Comedian Ramy Youssef On His Golden-Globe Winning Hulu Series 'Ramy'

May 29, 2020
Originally published on May 29, 2020 9:01 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Comedian Ramy Youssef has his own show. It is called "Ramy." The Hulu series, which won a Golden Globe earlier this year, is based on his own life growing up in an Arab Muslim family in New Jersey. But the Ramy we see on screen, well, his character is a much more oblivious, kind of blundering version of himself.

I mean, if you met your character in real life, do you think you two would hit it off well?

RAMY YOUSSEF: Probably not. I mean, (laughter) I think if we were just having, like, a chill movie night, I might be like, let's maybe not invite Ramy.

GREENE: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: Like, let's - we'll invite him to the next thing, you know?

GREENE: Yet, his character sits in a lot of confusion. He's trying to do the right thing, especially when it comes to religion. But he just keeps messing up. Here's a scene with his friend, Ahmed, who really says it best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

DAVE MERHEJE: (As Ahmed) Everything with you, dude. You're, like, the most emotional, extreme Muslim I've ever met. You're extreme with girls. It's like you're Ryan Gosling in a movie.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) Let's just stop talking about me. How are you?

MERHEJE: (As Ahmed) What?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) What's going on with you?

MERHEJE: (As Ahmed) You only ask when you want something. And when you ask right now, it's like you actually meant it. It was weird.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I did mean it, man. Seriously, how are you?

MERHEJE: (As Ahmed) No. I'm not ready to tell you.

GREENE: The show is as much comedy as it is drama thanks to the friends and family who surround him. It's now in its second season. And the storyline that Ramy continues to explore is based on his own, real-life faith.

The messiness and the confusion with faith - I mean, both personally with Ramy and with family - I mean, what did you, from your own life, bring to that that made it important to portray this in this way?

YOUSSEF: I always felt like the only messaging I was hearing around faith was, you need to be perfect or you can leave. And so many people in my life, really, had polarizing kind of opinions, where they're like, yeah, I'm a Christian. I'm a Muslim. I'm a Jew. And I'm - this is what I'm doing. And the other opposite would be like, man, all that God stuff is whatever. It's, like, outdated. It's illogical.

I always felt like myself and a couple core people in my life and people that I knew - and kind of the more I went on, I realized there was this middle. And it's not a middle of belief. It's actually, like, a really strong belief. And - but it was just, like, this, like, group of me and my friends who were like, all right. We're not going to have sex until we get married. And then one of us would or mess up and then, like, be embarrassed to tell the other one.

Then it's like, yeah, but I'm never going to do it again. It was just this, like, place that I was really striving for something. But I was also just, like, pulled by my desires and pulled by my ego in different directions. And I really wanted to represent that space because I felt like it was the realest space that any of us are in. We're all really struggling with who we want to be and where we actually are.

GREENE: It seems like you really like exploring gray areas in all aspects of life.

YOUSSEF: Yeah (laughter). Only.

GREENE: Only (laughter). What fascinates you so much about them?

YOUSSEF: From the position where I sit, it's the most comfortable position, actually. In a gray area, you don't have to provide an answer. And I don't want to. I don't want to make a comedy that's like, well, here's the answer. I don't want to make a comedy that's like, this is how to be a Muslim. I want to be in the gray. I want to be in the place where we don't know. And I think you get the most out of your characters there.

GREENE: I mean, I think about the scene with your sister in Season 2. Her car breaks down. She calls a tow truck. The driver, who is Mexican American, just starts spewing out these, I mean, really awful, racist remarks, saying she should look and act more American. It feels so uncomfortable. And, you know, I think we all look for some kind of lesson from moments like that. But maybe we shouldn't be. Maybe we should just experience it.

YOUSSEF: I mean, it's - if we're talking about a lesson, I guess, it's more like, this is something that, you know, you could experience just by the simplicity of making this spiritual choice, you know? She's not a character who wears a headscarf, but then she does for a day for certain circumstance. And then all of a sudden, that comes her way. If there's something to take away, it's not just the discomfort. But it's also just like, oh, wow, this is like - just with one simple thing, you know, you can totally be in a different reality.

GREENE: I think about scenes like that, you know, a deep dive into your sister's character. I mean, we really learned a lot about your mom in this season. And I know that there was some criticism from the first season suggesting that some of your female characters were not complex enough, I mean, that they fell flat. Did that strike a chord with you? And have you been trying to explore those characters more in the second season?

YOUSSEF: You know, yeah. There was some. But this is a show in which we're able to really deconstruct the image of an Arab man that people, really, just associate with, like, at this point, terrorism or something that's a problem. And I really think we do a really good job of showing the humanity. And I think we do the same with the female characters in the show. But I also do think that, like, it's really hard to do everything in one show, you know?

And you really need a show with an Arab woman because there are stories that are just so, so nuanced that, again, there are many different women who have different experiences. So from Season 1, there were a lot of Arab women who watched the episodes about Maysa and Dena who were just like, this is me. This is my mom. This is who I am. This is frustration I sit with. And then there's people, again, who are just like, not me. This isn't it. And so I think, too, like, television is at a place where we're all looking at our cognitive frames of, like, just how we all grew up.

And I think even female TV writers have grown up in such a male-heavy storytelling world that shows headed by women and written by women also receive that criticism, you know? So I think people are, like, in just, you know, women taking the right place in society. It's also figuring out, like, how to give them an equal space in media. And, like, we all kind of operate from our biases. So long answer, but it really is evolving.

GREENE: When you won a Golden Globe, a Golden Globe that a lot of people didn't expect you to win, critics called "Ramy" revolutionary. Do you see it that way?

YOUSSEF: (Laughter) I don't know, man. I love - we've gotten a lot of great support. And - but it's OK regardless of how it goes with how people write about the show. I feel like people would be surprised as to, like, what I actually think the importance of TV is. Like, I really don't think I'm, like, a frontline corona doctor. Like, to call a 25-minute comedy revolutionary, it feels a little bit of a stretch.

GREENE: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: But, you know, criticism over how some characters are portrayed or whatever - I'm like, OK, it's a TV show. Revolutionary - I'm like, come on, it's a TV show.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANY SHNODA FERQET MASR'S "LONGA 79")

GREENE: Well, Ramy, real pleasure - thanks so much for making the time for us.

YOUSSEF: Thanks, man. No, this was revolutionary.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well put.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANY SHNODA FERQET MASR'S "LONGA 79")

GREENE: That was Ramy Youssef, who writes and stars in the show "Ramy." Season 2 is out right now on Hulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.