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Taking Satire into Egypt’s Public Sphere

May 1, 2011

The most important thing about Bassem Youssef’s heavily viewed YouTube channel is that his brand of humor–inspired by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert–indexes and offers metacommentary on Egyptian media.

In regional stereotypes, Egyptians are usually seen as the funniest of the Arabs. They are said to be khafiift id-damm (light of blood). This was once described to me by an Arabic instructor as, “Our lives are so hard, so filled with absurdity that if we don’t laugh, we would never stop weeping.” Much of this character is expressed in everyday life in political satire–jokes about politicians, the police, the president himself. But such satire has almost never been expressed in the public sphere.

Until now.

Like the US shows it emulates, Bassem Youssef’s B+ offers “an experiment in journalism” that ” uses techniques drawn from genres of news, comedy, and television talk to revive a journalism of critical inquiry and advance a model of deliberative democracy” (Baym 2005).

What makes the humor of shows like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report interesting is not that they parody the news but that they use actual news reports (and newsmakers) to create humor. This is done through a series of metacommentaries that weave news clips and metacommentary by the show’s main characters together to create a new, entertaining narrative.

Remediating news in this way is not only funny, it offers viewers alternative ways to think about the news they view in the mainstream media. According to Elliott Gaines, the “narrative continuity constructed from rebroadcasts of news stories, told with the intent to entertain, ironically informs the audience of the significance of events whose meanings are obscured in conventional broadcast journalism” (2007: 81)

Media satire that sends up the actual pretensions of media and politicians is unknown in Egypt, with the possible exception of some political cartoons.

This is a different kind of satire than many other forms of news parody. In the US, news parody historically tended to involve invented news, silly stories that were narrated with all the characteristics of straight news. This goes back at least to Sam Clemens, who supposedly twice had to flee for his life when his satires were taken for true news stories (Sanborn 1990) and has had many subsequent incarnations, most recently The Onion.

That this is one of the most popular you tube channels in Egypt is not surprising. The question is, will Bassem Youssef move to a television show? And if he does, will he be able to get politicians to appear on it? Because if public political satire is almost unknown, the inability of Egyptian public figures to laugh at themselves is completely unknown, and even hard to imagine.

In fact, it’s one of the things Egyptians–including Bassem Youssef– make jokes about.

You can go to the Bassem Youssef show’s Youtube channel here.

References:

Baym, Geoffrey. 2007. Crafting New Communicative Models in the Televisual Sphere: Political Interviews on The Daily Show. The Communication Review. 10(2):93-115.

Gaines, Elliott. 2007. The Narrative semiotics of the Daily Show. Semiotica. 166: 81–96

Sanborn, Margaret. 1990. Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years. New York: Double Day.

Other Accounts:

NPR story: “Egypt Finds Its Own Jon Stewart

Daily Beast story: “Bassem Youssef: Egypt’s Jon Stewart

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