Ramy Youssef is the star, executive producer and writer behind Hulu’s new critically acclaimed comedy “Ramy,” about a first-generation American Muslim millennial. Youssef previously had roles in such projects as “Mr. Robot,” “Why Him?” and “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”
Youssef recently chatted with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about his intentions behind “Ramy,” not always being politically correct and the positive response the show has received. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Ramy, the show breaks some ground because it centers around an American Muslim and that’s the premise of the show, but is it fair to say that it goes way beyond that by exploring all of the stuff that people in their 20s and 30s come up against?
Ramy Youssef: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that. We look at an Arab Muslim family and we try to explore humanizing them and obviously the title character, my character of Ramy, but I think what we’re really looking at is someone who is trying to be a higher version of himself. He’s trying to figure out his purpose. He’s trying to figure out where he fits in and that is spiritually, it’s career-wise, it’s romantically, but he’s trying to strive forward. He thinks he should be. A big part of that is his faith. A big part of that is him being Muslim so I think what’s a little different here is we’re seeing his faith and his culture be something that’s aspirational for him. I think a lot of stories involve someone trying to erase their faith or step away from it. A lot of first-generation immigrant stories you see the kid really upset and have a blow-up with his parents and say, “I wanna be white.” That’s kind of the essence of what a lot of the stories that I had seen look like. I wanted to make something where the struggle was internal. He actually sees the positivity of his culture and his faith but he also is in the current moment with his desires and his ego. You see that pull between where he comes from between being a twenty-something guy in New Jersey and New York and what those pulls look like. I think because we made the struggle internal, because he wasn’t just blaming his family and he wasn’t just blaming people around him, he’s actually looking at personal responsibility. I don’t think there’s anything more universal than personal responsibility and I feel like that’s why it’s been really exciting to see how it’s resonated with so many people. It wasn’t what I expected but it’s just been really cool that anyone who’s a person of faith… I got an email from a man who said, “I’m an evangelical Christian father of three and I am Ramy,” just from watching the story. There was a really nice thing this guy who writes at the Times in Israel and the headline was like, “Every Jew needs to watch ‘Ramy.’” I couldn’t really believe it. I think it’s hitting people of a lot of faiths but I think, again, it’s hitting anyone who wants to be their higher self. We see my character deal with Ramadan where he starts off really wanting to do it right and then he kind of falls and fails. I think that’s anybody. That’s not just religion. You wake up and do a 6 a.m. yoga class and then at midnight you’re at McDonald’s with a milkshake and large fries and you’re not who you thought you were in the morning. Exploring those things are what I think is really exciting ‘cause I think that that hits with a lot of people emotionally and what they’re going through.
GD: It really does. A lot of people have their own in for the show, as you’ve said. Evangelicals and people of the Jewish faith are really into it. I’m a first generational Australian from an immigrant family so that was my in, for example. There’s so many other things about the show that I found extremely relatable but unexpectedly so while you’re also trying to paint something quite authentically ‘cause I did feel that it came across to me very authentically and I wonder how particularly challenging is it for you to remain very authentic to the cultural background that you’re portraying but also make it relatable to everybody?
