The Egyptian stand-up comedian and viral sensation, Bassem Youssef, who was at COP28 in Dubai on Tuesday to share his ‘sustainable’ personal stories at the climate summit, spoke about finding humour in a broken world.
“Of course, you find the humour, how can you not?” he responded when quizzed by Zawya. “We are at a climate summit that has been going around for 28 years and we still don’t have a common consensus on the planet. That itself is a comedy.”
“Let’s go to Mars, they say! But we are already here. What about this planet?”
The problem with COP is the “non-committing commitment”, he said. “It’s a pledge to save the planet. What are these pledges?
To have anything done in this world, you have to put money behind it. Like what the UAE has done with its $30 billion commitment a few days ago.”
The political satirist and television host was referring to the pledge made by the UAE at COP28 last week to contribute, along with BlackRock Inc., Brookfield Asset Management and TPG Inc., $30 billion to seed a new fund that aims to divert private sector capital towards climate investments and improve financing for the Global South.
Youssef also had a message for the corporates. “They drive us crazy with guilt for not recycling or using plastic straws, but 70 to 80% of the plastics found in the sea today is from these corporates with their fishing nets and their dumping. This is hypocrisy, and in this hypocrisy, humour survives.”
Fall from grace
For many in the Middle East, Youssef is a household name. The cardiothoracic surgeon, and one-time Salsa teacher shot to fame in 2011 when his satirical comedy show, Al Bernameg, which ran until 2014 before his political views forced him to move to the US after receiving death threats.
Youssef called those his “dark years,” speaking about that time at the climate summit. “After I went viral, everything I did was judged by other people. I was called a traitor, an infidel, a Freemason. They said I had been recruited by Jon Stewart on behalf of the CIA to bring the country down. By 2014, I was cancelled, and I had to leave Egypt.”
The 49-year-old took to the stand-up comedy circuit in the US, as he attempted to find his footing in a new world.
“I was so bitter that I started to do stand-up comedy in English in the US. I wanted no comparison to my show in Egypt. But I would suck so bad, as it was all new to me,” he said.
In between his shows, Youssef also authored two children’s books, based on his daughters, and adopted a plant-based diet that also became a healthy topic of conversation for him.
“People often ask me, ‘what motivates you?’ Back then, I was motivated by anger and revenge because I was pushed out from my country against my will and lost the success I had found. I wanted to show everyone that I wasn’t a has-been anymore,” he said.
Over the next few years Youssef gradually started to earn the accolades he had lost along the way. These last few weeks really brought him into the headlines once again; courtesy two interviews with British television host Piers Morgan, where Youssef was called in to share his views on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
The comedian turned into a viral sensation overnight over his satirical responses to Morgan. Such was the response of the first interview, that Morgan invited Youssef a second time to share his views.
Speaking about the infamous interviews, Youssef said: “I prepared for the interview the same way I prepare for a stand-up comedy show. ..The conversation was like a chess game and that’s how I had to approach it; you had to anticipate each line and statement and prepare for a response in advance.”
The humourist admitted that his team was apprehensive about him doing the interview and getting cancelled if he said the wrong thing. “I knew I had to go in giving it my all or risk being cancelled. I went with one objective, to make it [the interview] as viral as possible to give me a chance to explain the problem to a Western audience and bring eyeballs and people into the conversation about the conflict.”
The Morgan interviews also resulted in a backlash, and Youssef admitted that even as he gained work, he also lost some along the way. But in his trademark style, he still had his punchline ready: “It got me here, to a climate summit, where I have no business being at. Let’s be honest, if I wasn’t trending now, I wouldn’t be here today.”
(Reporting by Bindu Rai, editing by Brinda Darasha)