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Joe Show: Meet the new king of Arab comedy who's skewering the region's scariest dictators

Youssef Hussein has gone from local YouTube sensation to the star of the Joe Show

Date of publication: 25 July, 2019

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The New Arab Meets: Youssef Hussein, host of The Joe Show, one of the most popular satirical television shows today which turns self-deifying Arab autocrats into laughing stocks.

If comedian turned pessimistic curmudgeon Bassem Youssef – a man once billed as the Arab world's Jon Stewart – had best represented the doomed first experiment in post-Arab Spring political satire, then Youssef Hussein, the younger host of the Joe Show – the most popular satirical television show in the region today – represents the best hope for the genre's revival.

The comparison is necessary not just because of their commonalties and their differences, but essentially because Youssef was a big inspiration to Hussein.

Both men are Egyptians; but while Youssef was too Egypt-centric, at a time when revolutionary fervour was sweeping many other Arab countries, the Joe Show does equal opportunity mockery of anything from tiny Lebanon's surreal dysfunction to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's murderous shenanigans, via Egypt's evil but banal dictatorship.   

The Joe Show does equal opportunity mockery, from tiny Lebanon's surreal dysfunction to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's murderous shenanigans

Both had also started out their comedy with homemade content before hitting prime-time television gold.

But Bassem Youssef seems (paywall) to have raised the white flag since he was harassed by Egypt's military regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the country's first elected President Mohamed Morsi in a bloody coup.

Youssef's skewering of the late Morsi as an inept would-be dictator proved to be off the mark, yet his show thrived almost without pushback during Morsi's tenure. However once Sisi came into power, the comedian was swiftly shutdown when what Youssef wished for actually happened: Egypt got rid of Morsi, but then replaced him with a real dictator.

Bassem Youssef today admits defeat. He has long since mothballed his show and left Egypt for an American audience he now addresses in English.

But not 32-year-old Youssef Hussein.

Starting his career as a millennial YouTuber with his Joe Tube channel, he has since picked up Bassem Youssef's mantle, resurrecting and sharpening the edge of his humour in a much crazier and repressive Arab media landscape.

With tens of millions of viewers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arab world, Hussein is definitely the new king of Arab comedy working hard to turn self-deifying Arab autocrats into laughing stocks.

Youssef Hussein's show garners millions of views a week from all across the region

The New Arab visited Youssef Hussein at the set of Joe Show to find out more.

Born in the late 1980s in the Nile Delta village of Kafr Awad, Youssef Hussein is today roughly the same age as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Often mocked on the Joe Show, the Arab world's most notorious millennial, also known as MbS, is leading the counter-revolutionary wave in the region that Hussein is keen to help thwart through the medium of comedy.

But Youssef Hussein says it was all by chance that he became one of the Middle East's most popular satirists – with his show watched by millions each week from all across the region.

Like a number of rising millennial YouTube stars in the region, such as Al Jazeera's Da7ee7 – the Arab Bill Nye – Hussein is long past the days of filming funny videos for the internet out of a flat in Cairo with his mates. 

Seven years on, he is now the star of the Joe Show, broadcast out on London-based Al-Araby TV every Thursday.

We started at a time when the political and media scene in Egypt and the Middle East was completely bonkers and it's from this madness that we source our comedy

"We started at a time when the political and media scene in Egypt and the Middle East was completely bonkers and it's from this madness that we source our comedy," says the blue-eyed comic with a distinct head of curly hair.

Hussein's programme pokes irreverent fun at the Middle East's most authoritarian leaders and ludicrous sycophantic media personalities that help keep them in power with fake news, bigotry and apologism for their often-deadly crackdowns.

"You really don't have to be a comedian to find things to laugh at in the current climate. The whole system is hilarious," remarks the 32-year-old.

Hussein and his team of around 35 researchers scour through countless hours of the region's regime-affiliated political talk shows and bulletins to expose their blatant biases and hilarious paradoxes.

In last Thursday's episode, the comedian poked fun at primed-for-caricature Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a regular target of the hour-long programme. 

