Rolling Stone


The creator and star of Ramy opens up about family, growing up Muslim, and his upcoming stand-up special


IN STAND-UP comedy, silence typically equals death. You tell a joke and the audience laughs? Great. You tell a joke and they groan? Well, at least they were interested enough to respond. Tell a joke and … nothing? You may have lost the room altogether.

For Ramy Youssef, though, a joke greeted with silence allowed him to find his comedic voice, which has expanded beyond his stand-up to include creating and/or starring in a pair of acclaimed comedy series — Ramy on Hulu, Mo on Netflix — a juicy supporting role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, and an upcoming comedy special based on his current More Feelings tour.

Youssef’s early stand-up act was basic stuff. “I talked about dating a lot,” he says in a Brooklyn coffee shop on a frigid January morning. In time, though, he began delving more deeply into his life as the child of Egyptian immigrants, and, especially, about being a practicing Muslim.

“I remember doing this one set at a bar,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I’ve been fasting for Ramadan. I do it because I actually believe in it.’ And there was silence. Then I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interestin­g.’ It was a type of silence where I was like, ‘Did I just say something edgy?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. This is what I’ve been trying to get at.’ ”

As his act evolved, he figured it out. He developed a bit about how the hardest part of being Muslim is that you go to mosque on Fridays, before the weekend, whereas Christians don’t have to go to church until after they’ve partied: “It’s such a worse position to have to pre-apologize. It feels so much nicer to do it and then say ‘Sorry.’ ” As the routine began to connect with the audience, he felt emboldened, “because this is fully me, but it’s also in reference to the culture that I’m surrounded by.”

By the time Youssef did a set on The

Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2017, he had grown so confident in the material

about his faith that he was willing to take a stand for it. In a couple of recent stage performanc­es, he had closed his act by saying, “I’m not trying to be preachy,

I’m really not. All I’m trying to say is, just submit to Islam, because it’s the truth. And that’s the only way you’ll be saved. Seriously!” Both times, it got huge laughs. But Youssef says the Late Show producers were so nervous about the joke that they told him, “If you fight us on this, we’re not going to let you do the set.” He pushed for a compromise: He would close with “Submit to Islam,” and if they still felt uncomforta­ble, they could edit it out of the aired version. Instead, it killed.

Growing up in northern New Jersey, Youssef, 32, didn’t envision a future in comedy. “I never had this larger ambition, because I didn’t even think it was feasible. It didn’t feel real.” Though the Arab American Comedy Festival and Axis of Evil Comedy Tour both began picking up notice when Youssef was a teenager, there wasn’t a long list of famous Muslim comics.

By the time he was in college, the idea of performing had taken root. He dropped out of school and improbably landed a role on See Dad Run, a Nick at Nite sitcom starring Scott Baio, four years before the Happy Days alum became one of the highest-profile Trump supporters in the entertainm­ent industry.

As he is onstage, Youssef is softspoken, upbeat, and empathetic in person, always looking for the good in people and situations. With half of his extended family living in America and half in the Middle East, “every opinion that exists on Earth is in my family.” So he was raised on the idea of loving people even when you vehemently disagree with them. Here was Baio, who was espousing beliefs diametrica­lly opposed to Youssef’s, but who was also pushing for the See Dad Run writers to give his young co-star better material. “I was just like, ‘Oh, yeah. You care about other humans when you’re in front of them.’ And then there’s this whole other part, the public piece, that might look like it’s in conflict with that.”

See Dad Run also introduced him to comedian Mark Curry, who invited Youssef to open for him on tour. Even though Axis of Evil and other Arab comics like Mo star Mo Amer had been out there for a few years, Youssef entered a stand-up world that still seemed confused by his existence. “There was this thing of, on a baseline level, ‘Wait, do Muslims laugh? Do they condone comedy?’ That’s how in the gutter some of it was.”

In addition to providing new career opportunit­ies, stand-up became cathartic for Youssef, who eventually used his time onstage to talk about what it was like to be Muslim in America, living only miles from Ground Zero, in the months and years after 9/11.

“I don’t even know that I fully realized how it affected my psychology, being

11, 12 around that period,” he admits. “It took me a really long time to say, ‘Oh, wait.…’ To cope, I tried to downplay it.

But it affected every single thing my parents did. Every decision they made.” Though Youssef was never the victim of hate crimes, he felt the world looking at him differentl­y for a long time after the Twin Towers fell. He eventually turned this into material in his act, as well as on

Ramy, which devoted an early episode to a young version of the fictionali­zed Ramy Hassan imagining a conversati­on with Osama bin Laden.

He tried turning the anti-Muslim sentiment to his profession­al advantage, auditionin­g early in his career for the kind of terrorist roles that had become ubiquitous over the previous decade. He didn’t get them — “They would go, ‘Oh, you’re not scary enough’” — which was a relief in hindsight. The day before our conversati­on, he was at Madison Square Garden to watch the Knicks beat the Minnesota Timberwolv­es, and ran into Jon Stewart, whose work on The Daily

Show in the 2000s had meant so much to him during such a difficult time.

