Ramy Youssef discovered a gaping hole in comedy. Not only were Muslim people vastly underrepresented, but stories of first-generation Americans always seemed to involve a flat-out rejection of parents’ religion or cultural values. Cue hilarious clashes and misunderstandings. Instead, Youssef’s Hulu comedy Ramy explores the experience of a young Egyptian-American Muslim man living in New Jersey, who believes in God and embraces his heritage, while blending them with his American life. Loosely based on Youssef’s own experiences, and borne out of his work as a stand-up comedian, Ramy is a fresh and introspective take.
How did you get from stand-up to making Ramy?
I was opening for Jerrod Carmichael while he was doing stand-up for his special. And his show was on the air at the time, and we started really brainstorming. What would it look like to have a Muslim family show, and a show that could get into our details, our nuances? Something that was really exciting to me was, how could we make a story that looked at someone who believed in God, but in a very grounded way, in a way that feels like an everyman, as opposed to what we see a lot of the time, which are these very caricature-ish looks, or the blown-out idea of the priest who is brooding and also is an alcoholic, and does cocaine.
It’s not a first generation story where you’re watching a kid try to separate themselves from their culture and their parents and erase it. You’re actually watching someone who has a lot of respect for the faith and the tradition, and isn’t trying to change it or manipulate it, but is more trying to figure out his place within it, and how he can stay there, while being pulled by his desires and being tested.
Did you feel pressure to explain that you weren’t saying “This is what Muslim life is like”? As though all Muslim-Americans have this similar experience?
That weight, of course, you feel it. I remember when it was announced that the show was being picked up to series, some article was sent to me that was like, “This is the Muslim family sitcom we’ve all been waiting for.” And I remember looking at and just going, “Oh, man, I don’t know. That’s a lot of weight. That’s going to be really impossible.” Also, no one has ever been asked to make the Christian show that really represents all Christians. No one would ever say that, because it’s like, “Well, wait, what kind of Christian? Are they Evangelical?” I mean, there are all these sects. What state are they living in? It begs all these questions. But for some reason, the term “average Muslim family” flies. That term is just thrown around. And I think really what people are trying to say is “not ISIS”. In terms of what this show represents, it’s definitely not ISIS. But then under that, we get into something that is very, very specific. And I think that Arab Muslims who watch this show feel very seen. But then Muslims who are black, which is most of the Muslims in America, Muslims who are any of the various groups, they might only relate to certain things. They might watch it and go, “What’s going on here? This isn’t me.”
What has the feedback from your family been like?
Overall, I think they’re very proud and they really appreciate the show. I think that there are things that they definitely don’t agree with that are in the show. It’s very helpful that the family portrayed in it is not really like my real family. I think that pretty much right off the bat, as they started watching, they were like, “Oh, okay, there’s a separation here from what we actually are.” And so, that helps.
I think my mom thought there’s probably too much sex, and my dad, there’s a couple of scenes where he didn’t agree with what we did. But overall, I think they really appreciated that it wasn’t violent, and they appreciated that my character is really trying to do the right thing. I think they really appreciated that we’re not making fun of the faith, that clearly the objective is trying to be good and trying to connect with the faith.
What about surprising feedback from others?
I was out at dinner the other night, and a Jewish woman said to me that it made her feel like she wanted to reconnect to her faith. And that was really just so unexpected to me and so exciting to hear. The reality of hearing that feedback is totally different than what you might think going in. I think there’s a lot of people who really feel seen and really connect to the journey and understand the creative choices. And then there are people who can’t get past 15 minutes and think it’s completely inappropriate and think it’s blasphemous and think that it’s the worst thing since ISIS.
You cast your old high school friend Steve Way. How did that come about?
We wanted to have as many rounded and authentic dynamics in the show. And for me, I’ve always loved my relationship with Steve. In the same way that we’re looking with this show to humanize a Muslim family, we want to humanize someone in a situation like Steve’s, someone who has a disability. And there are all these preconceived notions around someone like that, that they are to be treated differently, and treated special, and that they can do no wrong, and that love should come their way, and all these things. Then you see the reality of the Steve character, and he’s pretty unlikable. And I think that’s pretty human. There’s nothing more human than, “Yeah, I know he’s in a wheelchair, but, man, I don’t think I like him.” And he’s also in a world where Ramy and his friends very much believe in God, and it’s a part of their life. You have someone like Steve, who has a really clear reason to not believe in God, and it’s a really interesting perspective to have come out. It’s really, truly exciting.
Season 1 left on a romantic cliffhanger with Ramy’s cousin. What can we expect from Season 2?
I’m excited to expand. In Season 1, he’s struggling with his faith and his desires. He’s trying to figure out a romantic partner, and he’s trying to figure out where he fits in. And I think Season 2 is going to be seeing him make some decisions. He’s been toeing the line and straddling what he wants to do in these first 10 episodes, and I think we’re going to see him make some choices and see the repercussions of those. I’m just excited for the show to mature. I think we’ve really found our tone, and I think once you’ve hit that, then it gets really fun.