears to the few who came to badger- not laugh – at the Egyptian political satirist.
Youssef, however, is used to this sort of thing. Since the heady days of the Arab Spring, controversy has followed the former heart surgeon during his transition into the world of entertainment – a path which has seen him step on some rather large toes.
And although he no longer lives in Egypt, Youssef still commands an audience – most of which adores him for pointing out the hilarity in what no one else will say publicly, while others accuse him of being a traitor.
“There is always room for political satire, it’s just the question of whether it’s going to be allowed or not, and whether it’s going to be accepted or not,” Youssef told Al Jazeera shortly after the show. “But at the end of the day, you try and do what you can.”
The London event, part of a three-city tour coinciding with the release of his new documentary Tickling Giants, got off to a rocky start on his very first joke – a take on the Egyptians recently handing over two islands to Saudi Arabia.
An audience member rocketed out of his seat, loudly declaring the islands to be of Saudi origin, before storming out of the Curzon Mayfair cinema in a huff.
(“Are there any non-Arabic speakers here tonight?” Youssef asked. “Welcome to the Middle East.”)
“People either love me to death or hate me to death,” the comedian declares in the documentary’s teaser, which played before he hit the stage. His video montage also features TV pundits railing about his supposed Zionist backing, among other rumours.
To qualify as an Arab country, you need to get stuck in either a revolution or traffic jam... Egypt qualifies for both.
The 42-year-old Cairo native’s rise to fame took shape in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, first on a low-budget YouTube channel, and then on Al-Bernameg (The Programme), the satirical production inspired by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
The series jumped into the fire early, with skits that included Youssef dressing in loud costumes in the vein of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and, eventually, targeting his successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Although neither man found him funny, 30 million viewers who tuned in each week did. But the programme cut too close to the bone for broadcasters, and his show was pulled off the air during its third season in 2014.
“To qualify as an Arab country, you need to get stuck in either a revolution or traffic jam… Egypt qualifies for both,” Youssef says, uncorking one of the few rehearsed gags during his London routine.
The tone took a sensitive turn for the worse, however, after videos poking fun of Sisi were played. They included a clip mocking the Egyptian military’s outlandish claim of finding a cure for Aids and Hepatitis C, along with a widely reported conspiracy theory that a US invasion of Egypt was blocked by submarines and fighter planes.
Hecklers called him naive for not believing the story, which was supposedly detailed in Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices. “I read her book, and nowhere does it say that,” he shrugged.
Comedian Dean Obeidallah, a friend of Youssef’s who was a member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, says he is conscious of what to exclude from his routine when he tours the Arab world.
“There are express limits in content when you do shows in the Middle East,” says Obeidallah, whose father was born in Palestine. “In general, it’s no jokes about politics of that country – at least not by naming anyone. No jokes about religion – any religion, not just Islam – and no jokes about sex.”
“The ironic thing is if you do an American corporate event, they have the exact same limitations on content they impose,” says Obeidallah. “It’s the idea that making fun of people in power somehow undermines their powers. It’s just a lack of understanding of comedy.”
Indeed, a lack of understanding is what has led to accusations of betrayal from hard-line Egyptian nationalists.
During the question and answer session in London, an audience member asked Youssef if he loved Egypt. The comedian said that he did, but was weary of loaded questions with a “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric.
That approach is what partially drove Youssef to leave Egypt for Oakland, California, where he’s working on The Democracy Handbook, a series trailing the campaigns of presidential hopefuls including Donald Trump.
Youssef sees the Arab Spring as “part of a much larger process”, and hasn’t lost hope in Egypt, but left the country for fear of his loved ones. “I actually feared for the safety of others more than the safety of myself,” he says.
Given the pressures that faced the Egyptian, Obeidallah is surprised the show lasted as long as it did.
“It took a lot of courage and bravery to do that knowing that he could be imprisoned, or worse: People in his family, or his employers could be harassed or imprisoned,” Obeidallah says. “They may not go after the most visible guy because it gets them [bad] press, but maybe they would go after people [in his circle]. That’s the greater concern.”
Following the show, Youssef called his performance – which featured a near-tussle between audience members – “a catharsis”.
“It’s fine, this is a great thing; people have the right to speak,” he explains. “This is democracy.”
In the short term, at least, Youssef is turning his attention to the greatest democracy in the world: The United States of America. What does Obeidallah think of that?
“I hope Trump gets elected, just to keep Bassem Youssef out of the country,” he says. “I don’t want the competition.”