It’s 30 minutes before Ramy Youssef is due to tell jokes about Jussie Smollett and porn in a gritty D.C. basement bar. But first he has to pray.
“Uh, ya know,” says Youssef, biting into a sandwich at a restaurant near his gig. “Like the show.”
The 28-year-old comedian is referring to Hulu’s “Ramy,” loosely based on his life as a Muslim, Egyptian American millennial. In the series, available since Friday, the titular character lives a life many experience but TV audiences rarely see, as a fictionalized Ramy navigates dating, his family’s expectations, dim job prospects and praying five times a day.
With a snapback atop his black curls and a Harvard sweatshirt (he went to Rutgers in Newark) over his slight build, Youssef laughs as he hustles back to his hotel. “There’s something about depicting prayer on the show where I’m like, man, I better do this in my real life, otherwise I’m gonna look like a f---ing sellout.”
The resulting 10 episodes — by turns messy, moving, cringeworthy and absurd — have caused Youssef to consider his habits more deeply, and he’s been losing sleep considering how everyone, his parents included, will react to the show. When he talks about the implications of his work, his voice becomes faster and more urgent than the one he uses onstage. “I don’t want to feel like I’m selling my faith, like it’s this thing that’s making me money or something — ”
He interrupts himself and starts over. “Praying, it’s a private act,” he says. “But I feel like talking about someone like me doing it, I’ve decided, is more important. It’s more important to talk about it and say it’s happening than to let it drift away and make it seem like it’s just some old thing that only some people do.”
“Ramy” feels fresh not just for its varied depictions of those belonging to an oft-maligned group — here’s a character exploring cultural and religious identities in pursuit of a closer connection to God rather than a total disavowal of his roots.
“I would watch stuff with children of Muslims, or immigrants in general, and it was always just kind of tearing away from the family unit and tearing away from the faith and the belief,” Youssef said. “What I would express in stand-up was actually more of a desire to synthesize those things and to keep it in my life. And so I knew I wanted to reflect that on screen.”
Comedians have increasingly gone the dramedy route with TV shows presenting their highly specific experiences and perspectives (see: Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari). “[‘Ramy’] could have been a straight-up romantic comedy, it could have been just about a lost millennial,” said showrunner Bridget Bedard, formerly of “Transparent.”
Bedard recalled when she first met Youssef. “The way that he saw the show being about a person really grappling with spirituality and God and his place in the world — I just had a lot more enthusiasm,” she said of why she joined the show. “It was just exciting to me that somebody is dealing with the issue of God and their spirituality in a way that’s very real and not kind of like, ‘Touched by an Angel.’ ”
Growing up in New Jersey with Egyptian parents, Youssef performed sketch comedy while studying political science and economics in college. He eventually left Rutgers, enrolled in acting school and nabbed recurring roles on “Mr. Robot” and the Scott Baio sitcom “See Dad Run” before starting stand-up in Los Angeles.
Then, during Ramadan about five years ago, he took to the stage tired after only having had water to break his day-long fast. He decided to talk about it with the audience. “There was this tension like, ‘Oh, wait, you do it?’ Because with church and comedy — when people say ‘church,’ it’s a punchline,” he said.
He began opening for Jerrod Carmichael (they met, of all places, at a roast of Justin Bieber), who had a TV show of his own. One “Carmichael Show” episode focused on perceptions of Muslims, and Carmichael remained interested in telling more stories centered on Muslims.
“It was a type of family and a type of person that we just felt like no one had really explored, especially the religious aspect of it,” said Carmichael, an executive producer on “Ramy.” “Religion is still kind of the lost frontier where people don’t really discuss it in popular culture in a meaningful way and talk about how much it means to them, because usually we only see the extreme examples, right? Like I’m Christian and to my L.A. friends, I might as well say I go to Westboro. Like you hear ‘Christian,’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not outside of abortion clinics with a sign, bro! I’m like, the chiller version of Christian.’ ”
That dynamic, Carmichael said, means entertainers don’t always allow religiosity to manifest in their work. “It was such a big part of who Ramy is that it just made sense for him, for that to be the center of this show,” he said. “Our earlier conversations were a lot about growing up and dealing with your lifestyle against your religious upbringing and where do you put it? How do you deal with those two things?”
