Egyptian American millennial Ramy, played by comedian and show co-creator Ramy Youssef, is an Allah-fearing Arab, but not the sort viewers are used to seeing on their screens. He doesn’t come with decimated war-zone scenery, a dusty kifaya headscarf or a Kalashnikov.
Ramy is a shaggy, unsure 28-year-old in a baseball cap, rumpled T-shirt and jeans who still hasn’t kicked a childhood habit of smothering whatever’s on his plate with too much ketchup.
When he’s not searching for his next girlfriend or hanging out with his wheelchair-bound friend Steve (Steve Way), he’s looking for a comfortable spot between his parents’ old world (a pre-Arab Spring Egypt) and the new world in which he grew up and still lives (suburban New Jersey). The tension makes for some of the best culture-specific jokes — and universal situation comedy — around.
The 10-episode series, which employs Muslims and Arabs in front of and behind the cameras, premiered this month. It breaks ground like “Fresh Off the Boat” but with the raw, subculture-specific spirit of “Insecure” or “Master of None.”
During a recent interview in Los Angeles, Youssef says, “There’s this idea that when you say you’re Muslim, that you’re either all in or you’re trying to escape it. I love the idea of gradations and levels, just like everybody else has.”
It’s the kind of TV that was missing from his childhood.
“The stories I always see about a first-generation kid trying to erase where they came from, or trying to just be white, I would watch those shows or movies and I was like, ‘I don’t get this,’” Youssef says. “This isn’t how I feel. I really respect this culture and this faith, but I’m not perfect and I’m struggling. I’ve drawn my lines, and yeah, I cross them. The best jokes and stories come from that conflict and guilt, and I’ve never seen that talked about on TV.”
“Ramy” is edgy and raw, too graphic for Youssef to show his own parents but exactly the right temperature for a room full of his generational peers who recently watched a few episodes at a Hollywood screening. It was clear from the laughter that the audience, Muslims and otherwise, recognized themselves or their families in the people they saw on screen.
Executive produced by Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”) and Bridget Bedard (“Transparent”), the semi-biographical series — co-created by Youssef, Ryan Welch and Ari Katcher — has its origins in Youssef’s stand-up routine.
Says Bedard, “Almost every episode was born out of some joke we just pushed deeper. We explored why it was a joke in the first place. What’s the pain behind that?”
(L-R) Jerrod Carmichael, Ramy Youssef, and Bridget Bedard of the television show 'Ramy' speak during the Hulu segment of the 2019 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on February 11, 2019 in Pasadena, California. (Getty)
Youssef honed his stand up in small New York clubs, amassed a local following, then picked up national attention in 2017 when he appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Youssef now has a stand-up comedy special airing on HBO in June. Clearly, he’s come a long way since his first big break — a Taco Bell commercial and a gig as a regular on Nick at Nite’s Scott Baio comedy “See Dad Run.”
“I moved from New York to L.A. to be on the show,” Youssef says. “My mom was like, ‘It’s amazing. You’re going to meet so many actors. Then, you can become a lawyer for actors.’ Like this show was a networking experience for what would eventually be my future job.”
The fictional Ramy lives at home with parents Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and Farouk (Amr Waked) and sister Dena (May Calamawy). They are moderately religious, speak a mixture of English and Arabic, use Uber and shop at Costco.
On the show, Ramy appears to attend mosque more than his parents, praying with a hole in one sock. It’s there, during one episode, that his friends notice a new face in the crowd. “He’s a spy,” comments one of them casually, referring to Homeland Security’s post-9/11 policy of placing informants in American masjids. Another lets out an exasperated huff: “Look at him. He’s Dominican. The FBI isn’t even trying anymore.”
That’s about as close as Youssef comes to what he calls “All Arabs Are Not Terrorists” humor.
“I didn’t want ‘Ramy’ to be a commercial, like ‘Hey, Muslims are good!’” Youssef says. “We’re underrepresented, so the instinct when we get an opportunity like this is to show people that we’re good, that we have the same shared values. What’s more important to me is showing that we have the same flaws. How do you show someone yourself in the most human way possible? You show them you’re struggling to be good.”
Concerns that “Ramy” might be too culturally specific for a wider audience aren’t, in fact, concerns for the folks behind its creation.
“When people watch it, they’re not really going to see a culture clash, they’re going to see it like, ‘Oh, wait, I see my family in this family,’” says Youssef. “I know people want to hear that this is an East versus West culture clash, but the reality is, we’re all clashing with each other in our own homes all the time. This is no different.”