For all the talk about how streaming has upended TV “monoculture,” no genre has benefited more from fractured audiences than comedy. In fact, it’s been the decade for comedians turned TV storytellers. At this point, if you walk into New York’s famed Comedy Cellar, you’ll probably walk out with a pilot commitment.
As these golden tickets keep being handed out, we continue to see new faces and loftier ambitions. There’s perhaps no better measure of progress to close out this decade of TV comedy than Hulu’s new comedy, Ramy, which follows a millennial Muslim American from New Jersey who gapples with maintaining his faith in an increasing secular world, while at the same time fully embracing the America was raised in.
Not only is the show groundbreaking for having an Muslim American family at its center, but as GQ put it in their feature on the show, it’s “upending the first generation narrative” by having its lead work so hard to both honor and challenge his culture and faith. It’s a show we wouldn’t have seen 15, 10, or maybe even 5 years ago on TV. But series creator and star Ramy Youssef is here now, and he wants to start a conversation that, for some, may be an uncomfortable one.
“I don’t think you should watch a TV show and 100 percent be onboard for every scene and every moment,” Youssef told Den of Geek before the SXSW world premiere of Ramy. “I think that you should have feelings about what’s happening. I’m excited for the conversations that come out of it.”
In our conversation about the series, which releases April 19th on Hulu, we spoke with Youssef about the pitching process for Ramy, how faith clashes with millennial culture, and infusing his stand-up set into the show.
Just to kick it off, the first time I became aware of you and the show was at Hulu’s 2018 upfront presentation at Madison Square Garden. Ramy was officially announced and you came out and did a bit on stage, which was hilarious. What was like moment like to have your first show announced, on that stage, in your hometown?
It was like a couple thousand people or something. I didn’t even realize it was going to be that big. I didn’t know until I was on stage and then I was like all right well, I’m here. This should be fun. And it was really cool. It was really cool to just kind of talk about the show and get to introduce it to a bunch of people. That was like a year ago now. And then now it’s actually coming out. So it’s really exciting.
During that presentation they trotted out Snoop Dogg, Shaq, and Ramy.
I didn’t even realize those were my peers. I mean, that’s amazing to know that I’m peers with Snoop. I mean, I’ve always felt it, but it’s good to have it verified.
Life as a Muslism American is central to the show and it also touches on a lot of topics dear to the hearts of millenials. How did you approaching balance those two aspects when breaking stories?
I think so much of it is the normal mix we all have between our family, our friends, our values, the things we’re trying to do, and then the moments that we’re faced with. So much of the show, and the same with stand up for me, is when I go back and forth from talking about the things that mean something to me. So being someone who comes from a Muslim family and that’s actually part of who I am and what I believe, that means a lot to me. And then being at a party or dating and all those things that also mean a lot to me, and it’s like how do you go back and forth from those and build that world?
We really wanted to make sure it was framed from the perspective of a Muslim family because that was the thing that we were like obviously it doesn’t exist yet. But how do you have that as the foundation but then really get into the things that everyone’s feeling and everyone’s talking about? It doesn’t feel limited.
We created a story about this family. So there’s two generations here in America. So many of the stories that are always seen were like you watch the first gen kids kind of be like ‘I won’t want to be like you, mom and dad. I want to do my own thing.’ It’s kind of like a fight. And that wasn’t really my experience. For me, it’s always been I want to be part of the culture, but I also want to be part of the American culture we were raised in. That was very much the focus that we started the series with. And then as we go through the series becomes about what you believe and what you actually do, and that space in between those things.
Stylistically, I thought back to episodes of Master of None and Atlanta when I was watching the show, in terms of how it’s shot and some of the stories you’re trying to tell. Where did you look for influence when creating the show?
I think there’s a lot of spiritual cousins in a sense of what’s happening with comedy. I think comedy is just a bit more grounded right now, which is really cool. That obviously had an impact, but I do think the kind of central character engine here was the thing where we were like we know we want to do this and play this differently.
We want to have people who are actually trying to integrate their culture into their life, characters who have faith but are struggling with it. Leading with the Muslim family unit as the central point of view is something that we were like okay cool we want to do this in a cinematic way. We want to do it in a grounded way. So it’s exciting to even be in the conversation as other grounded comedies.
