The year is only six months old, but it has already been an unqualified success for comedian Ramy Youssef. In April, Youssef debuted Ramy on Hulu, a 10-episode comedy loosely based on his own experience of being Egyptian-American and Muslim living in New Jersey. Then on Saturday, Youssef's first HBO special, Feeelings, will make its debut. Next month, Ramy and Youssef could score some Emmys recognition as well; according to the experts at awards prognostication site Gold Derby, Youssef could land among the best comedy actor contenders when nominations are unveiled in July.
Youssef's enviable 2019 also marks a shift in television representation. Ramy deals with the mundanities of everyday life for young Muslim Americans — and while the Hulu show doesn't shy away from the often fraught politics of this modern era, it also isn't bogged down in heated debate. As Youssef explained to TV Guide, "When I started stand-up, I would do political jokes and stuff. It was a thing that I felt I'd talk about. I felt like so much of my life since I was young had been defined by politics. With stand-up, I really found a groove of being able to take those things and really speak about them from a really personal, everyday place. I knew that taking that to the screen and putting that in the context of a family could be humanizing in a way that we haven't been before."
Ramy, the character, grapples with wanting to be a devout Muslim, refraining from drinking or using drugs and praying multiple times a day — all while still being as horny as a preteen boy who just discovered porn. Youssef often uses that sex drive to delineate Ramy's struggles with how he fits in within what's expected of Muslim men. While explaining why he believes in God, Ramy says, "One time this girl texted me two minutes after I jerked off to her Facebook photo. We didn't talk for months, and then out of nowhere, she texted me, 'Sup?'" It's hilarious and inappropriate, but it also feels real. That scene pulls from one of Youssef's most recognizable stand-up jokes and transforms it into a compelling moment where Ramy is questioning whether he'd still be considered a "good Muslim" if he doesn't follow all the rules.
"The show is meant to be really expansive of those small thoughts that happen through stand-up," said Youssef. "The whole point of stand-up is how do you, in the shortest amount possible say the most. And then you get to make the show, and kind of talk about all of these mechanisms, and all of the thoughts that went into that one line, or that one joke, and you get to expand it. That exercise has been really exciting to be ... You have more real estate to really get into it and to say things through other characters. Stand-up is very much like you interrogating yourself. But then the show gets to be everyone, all the characters get to interrogate you, which is really exciting."
Like many other comedians who've created fictionalized versions of themselves for their shows, Youssef's Ramy is a complex, flawed character who doesn't always behave in a heroic fashion. He desperately wants to do the right thing but flounders, often acting selfishly. This is something Youssef wants to explore further in the next season. "In so many ways it's that we've barely scratched the surface," he noted. "There are so many conversations, and layers, and continuing to kind of go at his ego. I mean, and that's a big thing. A big concept in Islam is nafs, which translates to the ego. And how that's in your way of connecting not only with God but with those around you. And so, so much of the work we try to do in so much of our life is hopefully, if lived in earnest, is to strip away that ego, and to strip away at that barrier between you and those around you, and you and your spirituality."
Youssef added that part of the process of stripping away his ego involves having characters call him out on his crappy behavior. This includes Nour (Dina Shihabi), a Muslim woman with whom he's set up during the pilot. After a great first date, Nour hopes to hook-up with Ramy, but he rejects her. "I'm like in this little Muslim box in your head, and I'm the wife, or the mother of your kids, right?" she says. It becomes one of the most profound moments of the series, making Ramy question how he views the women in his life.
Ramy also has his Egyptian cousin Shadi (Shadi Alfons) call him out at a party for taking a trip to Egypt and trying to find himself spiritually, while everyone's struggling with the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, where millions called to overthrow corrupt president Hosni Mubarak. "We're not trying to create in the one year that he is a hero. We're trying to really examine intentions and actions, and the power of that through the character of Ramy," Youssef explained.
This is something Youssef intends to do in the second season, too. "I think we're going to see Ramy at some of his lowest lows, and see him kind of try to figure things out, and see him face some consequences for the way that he's been," he said. "We're just going to see him really challenged in a way that I think is going to be again, a really exciting way of looking at how to strip his ego away, and how to really get at what he wants."
In the process of creating Ramy, the character, Youssef also learned a lot about himself, going through a similar experience as his fictionalized self. "I think the thing that surprised me was just looking at much anxiety that I've had that was kind of my own doing," he admitted. "I figured that out through the character when you set up other characters around it. You kind of realize how much of your anxiety, and how much of your ... The roadblocks to your own heart, and your own emotions, and your own feelings are kind of wall that you put up for yourself. And how much we can even stereotype ourselves, and we can kind of do that to our own people."
Youssef explores those feelings further in the aforementioned HBO special, airing on June 29. Aptly titled Feelings, the special — which was written before Ramy but filmed three weeks after the show made its streaming debut — feels like a companion piece, expanding on many of the themes from Ramy. And yes, it's extremely horny, as Youssef talks about waiting till an appropriate hour to like someone's pics as to not seem that thirsty and only watching porn where he thinks the porn stars are in love because he believes in God. There's also a nearly 10-minute explanation of why he thinks everyone should be allowed to bone their cousins. But Feelings also dives deeper into how Youssef processed many of the stories his fictionalized self-experienced.
"The on-screen me is kind of like an alternate reality version of myself. I mean, there's definitely a lot of similarities, but a lot of differences, and I feel like he's more stunted, kind of for purposes of the show. He is very washed in a way that sometimes I ask for moments, but I think he is for much longer. So, it's all emotionally true," he explained.
He added, "The same thing goes for the stand-up, it's not all factually. But it's a lot of things that I feel, and that to me is the most important thing. That's why I called the special Feelings, because that's what it's about. It's really just the emotional conversation that I'm having with myself."
Ramy is now streaming on Hulu.