Ramy Youssef Is Keeping The Faith
Six months ago you’d have been forgiven for not having heard of Ramy Youssef. Sure, he had appeared on America's late night talk-shows with a tight five centered on his faith as a Muslim, and sure, he was the writer and star of a self-titled show on Hulu, but he hadn’t yet completed his entrance into the wider public consciousness.
Then, in January, he won Best Comedy Actor at the 2020 Golden Globes – his stock began rising faster than Zoom’s.
At the time, more than a few expressed surprised that he’d bagged the award – besting Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd in the process. (“Surprise!” read the LA Times headline). Not because his performance and the show isn’t great (it is, more on this in a second) but because as, Youssef said at the time, “I know you guys haven’t seen my show. We made a very specific show about an Arab Muslim family living in New Jersey, and this means a lot to be recognised on this level.”
Youssef is right, of course: his show is a very specific look at an Arab Muslim family, but you could preface ‘specific’ with all sorts of other adjectives. Funny, cool, sweet, honest, relatable. And it’s the drilling down, the minutiae, the acute observation, that makes Ramy laugh-out-loud funny. Season one’s riff on Princess Diana was a particular highlight.
“Egyptians love Princess Diana, they're just like extremely obsessed with her,” says Youssef, when we speak to him (via Zoom, naturally) late one Saturday evening in early June. “I would go to my aunt's house – she had a mug with Princess Diana's face on it.”
Now that it has returned for a second season, with a Golden Globe-winning lead and a cast that includes Mahershala Ali, you could add ‘acclaimed’ to that list of adjectives, too.
“It [Ramy] did stick out in the platform of shows, when there's no celebrities on it,” says Youssef, talking about the effect of his Golden Globe win. “Season two, obviously, we have Mahershala Ali which is amazing, but season one certainly we didn't. And it was really cool to get recognised on that level because it made the show something that people felt like, ‘I probably should watch this.’”
And watch it they have. The show has now been picked up worldwide, and in the Middle East by OSN. Rolla Karam, OSN’s Head of Arabic programming calls Ramy season one, “a huge success.” And expects the same for season two.
So far, the signs look good. After the second season was released in May, Ramy began trending on Twitter in Egypt for several days.
“People were just really excited,” says Youssef, “feeling like they're connecting to the characters and seeing things that they didn't think they would be seeing, because there are so few shows that talk about being Muslim in an open way. There are definitely a lot of people who wish it was a different way or wanted different representation or want their experience represented. And so there's definitely like a healthy amount of controversy.”
Ramy’s dramatic tension comes from the pull between its lead wanting to be a good Muslim, and his circumstances. He lives in a place and is part of a generation for whom religion has less and less significance.
“I think a lot of what we see, especially in Western media, is just a straight up rejection of faith,” Youssef says. “We didn't want this story to be about that, we wanted it to be about the real struggle and the real conversations that people have.”
Ramy's first season presented moral conundrums: decisions to be made between what is objectively right, and what might feel good in the moment. Adultery, underage drinking, abdication of responsibility, sexism, race and family are all explored through Ramy’s actions.
Season two doubles down on that. It’s still snort-levels of funny, but the stakes feel higher this time around – exploring anti-Muslim sentiment in New Jersey and the consequences of the Iraq War. Through it all, Youssef remains crystal clear about the intentions of the show.
“I don't want to be criticising the religion and I don't want to be criticising people. I want to be looking at my characters that I've created and interrogating them, really questioning them. So, my line is, ‘I never want to be me making fun of other people – I mostly keep that to making fun of the Ramy character.’”
It feels like a good time to reiterate that Ramy is a comedy first, and alongside the show’s challenging narratives and dramatic punches, there’s a lightness of touch – a hint of the surreal. From sharing a toilet with a senile old man and a handgun, to a game of archery with a sheikh – via a blush-inducing conversation with Mia Khalifa (playing herself) – season two might have more star power, but it’s the writing that makes it what it is.
“I think what's interesting for me," Youssef says, as our call draws to a close, “is getting to see people deal with the real issues that they do have to deal with – while trying to maintain their faith.”
We couldn't agree more, Ramy.