One of last year’s best new series was Ramy, which creator/star Ramy Youssef based on his life as part of an Arab-Muslim family living in New Jersey. While Ramy was a critical success, the Hulu comedy—which is TV’s first scripted show to center on a Muslim-American family—didn’t really break through until January’s Golden Globes. That night, Youssef was the unexpected winner of best actor in a TV musical or comedy series, over bigger names like Michael Douglas (from Netflix’s The Kominsky Method) and Bill Hader (HBO’s Barry).
The audience was surprised, but quickly charmed by the comedian’s acceptance speech. “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show,” said Youssef, to huge laughs. “Everyone’s like, is this an editor?” Looking back on his big win five months later, Youssef tells nitronet, “I guess it was a reverse psychology kind of thing, because a lot of people then started to watch it.”
Now even more people are watching Ramy following the recent release of Season 2, which adds two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Sheikh Ali, a Sufi leader who helps mentor Youssef’s TV alter ego. Like the first season, the new Ramy episodes constantly keep viewers guessing, from a bachelor party that veers in a wholly unexpected direction to an excruciating event that could derail his mother’s efforts to become a U.S. citizen.
Youssef’s expertise in delivering the unexpected was also on display in last year’s HBO standup special Feelings, which mined humor in hot-button topics like #MeToo, 9/11 and last year’s New Zealand mosque shootings. He talked with nitronet about his creative approach, subverting expectations and how he might incorporate the pandemic into his show.
Illustration: Kacy Burdette, Trent Joaquin; Original photo: Ramy Youssef
(Editor’s note: The interview was conducted prior to the nationwide protests prompted by the tragic death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Youssef has encouraged his followers on social media to donate to local bail funds and other social justice organizations supporting Black Lives Matter.)
nitronet: You had never created a TV show before Ramy, so what made you think you could pull this off?
Youssef: I moved to L.A. in 2012 and was on a family sitcom on Nick at Nite [titled See Dad Run]. I really enjoyed it, but I also knew I didn’t move across the country to only do that. I was like, I really want to figure out how to put a real Muslim character on-screen, one that I could identify with.
It’s all small steps. I had been making stuff since I was like 15. I learned how to video edit, I bought my own cameras and I was doing all of that. So much of it is like, you try a joke at an open mic and then three years later you’re telling the same joke in front of thousands of people in a huge place. Yeah, I hadn’t made a show, but I had made so many small things, and it scales. It’s scary how well it can scale if you’re clear on what it is that you want to do.
Much has been made, deservedly so, about how groundbreaking Ramy is as the first scripted series to focus on a Muslim family, but perhaps the even more revolutionary part of the show is that it’s about a character in his 20s exploring his or her faith, period.
It’s interesting—we didn’t pitch the faith part as much during the pitch [to networks]. I’m not going to say I had this super master plan, but I knew I wanted it to be an element. It’s certainly not what we led with, but I remember very clearly having this conversation with Jerrod [Carmichael, one of Ramy’s executive producers] at the time where I was like, I really want to see the relationship I have with God on-screen. I don’t want it to be cheesy, I don’t want it to be angels in heaven, I don’t want to be a cartoon—I really want it to feel real, and I want to crack that.