In Film ‘Tickling Giants,’ Politics Is a Laughing Matter

By Anubhuti Kumar, Staff Writer

“Tickling Giants” is the perfect title for the new documentary about the rise of a comedian who got his laughs by poking fun at prickly figures who do not take kindly to a questioning of their authority.

While the name Jon Stewart is ubiquitous in the United States, the story of Dr. Bassem Youssef is probably much less recognizable to most of the country’s population. “Tickling Giants” documents the rise and fall of Youssef’s political satire show entitled “The Show.” Known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” Youssef is a cardiac surgeon who shot to fame from a YouTube video. Riding on the favor of the Egyptian people, he falls out of favor with a change in government, is forced off air, makes a comeback on another network and is again forced off the airwaves after jammed signals from the authoritarian government interrupt his show.

Making fun of the government is a staple of media that is often taken for granted in the United States. From “The Daily Show” to “Last Week Tonight” to “Saturday Night Live” to “Late Night,” the country has plenty of outlets with which to vent our frustration with politics and government in the form of satire. In Egypt, comedians such as Youssef who try to point out the shortcomings of their government through humor are sued, exiled and systemically silenced through threats of arrest and abuse against themselves and their loved ones.

Director Sara Taksler, a senior producer on Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” weaves together an inspiring and particularly relevant story of freedom of expression and the dangers of a government that attacks the media. It includes lines emphasizing that a government that attacks the media is afraid of it and a government afraid of the media cannot be that solid. Youssef further says that fear is the greatest weapon of authoritarian regimes, but when you laugh you are not scared.

Scenes depicting Youssef meeting Stewart are particularly heartwarming because the audience sees a man who is a voice of so many people he leads with grace meet the man who inspired him. Stewart discusses how he made his career on issues that put Youssef in danger of arrest presents a stark contrast.

“The freedom of any people is judged by the volume of their laughter,” states Youssef in a speech towards the end of the film. After he has left Egypt, it seems like a particular succinct way to describe his place in the political turmoil in Egypt. It’s fascinating to see how Youssef story began with him tapping into a country wide feeling that got him hundreds of millions of views in his YouTube video, but towards the end his television show was plague with protesters outside his offices.

Egypt has fallen prey to one authoritarian government to another and Youssef fights back, fights for his country, with the weapon he knows best, not a sword, but a feather to tickle the feet of the giants who try to silence the people of his country. “Tickling Giants” depicts his story and the story of those who supported and oppressed his show in a compelling and humorous way that reflected the sensibilities of the man who tried to change his country for the better with laughter instead of violence.

“Tickling Giants” is having its U.S. theatrical release at the IFC Center at 323 Sixth Ave. through March 21.

Email Anubhuti Kumar at film@nyunews.com.

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