The tension in walking a spiritual path while living in a secular world is seen throughout the series: Ramy wants to observe Ramadan, but he’s tempted by sex; his friend extols traditional courtship but drinks alcohol. No easy answers are provided. Peppered throughout are dark jokes about Islamophobic graffiti on his friend’s diner being good for business, and undercover agents surveilling the mosque (“The dude’s Dominican,” a character played by Mo Amer says of a purported agent. “FBI’s not even trying anymore”).
“This is not a program about learning about Islam or learning the essence of Islam. This is not a Quranic teaching,” Amer said in an interview. “You’re not going to watch this show and all of a sudden become a PhD in Islamic law or something.”
Instead, the series showcases the same kind of internal struggles everyone faces, but through Muslim and Arab characters. “There is something very humanizing about that experience,” Amer said.
Some of Youssef’s real life makes its way onto the show. Comedian and lifelong friend Steve Way, who has muscular dystrophy, plays a cantankerous pal who busts Ramy’s chops. An episode about 9/11 dramatizes an actual recurring nightmare Youssef had as a child. But the fictional Ramy is not a stand-up comic, the show’s parents aren’t like his real parents (otherwise “it’d probably be a little boring,” he says) and “the character in the show plays the fool more than Ramy as a person,” Bedard said.
“Ramy” also adds to the growing realistic portrayals of Muslim Americans on TV, according to Sue Obeidi, the Hollywood bureau director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which consults on various projects. “Up until a few years ago, we would see the same tropes: the Muslims are terrorists, they are gas station owners, the women are oppressed and have to obey their husbands,” she said. Obeidi attributes a shift away from that as part of Hollywood’s response to the fraught political environment — a desire to include more Muslim characters — as well as Muslims and people from immigrant communities rising in the entertainment industry ranks.
When a creator from an underrepresented group gets a platform, questions of artistic responsibility from within the community can bubble up. How realistic is this depiction? Does it put us in a good light? (Obeidi noted the criticism she heard about Ansari’s “Master of None” character, who ate pork during Ramadan.)
“There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. There is no one person or even a few people who can represent an entire community. They only represent their own experiences,” she said. “The answer to it is to get more authentic narratives out on the airwaves so that we have more representation.”
When Youssef first openly talked about being Muslim, he felt pressure to depict himself as “good and cool and smart.” Now, he’s more excited to be vulnerable, and less interested in doing a “PR job of proving our humanity.”
“That feels trope-y to me, to kind of be like, ‘Look at them! They also love their kids. They also struggle, too. Try to make ends meet,’ ” he said. “No, the way we’re similar is that we’re flawed in the same way. That’s what was more interesting to lead with . . . because that other stuff just feels like this sanitized commercial.”
The characters on “Ramy” are varied, nuanced and imperfect. Episodes focused on his sister Dena (May Calamawy) and his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), depict double standards and loneliness. Then there’s the uncle who the family is financially dependent on but who also spouts anti-Semitic theories about his Jewish customers.
“A lot of people watch the episode with the uncle and they’re like, I got an uncle just like that,” Youssef said. “I’m not even talking about Arabs, I’m talking about, insert person, change person’s race: ‘My Jewish uncle’s like that about Muslims’; ‘my Jamaican uncle’s like that about Puerto Ricans.’ How do we deal with this guy?”
So much of the show, from when the parents speak Arabic or English to how much to mention President Trump (hardly at all), are the result of thorough deliberations and conscious choices.
But weeks before the show’s premiere, Youssef was still reflecting on those choices. Before he headed to his hotel to grab a notebook for his D.C. gig and to pray, Youssef recalled a message he received when the trailer for “Ramy” first posted online. Someone accused him of “destroying the minds of Muslim youth.”
Speaking about it, he didn’t sound defensive or indignant. “I really hope I’m not. I really hope this is helping over hurting, that’s my intention,” he said. “My intention is not to make something that is a how-to guide of how to live.”
Besides, he’s still trying to figure that out.