I went to see heart surgeon, comedian, and political commentator Bassem Youssef at Town Hall tonight. It was a truly magical evening that was both funny and frightening.
Essentially a book launch party for Youssef's book REVOLUTION FOR DUMMIES: LAUGHING THROUGH THE ARAB SPRING, the book was a lecture cum stand up routine about the recent history of Egypt and the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring. It's a story chronicled in his book and in the recently released film TICKLING GIANTS.
I had loved TICKLING GIANTS and what Youssef was doing ever since I saw the film last year at Tribeca. When the talk was announced I immediately bought tickets and ended up in the front row. This was a good thing, because when I pitched forward from laughing I couldn't bash my head on the seat in front of me.
Covering Youssef's time from creating a YouTube show modeled on The Daily Show up to now. Always wry and funny, lots of jabs were thrown at everyone who is in control either in Egypt or here. Make no mistake: the brick (bats) were thrown at Donald Trump with abandon if not in fact, then in the constant warnings of what can happen when people like Trump get into office everything that happened in Egypt is a possibility to happen here.
I would love to tell you specifically what he said, but I was laughing way too hard.
And at the same time my head hurt from the truth bombs that were being dropped. How little do we know in the US of what is going on in the Middle East ... The weird dangers of despotic leaders who lie were mixed up with the American need for a villain and the tyrants' need to have one as well. Just as the fear of the Arabs has created a whole industry around the idea of fighting terrorism and Muslims, so do the tyrants of the world use the Americans as a devil to fight. Youssef was laughing, but I'm guessing it was only so he didn't cry.
After the talk there a was a brief pause before he came out in a party hat and red nose and we sang along with a video from his wife and daughter asking that we all sing Happy Birthday. From there a Q&A followed as be answered questions on a variety of subjects. He even yelled at one gentleman in the second row who kept yelling question after question *#151; Let some one else ask a question, he chided the man.
Everything ended when some one shouted that everyone should sing Happy Birthday in Arabic to make the white people frightened. It brought laughter and cheers before Youssef walked off the stage.
It was a great night.
My takeaway from it all was the sense that Bassem Youssef is probably one of the smartest people I've ever encountered. Scary smart on a level I've only come across a handful of times in my life. He seems to possess a frightening understanding of the world and the things in it. He's so smart that I'm kind of happy that the attempts to set up an interview have gone awry. His mind scares me.
He is, for lack of a better description, the smartest guy in the room, or maybe the city. He has been cursed with a laser like sense of humor and bullshit detector that zeroes in on the ridiculousness of it all, which is why despots fear him.
But I got a sense of sadness from him. In his way a man without a country and without a platform to do what he does best reveal the truth and deflate pomposity. One got the sense that removed from Egypt, and with his platform of a weekly show in that country taken away, he doesn't know where he belongs. I really felt that he wanted to be home in Egypt ticking the giants there, but the death threats and the fact that some of his uncles buy into the leaders' BS leaves him disconnected. He is in a way like the protagonist of Neil Diamond's song LA is fine but it ain't home: Egypt is home but it isn't his any more.
Of course I could be wrong, but there is was a passion when he spoke of his country and a sadness to his comments about not not being able to go back that really stung me.
I hope he finds a place to do what he loves as he sees fit, because he is a damn funny man who not only makes you laugh but makes you think. The only person I've ever seen like him is Lenny Bruce...which to me is as good as it gets and the highest honor I can pay him.
Let's hope tonight was recorded. It is something you all need to see.