Satirical comedy may be a strong, tall pillar in a society with free speech, but it also provides access to information. Jon Stewart, Ian Hislop and Dr Bassem Youssef proudly laugh at the farce of politics. Sadly, Youssef fronting his short-lived The Show in Egypt proved to be life-threatening. Tickling Giants is a unique documentary that shows how Youssef, once a fully-qualified, working heart surgeon, quit his job and became a comedian. While important and informative in its detailing of the crisis in Egypt, Tickling Giants is side-splittingly funny in its criticism and mockery of the thorny issues it depicts.
Dr Bassem Youssef, while working as a surgeon, started a YouTube channel shortly after the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, which overthrew the Mubarak government. Mubarak famously clamped down on free speech and such political satire would never have existed under his government. On the cutting edge of technology and taking inspiration from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Youssef’s channel was an instant success with millions watching his uploaded videos. Consequently, ONTV offered Youssef a contract to present and produce his own television show where his audience grew further. A loyal team of researchers jumped at the opportunity to support the inspirational programme and it seemed as if Egypt was transforming into a liberal society. But the changes in government after the election of Mohamed Morsi challenged this particular brand of comedy, and Youssef had become an example of the type of attitude that wouldn’t be acceptable in the new Egyptian order. When we talk of YouTube sensations, sadly The Fine Brothers and Justin Bieber may be some of the people who come to mind. Bassem Youssef, on the other hand, actively reshaped a societies way to digest media. By making fun of leaders, you force people to see them as the same flawed humans that we all are. Democracy is only possible with accurate information and the freedom of speech. Jon Stewart invited Youssef on his show and Stewart himself visited Youssef in Cairo but he was well aware of the different climate both work within. While Stewart may be snubbed on a right-wing TV channel, Youssef is arrested and family members are imprisoned for months on end, without charge. Youssef is keen to set an example to others by creating an alternate reality to what Egypt currently offers. The studio set is slick, with a live audience, while his team of researchers is far from dominated by men. In fact, most are women with some shedding their hijab in a progressive effort to ensure Egypt is tolerating men and women of different belief systems.
Expertly directed by Sara Taksler, she weaves together the recent history in an accessible and upbeat tone, with the rise in popularity of Youssef smoothly running alongside. This is supported by playful, snarky cartoons, created by regular show contributor JF Andeel. Tickling Giants contrasts the outside streets of Cairo, with riots and aggression, with the inside of The Show’s offices, as writers joke, laugh and enjoy what should be their future. Narrated by Youssef himself, he manages to bring real heart to the story as he mocks Mubarak, Morsi and General Sisi, he also acknowledges that these are merely jokes and his family ultimately come before everything.
But bombs go off, people are murdered and there are never any assurances that this won’t affect the team behind Bassem Youssef’s show. In one heart-breaking moment, Youssef explains “I want to do my job, but I can’t”. In the UK, and across the western world, we take for granted the freedom of speech we have (and, of course, there are issues with the media) but Ian Hislop and Jon Stewart never needed to flee the country they were born in. There’s a very real sense that nothing is over and, as a viewer in a different world, it forces you to acknowledge how privileged we are – and how we must try and support other countries to do the same.