Dr. Bassem Youssef made a name for himself around the world as the comedic vlogger who fearlessly took on the authorities in his native Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Yet, it’s a new digital project that’s got him feeling nervous.
The Democracy Handbook, featuring Youssef, is set to premiere this spring on Fusion’s digital comedy brand F-Comedy, which launched in November as part of Disney-owned Fusion’s strategy to reach millennial audiences through edgy, no-holds-barred content.
Youssef, who is widely known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” (Stewart himself has even called Youssef his “hero”), has made several appearances on U.S. television in recent years, including as a guest on late night comedy shows and as host of the 2015 International Emmy awards. But the new digital series is his first in English.
That, and the fact that the premise of the show pokes serious fun at U.S. culture are the big reasons behind the star’s pre-launch jitters.
“It’s not my native language, it’s not my country, and I am an outsider. But that’s what the show is all about. It’s an outsider perspective,” Youssef told StreamDaily in a recent interview.
The Democracy Handbook follows Youssef as he “learns” about American democracy through various experiences and interviews, in order for him to bring those lessons back to his native Egypt.
Lampooning a subject so many people hold so dear, he said, is a tricky line to walk.
“People can be very sensitive about democracy,” said Youssef. “The show asks a lot of questions. The American democracy offers a lot of freedom, but are we actually abusing it? Are we abusing the Bill of Rights? Are we just taking it verbatim and even destroying the same democracy we talk about?”
Although he has made his rounds as a writer, comedian and host, Youssef has only been working in comedy for the past five years.
His onscreen career was launched in 2011, when Youssef was still working as a heart surgeon. At the time, he was preparing to move to Cleveland from Tel Aviv for a pediatric cardiology fellowship at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.
That all changed that winter when protests erupted in Egypt as citizens sought to throw out what many believed to be a repressive government. Youssef returned to the country to treat those who were injured in the tense clash with authorities that followed in Cairo’s Tahir Square. As the events unfolded, he was drawn in an unexpected direction.
“What I saw in the square… was different from what I saw in the media,” he said of Egyptian media coverage at the time. “The media was telling people that these (protesters) were traitors.”
He saw the scenario as “incredible” material for a web series. Somewhat spontaneously, Youssef set up a makeshift studio in his laundry room and began filming a satirical news show, taking direct aim at the government.
“Originally it felt like I was just passing my time. I was expecting maybe 5,000 views,” he said.
By February, the posts had reached one million views. He kept producing videos, and within three months, his videos had more than five million views. Soon, Egyptian channel ONTV offered him a weekly political satire show on its linear network. Al-Bernameg premiered in 2011, and according to Youssef, it was the first Egyptian web production to be picked up for linear. Despite the bigger budget, it still felt grassroots to him — and his audience.
“The people felt like it came from them,” he said.
Despite two seasons of strong ratings, Youssef called it quits prior to the third season, feeling the Egyptian political climate created an unsafe environment on the show. (Youssef was also arrested in 2013 for criticisms toward Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi).
He has since moved to the U.S. with his wife and daughter, allowing him to reflect on the major differences between the VOD landscape in the U.S. versus that in the Middle East.
For one thing, he said, YouTube’s rise in prominence — and influence — seems far more gradual in the U.S.
“In Egypt, it just happened overnight,” he said.
He credits the revolution in Egypt for increasing citizen engagement, particularly among young citizens, across social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
“The way they engage has changed really dramatically. For many millennials, their news and entertainment comes directly online,” he said.
Despite the reliance on online content for news and entertainment, it’s still harder to get started in the industry in Egypt.
“We don’t really have much of an industry there,” he said, noting that his initial budget of a chair, a table, a camera and some amateur photos for his digital news show added up to about $100.
Now he wants to go big — an opportunity afforded to him only in the U.S.
“It’s always nice to open up to a new platform, and to new audiences,” he said of his partnership with Fusion. “When you’re starting out and you’re a fresh face, I feel like you can be edgier than if you’re already an established entertainer, and that’s no matter what platform you’re on.”
No date has been set yet for the premiere of The Democracy Handbook.