On Sunday, the 27-year-old Egyptian-American comic taped his first hour-long stand-up special for HBO in Chicago. This Friday, all 10 episodes of his deeply personal new dramedy series Ramy will start streaming on Hulu. You may not know his name yet, but he’s about to be huge.
Youssef was opening for his friend and fellow stand-up Jerrod Carmichael on the road in 2016 when they started joking about how he should have his own multi-cam sitcom. Unlike The Carmichael Show, which told the story of a black family in North Carolina, his sitcom would follow a Muslim family in his native New Jersey.
In the end, Ramy ended up looking a lot more like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None or even Lena Dunham’s Girls—a comparison we discussed during the interview—with Carmichael staying on as an executive producer. It’s a remarkable achievement for a comedian whose biggest TV credits to date include a Nick at Nite sitcom starring Scott Baio and a three-episode guest spot on Mr. Robot.
Ramy closely mirrors the story of Youssef’s family, who moved from New York to New Jersey when he was in the first grade, just a few years before the September 11th attacks. In one stand-out episode from the show that takes place entirely in flashback we see how an adolescent Youssef dealt with the trauma of those events as one of the only Muslim kids in his suburban school.
It just happened to coincide with him “discovering himself,” as Youssef puts it.
Why dramedies should never forget to be funny
“We are in the era of dramedies, in a sense, and I knew that I liked the idea of it being grounded, but I also didn’t want to forget that it should be funny. And so it was like, how do we create that vibe but not forget the jokes, and not shy away from the jokes? It’s OK if something is just straight-up funny. I think a lot of the more dramatically set shows that come from comedians or have that perspective—I always wish there were like one or two more straight-up comedy scenes in there.”
On the importance of Muslim representation in comedy
“It was super-important. This is an Arab Muslim family in New Jersey. So it’s pretty limited in terms of what it’s showing. One of the earliest conversations I had with Jerrod, because Jerrod and I were friends for years before we worked together, we would just talk about faith. He grew up Christian and believes in God and I grew up Muslim and believe in God and we were like, there’s never anything that shows the way we think about God, where there’s this guilt and you want to do the right thing but we’re really just everyday people.”
On the unlikely comparisons between ‘Ramy’ and ‘Girls’
“I remember watching that pilot, I think it’s a really good pilot, and it was like watching people have conversations that you kind of knew they were having but now you’re getting the real details of them. And I do feel like our show can do that. I want it to feel as tailored to my actual thought process as possible and I think that’s what’s amazing about a show like Girls, which is that only these girls could have written that. I can only write things that only somebody’s who’s me can write or only somebody from my community could write.”
What his parents thought about his decision to pursue comedy
“They knew I was making stuff and they were always really supportive. It was always like, ‘Yeah, go do it, but also, what are you really going to do?’ It wasn’t ‘don’t do it,’ it was, ‘Ah, man, that’s great. It sucks that you’re going to have to stop doing it and make money.’ That was always the attitude. Do it as long as you can, but you have to figure out what you’re really going to do.”
On the episode of ‘Ramy’ that combines 9/11 with his introduction to masturbation
“9/11 and me jerking off for the first time happened in the same year. I was in fifth grade and then in sixth grade you’re discovering yourself and you want a girlfriend all of a sudden and all these things happened at the same time. One of my first stand-up bits was, ‘The name of the first World Trade Center bomber was Ramzi Yousef. Everyone thought we were related, including me.’ In this show, for 10 episodes, the only time we talk about terrorism is in that episode, because I was really only interested in exploring it 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?”
How his father ended up working for Donald Trump
“Yeah, my dad worked at one of his hotels. It’s really interesting because my dad knew him, my dad knew his family. He saw the way that he did business and I think my dad enjoyed working for him. I don’t know that my dad saw all of the things that we now see. My dad started working at that hotel very shortly after he got his citizenship. I know for a fact that this guy’s life is possible because of people like my dad, that immigrants are the backbone of his businesses. And though we don’t know how much those businesses actually make, they are a big part of how he’s gotten to where he’s at. The people that he is trying to completely exclude from the conversation and dehumanize are the ones who have provided him with even the smallest shreds of dignity that he has.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It host, Jon Lovett.