Arabic Icon Bassem Youssef Performing in New Brunswick

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–Comedian Bassem Youssef will be performing his one-man show at the Stress Factory comedy club in downtown starting at 7:30pm on November 7.

The show will run through November 9, with two shows each on Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and 9:45pm.

Youssef performed an award-winning satirical news comedy show, al-Bernamej, which is reminiscent of USA shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight.

He was also a surgeon who helped wounded protesters during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square, which has affected his comedic style.

This comedian has literally been questioned and arrested by the forces of a real-life dictator because of his comedy, and even fled his country due to the persecution he was getting for his routines. 

Under intense political pressure from at least two different government administrators, the military, as well as religious extremists, Youssef was forced to leave his media career in Egypt behind, coming to the United States with his family and starting over again in a new language.

Youssef discussed his upcoming shows at the Stress Factory in an exclusive interview with New Brunswick Today on November 4.

“It’s a whole routine that’s based on my whole life, including how I was a doctor, how I went into medicine, how I left that to get into entertainment, and what political situations were happening in Egypt back then…and then having to be persecuted and arrested and be actually questioned about my comedy for six hours,” stated Youssef. 

“The second half of the show, I talk about my personal experience about coming here under Trump, now being an immigrant or refugee, as someone who escaped his country. It’s more of a narrative show that has multimedia like videos, pictures, and parts of the [previous] show I did [in Egypt].”

Youssef has experienced much more success in the States, frequently appearing on television, authoring a book, and launching his own YouTube channel, resulting in much larger and more diverse audience that he is reaching out to with his comedy. 

“Some of my bests nights is where I have the audience split into two. 50% Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Muslims; and 50% Americans. It’s interesting to see how the laughs are different in different parts of the room,” Youssef stated. 

“So it’s very interesting to see that a show can actually cross ethnicities and religions. It’s not a show that has internal jokes between Middle Easterners, so I actually encourage people, jokingly, ‘Hey, if you want to come, tell your white friends to come, too!’”

Freedom of speech isn’t always a right, especially in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, where some have experienced serious repercussions for speaking out against governments.

This reporter asked Youssef if he experienced any pushback in the US from audiences or the government.

Although he’s had his run in with vocal supporters of President Trump and some opinionated boomers, Youssef mentioned that opposition to him was scarce and that he’s generally received a warm welcome from different audiences around the States.

“A lot of people come to me after my show and they say ‘Your show is not just funny but it made us think about so many things,’” Youssef said.

“My show is about something much more than being about Trump, right-wingers, or whatever. Basically, if you want to summarize the show in one sentence: It’s about trying to be yourself, and to not follow the world’s expectations of you,” said Youssef.

“The world around you, whether political forces, religious forces, right-wing forces, left-wing forces, they really want to box you in certain predictable patterns,” Youssef continued. “We are all slaves to that pattern and all of my stories are about me trying to break away from that pattern, but I find myself coming back again in order to appease a bigger society, whether out of conformity or fear.”

Youssef explained how his personal experiences are the center of his jokes and story telling in order to get people to think critically, rather than just use politicians or general events as the butts of his joke. 

“People will always come with their preconceived notions and I hope to show them a different aspect of the truth, because everyone thinks that they have their own truths, right? Even me!” he said.

“Comedy and satire eases the transition from different points of views and aspects, which makes it an easier pill to swallow.”

To be able to use that mentality within one’s art requires a lot of talent and courage, considering how inflammatory political criticism and discourse can get.

Youssef told this reporter that he “Sometimes… I sit with my audience on the tables before the show starts and I get to know them and they get to know me personally, so when I go on stage, they don’t think of me as an that alien person who is trying to push a certain message”

“I’m just there on their table, eating their fries and drinking with them, and it’s like they are up there with me. There’s no fourth wall between me and them.”

When asked about the difficulty of performing in an entirely different country and language, Youssef responded with a personal answer on his experiences of his work process. 

“This has been a huge transition for me because I was someone who was doing a political satire show in Egypt in Arabic, and now I’m here in America, and I’m reinventing myself from scratch. I have to perform in English, do humor in English, do stand up in English, which is an art I didn’t even do back in Egypt,” Youssef exclaimed.

“I had to rewire my brain because I have to study the cadence, the delivery, the speed, the pauses, and the kind of words that are used. It’s not a simple translation, it’s a third language if you want to put it that way.”

When asked about what impact that he would like to have on audiences in the U.S., as well as our own city of New Brunswick, Youssef discussed how he utilized his personal experiences to take a different approach to his comedy, setting him apart from other Middle Eastern comics.

“Most Arab comedians, they were either born here or raised here [in the US], it’s very rare to see someone who just came from his country in the Middle East and perform here, and that gives a unique perspective because even Arab comedians in the Middle East have an American point of view.”

Youssef provides not only a humorous outlook on modern culture and society, but also challenges his diverse audiences on different notions and ideas, without resorting to Orientalist tropes or other forms of cheap humor that lacks substance. 

“I think that it is important that people who are not from that region to look at us as people who have the same concerns, dreams, pains, problems, and I think comedy can connect them much more.”

 

Jad is a local writer, organizer, and life-long resident of New Brunswick. He is a graduate of both Rutgers University and The University of Toronto.

He can be reached at 732-474-7924 and [email protected]