Comedian Asks, ‘Are You Brave Enough to Tell a Joke?’

November 5, 2018

On Nov. 8, Sara Taksler, a former producer at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” will discuss comedy as a way to call attention to abuses of power in Egypt and the United States.

By Duke Global staff

In her 2016 film “Tickling Giants,” documentarian Sara Taksler follows Egyptian comedian Dr. Bassem Youssef. After the Arab Spring, Youssef left his career as a heart surgeon in Cairo to take up political satire. The documentary underscores the power of humor in oppressive regimes, and the film demonstrates Youssef’s nonviolent methods to protect free speech and fight a president who abuses his power. 

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Photo courtesy Sara Taksler

Taksler describes her favorite way of tickling giants as “using comedy to find cathartic ways to process major bummers.” Her documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and The New York Times called it a “first-rate documentary” and Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% rating.

The filmmaker will discuss her work during two Duke at Home in the World events on Thursday, Nov. 8 – a lunchtime discussion about the power of comedy at the John Hope Franklin Center and a screening of the film “Tickling Giants” at 7:00 pm in the Griffith Film Theater. (Watch a trailer of “Tickling Giants.”)

In anticipation of these campus events, we asked Taksler how she began this documentary, how the film changed her and what challenges she faced in the current political climates of Egypt and the United States.

What led you to the story of Bassem Youssef? 

When I met Bassem, I was a senior producer at “The Daily Show,” where I worked for 12 years. Bassem was a heart surgeon by day and hosting his show at night, and I just couldn't imagine Jon Stewart doing that.

I was also interested in the fact that Bassem visited “The Daily Show” with three producers, two of whom were female. I was very curious about what it would be like to be my counterpart, a woman producing satire in Egypt.

What challenges did you face filming the documentary? 

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Photo courtesy Sara Taksler

We faced challenges from many angles, but the biggest was the fact that it wasn't safe to film outside, particularly during protests. After one of our camera people was beaten up for his footage, we started filming outdoor shots from a moving car, because it was safer.

What parallels between Egypt and the United States do you see in regards to the power of comedy to affect politics? 

In the United States, we have many satire shows. When our President criticizes comedians, they can stick up for each other and for free speech. In Egypt, Bassem was the only one doing political satire and the country didn't have a strong history of free speech. He was a much easier target.

But in both countries, satire has the power to make people feel less alone and to be inspired to act on an issue that an audience member finds to be outrageous. 

Does the new era of social media and misinformation affect your work as a documentarian?

In the United States., we have a shift – from the president himself – demonizing the press. To suggest that people trying to hold those in power accountable are somehow the enemy is, at best, disingenuous and dangerous.

In terms of misinformation, I get my news from the same outlets as everyone else. I've seen stories that wound up being incorrect. As a person consuming information and trying to tell stories, I feel it’s really important to double-check information and try not to be fooled by the misinformation some are intentionally spreading. To be clear, I don't mean that journalists are intentionally misinforming. I'm talking about trolls clogging up your social media feeds. 

What has it been like to be a woman working in television and documentaries? What has changed, if anything, during your career? 

TV and film are both in need of more diversity, in terms of gender, race and lots of things. Since I started in TV, there has definitely been an increase in the number of women in creative roles. There's still a long way to go. 

How will "Tickling Giants" influence your worldview and work moving forward? 

I love stories that combine entertainment and social justice. “Tickling Giants” helps me remember that there is funny in every situation. In the worst moments in world history, there was some joker poking her friend and helping to let the tension out for a moment of catharsis. I think it's important to look for those moments. Our world is overwhelming. This country is feeling overwhelming to me right now. We need to look for creative, non-violent ways to express ourselves and be heard.

The Duke at Home in the World series is organized by the Office of Global Affairs and sponsored by the von der Heyden Fellows Fund, established by Karl (’62) and Mary Ellen von der Heyden. The “Tickling Giants” events are co-organized by Global Affairs, Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, Duke University Middle East Studies Center and Duke Islamic Studies Center.

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Duke at Home in the World