"A few days ago something suddenly happened. A strange incident that no one had expected," Hussein jokes as an intro to clips of anchors fawningly glorifying Sisi for riding a bicycle to work one day.

"As he rides that bicycle, you can see that he is racing along. He wants to speed, he wants to rush, he is moving so fast, he is racing time," one anchor shouts in front of a video edited by the programme to show Sisi doing bike stunts.

Another surreal segment cuts together clips of people phoning into dream interpretation programmes to ask about their dreams that have involved Sisi.

One young woman calls in to inquire about a dream in which she met the president.

"This is a good omen that you will get pregnant and have children!" the dream interpreter quickly responds.

But the show can sometimes also take a serious tone.

An episode aired following the death of the imprisoned former president Morsi that vociferously countered the regime media's attempts to bury the legacy of Egypt's first freely elected leader after his dramatic collapse inside a Cairo courtroom last month.

Hussein and his team of around 35 researchers scour through countless hours of the region's regime-affiliated political talk shows and bulletins to expose their blatant biases and hilarious paradoxes

Life in exile

Like Bassem Youssef's show, Hussein's programme has not gone unnoticed by the Egyptian regime, which is notorious for lacking a sense of humour and for serially throwing any critics in prison.

"We had to leave or else we would have been arrested," Hussein explains.

The media figures Hussein lampoons have often fought back at the comic, labelling him a 'fifth columnist' and even a homosexual, in a region where being gay is seen as dishonourable and often punished as a crime.

"I throw these bizarre accusations behind my back. It's one of the tactics the Egyptian regime uses to try and discredit its opponents. They want the people to say 'this guy has a point but he's gay or a traitor'," Hussein says.

Hussein's programme has not gone unnoticed by the Egyptian regime, which is notorious for lacking a sense of humour and for serially throwing any critics in prison

Inspired humour

Hussein, who says his biggest comedic influence was his father, has been an avid news buff since his early teenage years.

But it was during the 2005 Egyptian presidential elections – the first multi-party vote during the rule of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak – when he became politically active, handing out flyers for an opposition party.

"Since I was young I never liked Mubarak. I always thought he was the reason for all the corruption and chaos," he says.

Hussein began making his videos just months before Sisi led a military coup against Morsi who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Soon after the overthrow and subsequent violent crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters, Hussein left Egypt and headed to Qatar.

It was in the gas-rich Gulf state, which has opened up its media to voices supportive of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements, that the comedian found a safe haven to expand his show's popularity.

He quit his day job and dedicated himself fully to expose the Egyptian and Saudi-Emirati funded media that are defending the region's autocratic regimes and demonising all spectrums of dissent as evil terror-loving Islamists.

The Joe Show poked fun at the Saudi overreaction to Canadian cricism

Since then Hussein's show, now in its fourth season, has become syndicated and he takes shots at a wide range of figures around the Middle East.

When asked if he thinks his programme is helping improve the region, he replied, "There is no genuine political life in the Arab world for me to change things.

"But I don't have to change things. I just need to influence people and I have seen the impact our show has had," he explains.

"Here is just one example: we did an episode on political nepotism in Lebanon and it became a hot topic in the local media and created discussion about the issue."

As Joe Show's comedic targets have grown, so has his audience.

Last month alone the show was watched over 55 million times, with the majority of the viewers coming from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also with large numbers from other Arab countries and Arabic-speaking expat communities.

While widely considered the most prominent, Hussein is just one of a growing number of political satirists that have emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring upheaval, ousting several longtime strongmen in the region.

The spirit of freedom that emerged from the Arab Spring has helped change comedy in the Middle East

"The spirit of freedom that emerged from the Arab Spring has helped change comedy in the Middle East," Hussein says.

"Things cannot return to what they once were. The bar of freedom for young people has risen and they now have means through social media to say what they want.

"When governments attempt to put limits on artistic freedom of expression and creativity it always turns out bad for them," the comedian concludes. 

Al-Araby TV, the home of the Joe Show, is part of the same family that includes al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper and The New Arab.

Stay tuned each week for a translated round-up of the funniest jibes on Joe Show

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