RY: I think so much about it is the specifics and making sure that, for me, I wanted it to feel like Arab Muslim families that I knew growing up and really trying to get all those details down. Sometimes if you’re just focusing on the food that’s on the table, even if you don’t get a shot of it with the camera, just knowing that it’s there, it sets the whole scene for the level of detail. We had our amazing cinematographer, Adrian [Peng Correia], our amazing production designer Grace Yun, these are people who we look through so many different houses and families and making sure that everything in there when you stepped in there emotionally felt right. Then you add another layer where you’re casting actors who speak Arabic, not people who just look it but people who actually do and then getting more granular than that. “Okay, cool, but we need to make sure not just that it’s Arabic but is it the right dialect of Arabic?” Through the casting was really interesting because that influenced the character choices. We started off saying, “This is an Egyptian family,” so we cast a father who speaks Egyptian Arabic but we cast a mother who speaks Palestinian Arabic. So now my character is half-Egyptian, half-Palestinian. There’s no reason to try and make that fly when it’s not what it is. So it was really using the cast, using our locations, using every aspect of what lives and breathes onscreen to inform the facts of the world so that we’re not trying to fabricate anything. I think when that’s what’s happening under the hood on our end, it just becomes part of the performances feeling alive and feeling real and feeling grounded. Again, that comes from the casting of people for the cultural accuracy but also emotional accuracy. My best friend, Steve, who plays in the show my friend with muscular dystrophy is also one of my real best friends since third grade. Mo and Ahmed who play my two Muslim buddies are both people who not only have I toured doing standup with for the last six, seven years but who we’ve all lived together at different points in our lives. There’s so many things that are just grounded in reality. I feel like that ends up really living and breathing onscreen in a way that I couldn’t have really anticipated but it was really cool seeing that come to life.
GD: The show often subverts expectations. There are certainly cliches or stereotypes that we generally expect to see in a show about a Muslim American family and you tend to smash them every episode. For example, you put your own spin on dating and relationships. Ramy goes on a date with a Muslim woman he expects to be demure but she’s extremely kinky. That made me laugh out loud really hard and then later in the season the guy dating Ramy’s sister is really turned on by her ethnicity and her difference. Both scenes completely subvert expectations from a completely opposite point of view. That’s actually really tough to do properly and I think you stuck the landing. What’s it like to set out to do something like that and actually do it successfully?
RY: With the date that I go on, something that was really interesting for me to explore is how do we stereotype ourselves? I think there’s so much dialogue around the hate coming towards our communities and towards our faith and I think that’s what dominates headlines. For me to make a show, my job is not really to reflect the headlines that we already know exist. It’s to show what’s under the hood that you don’t know. For us, a lot of the things that we choose to explore are things you wouldn’t have heard about. I think there’s this expectation of, “Okay, this is a show about an Arab Muslim family in New Jersey in the United States and man, I can’t wait to see them talk about the Muslim ban and Trump and all the politics of that.” We pretty much wholly avoid that, not to be apolitical but because that’s already what people know coming in. For us to spend too much time on that would actually be in and of itself ignorant because then we’re saying, “Everything you’ve heard is the only thing there is to hear.” It would defeat showing our humanity. The storyline seems subversive but it’s really just because they’re not the headlines that you read. So we had these ideas about maybe how a date would go or how something might happen sexually between two Muslim people and then we see it play out in a way where my character is actually at fault. Not only are all these political things happening, all these other aspects that affect his life but even within his own life and his own circle he has his own prejudices and he has his own way of dealing with things. The same thing happens on the date that my sister character goes on where the hurdles she thinks she’s gonna face, which is this hurdle from her family and this hurdle from her culture in expressing herself sexually, it actually ends up being from the partner that she thought she would find refuge in to explore her sexuality she actually finds the most prejudice and the most acknowledgment of her culture in a way that holds her back, in a way she didn’t think she would get from that character. I think with both those scenes and with a lot of the things we explore, they’re the things that are emotionally happening under the hood that we don’t get to hear about.
GD: That is so fascinating. Even though you say that the show doesn’t really get political, and it doesn’t, there is a mention of the Muslim ban, there is a mention of certain things, which is quite authentic, this is the stuff that affects people from the Muslim community but it doesn’t inform your every single day. That’s what made it, to me, really authentic. We go back to Ramy’s childhood. It shifts between a meditation on jerking off and then it talks about how profoundly 9/11 affected Muslim communities. You did get to go to that stuff a little. What was that like to at least shine a bit of a spotlight on how that has affected Muslim communities?
