Jon Stewart’s brilliant appearance on Egypt’s version of ‘The Daily Show’

June 25, 2013

There were a number of remarkable moments during Jon Stewart's Friday appearance on "Al Bernameg," a popular Egyptian political satire show often compared to "The Daily Show" and hosted by a doctor-turned-commentator, Bassem Youssef, who is often compared to Stewart. Probably my favorite comes at about four minutes and 29 seconds into the above video, when Stewart proves that you can make a Jewish joke in Egypt. Youssef ribs Stewart for his break from "The Daily Show," joking that the TV host is now jobless and aimless, to which Stewart quips, "As you know, my people like to wander the desert." The audience laughs and claps, albeit a bit tepidly (one guy in the back guffaws). "It's been two weeks, I've got 50 weeks and 38 years left."

Having two internationally known political satirists sit down together turns out to be just as funny, and just as poignant, as you might hope. It begins with "guards" escorting Stewart into the studio, dressed as a foreign spy prepped for interrogation (don't worry, they switch to English almost immediately). Youssef, at one point, turns to the audience to introduce Stewart in their native language: "They say he is the Bassem Youssef of America. He imitates me," he says in Arabic.

Stewart jokes that he's flown on to take over as the new mayor of Luxor, a position that had been controversially filled (and then quickly vacated, after protests) by a former officer with Gamaa Islamiyaa, the militant Islamist groups that had once massacred tourists in the same town.

There are of course jokes about the traffic, which is just as bad as Stewart says. "Have you thought about traffic lights?" he asks. "The law appears to be, 'Can I get over the car in front of me.' I'll put it to you this way, I flew into Egypt three days ago. I got in a car at the airport and just got here. And, on the way, bought many garments from the side of the road." (You can tell Stewart has only traveled by car because of his surprise when Youssef describes crossing the street in Cairo as "an extreme sport.") And the obligatory gratitude for Egyptian hospitality: "I'm filled from here to here with apricots. You could open up my head and just pull dates out."

More poignantly, the two discuss, to applause, of Stewart's documentary project with an Iranian journalist who had been jailed after the 2009 protests. It's worth pausing to appreciate the symbolism, as sectarian tensions deepen across the Middle East, of a TV audience in predominantly Sunni Egypt clapping their support for a Jewish American and an Iranian Shia.

Of course, this little audience does not represent all of Egypt, but Youssef's show is popular and a reminder that his country has plenty of liberal-minded people who push back on intolerance. In a similar vein, Youssef nods to Stewart's own defense of the Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan and his campaign against Islamophobia in the United States.

The 20-minute interview, conducted primarily in English, shows off the friendship between the two political satirists, but both Stewart and Youssef manage to demonstrate their – and their audiences' – shared values. They return, many times, to issues of tolerance, stereotyping and mutual understanding. Their comedy is similar, as are the formats of their shows. They often find similar things to mock in their respective political systems, a reminder that some things are universal: outrage at government overreach, eye-rolling at political scandals, gleeful exposure of the hypocrisies, large and small, we've all come to expect from our systems.

The show also highlighted some of the real differences between Egypt and the United States. The American host came to his Egyptian counterpart's defense in April, when Youssef was briefly jailed on charges of “insulting Islam” and “belittling” President Mohamed Morsi. As Stewart points out in a serious moment, to Youssef's obvious embarrassment, that episode was a reminder of how much easier he has it than his Egyptian counterpart.

"It doesn't get me the kind of trouble it gets you into," Stewart says of their shows, before turning his attention to Morsi's government. "If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don't have a regime," he says, adding in clear reference to Egyptian security forces, "A joke has never ridden a motorcycle with a baton into a crowd, a joke has never fired tear gas into a park."

After the serious stuff is over, Stewart manages to sneak in another Jewish joke. Youssef brings out some plates of the local food, a universal show of hospitality. Stewart leans over to one of the bowls: "And this is a yarmulke?" The audience, maybe a little more comfortable by now, laughs freely.

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Max Fisher · June 25, 2013