Bassem Youssef has one of the more remarkable biographies on the shelf. Formerly a successful heart surgeon – although you’d hope there are few unsuccessful heart surgeons – the 2011 Egyptian Revolution inspired Youssef to move into online satire. The B+ Show was filmed in his laundry room, uploaded to YouTube as five-minute episodes, and within three months had gained more than five million viewers. 

Youssef was soon faced with a choice: move to America and continue as a surgeon or accept the offer of hosting his own TV series in Egypt. Medicine’s loss was media’s gain: Al Bernameg (‘The Programme’) quickly became a phenomenon that earned comparisons with The Daily Show, a slew of articles anointing Youssef as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. (Youssef appeared on The Daily Show in 2012.) The second season attracted 40m viewers on TV alone; Youssef was included in the Time 100 in 2013. 

Unsurprisingly, Youssef’s tendency to challenge and ridicule those in power made him a target. He was briefly arrested in 2013; the following year, the offices of his production company were raided by the police. Notably, these events occurred under different administrations, President Mohamed Morsi being deposed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état. Youssef ended Al Bernameg in 2014 and fled the country, eventually relocating to Los Angeles. 

In October last year, Youssef appeared on Piers Morgan Uncensored to discuss the rapidly escalating war in Gaza. His use of satire and dark humour to highlight the spiralling civilian death toll evidently discomforted Morgan and caused the interview to go viral. “They’re very difficult to kill,” said Youssef of the Palestinians. “I know because I’m married to one. I tried many times; couldn’t kill her.” The thirty-minute exchange was spiky, combative, and has 22m views on YouTube 

Morgan would later fly to LA and record a second interview with Youssef, a two-hour dialogue in which both men discussed issues such as anti-Semitism, Palestine and Israel with sensitivity and nuance. Although inevitably promoted as ‘Piers Morgan vs Bassem Youssef Round 2’, the tone was respectful, far more conversation than conflict. “Never thought in my life I’d ever watch two hours of Piers Morgan,” states the top-rated YouTube comment, which has 36,000 likes. (The video has 11m views, remarkable considering its length.)  

Youssef is a busy man. Not only is he embarking on a global tour – arriving in London at the end of April – we speak on the day he and his family move house.  His wit and intelligence still shone through the screen. 

Bassem Youssef

Square Mile // Could you tell us about your mindset going into the first interview with Piers Morgan? 

Bassem Youssef // Of course there was a factor of worry and concern because it was a very sensitive topic, but my people were under attack, my identity was under attack and it’s between staying silent or talking about it. Talking about it can cost you a lot of stuff, can cost you a lot of opportunities here in the United States. 

You can also be in a position where you’re not the best representative for that cause because I’m not a Palestinian myself. It was kind of a lose-lose situation for me going in. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what to do, and I was hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

SM: Did you use the dark humour deliberately to capture the attention of people who might not otherwise watch a more typical interview? 

BY: It wasn’t intentional, but it was the only way to talk about this because it was so ridiculous. How are we congratulating Israel for warning civilians before bombing them? How are they killing people humanely? I don’t understand. 

These are regurgitated words that we’ve heard in the media for so long and people have been indoctrinated. They take it as if it’s OK but it’s not, and I don’t know why people let this go for a very long time. Listening to all of this, I found it extremely hilarious in a painful way. So what I did was just regurgitating their talking point back to them. 

The whole idea about human shields – there are 12,000 dead Palestinian children [now 13,000 according to UNICEF]. The only reason that I would accept these words like human shields would be if there were 12,000 military targets behind each diaper.

SM: You did a second interview with Morgan that lasted for two hours. It has 11 million views on YouTube but received far less media attention… 

BY: Maybe because the second interview was not as ‘sensational’ but you can only be sensational at a certain point. My whole point about the media is the circus. I did the second interview knowing it’ll not go farther but it’ll live longer. It’ll always be some sort of reference that people come back to see stuff that they never knew.

SM: Can we talk a little bit about yourself? You grew up in Cairo, what did your parents do?

BY: My father was a judge and my mum was a university professor of business.

SM: What made you become a surgeon?

BY: I had to please my parents, as usual, because I had high grades and I shouldn’t be wasting it on anything other than medicine or engineering.

SM: Lots of performers were naughty at school but I assume that wasn’t you? 

BY: I was a nerd, but I wasn’t an annoying nerd. I was a good student but not because of discipline, not because I was disciplined, but because of fear – I didn’t want to be smacked. So I guess I did it out of necessity. I was too scared of my mum to cause any problem at school.

SM: Did you hope to move into comedy even when you were doing heart surgery?

BY: I’m a realistic person. Everybody growing up dreams of being on television, and I can even remember what my dreams were. I wanted to be on television but that’s every kid. But I didn’t really work for it, and I didn’t really pursue it. My dreams of becoming famous or being in the media were not more than any regular kid. More people have put more energy and trouble into that dream than I did. 

SM: Not many people would have heart surgeries as a backup career.

BY: Yeah. Yeah, it’s sad.

Bassem Youssef
Bassem Youssef

SM: What made you create The B+ Show? 

BY: When the revolution happened, there was more of an opening for everybody to do things. It was kind of an open range where people did stuff, put stuff on the internet, and I had this dream of doing a show, writing a show like Jon Stewart. Not even being the host, but writing a show. And I just did it and it went viral. I didn’t expect it to go viral at all.

SM: It got 5m viewers in the first two months. Were people immediately coming up to you on the street?

BY: Yeah, yeah. It was weird to deal with that in the beginning.

SM: How did you deal with it? 

BY: Very awkwardly. I didn’t know why people wanted to have pictures with me so I wasn’t very receptive. People thought I was arrogant, but I was really awkward and not understanding what was going on.