RY: That episode with a young Ramy in middle school really focuses initially on his challenges with puberty and the feeling of being an outsider not only culturally but on a level of not understanding things that your friends understand, which I think can happen to a lot of kids but then there’s also this additional layer of immigrant kids who face that and kids who feel out of the loop and a lot of the time, your family is dealing with restarting and starting a whole new life in a different culture. There’s not always the nuance of a sex talk in the way that might be for other families. So we see him dealing with that and it’s really difficult. That in and of itself is causing him anxiety that is on a personal 9/11 level and then 9/11 happens. We see the way that the community and again, with this character and with this show, it’s not just things coming from the community. It’s seeing his own fear of himself and how that complicates everything that he feels about himself, about his identity and about where he comes from and what his family believes. So you feel a little bit of the push from those around him but he already went there on his own in his mind. That was always something that was for me I think missing from the conversation. Obviously 9/11 for me and for many of us here was the most horrific thing we’ve seen happen in our lives and we’ve heard about it from really a couple angles but never, to me, have we heard about it from the perspective of a Muslim child and how that affects the psychology of how you grow and how that shapes who you are. To use that as a starting point, just a human, puberty experience and seeing how something political can further complicate that, that to me was the way we wanted to talk about it on the show. It’s really the only episode that we, in the first season, discuss terrorism. Like you said, there’s a line about the Muslim ban, I think there’s one or two lines about Trump later on in the season but probably not in the way people would expect. Other than that, these things are kind of periphery. They are there but they’re not defining for our main struggles. They just add this further complication to what is already complicated for anybody who’s a human.
GD: A lot of it, as I’ve mentioned, is extremely relatable. The discussions about Trump that happen later in the season, I’ve had those discussions with older people from my family. You don’t have to be from a Muslim family to relate to a lot of the conversations that are happening on this show. The overbearing and passive aggressive uncle, who doesn’t have one of those? What a treat. I was wondering, were you inspired at all by your own personal experience? I guess it’s an obvious question. You must be drawing from personal experience to be creating these very unusual characters.
RY: I’m definitely drawing from personal experiences. They’re not necessarily the experiences of my actual family. Thank god for my real family when they watch this show they can tell it’s not them so they can watch it with a clear enough conscience. There’s the conversation that we have about Trump in our Egypt episode. We went to Cairo. We were there for a month and we shot our last two episodes of the season there. The essence of that conversation was a conversation I had with a cab driver in Cairo in August 2016 and he was kind of talking to me about certain feelings he had politically. I would hear the sentiment that he had said for the next couple years echoed throughout different people and it would always surprise me. For me, there’s just so many people I meet within my community and what’s amazing about my community that I love with Arabs and with Muslims is that they’re people of belief so when they really believe something, they don’t shy away from it. They tell you what they think. That really naturally ends up being funny because people are not trying to be vague about anything. They’re pretty defiant about what it is that’s on their mind, however way it’s going. So it really leads to the palate of the characters that we have in the show really being set in what they believe and that revolving around my character who is trying to figure out his own code and trying to figure out where he falls within all of this.
GD: The show is also sometimes quite politically incorrect, which, again, I can really appreciate ‘cause some shows perhaps don’t wanna go there for whatever reason. The uncle, as I mentioned, he’s an amazing, funny character but he’s really anti-Semitic. Young Ramy shares a meal with Osama bin Laden. There’s a lot of little things that happen in there that maybe some shows wouldn’t want to do and I’m wondering when you made the show, was there anything, in particular, you thought, “We might be going too far but let’s give it a shot anyway”?