Even with all the spiritual cousins on TV, it’s groundbreaking to have a show about faith with a Muslim family at the center. What was the pitch process like?
It was really exciting. So much of it was based on my stand up. I’ve been doing comedy in general probably for 10 years and so, so much of what is in the show is based off of what I do on stage. Almost every scene in our pilot comes from a stand up joke that I’ve had. When I started doing stand up I would do it at comedy clubs and then I would also do it at Muslim fundraisers to raise money for refugees, and raise money for good causes. Then you go do comedy and it’s like family friendly in front of people at a mosque and you’re like ‘okay, how do I tell a joke here?’ Getting to do those shows is such an amazing experience because you get to connect with your people and tell jokes to them.
I’ve done stand up in all these places. These are all really important parts of my life. What would it look like if we can kind of bring that together on screen and really show that and have that be the engine behind the show? And so that’s kind of what we took out and Hulu was really the spot that we felt like was going to help us take the risks and actually make the show.
Making a show takes so many steps. It’s a really amazing journey with them because they saw what we wanted to do and they were very upfront and down to take the risks. We know that we’re ready to cross certain lines that haven’t been crossed. We’re ready to show this as authentically as possible because we want to be a place that has that kind of comedy. It was kind of a no brainer for myself and for Jarrod [Carmichael], who produced with me. Jarrod had just been in the network system at NBC, and he was kind of like ‘oh, this could be fun.’ We can get to play a bit more.
Having recently gone through this process with his own star vehicle show on NBC, how did Jarrod Carmichael stepping into the producer role help you?
The best thing he’s done from the pitch to now was just helping the show be what it should be and really just letting me do my thing. Sometimes you have executive producers who are trying to put their own voice in. He’s had his own show. The voice of my show… there are similarities because we’re friends and we have a lot of sensibilities that we like, but it’s very different. I think what was really cool was him not pushing it to be like his thing, but identifying for me what I wanted to do, and then helping me push it in that direction to make it actually happen. And that’s what good producers do. We have a really good relationship.
The show’s not overtly political. Does grounding it in family situations and personal experiences ease people into breaking their preconceived notions about Muslim Americans?
Yeah, I hope so. It’s not about making political statements for me. Not only am I not a politician, I’m a comedian. Like I dropped out of college. This isn’t me telling you what the world should look like. This is just one point of view of many. And again, it’s just about messing with the context a little bit and finding pockets of something you didn’t know that you could feel, or you didn’t know could be funny. Grounding it in a place where it’s about personal responsibility. So it’s not about attacking politics or the president, and it’s not about attacking religion or culture. It’s about interrogating yourself. So the main focus of all these episodes, and of the show, is to be as introspective as possible. And I think that immediately makes it less of a statement. It’s just the questions that I ask of myself that I put into these stories.
What are some questions you ask in season one that you felt were important to explore?
I think so much of the statement of the show is really kind of trying to shift the context of the conversations that we’re having. So we’re having all these conversations about Muslims. We’re having conversations about sex. We’re having conversations about consent. These are really kind of like hot button things that people kind of come at from their stance, and I think so much of what we try to do as comedians is just mess with the stance. It’s not even like I want you to have a certain way to feel about it. I just want you to be less planted in your own stance and less planted in your own point of view. I don’t want to change it. It’s just can we look at it from a slightly different angle? And that was always kind of the goal.
You said a lot of your stand-up material goes into the show. Do you feel like you need to replenish your set after putting so much of your best stuff into the show?
It’s interesting because I’m about to tape my hour for HBO [in April]. I’m taping it and then that week also the show comes out. And so it is a lot of what I’ve been working on, but thankfully for 10 years I haven’t put anything out. Like I was someone who was only just working it out in stage. I was excited actually when we finished shooting the first season because there were a bunch of ideas where we really wanted to do that episode or we really wanted to do this thing. Hopefully we get to roll into a second season with a bunch of stuff that didn’t get to happen.
Ramy Season 1 releases on April 19th on Hulu. You can read our full spoiler-free review here.