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Not My Job: We Quiz Comedian Bassem Youssef On Tubers

BILL KURTIS: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME, the NPR news quiz. I'm Bill Kurtis. And here's your host at the Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago, Peter Sagal.


Thank you, Bill.


SAGAL: It's Thanksgiving, and it turns out, with just a little work, you can find things to be thankful for. For example, we are really thankful here at WAIT WAIT that nobody cares about anything we say. We are totally irrelevant.


KURTIS: As the poet once said, we're a mere fart in a thunderstorm.


SAGAL: We realized how great it is to be ignored after we talked to a comedian who wasn't - Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, they called him, the most popular TV star and satirist in that country. And he told us what happened when the wrong people started to watch.

KURTIS: It turns out that he didn't start out as a comedian. He was a surgeon.


BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah. And this is why I sucked as a comedian.

SAGAL: Really?


SAGAL: You started on - another thing I didn't know until I saw the documentary - you started on YouTube, just you basically in a room in your house looking at the camera and telling jokes.

YOUSSEF: Exactly. And at that time I was - I didn't think that this will actually go anywhere. And I was waiting for papers, H-1 visa papers, to come because I was accepted in a fellowship in Cleveland.

SAGAL: Cleveland.

YOUSSEF: Yes. And that just tells you, like, how I was so desperate to leave my country to be excited to go to Cleveland.

SAGAL: Well...


YOUSSEF: Yes. And - but the revolution happened. I did the show. And then the - I thought that maybe it was 10,000 people who watched the show. And in a few weeks I ended up with having 5 million people watching. And I know when you got - now, like, my cat gets 5 million people.

SAGAL: Yes, I know.

YOUSSEF: But at that time - this was 2011. It was Egypt. It was YouTube. At that time it was unprecedented numbers. And I ended up signing the show up - like, my first TV deal.

SAGAL: That - and it is amazing. And then you were right on TV. You had an extremely popular show. So when you started the show, of course, you were living under Mubarak. And pretty soon after you started the revolution came and he was toppled.



YOUSSEF: I started after Mubarak.

SAGAL: Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't understand. I thought it was your fault - that you got rid of Mubarak. I was going to congratulate you.

YOUSSEF: No, I can only be blamed for a few things.



SAGAL: So - and, of course, as - what happens in your life and in your career, by the third season of your show a military dictatorship would come back to Egypt. And they more or less shut you down, right?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. And the way they do it, they do it indirectly. They go to the people who own the networks, the people who hire you, and tell, like (unintelligible) he's not allowed to do it anymore.

SAGAL: Was there a joke that finally brought you down, that they finally said no more?

YOUSSEF: Oh, yeah, there is a joke that actually brought us down. Sisi won the elections, so that's the big joke. Yeah.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: Did you have to leave your country? I mean, so the pressure wasn't put on you. It was put on the network to say you don't get to...

YOUSSEF: Yeah, but they then came after me. So the thing is the way that they go after you, no one will be jailed or prevented from traveling because of, quote, unquote, "freedom of expression." It will be something. So it will be taxes. It will be illegal - you know like when you get - they didn't get Al Capone for the crimes he did. They got Al Capone for taxes.

So I was fighting a lawsuit against one of the networks that stopped me. And it was an arbitration case. And there was no way I could lose the case because they're the ones who stopped me. And then I woke up in the morning and I found the verdict fining me a hundred million pounds. At that time it was like $15 million.

So they - the lawyer called me and said, listen, the verdict came out. They know that, like, this is a ridiculous verdict, but they're going to use it either to put you on a no-fly list or to put you in jail. So the verdict came out at 12 noon. Five o'clock I was on a plane leaving the country.


ADAM BURKE: So you're the Jon Stewart and Al Capone of Egypt. That's a great resume.

POUNDSTONE: In fact, I was going to say to you I don't think Al Capone is a good comparison.

SAGAL: Yeah.

BURKE: (Laughter) He was hilarious.

SAGAL: So now you're...

YOUSSEF: I mean, Robert De Niro can make anybody look good, so...

SAGAL: That's true.


SAGAL: Well, Bassem Youssef, it is a pleasure to talk to you. And we have asked you here, sir, to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: Eat your tubers, YouTuber.

SAGAL: So we were interested and surprised to find out that you began your successful career in Egypt on YouTube as a YouTuber. And so we thought it would only be natural and right to ask you about actual tubers - that is, potatoes. So answer two out of three questions about potatoes correctly and you will win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is Bassem Youssef playing for?

KURTIS: Neil Barnes of Baltimore, Md.

SAGAL: All right, you ready to do this?


KURTIS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: You're jumping ahead.

YOUSSEF: You always answer C.

SAGAL: It's generally - oh, I didn't know they had the SATs in Egypt. OK.


SAGAL: All right, your first question. Potatoes, of course, came from the New World, and Europeans were very suspicious of them at first. A French food expert managed to convince his countrymen that they were a valuable foodstuff by doing what? Was it A, he declared falsely that eating potatoes would result in passing gas that smelled like flowers; B, he surrounded his potato patch with armed guards as if they were a treasure; or C, he paid Madame de Pompadour to pose with one in a portrait, making it history's first product placement?



SAGAL: I like your consistency, Bassem, but it was actually B. He hired guards to stand around his potato patch as if they were a valuable treasure, and people said, hey, maybe they're not so bad. Your next question. Potatoes have played an important role in pop culture, such as which of these - A, they led to Jimi Hendrix writing his classic song "The Wind Cries Mary"; B, a strangely spherical potato with one big eye gave George Lucas the idea for the Death Star...


SAGAL: ...Or C, in the original pitch for the TV show "Friends," they were all potato farmers?

YOUSSEF: All right, I will go with the Jimi Hendrix thing.

SAGAL: The Jimi Hendrix thing. You're right. Yes.


SAGAL: This is amazingly true, that Jimi Hendrix wrote that classic rock song and - "The Wind Cries Mary" because he got into a fight with his girlfriend named Mary over her lumpy mashed potatoes. And he wrote the song to apologize to her.

YOUSSEF: Oh, that's so nice.

SAGAL: I know. Here's your last question. If you get this one right you win. Potatoes have played their part in war as well, as when which of these happened - A, in World War I, when hollowed-out potatoes were used for improvised gas masks; B, in World War II, when the crew of the U.S. destroyer O'Bannon sank a Japanese sub in part by throwing potatoes at it; or C, in Vietnam, where a massive potato gun was used to try to send food aid to distant villages?

YOUSSEF: I will go with A.

SAGAL: You're going to go with A, that they were trying to breathe into potatoes. Quick, get the potatoes out.


YOUSSEF: No, no, I think it's the World War II thing.

SAGAL: That's right.


SAGAL: It's an amazing story. It is known to military historians as the potato incident. This American destroyer almost ran right into a Japanese sub on the surface and American sailors threw potatoes at them, scaring the Japanese who thought they were pin grenades. They jumped into the sub, submerged and the destroyer sank it with a depth charge. Bill, how did Bassem Youssef do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Well, he did great. He got two...


KURTIS: Bassem, you got out two out of three. That means a win. Well done.


SAGAL: Dr. Bassem Youssef is a comedian and the subject of the new documentary "Tickling Giants," which covers his extraordinary career as a comedian in Egypt. It's available now at ticklinggiants.com. Bassem Youssef, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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