How Ramy Youssef Made the Great American Millennial-Muslim Comedy
The creator of ‘Ramy’ on bringing the authentic Muslim-American experience — and his skewed stand-up act — to television
The afternoon before Ramadan starts, Ramy Youssef is sitting in a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, dressed in sweats and a black Nike snapback hat. He’s loading up on food: a hearty stack of lemon curd pancakes, a side of turkey sausage, ketchup he liberally seasons with pepper. The 28-year-old has just finished performing downstairs at the Comedy Cellar, where he started out in typical slacker-bro comedian style, bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t have a girlfriend with whom he can grab fro-yo. Then he segued into a bit about watching Surviving R. Kelly and feeling increasingly anxious that the documentary would reveal the R&B singer had converted to Islam. “I was just waiting for them to find the Quran,” he deadpanned. “Episode Five it was going to be like, ‘the R actually stands for Rahman.’”
A devout Muslim, Youssef is the sort of stand-up who seamlessly weaves together piety (“I believe in God. Like God, God. Not yoga.”) and obscenity (“I slipped in once without a condom for like a second — it felt so good, but the second I slipped in I had a fucking mortgage. My son needed braces.”), occasionally at the same time (“I remember the moment I really believed in God. This girl texted me two minutes after I jerked off to her Facebook photo”). It’s a mix evident in his first stand-up special, Feelings, which debuts on HBO on June 29th. And it’s definitely there in Ramy, his semi-autobiographical series about a Muslim-American named Ramy Hassan who’s living with his family in New Jersey and in the midst of a quarter-life crisis spurred on by a desire to better adhere to his faith. The first scripted TV comedy about the Muslim-American experience, it immediately became a critical darling, praised for being “quietly revolutionary” and “profound” after its premiere in April. (Hulu has already announced it’s picking up the show for a second season.)
“You go into TV, especially if you haven’t made a season of something before, and you’re like, Am I going to get out on the other end of this thing still looking like me?” he says. “And I think I do.”
The thing about starring in show about an Arab Muslim millennial named Ramy when you’re also an Arab Muslim millennial named Ramy is that, publicly at least, you can end up being perceived as exactly like your character. TV Ramy is more than a little stunted and still lives at home with his parents (played by Hiam Abbass and Amr Waked). TV Ramy’s start-up gig never quite starts up, forcing him to go work for his racist uncle in the diamond district. TV Ramy is, admittedly, kind of a fuckboy. Thankfully, real-life Ramy has it way more together. “I try to put [the character] in a place where he’s a little more stuck than I feel,” Youssef explains. “I have a creative outlet to talk about things that are on my mind, and so it’s always very much, ‘What would it look like if I didn’t have that?’ We lead with his flaws. It would feel weird to make a show called Ramy, and have him be what a good guy — that’s a little sociopathic.”
Youssef was born in Queens to Egyptian immigrants — his dad managed the Plaza Hotel back when Donald Trump owned it — and raised in nearby Rutherford, New Jersey, where he grew up a fan of George Carlin and Allen Iverson’s 76ers. He initially enrolled at Rutgers for political science, with the vaguest of plans to become a lawyer, but dropped out at 20 to pursue a comedy career in Los Angeles. He was first cast in the Scott Baio-led Nickelodeon sitcom See Dad Run,then had a recurring role on the USA hacker drama Mr. Robot, alongside fellow Egyptian-American Rami Malek. (Side note: Perhaps nothing demonstrates the dearth of Middle Eastern actors on television quite like when I found out my 84-year-old Egyptian grandmother attempted to watch the entirely convoluted Mr. Robot because it was the only show on TV whose star was Egyptian.)
