Bassem Youssef is back in his element thanks to his new programme.
After deftly skewering regional and international politics on his satirical TV show Al Bernameg and the 2018 semi-biographical documentary Tickling Giants, the Egyptian comedian and physician brings both career strands together with Ask Bassem.
Screening Thursdays at 6.30pm on the fledgling Saudi news channel Asharq News, the Arabic programme melds current affairs with humour as Youssef discusses various ways to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
Speaking to The National from Dubai, where he will present a live version of the show on Saturday, January 16, Youssef admits the concept didn't initially scream funny. However, it is all delivered with a light touch to keep you chuckling but, perhaps more importantly, thinking.
"There is a little bit of a misconception where people look at what I'm trying to do now with Ask Bassem and they think I have given up on comedy and politics," he says.
“This programme talks about things I am passionate about. With my medical background and experience, we will be looking at different topics in the show and hopefully a lot of people can benefit from that.”
Back on the streets
To make the knowledge palatable to viewers, the show employs a lot of the techniques Youssef is known for. There are zany comedy sketches, sardonic commentary and off-the-cuff interviews with the public.
The latter is an aspect of the show Youssef relishes the most.
For the Dubai episode, Youssef will venture around the emirate and chat with cosmopolitan residents about their health journeys.
“We have already filmed these amazing success stories here,” he says. “And the reason why we shot in Dubai is [because of] how international it is. We had people from the UAE, Argentina, Holland and Lebanon speaking about their own experiences. This all makes the show more universal.”
A bigger perspective
While their inspiring stories can prove particularly stirring at this time, Youssef says the programme does not exclusively deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
When it does touch upon the unfolding situation, it will be viewed from a wider perspective.
For example, Youssef cites a coming episode that explores the links between global pandemics and the controversial treatment of animals.
“I try to make this an evergreen show. However, the pandemic has accentuated some of the topics that we talk about,” he says.
“I do talk about things like the pandemic in relationship to the animal farming industry and how we are going to see more pandemics if we continue with how the industry treats animals. And this is not from an ethical point of view, but a medical and economic one.”
Youssef says the show intends to discuss these issues with regional government officials in the future.
No laughing matter
Similar to his previous success with Al Bernameg, Youssef hopes Ask Bassem has the right mix of fact and funny to reach a wide global audience. Considering what is discussed and the state of the world today, the stakes couldn't be higher.
“People have been searching for solutions to maintain a healthy lifestyle more than ever. But the downside now is that the internet is a place for misinformation and conspiracy theories,” he says. “And it just breaks my heart that we can be dismissing decades of scientific research and advancement because someone did a YouTube video where they edited together stupid ideas and conspiracy theories in a totally ignorant way.”
This is a particular aspect Youssef is keenly aware of.
He's been living in Los Angeles for the past five years, as well as touring the US as a stand-up comedian, and he has seen first-hand the societal damage false information can wreak.
With Donald Trump's US presidency nearing its end, Youssef says the last four years underscored the importance of responsible speech – even when it comes to comedians.
“Comics couldn’t even catch up with how stupid things have become,” he says. “Comedy now cannot be about people saying stupid things. That is lazy and we need go to beyond that. You have to show people not only the ridiculousness of what you're saying but make them aware how dangerous it is. It can’t be just for laughs. That’s the challenge.”
Ask Bassem screens every Thursday at 6.30pm (UAE time) on Asharq News. To register for the special live Dubai episode on Saturday, January 16, visit asharqwithbassem.com