Youssef Turns the Joke on His Former Fans
Cairo – Bassem Youssef was facing a challenge in the build-up to the first episode of “al-Bernameg” following a four-month hiatus. Opposed to common belief, it wasn’t an issue of lack of material after Mohamed Mursi and Islamist TV channels disappeared from the scene. It was Youssef’s own audience, those who had avidly cheered and defended his painful mockery of Mursi and co. Now that they are supporting the state and status quo, and, like their Islamist counterparts, nodding to TV channels whose content is rich in material for Youssef’s show, the joke essentially would be on them.
On Friday night, in his first episode after the military ousted Mursi, many laughed with him half-heartedly, agreeing with the don’t-replace-one-dictatorship-with-another message Youssef hammered in again and again. Others didn’t like holding a mirror to their face with their faults and hypocrisies, and have responded with agony and anger.
It would have been naive of anyone to expect that many of those who had previously defended Youssef under the guise of freedom of expression would maintain the same principles once he turned his satire on their beloved leaders. It was a test many were bound to fail.
The taboo Youssef was expected to break, or at least challenge, in his new season was of mammoth dimensions. The age-old glorification of the military protected through decades of tight press censorship was compounded in recent months with the rise of chauvinistic nationalism. Any remote criticism of the military and its head, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, much less satire, is tantamount to treason, an accusation as abundant now as contempt of religion was under Mursi – an analogy that informed Youssef’s show.
The surgeon-turned-satirist eased into the anticipated challenge of taking on the state, and instead directed his punch lines to its supporters and the celebrities who fueled the pro-military sentiment. The script was rife with sexual innuendos fitting with the for-adults-only warning at the start of the show. Just like the Islamists, who remain angry at Youssef, his new critics are slamming his supposedly newfound obscenity and disregard for social values.
The script, however, was mainly inspired by the lingo used proudly by Sisi’s swoony fans. The show’s writers didn’t bring the sex into the equation; they simply toyed with what their subjects brought along.
Early in July, columnist Ghada El-Sherif wrote a tribute to Sisi that lost its way between the political and erotica genres. The public rhetoric that followed maintained the course, with both men and women praising the masculine qualities of Sisi, meshing macho appeal with national pride. Scenes of celebrities crying to his speeches, ludicrously wearing camouflage and singing patriotic songs, and blushing as they describe their love for him were some of the examples that peppered the show.
Youssef built his case well so that a sketch, in which a male actor playing Egypt talked about how Sisi “would satisfy [her] needs as a woman” and removed a bed cover to reveal camouflage pants, seemed like a logical conclusion for the sexual innuendos made with a straight face by the general’s aficionados.
The hosting channel immediately Linked word from the show in a statement the following night as the controversy and the criticism gained more traction. The CBC network said it’s “careful not to use any words, innuendos or scenes that mock the feelings of the Egyptian people of symbols of the Egyptian state.”
Money talks louder. Judging by the number of ads flooding the breaks between the show’s three segments, Youssef has retained his money-making gift. Advertisers’ interest could be tied to the anticipation that preceded this particular episode and might ebb as criticism intensifies. But, it could remain tied to the entertainment value, which was high last Friday.
The sensitivity of the issues the show handled evidently pushed the writers to pay more attention to the script, and the result was rewarding. Compared to the last season, the script is tighter, the punch lines are sharper and more frequent, and the jokes keep the right distance between subtlety and straightforwardness.
Youssef’s crew should take credit for making people laugh, including those who don’t always approve of the message. People like to laugh and many don’t mind laughing at themselves. The show might gradually change hearts in a more sane direction. If it merely eased the tension in politicized social gatherings by bringing comedy to the table, it would be a step forward.
Entertainers should lighten up the mood as well as provoke thoughts. Youssef and his crew did both. What they really should take credit for is breaking a window in mainstream media for the third voice, proving that those refusing to be classified as pro-Brotherhood or pro-military are of considerable size and logic.
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