RY: Yeah, for the record, the uncle is anti-Semitic; he’s also homophobic and racist. He’s definitely an equal opportunity hater across the board and isn’t afraid to express it. I think the operating principle for us was to not hide anything that felt authentic so I think when we say “politically incorrect,” what we’re really saying is, “Something that you would usually hide.” The things we show might be politically incorrect but they are not fabrications. They are not incorrect in terms of being things that exist within the palate of a family. Like you said, it’s not just an Arab Muslim family. It’s quite algebraic. If you have a Jewish family, you have that same uncle. He just says those things about Muslims. If you’re part of a white family, you have that same uncle and he probably doesn’t think the KKK was that bad and you hear the person say that and the way that that ripples in a family when a person’s rich and is maybe supporting other people there, the silence that comes with that says a lot about where we are and why we are where we are. So again, for a show that maybe mentions Trump once, that uncle is Trump. That uncle is the person who freewheelingly says things but continues to exist because of the influence he has financially and monetarily and how we as communities even on a small level continue to hold these people up and not challenge them. So it was important to introduce him, to introduce other things and start planting the seeds for the Ramy character so that as we grow the show over a couple seasons, we can kind of understand, “How is his gonna deal with this? How are we gonna get some clarity on what’s going on there and why is that going on?” It was important to embrace the format of TV and not necessarily allow that character to get his karma immediately. I think there’s this natural want of, “Oh my god, he said something anti-Semitic. He better be in handcuffs by the end of that episode.” We wanna see justice happen right away but that’s just not real life. It’s not how things play out. For me as a creator, I’m nervous about every minute of this show before it comes out. That ends up being a good feeling, I think. That’s something that I talked a lot about with my co-creators, Ari [Katcher] and Ryan [Welch] and Jerrod [Carmichael]. We talked a lot about how if we’re not feeling nervous about something, it’s probably not the right thing to do. For me, as being someone who’s really plugged into the Arab Muslim community, I have this natural feeling of wanting to protect our community because I care about it but really, as we made this and I conferred with my producers and we kept pushing forward and forward, every time I’d have an idea, it would start with, “Oh man, I really shouldn’t do this but imagine I did.” That would be the thing. We’d have to do it. We’d have to go there because it’s important. That feeling really comes from revealing the thing that is usually hidden. That’s probably the only responsibility television has is to reveal the hidden, not to be politically correct.
GD: Yeah, 100%. Now that the show’s been out for a while, the reaction’s been so positive. If you look online at some of the critical response and the reviews and feedback, it’s overwhelmingly positive. Firstly, I would’ve expected it to be a little bit about bringing diversity to TV. That’s interesting but it goes way beyond that. They’re calling the show really smart. It’s original, it’s so funny and it’s actually quite heartbreaking in parts as well. What’s it like for you as a creator, as an artist, to be receiving such positive feedback about the show?
RY: There’s a level of it being overwhelming. I feel a lot of gratitude. You make something in a bubble for so long it’s kind of shocking when that bubble gets burst and you release the thing. For me as a performer, too, I’ve spent most of my career doing standup in rooms for a couple hundred people at most at a time so the level of exposure and the number of people that it’s reaching has been amazing. It’s really cool to feel that critical love and it’s also really cool to feel the criticism that comes from various communities. What’s happening with the show as well is there’s some of the branding of how it comes out in the press of saying this is an average Muslim family, which is a really tough thing to say because you would never say it about anything else. You wouldn’t say an average Christian family ‘cause it would be like, “Wait, what? What kind of Christian are they?” You wouldn’t say an average white family. The lumping of it, I think, creates its own dialogue because most Muslims in America are black and then there’s a huge subset that are South Asian and Arabs probably are even smaller. Without even looking at the statistics you just know that there are differences in the way that we’re going to be Muslim and the way that things are gonna happen. There’s been a lot of great discourse of people feeling, “Well, that’s not me.” I actually think that that’s encouraging for media and for television because I think it shows we were able to make a first season that I think shows positive encouragement for there to be multiple seasons. We can make 60 of these and it still wouldn’t touch as accurately as it could on a black Muslim’s experience, a South Asian Muslim’s experience, without them having their own show. A devout Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, she needs her own show. I think what has been to your early question about the level of specificity we put into it, I think that that actually can hopefully be expansive on an industry level to show that, no, there isn’t just one Muslim show, in the same way that I think we started to see that with there isn’t just one black show. I think you can really tap into that by watching something like our show. I hope it opens it up so all the discourse from the positive reviews to the people wanting more has all been really encouraging. It just means that it has hit an emotional core.
GD: Totally agree with that. Let’s hope that we get to see more and good luck with all the awards and accolades coming your way. Thank you so much for your time today, Ramy. We really appreciate it.
RY: Thank you. Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it.