The American Muslim Life of Ramy Youssef
At the 2020 Golden Globes, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon presented the award for best actor in a musical or comedy television series. As Aniston opened the envelope to read the name of the winner, she visibly froze. Witherspoon, sensing what was happening, quickly jumped in to read the name for Aniston: “Ramy Youssef!” When Youssef arrived on stage to accept his award, for his appearance in his semi-autobiographical Hulu comedy “Ramy,” he told the audience with a smirk, “I know you haven’t seen my show.”
Ironically, it’s exactly this type of awkward friction that Youssef is prone to depict in “Ramy,” his cult auteur comedy that earned him a Peabody and two Emmy nominations. An Egyptian-American who grew up in New Jersey, Youssef cut his teeth as a comedian in his twenties, eventually filming an hour-long HBO special called “Feelings,” which was released in 2019. special, Youssef uses a mild-mannered affect like a Trojan horse for some provocative and disturbing insights into American Muslim identity and masculinity. (He has a recurring fascination with sexual tension between cousins, for example.)
Along with the indecent provocations in his work, Youssef examines what it means to be a practicing Muslim who is in a state of frequent negotiation with his own version of God. It’s a type of religious identity that’s rarely portrayed in film or TV, which is why “Ramy” felt so overwhelmingly fresh. In its first two seasons, for which Youssef co-wrote, direct, and produce, “Ramy” has consistently placed its main character in positions that compromise his faith: offering to help his disabled friend ejaculate, sleeping with an older married woman, cheating on his fiancée with his cousin. In the third season, which premiered on Hulu on September 30, the show moves away from Ramy and follows the stories of his Muslim American family and their struggles with assimilation. There’s a telling scene with Ramy’s parents, who are under financial duress, trying to sell their suburban home; their real estate broker clumsily advises them to remove certain Arab or Muslim relics from view to increase the sale value.
I recently met Youssef at his apartment in Brooklyn a few days after he returned from a trip to Egypt. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
This season takes “Ramy” to Jerusalem. Given the timeline of events between the last season and this one – the pandemic, the escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – when was this season written?
We broke the themes of the show starting in February 2021, with the intention of filming that summer. Then I booked a role in a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and at the same time I was doing the Mo Amer show and an animation show. We postponed filming for a few months, to last summer. I’m a big rewriter, so I’ll just change it up and see where it goes. The stand-up in me is not precious. I can say, “We wrote a thirty-page script, but my favorite part is pages 3 through 6. So let’s build around that and we’ll throw the rest away. It’s something I definitely do too close to production.
A sign of genius, for some.
Or a sign of delinquency. I don’t want to romanticize it. I would like to be much more organized.
Did the violence in this region at the end of last year intersect with the filming of the third season or the series itself?
It has changed a lot. Last summer, everything happening in Israel and Palestine became very public on Instagram. In the UK, conversations around Israel and Palestine are much more nuanced. People tend to know more. There is great Irish-Palestinian solidarity because of what the Irish have been through. In America, it’s a bit like this button that you don’t touch, or something that you don’t know. When we started writing [in February, 2021]it was kind of, like, “Whoa, we’re gonna hit that button.”
And how did things change once there?
During our first week of reconnaissance, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed. The impact of his passing was quite significant. It would be like something happened to Anderson Cooper. So that affected our shooting plans. We were going to go to the territories, and then we didn’t. We kept everything in Jerusalem and Haifa. His death was a really wild thing to be there for. These zones tend to fluctuate. Things are going well, things are not going well. We were probably in a peak red zone type situation there. We witnessed its wake as a crew. There are Americans in the crew. But it was mostly Muslims with Jews in a church in Jerusalem, in mourning.
Do you bother to hire Muslim and Arab crew members, in addition to casting Muslims and Arabs for roles on the show?
When we were in Jerusalem, we mainly had a Palestinian crew. And we worked with a Palestinian director, Annemarie Jacir. And then in the writing process, I think we have a very diverse room of writers. Jewish writers, Muslim writers. One of the guiding principles of setting up a writers room is a passage from Islamic tradition: “I have made you from different tribes so that you may know each other. In the writers’ room there will be something that Arabs and Muslims will know, and they won’t talk about it because it’s a fact. And then someone else will say, “Wait, I’ve never heard of that!” And then you find yourself explaining it in a way that you wouldn’t if everyone was the same.
Your show never gets preachy and you seem pretty opposed to any kind of big political statements. But with this season, given some Americans’ newfound interest in the plight of the Palestinians, have you been tempted to make a strong pro-Palestinian statement? Was there a push and pull in the development of this episode? How did you thread the needle?
My thought was this: this is a burning question not only of our time, but of the times that precede us. I was more interested in, “How does Ramy’s character get to Jerusalem, and somehow he’s the biggest asshole?” It was my thesis. How is there a unification in the sense that almost everyone on all sides is, like, “What’s going on with this guy?”
There’s a bit in your stand-up special about your dad working for a Trump hotel, and you grew up with a framed photo of your dad with Donald Trump in the house. You once said that your father hid this photo because he didn’t want you to continue using it in your material. Since the new season is so family-focused, what conversations do you have with your own family about what you can and can’t use in your work? Do you set conditions?
When I started the show, there was an initial shock of, “Oh, whoa, our son is on screen and he does all these things that we hope he doesn’t do in real life.” Then it kind of morphed into them being incredibly supportive. My relationship with my family has become even more intimate since the show. At first the show was closer to real life, but now the characters have taken on a life of their own. It’s only my family as far as it is a family.