The idea for Ramy first took hold in 2012, when Youssef was praying in between takes of See Dad Run. Soon after, his friend Ari Katcher — who’d been encouraging him to develop the concept of a Muslim-American comedy — brought stand-up Jerrod Carmichael to a party at Youssef’s house. The two comics immediately struck up a friendship over the fact that they’re both religious (Carmichael is a Christian); they ended up discussing the show while hanging out at a roast of Justin Bieber and touring together in 2017. When Carmichael came on as an executive producer, they began pitching the show around with co-creators Katcher and Ryan Welch. After Hulu greenlit the project, they brought Transparent‘s Bridget Bedard to work as showrunner. Per a Vulture article on the making of Ramy, every new writer hire was a woman, two of whom were Muslim. (Two stand-alone episodes respectively focusing on Ramy’s sister, played by May Calamawy, and his mother, were both directed by Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis and are among the strongest of the series.)
Overall, the show’s refusal to go in the most obvious, expected route — Ramy’s extended family are Trump fans, a flashback episode reveals that 9/11 happened while he was trying to masturbate for the first time in his middle school bathroom — ultimately lends it a feeling of deep authenticity. (The ample “habibi’s” dropped into every other sentence also help.) Most importantly, it’s enormously funny, with even the most poignant moments stretching out like a rubber band then suddenly snapping back with a joke. Take the conversation where Ramy’s father chastises his son for sleeping with a married woman; he gives a heartfelt, nostalgia-laden monologue about what he sacrificed when he left his family behind in Egypt before ending on the note, “at least you’re not gay.”
Youssef is thrilled that he got his full vision into Ramy — as he puts it, “this shit isn’t diluted.” That said, there were some battles he lost. He had hoped the very first scene would show him doing wudu, a ritual cleansing before prayer, in a mosque. “Testing made the audiences feel like it was a show about terrorism,” he says, “because they’re open in a mosque speaking Arabic.” Whether you think Ramy leans more heavily on the obscenity or the piety depends on your perspective. The show’s first season includes several sex scenes, including a fumbled backseat choke-out in the pilot (though, deliberately, there’s no nudity). “People who are part of any of the various Muslim communities that have a sensitivity to discussing sex, they watch this show and they’re like, This is all sex,” he continues. “People who don’t have that sensitivity watch the show and they’re like, All this dude does is pray.” (For the record: There are more prayer scenes than sex scenes. Youssef has tallied it up.)
The success of Ramy‘s first season has sparked conversations about representation and responsibility, which he welcomes, though Youssef’s ultimate goal was telling a nuanced story about one particular character and his family — and to make it funny. He loves comedy that has purpose — “It’s important to make sure I’m always thinking about, ‘Why am I telling this joke?’” — but he also wants to be realistic. “I think that comedy’s in a place right now where it’s getting a little confused,” Youssef says. “Sometimes people sit more on the purpose than on the laugh. It’s got to be laugh-driven. Anytime someone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, comedy’s changing things,’ I feel really averse to that kind of sentiment, because that puts an unfair weight on it.
“My friend Patrisse Cullors, she’s one of the founders of Black Lives Matter,” he continues, “I couldn’t call her and be like, ‘Hey, you guys take a week off, this writers’ room is so hilarious, we’re going to change [things]. Don’t worry, we got it covered.’ Hopefully my work helps set up people to be a little more open-minded to that work that’s being done, but that’s not change.”
After brunch, Youssef is planning to head out to his parents’ house in Jersey, where he’ll sleep over and wake up at 4:00 a.m. to eat suhoor before the first day of fasting. A couple of days later, he’ll fly out to Los Angeles, where the Ramy writers’ room is based, to start up on season two of the show. And then there’s the upcoming premiere of Feelings, which will introduce his stand-up to a much larger audience. Though Youssef has been performing for 10 years, there are barely any videos of his material on the internet, an intentional choice on his part. “There’s just a little bit of a shock with things going public,” he admits. “I feel like it sounds dumb to say when you’re a performer, and you go out of your way to make a TV show. What I really like about stand-up is there’s 100 people in a room, and you can just feel the pulse. It’s very human.
“Then once something just goes on screen,” Youssef adds, “there’s just a little bit of that humanity that was lost. Not everyone’s going to get your intentions. But hopefully more do than don’t.”