“I had this moment with him where I was like, ‘Dude, what you did with news — I remember being in high school and just watching so much of who we were get pummeled.’ And then you watch Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. You are shining a light on this thing that feels so dark.’ It was so cool to say that to him.”

If 2017 was a pivotal profession­al year for Youssef, 2019 was when his career exploded. In April, Hulu premiered Ramy, which Youssef co-created and based on his own life and struggles. In June, HBO released Ramy Youssef: Feelings, an intimate comedy special shot by Ramy director (and future The Bear creator) Christophe­r Storer. There’s some overlap between the two — in Feelings, Youssef argues that it’s OK to be attracted to your cousins, while on the series, Ramy begins actively flirting with a cousin on a trip to Egypt — and the one-two punch dramatical­ly raised Youssef’s public profile.

Just as non-Jews everywhere know what “mazel tov!” means, Youssef had long believed that “inshallah,” “haram,” and “halal” should be part of the non-Muslim vernacular. As the Hulu show took off, two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali called Youssef to personally thank him for a Season One Ramy episode that discussed how to figure out when Eid happens — a subject that had caused problems in the past when Ali’s agents tried booking him for work around Ramadan. “He was like, ‘Dude, you made it easier to explain the end of Ramadan to my people at WME. Thank you.’” Seizing on the connection, Youssef persuaded

Ali to guest star throughout the second season as a sheikh who mentors Ramy Hassan, and even marries Ramy to his daughter, only for Ramy to ruin everything by sleeping with his Egyptian cousin right before the wedding.

If there’s one regret Youssef has about the Hulu show, it’s that he named it, and the character, after himself, inspiring people to confuse him with the guy he’s playing. The real Ramy says he’s much better at learning lessons and sticking with them, whereas the TV version keeps making the same mistakes and hurting people along the way. Before the series premiered, he refused to show or tell his parents anything about it, because “I wanted to give them plausible deniabilit­y” when friends asked about the many bad things Ramy Hassan did. After they watched it for the first time, he was finally able to have a series of deep conversati­ons with them about the show, his beliefs and actions in real life, and more.

This led to “my arrival into a full adult relationsh­ip with my parents,” whom he describes as “my best friends now.” Much of the new special, he says, will be about that shift between the three of them.

The third season, which began streaming in the fall of 2022, features a darkly hilarious episode in which Ramy visits Israel on business and gets himself into a series of escalating calamities that somehow culminate in him helping the Israeli Defense Forces arrest a Palestinia­n boy. Logistical­ly, it would be impossible to make such an episode now, in the midst of so much bloodshed in the region. Even the idea of wringing laughs out of conflict between Israelis and Palestinia­ns seems far more daunting than it did two years ago. But Youssef, ever an optimist, sees a tiny silver lining.

“I’ve been working on a lot of different versions of the [new] set over the last two, three years,” he says. “And what’s interestin­g is how much it was already discussing a lot of this stuff, through a very personal lens. There was probably a small bridge that I was building to bring people into certain things. In a way, I almost don’t need that bridge anymore, because everyone’s in on it, and there is an immediate recognitio­n of the moment that we’re in. And so for me, it is the tightest tightrope I’ve walked. And it also feels like one of the few things that I can actually contribute in such a helpless situation.”

That level of earnestnes­s must have spoken to Lanthimos when he hired Youssef to play Max McCandles, the naive doctor tasked with observing the evolution of Emma Stone’s Frankenste­inesque Bella Baxter, in Poor Things. As someone who has tried to direct more and more episodes of Ramy (and even

The Bear) as his career has evolved, he was thrilled to work for a directing idol of his.

Youssef delayed the filming of Ramy’s third season so he could do Poor Things.

Netflix already announced that Mo —a more overtly political show, with Mo

Amer as an undocument­ed immigrant — will end with its upcoming second season. Though a fourth season of Ramy has yet to be ordered as of press time, Youssef says he’s talked with Hulu about the idea of taking a long break, then returning to depict Ramy Hassan in a new stage of his life. “It’s definitely not over,” he insists.

In Feelings, Youssef jokes, “Nobody wants you to be that Muslim. Everyone just wants you to have, like, a good hummus recipe. Like, they wanna know about baba ganoush, not Allah.” The past five years of his career have proved otherwise.

During the early days of Covid, he was invited to go on an outdoor walk with his boss of bosses, Disney chairman Bob Iger, who was impressed with Ramy.

“He goes, ‘It’s really interestin­g. Your character actually wants to be religious. And when I was watching your show, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before, because it’s right under our nose. But it’s like you flipped it.’ He really understood why the show worked. I think that it actually does connect with everybody. And I think that everyone who finds the show feels that.”


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