Ramy Youssef: The Coolest Person on TV Talks Masturbation, Trump, and Our Unhealthy Obsession With ‘Firsts’
The trailblazing breakout star of “Ramy” on his feelings about being “the Muslim show,” the politics of Season Two, and why he keeps returning to a surprising masturbation motif.
Ramy Youssef is in a situation many auteurs have stumbled into before. When a person creates, writes, and stars in his own show—with his name in the title, to boot—viewers tend to confuse where the fictional character stops and the real person begins.
And so, ahead of the season two premiere of Ramy, which launches Friday on Hulu, Youssef has decided to come clean about a season two plot point that was, in fact, directly inspired by his own life. Yes, he really did cry during Toy Story 4.
“There are things that are fictional Ramy and there are things that are real Ramy,” he says, letting out one of those long laughs that at first sound like silence, until you listen closely and hear soft whispers of wheezing. “That was real, man.”
Over the course of what will now be 20 episodes, Ramy has tackled sex, moral obligation, bigotry, and life under a Trump for a first-generation Muslim American struggling to navigate his family and faith. It’s a biography that Youssef shares with his character, having been raised by Egyptian immigrants in post-9/11 Rutherford, New Jersey, a commuter line away from New York City.
The 29-year-old writer, actor, and stand-up comedian—his HBO special Ramy Youssef: Feelings was nominated for a Critics Choice Award last year—quit his job at the Apple Store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District a decade ago to move to L.A. for a role on the Nickelodeon comedy See Dad Run. As he earned a series of breaks and learned more about the industry, he knew there was a story to tell about his upbringing and his relationship to religion. It led him to create Ramy, which Hulu premiered to rave reviews last year.
The semi-autobiographical series was revelatory for many viewers, even if that fact itself is disappointing. Whatever preconceived notions some might have about a Muslim man in America, Ramy was, by and large, your average wayward millennial guy.
He has complicated feelings about sex. He feels guilty about his vices. He drives his mother up a wall with his scraggly appearance—unkempt curls, overgrown facial hair, always wearing a hat—which is to say to the rest of us he seems effortlessly stylish. These are all things Youssef thought about as he got older, as he became a man: Who are you, and who do you want to be? And how do you be serious about your faith while figuring it out?
Youssef won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series in February, a deserved, yet surprise win over the likes of Michael Douglas, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, and Tony-winner Ben Platt. He began his speech by saying, “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great,” transitioning into concise gratitude that was both self-deprecating and appropriately powerful.
“Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show,” he said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Is this an editor?’ We made a very specific show about an Arab Muslim family living in New Jersey, and this means a lot to be recognized on this level.”
Thinking back to that night, Youssef laughs remembering a photo that was taken at about 4 am. In it, he’s sitting with his laptop open to Final Draft, working on rewrites of a season two script, his newly minted Golden Globe statue off to the side.
Everything about this experience has been a blur in overdrive, whether it’s being overwhelmed by production demands while winning major Hollywood awards or going into a pandemic shutdown with three days of shooting and massive amounts of post-production left, all of which had to be dealt with while in quarantine.
“It’s kind of sinking in for me right now,” he says. As in, right now right now. He delivered his final note on the new season Monday, less than 24 hours before we talk. “Now that the show is delivered, I’m like talking it all in and I’m still surprised by all of it.”
It’s a level of success accompanied with something rare when a breakout star is about to unveil season two of a buzzy series: Not backlash or extra scrutiny, but an even greater appreciation for what he’s trying to accomplish. And, thanks to some flattering profiles and interviews, an awareness that he also just seems pretty cool.
Launching season two means an opportunity to evolve the conversation beyond the limiting traps that are set when too much of the discourse about major progress in representation and visibility in entertainment is centered around the significance of being “the first” or “the only.”
“There are so many Muslim experiences and there should be more stories,” he says. “The ‘first’ thing is just predicated on scarcity, which is kind of silly when you see how many shows are being made per year and how many of them are, like, just spins of the same thing. But, you know, my show is ‘the Muslim show.’ It’s just kind of silly.”
Ramy and Masturbation
Masturbation is important to Ramy. It’s important to Ramy, the character, too—or at the very least significant.
When we meet him in season two, Ramy is in a depressive funk. He is aimlessness and wallowing, isolating himself from his friends and his family. He is constantly jacking off.
“Somehow you look fatter and skinnier,” his friend Mo (Mohammed Amer) says when Ramy’s buddies confront him in an intervention. Ahmed (Dave Merheje) says he doesn’t seem spiritually connected. “Are you praying five times a day?” No, Mo answers for him. “He’s jerking off five times a day.”
It’s been said that no show engages with conversations about spirituality, of any kind, more than Ramy. That it does so with so many excellent jokes about masturbation is, if nothing else, remarkable.
There is a lot of discussion about specific experiences and universality when there are shows that center the story of an underrepresented minority. There is certainly something very specific about what Ramy is going through. Porn and sex is making him feel like he’s losing his Muslim identity, and it’s concerning to him to have it slip away. But that feeling he has and that depressive state he is in—incessant masturbation and all—is something very tangible and relatable for many people.
“It’s a really intimate, private kind of wallowing,” Youssef says. “It’s where all of his emotional baggage is going. He’s distracting himself with it and has this really unhealthy relationship with intimacy. So it felt like a good spot to meet him. It felt like a really good spot to kind of understand why their character would want change.”
