Satire is no joke for Egypt's Jon Stewart

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Satire is no joke for Egypt's Jon Stewart 09:38

Story highlights

  • Bassem Youssef is a visiting fellow at Harvard working on "political satire and humor"
  • Egypt's Jon Stewart had program that ran for three years in post-Arab Spring days
  • "There is room for satire and comedy as long as it's acceptable" by those in control, he says

(CNN)His satire took Egypt, and the world, by storm.

But now, Bassem Youssef -- Egypt's most famous satirist known as his country's Jon Stewart -- has the public profile of a politician in retirement, leading study groups at the Harvard Kennedy School.
"Well, you know, sometimes circumstances are not the best for you to continue a political satire show," Youssef told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an interview that aired Monday. "Sometimes jokes kind of are annoying."
    His show -- literally called "The Show," or "Al Bernameg" -- ran for three seasons during Egypt's turbulent and utterly confusing post-Arab Spring days.
    Youssef's biting satire left nothing unscathed -- whether the president, political and militant Islam, or the military.
    "There is room for satire and comedy as long as it's acceptable by the people controlling the atmosphere."
    His incredible story from cardiac surgeon to satirist to political target is the subject of a documentary currently in production, directed by a senior producer for Stewart, with whom Youssef developed a close relationship.
    "It's talking about political satire, humor, how (people can) be all for a certain program or a joke, but when the joke turns on them, they kind of like turn on you," he said.
    "And so maybe we were an equal opportunity satirist, but they were not (an) equal opportunity audience."
    The chances are small that his show would be allowed back on air, if he even wanted to do so -- "The question is will I be allowed to do, make fun of whatever (I want)?"
    ("Who said that my country's authoritarian? Come on," he joked. "I mean, don't put words in my mouth. We are -- it's a very, very good, democratic country; please, please.")
    But he is far from idle, seemingly casting around for ways to occupy his immense talent.
    At Harvard, he is a visiting fellow working on "political satire and humor, and how they interact with political, social and even religious taboos."
    He is careful not to say he is teaching, as "Harvard professors are very touchy when resident fellows come here and say they teach."
    He is also writing a script for a movie comedy, and building a platform to identify talent in the Arab world and allow more people to experience the extreme and unexpected success he did.
    "Satire didn't begin or end with my program. I mean, it is a part of people's culture, a part of people's thoughts. So if one program is off, there are people who will find other ways."
    His program showed the Arab world in a new light for many in the West, and he said he hopes more will follow in his footsteps.
    It's a counterbalance, if you will, to the messianic image propagated by ISIS.
    "I don't want to even call them extreme Muslims. I think they are a bunch of lunatics, who instead of playing 'Grand Theft Auto' on video games, they want to do it in real life."
    It may not often reach a Western audience, but Youssef said that YouTube is filled with Arabs making fun of ISIS -- for example, setting the group's favorite "anthems" to images of belly dancers.
    "It happens with all religions ...," he said.
    "So they are crazy, and they are a threat for me as much they are a threat to you."
    Despite all Youssef's projects, many simply want him to return to the airwaves. Is he eyeing, Amanpour asked, the seat that will soon be vacated by his mentor, Stewart?
    "The day that I actually have been chosen to replace Jon Stewart will be like -- it will be glorious," he said.
    "But I don't think that Americans would like to take their political satire from a Middle Eastern guy with a thick accent. I think this is going to be even more difficult than electing a black president.
    "But you know, let's hope."