BY: DANIELLE TURCHIANO
After years of standing on-stage as a comic and appearing on-screen in such scripted series as “See Dad Run” and “Mr. Robot,” Ramy Youssef has combined both sides of his artistry for a self-titled streaming comedy.
Youssef created, stars in and also directed an episode of “Ramy,” centered on life as a Muslim man trying to navigate his faith, family, friends and dating. Although episodes of the series will switch perspective later in the season to allow insight into key players in his character’s life, such as his mother and sister, the majority of the show comes from Youssef’s point of view.
“It makes me nervous, but I think it should,” he says of coming from such a personal place. “I think if you feel comfortable with what you’re putting out there fully there’s probably a problem. I think there should be a level of, ‘I can’t believe people are going to find this out.’”
Youssef is no stranger to these feelings, having experienced them when he first started doing stand-up as well. “And so much of our culture — Arab culture — is ‘What are people going to think?’” he adds. But he pushes past that because he wants to offer his community a chance to “discuss things more openly and more honestly.”
In that vein, he calls his show “more engaging than escapist” because he is focused on showing realities, even when they’re not neat and pretty. Sometimes this comes out through characters who don’t care about being politically correct, while other times it’s by showing feelings of guilt or insecurity over contradictions in his characters’ own behavior.
“A lot of our art is us apologizing or showing we’re not terrorists,” Youssef says of being Muslim in the entertainment industry. “If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re not getting that [here]. I think what’s happening in a lot of television is that there’s a sense of social justice and you watch a show that’s [about] how the world should be [but] I don’t think my show is how the world should be; it’s how it is.”
Youssef says he approached the show as if the first season was the only one he may get a chance to make, so he wanted to fill it with as many of the things he had to say as possible. This is where switching perspectives comes in, but it is also a way to tap into commentary about “Trump or how unstable things are globally [such as with] global warming, the financial crunch, the job market and other massive anxieties that sit on the mind of humanity right now.”
“I was reading a book on meditation that said you should try to meditate between three and five times a day, and yeah, that’s what Muslims say. I think we’re really converging in similar ways,” he says. “With this story we’re looking at it from one of the traditional monotheistic faiths.”
This was Youssef’s first time creating a series, let alone being in a writers’ room. But he was hardly alone in that novice status. The room was staffed, by design, he says, with “top to bottom first-time television writers” with the exception of showrunner Bridget Bedard (“Transparent”).
“Ramy really knows what the show is,” Bedard says. “I could bring my skill and then he could bring his skill and together it became a bigger thing.”
Much of the vision for the show, Youssef says, came simply from “knowing what I didn’t want.”
“You walk into the writers’ room after the pilot and all of these doors are open, and I was the quickest to close nine out of 10 of those doors,” he admits. “But when we’d find the thing [we all liked], then we’d all go nuts.”
He and Bedard also encouraged actors such as Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje, who Youssef has known for years, to put dialogue in their own words. “I want this to sound how you sound because that’s what’s going to make it feel real,” Youssef says he told them. “They have their own philosophies, but they can help push the tension that we’re talking about — this tension of holding on to the faith and culture, this tension of being in the present moment, doing what your desires want.”
This became especially imperative with the character of Steve (Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. Youssef calls Way his “best friend” and admits he relied on him to confirm the kinds of interactions his character should experience, including a tense scene in which Youssef’s character tells Steve’s mother her life “sucks” because she spends all of her time taking care of her son. For this one, Youssef says, Way told him they had to do it because of its honesty.
“I try to create situations that are based on exposing my actions, my own thoughts, and so we really try to delve into the insecurities, the guilt, all of those things, and really center it more around that,” he says. But in this particular case, he acknowledges, it was also about “respecting what a parent of someone who’s disabled goes through…so that we can see show them that we see them.”
Although the show is a comedy, Bedard says the stories are dramatically-driven in that they always “wanted to get behind the joke” to deliver something deeper than a laugh. “We’re not building it on a joke, the joke is just leading us,” she says. “It’s not escapist but it’s not heavy. You watch it and go, ‘Oh that’s me.’ And it’s funny and it’s validating in what it’s like to be a human on earth.”