The Inspirational Force of “Tickling Giants”


Bassem interviewing people at Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November 2011. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SARA TAKSLER)


Inspired by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, Dr. Bassem Youssef set up a camera and table in his laundry room. A full-time heart surgeon, Youssef decided to produce short, humorous YouTube videos that satirized the Egyptian government, media and religion in the escalating tensions of the Arab Spring as a side project. His comedic commentary resonated—so much so that he soon had his own Daily Show-esque program and was being referred to as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” “Al-Bernameg (The Show)” ran for three seasons on the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC MASR) before it was shut down due to mounting pressure from broadcasters and the government.

“Tickling Giants,” a new documentary directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer of The Daily Show, tells the story of Youssef’s meteoric rise. Beginning with his days as a heart surgeon, the film follows Youssef’s journey from the beginnings of “Al-Bernameg,” across all three seasons of the show and his life afterwards as Youssef’s position as a prominent comedian and an opinion leader rapidly grew.

With the combined talents of Youssef and Taksler, the documentary does a superb job of presenting his life and the political climate in a way that is both honest and humorous. The film’s title was inspired by an interview Taksler did with Andeel, a writer for “Al-Bernameg” and a political cartoonist, who had created a drawing of Youssef tickling the foot of a giant with a feather.

This humor from “tickling giants” comes across in multiple scenes, including one where Youssef walks out on the set of “Al-Bernameg” with an oversized hat, poking fun at the hat then-President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi wore at a graduation ceremony. In another instance, he is among protesters, interviewing them with sarcastic questions about the current state of the Egyptian government.

The power of Youssef’s comedy, however, comes to light when it is juxtaposed with the oppression and threats he faces on a regular basis. Shortly after he interviewed those individuals, he is caught in a tear gas attack and is seen reeling and in pain as he walks back towards the protesters. Later on, he is faced with the decision of whether or not to continue airing “Al-Bernameg” after his life and the lives of his colleagues are threatened for being critical of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—the former Minister of Defense who overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in 2013—among others.

“Tickling Giants” as a result holds a certain appeal not just as a well-crafted documentary, but as an inspiration for those looking for creative ways to resist oppression.

“So the big goal of ‘Tickling Giants’ isn’t just to watch a movie,” Taksler said in an interview after a screening of the film on June 6. “It’s to think about how are you tickling giants in your own life, because what happened to Bassem isn’t very typical. Most of us aren’t going to watch our country fall into revolution and then start a comedy show and become the most famous person on TV in the world.” On average, “Al-Bernameg” had about 30 million viewers per episode. The Daily Show averaged about two million.

For Taksler, the real story of “Tickling Giants” is that Bassem “was an ordinary person and he decided to do something using his own talents and that wound up having a huge impact.” As a result, she hopes that the film will inspire viewers to try and find their own creative and non-violent ways of expressing themselves in response to abuses of power.

Among the ways she described were small things like standing up to someone taking advantage of another individual at school, or taking more creative routes through humor, writing, reading, or music.

“Whatever your thing is, we hope with the movie that people will talk about how they’re tickling giants and #TicklingGiants so that you can inspire other people with ideas,” Taksler said.

When watching the film, it is hard not to be inspired by Youssef’s story and his seemingly unwavering commitment to hold truth to power. Even after he has decided to put production of his show on hold, he remains dedicated to his goal of holding the powerful accountable. When an audience member at the final filming of an episode claims that the show is “dead,” Youssef insists that “Al-Bernameg” is merely sleeping, and will hopefully one day reawaken once free speech is again allowed to thrive in Egypt.

The documentary also has the special quality of being especially friendly to viewers who do not have a working knowledge of Youssef or of the Arab Spring. In addition to telling the story of “Al-Bernameg,” the movie delves into the politics and culture of Egypt, explaining the country’s Arab Spring with clarity and nuance.

For those looking for inspiration on how to respond to oppression, or to simply learn more about the Arab Spring, satire and Youssef, “Tickling Giants” is a must see.

“Tickling Giants” is now available on iTunes, Amazon and