If there’s a broad arc to season two, it’s underlining how much faith means to Ramy’s life and how much he needs it. Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali joins the cast as Sheikh Ali, a Sufi leader to whom Ramy turns for guidance on reforming his life and, specifically, his relationship to sex.
“We were talking about what kind of addictive behavior would be really specific to a guy who was actually trying not to have sex, and a guy who’s trying to live this certain way,” Youssef says. “This felt like the most natural one.”
It turns out that shooting multiple masturbation scenes is awkward for an actor. In one of them, Youssef had to mime the exercise while a dog laid next to him on a bed. “That was probably the weirdest to shoot.”
The awkwardness led to accidental genius in one instance. Youssef had lost count of how many times he had to pretend to pleasure himself in front of this crew of people for whom he’s technically the boss. “I’m in a room with like 40 people and I’m sitting there jerking off and I’m like, ‘Let me make you guys laugh.’ So I take a bite of this gummy worm in the middle of it and then we cut and everyone starts dying.” That take made it into the show.
The thing is, this isn’t a crass obsession with something racy, but inconsequential. The masturbation on Ramy is profound. It’s intrinsic to the show’s DNA, and at the root of its most meaningful episodes and storylines—certainly a transgressive fact for a series that is respectfully frank about the Muslim faith.
It was going to be important that Youssef address terrorism and how that affects Americans’ perceptions of Muslims in the first season of Ramy. What many people didn’t expect was that he would so in a flashback episode that connected 9/11 with his character’s first time masturbating.
The episode hit on the struggles a young person goes through discovering one part of themselves while a defining global event begins to dictate how others demand he see himself.
Youssef told The Daily Beast’s Matt Wilstein last year that it was important to him that the only time the first season address terrorism, it is from the vantage point of a kid. “A big part of this show is trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re humans.’ Because I think a lot of people only know us defined by our headlines. And so, what is the most human thing that could be happening under one of most devastating headlines? And what would it look like if those things happened at the same time?”
While hardly conventional, the episode was sensational.
“As we were looking back at the character and trying to understand his relationship with sex, it is born in that flashback. It was why it felt like a really natural place to meet him now,” Youssef says about season two. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is how he’s always coped. And this has always been this escapist thing for him. So that episode is very much a link to that.”
Ramy and Trump
The truth is when you’re a Muslim-American creator, there are certain things that people don’t expect you to address—i.e. masturbation—but there are definitely things that they expect you to have strong opinions on, incorporate into your show, and talk about publicly. In the year 2020, they expect you to talk about Donald Trump.
Ramy, the show, definitely has a perspective on No. 45, filtered through the characters. It’s not one of those series that pretends he doesn’t exist, or refuses to mention him by name. This is a Muslim-American family with a patriarch and matriarch who immigrated from Egypt. The administration affects their daily lives.
There’s an episode in which Ramy’s mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), decides that after decades of living in the States on a green card, she is going to take the U.S. citizenship test. “With that You Know Who I Mean in the White House… piece of shit—pardon my English—I have to become a citizen so that I can vote,” she says. Later in the episode, she confronts a portrait of Trump hanging on a wall, vowing “I will fuck you in the pussy” and “I will vote you away, you piece of fucking fuck shit.”
Especially when a creator is scripting that kind of material in their show, there is an expectation to continue that dialogue publicly. Interviews tend to bait them into more “takes” on politics and the administration, which are then construed to be emblematic of an entire population a person like Youssef is viewed to be representing, fair or not (it’s not). But it’s a media practice that Youssef doesn’t mind, at least not yet, because he doesn’t engage it.
“I really think that our issues as a country and people run much deeper than Donald Trump,” he says. “There could be something that a character in the show says or a bit about it in my comedy. But the platform is not really about him. It's more about looking at the things we need to talk about, the decisions we all need to make.”
“It’s not, like, apolitical,” he continues. “I never voted for him and I’m not going to. But I don’t think that that’s really where our problems lie, by any stretch. And so I don’t really feel pressure to, you know, talk about it in that specificity. The pressure comes from other places in making a show like this.”
Specifically, those pressures come from being a “first,” a distinction of which he’s relentlessly reminded.
Especially at a time when representation is a lightning-rod talking point in Hollywood, any pioneering or trailblazing minority creator is emblazoned with the “first” label, a descriptor that risks becoming defining and maybe even problematic. Youssef’s frustrations are conflicted. He appreciates his platform, but he worries that a preoccupation with “the first” implies that it could be “the last.”
“I think it can be a little bit of an unhealthy obsession,” he says. “The issue really is that the audience is in a very unfair position. Because they feel like whatever this thing is needs to wholly represent them because they have so few options. Then in certain situations they might want to criticize it, but then feel like they shouldn’t because it’s the first. There's a lot of baggage that comes with it that I think is equally put onto the audience, as it is put on to the creator.”
“I really hope that in the way we write about things, people are just as excited about the second, third, and fourth,” he adds. “I would love the celebration of the wide palette.”
If Ramy reveals one truth about the American experience, it’s that one color doesn’t make the masterpiece.
For more, listen to Ramy Youssef on The Last Laugh podcast.