SM: Your TV show Al Bernameg gets 40 million viewers, it’s watched by 40% of Egypt’s population. How did you cope with that level of fame?

BY: That level of fame, success and exposure is not always very gentle on your life and on you. Because when people tell me 40 million are watching you that means that there are 40 million who have an opinion about you, and that is not something very nice. Imagining that you’re being scrutinised by all these millions. Yeah, a lot of people watch it for the show but many of them just watch you to criticise and scrutinise.

Being in the public eye and having that much exposure, with all of the perks and the fame that it comes with, it is very stressful on your mental health and on your psyche. And there’s a weight of expectation that is there all the time. 

I didn’t enjoy it as I should because I was always worried about failure. I was always worried about not making it. Not always failure, but disappointing expectations. So it was not the worst experience, it was definitely a great experience but it wasn’t all laughs and giggles. It was very stressful. 

SM: How did you cope with that stress?

BY: I didn’t. I had a very short temper and I lost my temper very, very quickly if things didn’t work out. But I’m learning now to deal with that much better.

SM: You met Jon Stewart in 2012 and you guys have been intertwined for a long time. Did he give you any advice about doing the show, or doing comedy in the public eye?  

BY: When the military came to power, it was very difficult. I didn’t know what to do and he gave me a very strong piece of advice. He said, ‘If you’re afraid to say what you want to say, make fun of the fact that you’re scared to say it.’ Basically, if you make fun of your fear, you can say a lot without saying anything.

SM: You’re arrested in 2013, then your offices are raided in 2014… 

BY: There was a warrant for my arrest under the Muslim Brotherhood and I was cancelled,  having the production company offices raided by the Sisi forces. So I’m loved by both.

SM: That must have been a scary time for you and your family.

BY: Yeah, of course. That’s why I left.

SM: Was it an easy decision to cancel the show because you knew it wasn’t safe to continue doing it?

BY: It was not easy to cancel the show. It was very difficult. But also the day that I cancelled the show, it was like a sigh of relief because it was so much stress that I couldn’t take it anymore. So I cried but I was relieved at the same time because it was very unsustainable to continue.

SM: How was the relocation to LA? 

BY: I moved to LA in 2016. I love it. Weather is amazing. People here are very nice and I found a home in Los Angeles.

SM: Do you miss Cairo at all? 

BY: No, not really. And that’s nothing against Cairo, but I like what I have now. Of course Egypt and Cairo is a part of my life and a part of who I am. But when people ask me, ‘Do you miss Cairo? Miss Egypt?’ I tell them that the Egypt that I miss is not there anymore because you change. And Egypt changes and circumstances change and people change and places change.

When people miss their homes, they’re missing a certain imagined point of time that is not there anymore. And it doesn’t mean it changed for the worst, it can still be better, but it’s not what you are missing.

Bassem Youssef

SM: Would you ever move into politics? 

BY: No, no. I wouldn’t do it in Egypt and I wouldn’t do it here.

SM: How come?

BY: Because it’s not my job and I don’t want political power. I like being a comedian. I like being in comedy and I like to make fun of things and I like to make people laugh. And I think it’s a great gift to be able to do that. It’s a privilege really – the fact that I can travel the world and talk to people and make them laugh. Why would I go into politics and be hated?

SM: People are extremely negative about the US election. Biden is the nominee but if he stepped aside, is there a Democratic candidate you’d hope to replace him?

BY: I think it’s too late now for the Democratic party to choose another candidate. For me, I cannot find in my heart to vote for Biden. And that’s not something that I would oblige anybody to do. Everybody’s free. 

Anyway, I live in California, my vote doesn’t count, but I cannot give my vote for someone who has been very vocal about their support for the genocide that’s happening in Gaza or unwavering support for Israel, no matter what it does, no matter how rogue a state it becomes, and no matter much how many international laws it breaks. But his policies don’t matter. There’s a kind of mental and an emotional block against him. Again, my voice in California wouldn’t make any difference. So good luck for him in certain States.

SM: What would you say is the least bad outcome in the election?

BY: The least bad? I don’t know. Honestly, as much as I was very excited about the elections, we even had the primaries, I didn’t vote. And I don’t care. I really checked out from it, at least this year. The whole thing about how policies are working here and how the politicians are being voted by special interest groups is very sickening. Maybe I need to check out this year and reevaluate what’s going to happen next year.

But this is something that we as Americans need to speak about: how our vote as citizens doesn’t really matter because whoever you vote for is going to follow whoever will give him the money, not give him the vote. There’s something very disheartening to see the American democracy turning into an oligarchy.

View on Instagram

SM: Do you think you are a less optimistic person than you were ten years ago?

BY: I’m more realistic and being more realistic is less optimistic, I guess.

SM: Is there anything that gives you optimism about the world and the future?

BY: Younger generations have been proven to actually be more aware. They show awareness and show care about the world that we live in. I know that Gen Z gets a lot of flack from us. But the young people of today, they are more engaged, more involved, and maybe in the future they will make a change.

SM: Can you see any path to resolution in the Middle East?

BY: There are better people than me that can answer this but at the end of the day, it will have to be based on justice and compromise. And you can’t take people’s land from them, you can’t take people’s land and then take their freedom at the same time. It’s a really bad deal.

SM: And what are your future plans? 

BY: Right now I’m enjoying my tour. We sold out two shows at the Apollo, we are adding a third one, and I’m doing about 22 shows in 14, 15 cities in Europe. So I’m very excited about this and I can’t wait. 

The Middle Beast tour plays the London Apollo on 27 April and Manchester on 4 May.