Golden Globe® Award-winning actor Ramy Youssef has always been a creative person. “My first ‘save your birthday money’ purchase was a camera,” he joked.
The New Jersey native didn’t see showbusiness as an achievable goal, but an underlying passion and persistence directed him to create more and more, eventually encouraging him to edit, to act, and to write. “I didn’t think this was going to become a career for me because I didn’t really see anyone like me doing this kind of work,” confessed the writer.
Eventually, Ramy moved to Los Angeles, where he landed roles on shows like See Dad Run and Mr. Robot, along with a small role in the James Franco-Bryan Cranston holiday comedy, Why Him?
Fast forward to 2019 and Ramy Youssef landed a special on HBO called Feelings and a series on Hulu, where he plays a fictionalized version of himself in Ramy. Ramy’s material is successful because it’s so personal.
Writing Personal Material
“As I got into it and knew I wanted to touch on a lot of the subjects I was touching on, there was – and continues to be – a pressure cooker because there is very little to no programming that talks about being Muslim from an earnest place.”
Because Ramy wanted to discuss religion, he realized he couldn’t simply discuss it universally, and had to make it very personal in order to connect with viewers and listeners.
“To tell a story that could touch on emotional things – there’s a lot of nervousness and risk that comes with that, rightfully so. So the show is something people really love and really hate, which is to the nature of how personal it gets.”
For Ramy, the comedian, being personal means making a connection, which is something he learned how to do in small comedy rooms. Over time, he could connect with 8-10 people in the same way he would connect with a few thousand people. “Then, we just scaled that connection into a TV show that gets watched by millions.”
Representing Muslim America
“To me, the North Star [of Ramy] is watching characters grapple with who they want to be and who they actually are, and I think that’s universal. Watching somebody struggle with their higher self and their lower self is something worth viewing through the lens of an American-Muslim family.”
This lens unites all viewers. “But, the overall struggle, this is someone everyone deals with, with whatever their own filters are. I’m focusing on that for my character and this family. That’s what’s most important for me. Everything else is just details in that struggle.”
Through this view, Ramy figured out a way to discuss important matters in a comedic way. “It actually started with very serious conversations – conversations on how can a relationship that someone has with spirituality, guilt, and God, be shown in a way that feels genuine and doesn’t feel like pure allegory. Conversations that don’t feel like mockery or cartoonish, but grounded in a time when, especially in comedy, religion is a punchline.”
If I were to say what my show represents, it’s not so much Muslims as it is the struggle between faith and ego – Ramy Youseff
Through conversations with friends and ideas marinating in his subconscious, these conversations eventually worked their way to the stage in the form of a joke. “I started workshopping this stuff on stage and realized I could make it funny, but still have it feel real and match these goals.”
“The funny part came in stand up, but it’s rooted in the representation of that relationship” In this respect, isolating the Islamic religion is almost redundant.
The Joke Leads the Way
In order to create a loaded joke about ISIS being like Hogwarts (see Ramy Youssef Is Expecting A Hogwarts Letter From ISIS from Colbert), Ramy sees the need for a path to the joke.
“You need a way in. When you’re doing stand-up, you take so much success and so much failure, so you start to understand why one thing works and another thing doesn’t. I think a lot of the topics walk a very thin tightrope. It’s important to understand there’s a difference of perception based on timing, word choice, and order.”
“In a lot of jokes, you need to know one thing about me first in order to understand this other thing. I think it’s like any relationship you’d have with anybody. First impressions mean something and the way that you segway means something.”
Ramy uses this mentality in writing and during stand up. “When you understand the person in front of you is a human, you start to understand where they’re coming from and you can get into the nuances in a different way.”
Ramy tests this theory in traffic. “When people are beeping at you, they think you’re just a car trying to swerve. Sometimes, I just stick my hand out, and then all of a sudden, the person beeping [sees this] segway, then remembers there’s a person in the car. Sometimes, we think of others as being machines and metal,” he mused.
