In ‘Tickling Giants,’ filmmaker documents the power of ‘humor as a survival tool’

It all started in 2012, when Sara Taksler, a producer at “The Daily Show,” witnessed the reunion of two comedic giants.

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian political satirist, had just arrived at “The Daily Show” studio to observe his inspiration and counterpart, host Jon Stewart.

Once a heart surgeon, Youssef reinvented himself at the height of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Foregoing surgeries, he instead turned to humor to dissect the turbulent political situation he saw around him. His comedy career started humbly, with a short YouTube show, but Youssef’s sharp brand of political humor quickly garnered him a following of millions.

Soon, Egyptian television offered him his own show, with a tongue-in-cheek title: “Al Bernameg,” or “The Program.” It was the first political comedy show ever to debut in Egypt, and by the time Youssef arrived at “The Daily Show” to observe, his own show had become a roaring success.

Youssef was accompanied to “The Daily Show” by several “Al Bernameg” producers.Taksler noticed two women among them and decided to strike up a conversation.

“I was very curious what it was like for my counterparts in the Middle East — women working on a comedy show,” Taksler said in an email interview with ivoh. The three of them ended up exchanging questions and talking the whole day.

She says she was struck by how much higher the stakes were for “Al Bernameg” producers, than for herself and her fellow “Daily Show” workers. The political nature of Youssef’s jokes made him a target for protests and government pressure.

Bassem Yousseff (Photo courtesy of Sara Taksler)

Aside from her job at “The Daily Show,” Taksler is also a documentary filmmaker whose work had premiered at festivals like South by Southwest. In Youssef and his “Al Bernameg” crew, she found a new muse.

On that first day of Youssef’s visit, she asked him if she could film a documentary about him and Al Bernameg. He accepted.

Immediately, she regretted asking. She had never been to Africa, much less Egypt. What was she getting herself into?

Taksler decided not to back down. She felt compelled to document Youssef’s role in Egypt’s cultural upheaval. “People like to laugh — especially when they are going through something difficult, when they really need comedy and find it cathartic,” she said.

“Al Bernameg,” she added, “symbolized the great strides the country was making in terms of free speech.” So Taksler set out to create a documentary, “Tickling Giants,” as a profile of Youssef and his work.

The launch of her project coincided with a pivotal time for “Al Bernameg.” Its network was planning to give Youssef his own studio audience, just like on “The Daily Show,” and a new studio to boot. By the end of the year, “Al Bernameg” would be housed in the Radio Theater, a stylish neon-lit art deco building in downtown Cairo.

At the height of its popularity, Al Bernameg reportedly had a viewership of 30 million per episode, from across the Middle East — a number that dwarfed “The Daily Show” average of about two million.

But the show’s rising profile also meant rising tension. Youssef was increasingly being accused of insulting Islam, attacking the government and causing havoc. Threats were mounting.

When Taksler arrived in Cairo, she experienced “a mix of feeling very familiar … and feeling new.” The “Al Bernameg” studio reminded her of “The Daily Show” offices, but being in Egypt still presented challenges.

She could not afford to bring a U.S. crew, and she soon discovered that many in Egypt were suspicious of her and the crew she hired. “There is a concern that there may be a political motive behind the camera,” she said. “When filming, people would ask which candidate we were for, when we were just interested in the story of comedy in the Middle East.”

Taksler’s team made a point of filming from moving vehicles whenever they filmed outdoors, to avoid any conflict. One cameraman was beaten up for filming at a viewing party, according to Taksler. The attacker took his memory card.

The “Al Bernameg” crew was growing accustomed to the outrage their show was generating, but for Taksler, the firestorm mounting against Youssef was a new experience — and downright frightening at times.

“There was one time I was filming when protesters gathered right outside the building,” Taksler recalled. “The police came in full riot gear and created a barrier to pass as the audience entered for the taping. I was scared that day.”

Youssef’s criticism of then-president Mohamed Morsi would further endanger his show’s production. In 2013 — the same year that Youssef would be named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people and a winner of the International Press Freedom Award — a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was released only after posting bail.

But it was in those moments of turmoil that Taksler found her greatest inspiration. In particular, she remembers one day at “Al Bernameg” that touched her the most.

“While protesters were chanting against Bassem right outside, the staff brought out a cake with candles to celebrate someone’s birthday,” she said. “They were singing and laughing while, in the background, you could hear people shouting for the show to end.”

“I loved how they continued in the face of fear.”

But the show was not to last. “Al Bernameg” was cancelled in 2014. Youssef publicly cited fears for his and his family’s safety as a reason for terminating the show.

“I can’t say I was surprised by Al Bernameg’s ending. But I was very disappointed. I love satire, and I love using free speech instead of violence, and this show was a prime example of how to do that well,” Taksler said. “But it’s hard to see how they could have stayed on the air in Egypt right now.”

Now, Taksler faces the challenge of raising money for her documentary. Its production had been secretive, due to the security concerns, but Taksler has a strong ally in raising the documentary’s public profile: Bassem Youssef himself.

Youssef is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and in his spare time, he helps to promote Tickling Giants’ Indiegogo campaign. The film’s total budget is $400,000, and Taksler hopes $150,000 of it will come from crowdfunding. So far, the campaign has raised just over $78,000.

Her goal is to have the film finished in the fall of 2015, ready to make the rounds at film festivals. She hopes the documentary will inspire others to confront the “giants” in their own lives, not through violence, but through creativity.

“I think when people laugh in hard times, there can be hope,” Taksler said. She remembers encountering her own hard times when her grandfather died. “I thought maybe nothing would ever really feel funny again.”

But then, a few days later, her grandmother cracked a joke unexpectedly. “My whole family roared. There was just this feeling of relief,” she said. “Laughing reminds us that things will feel normal again.”

In the face of personal tragedies and international upheaval alike, Taksler is confident that there will always be someone, somewhere, making a joke. And maybe, that’s just the kind of healing people need.

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