Chicago is known for its magnificent architecture, but right now I’m not thinking of brick and steel.
Chicago is also known for its magnificent architecture of the mind. Chicago Ideas is a non-profit that specializes in bringing the world’s most innovative thinkers to Chicago to sync up with their local counterparts, namely you. As Chicago Ideas’ mission statement says, “we foster connectivity that crosses industry and social boundaries to spark ideas into action.” It is “the ideas platform for everyone.”
This means that several times a year – and it’s happening right now! – you can attend programs with leaders of government, industry, education, entertainment and really, every category of life and livelihood.
Past speakers include Hillary Clinton, Tom Brokaw, Mario Batali, Deepak Chopra, Sean Combs, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Kamala Harris, Jeanne Gang, George Lucas, Charlie Rose, Questlove … this is just a tiny fraction of the list … here’s the entire list, which reads like a who’s who of world game changers.
This past Monday night, as part of Chicago Ideas’ Curiosity Series, Bassem Youssef spoke. He is known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” and he addressed a sold-out crowd at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Edlis Neeson Theater.
He was there to discuss “Laughing Through the Arab Spring” and his new memoir, Revolution for Dummies.
Bassem left a successful career as a cardiothoracic surgeon to create and host Egyptian television’s satirical news show Al-Bernameg (“The Show”), which ran from 2011-2014. During that time, Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on Al-Bernameg and Bassem appeared on The Daily Show. Al-Bernameg had 30 million viewers at its peak, nearly twice the number of Donald Trump’s twitter followers, as Monday night’s moderator, Gigi Pritzker pointed out.
In 2013, Bassem was one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People.” His show endured until the political pressure became life-threatening – and expensive. He was arrested, interrogated and fined 50 million Egyptian pounds ($6.5 million). He fled Egypt for Dubai and then the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles.
On Monday night, Gigi Pritzker conducted a Q&A with Bassem and gave equal time to the audience, which included comedians, comedy fans, Egyptian ex-pats, kids, and all manner of interested folks all wanting to know how to persist against the odds in show business and life.
Here is a sample of Bassem Youssef's wisdom and experience:
Life can take you to extraordinary, never imagined places if you have the courage to begin and plan … and begin again.
Bassem’s on-air career began with five-minute, homemade shows broadcast on YouTube from his laundry room. Impressed with his ability to connect, a friend encouraged him to create an informative show about religion. A terrorist attack on Egyptian Christians forced that show's postponement. Then months later, the Egyptian revolution. After that, political satire became his focus. He gained five million YouTube viewers. Egyptian networks came calling just as he received a U.S. visa allowing him to move his medical practice to the U.S. He decided to stay in Egypt and to focus on political satire.
The Jon Stewart comparison? Bassem says he planted it. Whenever anyone interviewed him, even when he was still in his laundry room, he referenced Jon Stewart. He dreamed that one day he would be in the audience of The Daily Show. End result: by his first visit to the U.S., Jon Stewart already knew who he was.
He now faces another new beginning in L.A.. “I’m driving a Prius. I’m vegan. I’m trying to become gluten-sensitive … but I’m starting again from ground zero …[Los Angeles] is cut-throat competition. There are people who are younger, more beautiful, more talented, who’ve been struggling for longer … I do stuff that people half my age who wait tables do. I go to improv classes, I take acting class and try not to be cast as ‘terrorist number three.’ I’m trying to pitch ideas, but this is how you pitch stuff: you get rejected. You pitch again. You get rejected.”
He is touring the country with his one-man show, writing, and promoting his book and a new documentary about Al-Bernameg called Tickling Giants. (Available on Amazon and iTunes in June, and which Chicago Ideas showed on Sunday night.)
Come on, get snarky.
Satire was a big part of Egyptians’ lives. Under an oppressive political regime, dissent is internalized and it blooms as snark, cynicism, and humor, hence satire. Bassem’s message to us: “This is what happens when you live under a dictatorship. So [Americans], you have a lot to learn.”
You can’t always count on friends and family for support. Keep going.
As the Egyptian government became more repressive, Bassem felt increasing pressure. Friends and even some family turned against him. Propaganda said he was an enemy of the state and an operative of the CIA recruited by Jon Stewart (really). On camera, he put on his show-face, produced excellence, and spread courage and laughter. But inside, he felt depressed and extremely stressed. Nevertheless, he persisted with what he felt was creatively and morally correct and kept going as long as it was humanly possible.
Surround yourself with the best.
In the U.S., but interestingly not in the Middle East, he’s always asked whether he intentionally hired women because so many of his writers and producers were women. Nope. He hired men and women and fired men and women equally. As it happened, those who stuck it out with him and were the best were women.
Americans could improve on tropical fruits and tropical past times.
Can he go back to Egypt? Yes, but it would be Hotel California (you can check in, but you can never leave). Two fun things he misses: he’s an avid kite-surfer and misses warm oceans. Also, Egyptian mangos are the real deal. American mangos? Tastes like cucumber.
You can be in exile in your own country.
It is possible to be in exile at home when you’re intellectually incompatible with the people around you.
An alarm about American politics.
In the U.S., it’s no longer about who is most believable or most persuasive. It’s about who can sow the most confusion. Current U.S. rhetoric is similar to the “world is against us” rhetoric he heard in Egypt as democracy fell.
This revolution will not be satirized.
“Satire is just a starting point, but as satirists we have a limit. We are not actors, we are not politicians, we are not freedom fighters, we are not journalists. We have a limit and that limit actually ends at you. If people just use it as a catharsis and just laugh their ass off, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you use it as one of many tools to organize, to go out and cast your vote? Now, you make a difference.”
Sometimes you really can’t go home again.
An audience member asked whether Bassem would consider returning to Egypt and “giving back.” The answer: it’s impossible under the current regime for him to contribute and give back. When he left, there was no way to continue his work. Everything he’d built was taken away and he and the people around him weren’t safe. The Egypt he misses no longer exists. “All those beautiful phrases about giving back – it has to be executed in context. So yes, I would love to give back if I was allowed to.”
You never know where life can take you.
“Two years ago, I never thought I’d be here. Five years ago, the only theater I was in was the operating theater. Life is full of surprises.”
The best advice is …
Gigi Pritzker and multiple audience members sought his advice. We all wanted his advice, given his accomplishments under extraordinary circumstances which especially resonate with Americans now.
Bassem repeatedly asked everyone to stop! Until finally, as everyone kept asking for advice about comedy, and about persisting, resisting, and life, he slumped over in a defeated mock-faint.
But then he gave the best advice of all: “My advice? Don’t take anybody’s advice.” Find your own experience, your own voice, and your own definition of success. “All these self-help books … it’s bullshit … [and my book] is not the book to tell you how to do it because this book is my story. It’s how I did it, and maybe if I did the exact same thing six months later or six months before, it wouldn’t work … Everybody [must] find their own niche and own advice.”
Full video of Bassem Youssef's Monday, March 27 talk here.
Check out the rest of Chicago Ideas' Curiosity Series here:
April 4: Wayne Brady talks about Hamilton on Facebook Live
April 11: Alec Baldwin in person at the Athenaeum Theater
April 13: Perform improv with the Nerdologues at Cards Against Humanity headquarters
More about Chicago Ideas programs throughout the year and how to get involved at chicagoideas.com.