“Sometimes you just need a reminder or a frame of, ‘Hey, we’re all people.’ Then, once that’s established, you can get into darker jokes and things that people not might have been able to see right off the bat,” he Ramy continued.
Political Correctness in Comedy
Segways and entry points aside, Ramy believes you have to, “Earn the joke that you’re telling.”
He said, “I think you can tell any joke, but it’s the job of the comedian to be aware of what is happening and to craft something that’s not capitalizing on people’s pain, but hopefully highlighting something sensitive in a way that only comedy can.”
“I find that the political correctness conversation comes into play often when people are just fighting for the right to be sloppy or to say whatever they want. I don’t think that’s really a worthy fight. You can say almost anything, but you have to learn the way in. But that is sort of the point of comedy, you have the challenge to say things people aren’t supposed to say. There’s fun digging into the subconscious.”
“I do think there are examples of audiences not appreciating the craft behind a joke, or audiences being too sensitive. The audience does need to be a willing participant and understand the format of comedy. It’s not educational. It’s about emotions. And, a lot of those emotions can be messy, but I do think it’s the job of the comedy to present those things in a skilled way.”
Comedy is about emotions. Emotions can be messy – Ramy Youssef
Stand-Up Versus Series
“For me, a lot of my stand up is just me probing my intentions to understand why I think the things that I think,” said Ramy. “I basically bring that probing into the show.”
The writer believes that every person has various counterparts in their mind at the same time. As such, he uses those counterparts to discuss ideas on the show but putting those counterparts in the mouths of other characters.
“It’s fun to have that balance. Most stand up jokes have a point and a counterpoint, and you explore those things. Then, you get to spread those out to the characters on the show.”
The show itself has a lot going on. The writers believe the show brings people closer to questions, rather than providing answers. The fictional family on the show works as a vessel, so viewers can draw the conclusions they wish – be that outrage or joy.
“People who are very conservative are not comfortable with the sex. People who are not into religion and spirituality are uncomfortable with the God conversations. That’s always been the balance I’m treading on stage as well.”
The Ramy TV Writers’ Room
In the TV writers’ room, healthy debate is always encouraged. “My writers’ room is full of people who have strong points of view that go in opposite directions. Two writers are actively memorizing the Quran and two don’t believe in God at all.”
“There’s a fun debate that comes out of it and we get to bring to the surface these questions and the character motivations. I like to talk about things we care about and distill that into these characters’ points of view.”
Ramy works to push conversations in unique directions, then he starts to outline the ideas into plot points or debate arguments for a character. Then, he shows the outline to the room, which starts a secondary debate. Finally, they start to turn the ideas into an actual script. “So much we were excited to dig into is about ego.”
In the first season, Ramy’s character was aspirational, as the character wanted to figure out who he was, where the second season is more about transforming who he is into a better person.
“He’s trying to fix his problems, but he’s still fixing them from a place that religion will change things for him as if it’s that easy. He’s still dancing around real change and real pain and what he’s dealing with.”
Ramy jokes about Friday prayers and Friday night parties, how good intentions pave the road to hell, and an array of juxtaposing topics that start comedic, yet insightful debates.
“For me, this character is going to go through a lot. I think what was exciting about the second season was realizing we’re just scratching the surface. We put more plot onto the show and I think that benefits what scenarios we can get into, where a lot of sitcoms show the same characters with the same problems.”
Repetitive characteristics make boring cycles for today’s audiences. “You cycle through scenarios but you already know what that character is going to do. We’re trying to create a more narrative structure to see Ramy grow into things that are more traditionally seen as a narrative act.”
Ramy describes his TV series as something “built for streaming.” He loves television and how every episode doesn’t need a neat conclusion.
“We’re arcing and adding small moments, not only in a season but in the series. We give these windows into what individual characters are going through, and what is happening, so in their nature, they’re incomplete.”
“In an era of binging, this is really fun because we don’t have the prerogative that every episode needs an ending. We don’t worry about people coming back next week. Each episode just bleeds into the next one. It’s a tortuous relationship working on something, but I do get energized working on new ideas.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.