KATY CLARK: Egypt is becoming an increasingly repressive society, but one Egyptian comedian is using his TV show to shake things up. Along the way, he's earning a reputation as "the Egyptian Ali G." Correspondent Julia Simon sat down to watch the show with a friend in Cairo and she sent this report.
JULIA SIMON: Kareem Nasser and I are at sitting in an apartment in downtown Cairo, watching scenes from an Egyptian television show that debuted this past August. It's called "La Sosta Culturale" and it isn't your typical Egyptian interview show.
[Audio clip of Egyptian show]
KAREEM NASSER: [(Laughing] Did you ever make out with a woman. And he says, "No you cannot tell me this! You cannot ask me in this way."
SIMON: This may be relatively tame for an American audience, but for Egyptians, this kind of sexual talk isn't something you hear on TV every day and it comes from the show's host. Does he have a name?
AKRAM AL-SHARKAWY: Yeah, he has a name. He's called Martello Rufiano. Martello actually is a hammer, Rufiano is a pimp in Italian. [laughing] But nobody knows about this, huh?
SIMON: That's Akram al-Sharkawy, talking about his character, Martello Rufiano, the flamboyant Italian host of "La Sosta Culturale." Rufiano's a little like Sasha Baron-Cohen's alter ego, Ali G. Most of his guests don't know he is playing a fictional character. Al-Sharkawy says that playing an Italian makes it easier for him to ask his guests the provocative and sexually charged questions that are normally so taboo in Egyptian society.
AL-SHARKAWY: It helps a little with the guests. You know, they would be shocked but, "Okay, he's a foreigner. We go with them, yeah?"
SIMON: But while al-Sharkawy jokes about sex, he steers clear of politics. He shelved an episode that featured an interview with Talaat Sadat, the nephew of the former Egyptian president. Al-Sharkawy says that Sadat's harsh attacks on Egypt's current president, Hosni Mubarak, were too negative for air. When it comes to attacking the Egyptian government on TV, the repercussions aren't a joke. Another comedy, the "Hokuma Show," or "the government show," was also supposed to debut in August. That show poked fun at high government officials, including the prime minister, but before it could premiere, the Egyptian Ministry of Information pulled the plug. In Egypt, the political elite are largely untouchable. Sociologist Said Sadek calls it the deification of leaders, turning them into gods like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
SAID SADEK: So if you have a comedy show that attacks this aura of glory and immunity around the leader, it is immediately a call for action by the censorship.
SIMON: Egyptians love comedy, and Abeer Solimon believes that comedy has an important role to play in Egypt's social and political evolution. She's program director for the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
ABEER SOLIMON: For sure, comedy is one of the biggest channels to talk to the normal Egyptian human in the street because you can write articles, issue books, and release whatever you want but not everybody reads. But everybody watches TV and comedy is finally the easiest way to peoples' hearts.
SIMON: I asked Solimon to tell me a typical Egyptian joke.
SOLIMON: I can't!
SIMON: You can't? You can't tell it on the air?
SIMON: So the jokes are pretty political.
SOLIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, in a very cynical way.
SIMON: As the ruling National Democratic Party gathers in Cairo this week, you can expect a lot of political jokes behind closed doors. For comedians like al-Sharkawy, such political humor will have to stay in the green room. But others hope that someday these jokes will reach the Egyptian airwaves and help promote the kind of political change only dreamed of in their punch lines. For The World, I'm Julia Simon in Cairo.
CLARK: We have a link to Martello Rufiano's show at The World dot org. This is PRI.