Bassem Youssef on appearing on Piers Morgan's show even if it meant 'career suicide'

Egyptian comedian discusses at Sharjah International Book Fair his experience during viral Israel-Gaza interviews on Piers Morgan: Uncensored

Bassem Youssef at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Friday. Photo: Sharjah International Book Fair
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Bassem Youssef twice declined to be interviewed about the Israel-Gaza war on Piers Morgan: Uncensored before ultimately deciding to appear on the show.

At a sold-out event on Friday at the Sharjah International Book Fair, the Egyptian comedian spoke about how he had initially thought speaking on the show, and imparting an opinion that went against the grain of western coverage of the war, was “a type of suicide”.

“When the events [in Gaza] started happening, the producer of Piers Morgan called me so I could speak on the subject,” he said.

“At the time, the image that was materialising in the media was a very ugly one. To go up and take a side that was different that the one media was taking was a type of suicide.

"I said no at first. They spoke to me twice, and I said no.”

However, as Youssef began following the coverage in-depth, he found himself unable to stay silent.

“I was provoked,” he said. “What was happening was wrong. What was being said about us was wrong so I thought somebody should go up and change that image.”

By the time producers of Piers Morgan: Uncensored reached out for the third time, Youssef was determined to appear on the show, even if his manager insisted it was "career suicide."

The comedian applied his idiosyncratic humour to the situation, comparing it to the final penalty shot during a World Cup game.

“It’s like you are shooting the penalty at the end of the World Cup, and if you miss the penalty, you won’t just lose the World Cup,” he said.

“Aliens would come down to kill you or eat you. Even my manager said this is career suicide.”

But Youssef said he wasn’t deterred and prepared a series of talking points for his first interview on the subject with Morgan. He said he knew he shouldn’t try to relay his stance with antagonism and saw that humour could go a longer way.

“I said I’m going to give it whit,” he said. “Whatever they would say, I would exaggerate it.”

Youssef said, to him, it seemed the interview was a lose-lose situation. If he didn’t do well in relaying the gravity of the Israeli onslaught and the suffering of Palestinians, Arab audiences would criticise him.

“And if I did very well, if I could lose my future.”

The interview, with its satirical take on the war, would prove to have tectonic results. Soon after it aired on October 18, Morgan revealed on Twitter that the interview was his most-watched since the Piers Morgan Uncensored show was launched last year.

To date, the interview has been watched more than 20 million times on YouTube.

Youssef responded to Morgan’s tweet suggesting “round two”. This time, instead of appearing virtually, Youssef suggested an in-person interview.

Youssef met Morgan at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles for what he said on Instagram would be “a deep calm conversation about a very complicated issue”.

The interview aired on YouTube on November 2 and has raked in more than 10 million views.

“The preparation for the second interview was different,” Youssef said.

“You’re appearing to speak about a topic that wasn’t understood well in the west. I spoke to friends, three teams around the world, researchers, academics, historians, people from the West Bank, people who have people in Gaza, Arabs in the Israeli Knesset. I started doing really long interviews.”

Youssef said his days were split in two. He’d spend one portion gathering information and taking the rest of the day preparing himself. For two weeks, he said he became like a sponge, absorbing information. How to relay that information was another matter, and for that he applied his approach as a stand-up comic.

“You wrote a joke, but how are you going to deliver it? How would you shape the tone?” Youssef said. He decided against being confrontational and considered Morgan’s reputation with being able to push the buttons of his interviewees. Youssef didn’t want the conversation to dissolve into two people competing against each other with a tirade of words that minimised the topic at hand.

“If you see the interview, you’ll see my body language when he starts his long monologues to irritate people, I’m sitting silently,” Youssef said. “This is where I created this space for my own monologues. He would try and interrupt me and I’d return to it. He was pushed to give me my space. I had entered the conversation with specific talking points.”

Preparing for the interview, he said, resonated with him on an individual level, showing him the nuances of interpersonal communication.

“The topic really taught me, not just in the realm of media, but on a personal level how you can communicate your points if you give the person in front of you space to speak,” he said. “No matter how he was going to provoke you, leave him. Once he finishes, go ahead with your points.”

Youssef also mentioned how he had initially entertained the idea of appearing on the “round two” of the Piers Morgan: Uncensored dressed as Homelander, the main antagonist of the comic book and series The Boys. The comedian had mentioned the character during his previous interview with Morgan, saying: “Israel always victimises itself, and I’ve never seen a victim putting their oppressor under siege and bombing them 24/7. Israel wants you to believe they are the victim. Dealing with Israel is like being in a relationship with a narcissistic psychopath. You look at Israel as Superman, but they are really Homelander.”

The analogy has gone viral in itself, with snippets circulating across social media. However, Youssef ultimately decided not to dress up as Homelander, seeing it would set confrontational tone to the conversation early on. He instead opted for the qashabiya.

Youssef also touched upon his decision of offering za’atar and olive oil to Morgan from the West Bank during the interview. “I told him the olive oil was coming from the West Bank and the tree was 600 years old,” Youssef said. “If I had told him that Israel pried 800,000 trees early on, I’d have entered confrontational. I told him this information at the very end as he’s eating the oil with za’atar.

Besides his interview on Piers Morgan and his stand-up career, Youssef also discussed his authorial efforts, namely his children’s book The Magical Reality of Nadia and its sequel Middle School Mischief.

“It started with a conversation with my agent, who asked me if I liked to write a children’s book,” Youssef said. “I had never considered it. He asked me to sit and reflect on what you would tell your daughter. I’m an Egyptian immigrant in the US. I’m someone who comes from an ancient civilisation and my daughter is living in a new civilisation. How can I make a book that can blend these two?”

The books are inspired by Youssef’s own experiences and tell the story of a young Egyptian girl in the US who learns that her ancient amulet has magical properties. The books have been praised by critics for their humour and anti-xenophobic message.

Updated: November 11, 2023, 5:39 PM