Ramy Youssef is a 28-year-old stand-up comic with a new series on Hulu inspired by his own life, with characters based on his family and his real-life friends playing his character’s friends. We do not often see a Muslim character on screen unless he is playing an enemy combatant or a terrorist. And we almost never see characters of any faith who spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to believe. Ramy the title character, like the real-life Ramy, is a true, Ramadan-observing, mosque-praying believer who is struggling to figure out what it means to practice his faith from the question of how much washing is required before prayer to dating outside of the faith and how the faith should inform every day ethical dilemmas. Among the cast are Youssef’s friends and fellow stand-up comics Dave Merheje (playing Ahmed, a Canadian whose parents are Lebanese Christians) and Steve Way (playing Steve, a white American who has muscular dystrophy). They talked about religion, representation, and translating stories from the stage to a television format.
Ramy seems to spend a lot of time trying to decide what it means to be a good person. What does that mean to him?
RAMY YOUSSEF: He thinks it's someone who lives up to their potential and lives up to their ideals and their values. I think he believes in his religion and so he has these values of how he should be behaving and the way that he should operate. And he spends a lot of time negotiating what he believes versus what he actually does, and he kind of lives in this space between his ideals and his reality.
That's somewhere a lot of people find themselves. I mean, he has this idea that fasting for Ramadan will be the right move for him for clarity, and to get to a place where he can be that version of himself that he wants to be. And we see him fail in the same way that someone who starts their day with a workout and a green juice can find themselves at 2 a.m. at the McDonald's drive-thru. We have these things that we try to live up to that we want for ourselves, and I think Ramy feels that he wants that for himself and he wants that for his life.
Some of the material in the series comes from your act. How do you develop it from standing behind a microphone on stage to a fully-dramatized story?
RY: Well the difference is the laugh comes years later. I mean we have been working on this show for two years and so there is this delay, the format of not being in the room with your audience. What we do a lot with this show is test out the premises on stage. I will be thinking about something for the show and then I would say, “Okay, cool, I will go to the Improv that night and try it out,” and I come back and be like, “All right, I have got more dialogue for the show. I was riffing on this thing and this is where we are at, or that premise we might not be able to go with that.” So you really you use stand up as a test tube for what shows up in the show.
So much of the stand-up that I try to do is self-reflective, so you almost feel like a lot of time you are interrogating yourself on stage. Like “Why did I do that?” And in the TV show your friends get to say that. The interrogation escapes just this small space that's in my head and it goes to the characters around me.
So in the show it's really exciting that Ramy doesn't really have a code that he follows yet. He has what he believes but he doesn't really stick to his own rules. Everyone around him has their thing. I mean there is the Mo character who has pretty much created a justification for everything, but he at least feels settled. And there is the Ahmed character who is on the straight and narrow and he feels happy doing that.
There is this Steve character who is out to get his and doesn't really think there is anything else beyond this life to worry about. And so he has his code and he has his way of looking at things. So Ramy is surrounded by people who made strong choices and he's trying to make his own.
What does Steve think about Ramy? What does he want Ramy to do?
STEVE WAY: Steve thinks Ramy is full of shit. Steve gets frustrated because he sees that Ramy has his whole life in front of him, but he doesn't really fully grasp ... you know he has all of these opportunities to go out and enjoy the world and all of the vices that come with it, but he is too uptight or afraid and worried about following certain rules. Whereas Steve is very limited. He has never had any other kinds of options, he can't enjoy the same things that Ramy does or have those chances. Ramy does but Steve feels like he just throws that away.
What does representation mean to you in the context of this series?
DAVE MERHEJE: This character I feel does get a clear focus from his faith. I grew up around that so I admire that. So sometimes maybe someone is doubting that or feeling insecure about it, but they can see that on screen and be like, “That's what I really want to do.”
RY: The representation is tricky, because television by definition is a gaze. So even if you are writing from what is your experience by the time it reaches the screen it's been diluted. It's been turned into something that is built for ad breaks, so that's the reality of it.
But what we find I think is the ability to show people at their messiest in order to show their humanity. So for me representation is not about creating the world that you want; it's about showing the world that you are in as accurately as possible and allowing to dig into the subconscious. And so much of what we try to do on this show is just show relationships and dynamics that feel real to us, and then explore things that feel a little bit more abstract or a little bit more open or emotional.
SW: I am so lucky and honored to have been able to play this role. I know it's kind of funny to say that because I play myself and the character was written for me. But to have the opportunity just to be on television now is massive. It’s not too often people like me are played by people who look like me. And the stories are not written by people who have lived what we lived.
So to be able to do all of that—they really took a chance on me because I have encountered people higher up who have said, “We don't know if Steve can do a show, we don't know if he has the stamina, and we don't know if he's good enough.” Many times I have gone into a casting room and the casting director wrote me off before I even read my lines, so to be able to do all of this is so important for the disabled community, and I think diversity as a whole.
People have already messaged me to tell me how refreshing it is to see that on television, to know that what they are seeing is actually authentic and a fair representation of our lives.
I was excited to see Haim Abbass play your mother because I am a huge fan and because you created a role for her that has substance and depth.
RY: I feel this amazing connection with her. We truly do have like a mother son energy like on screen. She is so present and when I am with her, the second we get in front of the camera she really takes me to a different place and I always feel like a better performer when I am in a scene with her, because she really demands that of you. So in many ways I would say in the way that a mom can be the anchor of a family, she is an anchor of this show. There is so much that really sits in her performance and in her integrity.
What do you want people to take away from this show?
DM: You see some ugly and you see some good and I think that's great. That's how the world is. It's like everyone is trying to hide everything, but Ramy doesn't hide anything; he exposes it, I think that's a great part of it.
Will Ramy continue to explore the difference between religious practice of prayers and rituals and putting faith to work in real-life situations?
RY: That struggle will continue but it will evolve a little bit, and I think we will see Ramy make some more concrete choices. I think at a certain point he has got to make a decision one way or another, and I think we will see that romantically but we will also see that in the way that he practices and see how those things come together for him.
And so really again exploring the space of what you believe and what you actually do has always been my goal, because I have always felt so much so much of what I have seen in media was watching somebody completely trying to erase everything about themselves, about where they came from and trying to create these distances between these oppressive parents. And I really don't want anything in this show to feel like anyone is oppressed or anything is being pressed on anyone. It is everyone who is trying to figure out their own intentions, and how to be good in their own way and what they have set out for themselves. And so continuing that and seeing that tested in more ways—I think there is a lot to get into.