Bassem Youssef’s tips to stay inspired when starting your own creative project
Bassem Youssef doesn’t like giving advice, but he gets asked for it often. At a recent screening of Tickling Giants, the documentary that chronicles Youssef’s rise from a satirist filming YouTube videos in his laundry room to the host of a show garnering 30 million viewers a week, as well as at the Chicago Ideas Curiosity Series event “Laughing Through the Arab Spring with Bassem Youssef,” audience members asked for advice more than anything else. And though he’d defer each time, he would dole out small nuggets here and there, allowing people to glance through a keyhole into the expanse of his creative workings.
But when talking about his early days, and all the struggles he faced, it’s hard for some advice to not come spilling out. What’s more, it’s hard not to see Youssef’s early days as an example for others to take action of their very own. As Youssef notes, it doesn’t take a big budget, full staff or great production value to make something of cultural import. What it does take is a great deal of passion, and the will to not let minor failures get in the way of a dream. After talking with Youssef about his rise, we collected four pieces of advice for people to carry with them as they are starting any new project. It’s part advice and part personal anecdote, but it’s fully Youssef all the same.
Consume work in the field you’re interested in
“Watch material as much as you can. Draw inspiration from as many sources as you can and then find your thing. At that point in Egypt we didn’t have any reference, so I had to get the reference from outside. Then I had to bring Jon Stewart and make it my own. It’s the same advice you give to writers: If you want to write well, you have to read more. You cannot write without reading. You have to read and read, and then you take everything you have read and make it your own. It has to be observing, getting inspired, then coming up with something that fits you.”
Don’t get discouraged by failure and rejection
“Go out and fail but just don’t be discouraged. People can get very easily discouraged because of today’s internet landscape. It’s a big challenge. Right now, I don’t even read the comments, because it’s a waste of time. But for someone who’s young, this comment means he’s been noticed, so he cannot isolate himself from the comments. He cannot. He has to read it.”
Work with other people that will push you forward
“What kept me going is that it’s not just me—now it’s a whole institution, it’s a whole operation, it’s a whole production. I can’t just sit at home because I found an Internet comment that I didn’t like. So I became more mature about it. You tend to listen more to the people closer to you because their criticism will be much more sincere and much more objective. It’s absolutely important. Because, otherwise, you’re just going to be working in a vacuum. You’ll be under the mercy of whatever trolls are out there, or people that just want to kiss ass and tell you what you want to hear. And I think both of them are very dangerous.”
When all else fails, look to Ross from Friends
“I think it’s important because, at a certain point, when my show was taken off the air, I was living in Al Bernameg limbo for a while. I was telling myself I would never do something this popular ever again. And then Jon Stewart told me, “Al Bernameg is something that’s in the past. You’ve done something nobody else did.” I then came to the idea that I won’t do something that 30 million people watch. I won’t do something that amazing.
I was at WGN and there was David Schwimmer. That guy was doing Friends, which was the biggest thing in America. Does he have the same exposure that he had at that time? Of course not. None of the cast of Friends has something as successful as Friends. But they live, and they create. I think part of it is human ego and human ignorance, that you want to be on top. Robert de Niro now is not the same Robert de Niro that did The Godfather. But he’s still Robert de Niro. You need to come to peace with the fact that it’s an ever-changing world and there are so many ways to express yourself. Just be good at what you do. You might not be the best, you might not be on top every time, but you should do something that you’re satisfied with.”