Ramy Youssef: Making Sense of the World and Finding Faith (With Jokes)


In the week after he appeared as a presenter at the Oscars, the comic Ramy Youssef, a creator and director of the Hulu series “Ramy” and Emma Stone’s co-star in “Poor Things,” was taking meetings in Hollywood on what’s known as a water-bottle tour — “except without the water bottle,” he said. He is fasting for Ramadan.

Youssef, who will turn 33 this month, has been a rapidly rising star since the 2019 debut of “Ramy,” a semi-autobiographical award-winning show in which he plays the son of Egyptian immigrants in suburban New Jersey — as he is in real life — struggling to define himself amid the sometimes conflicting pull of Muslim faith and young adult, Tinder-era life. When Youssef won a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy in 2020, he accepted the trophy by saying, “Allahu akbar. This is thanks to God — and Hulu.”

Now his ascent is even sharper. He is following his surprising turn in the Oscar-winning “Poor Things” — as a thoughtful scientist and cast-aside love — with a standup special, his second for HBO. The program, “More Feelings,” due Saturday, mines personal territory, religious and cultural stereotypes, and his budding friendship with Taylor Swift (a pal of Stone’s), who went to see his set. He will also host “Saturday Night Live” on March 30.

Those are only a few of the many projects he has going, he said in a video interview from Los Angeles, before he taped “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” He and his buddies “always joke that we make TV like immigrants,” he said. “We’re always working. We’re not going to outsource too much. We’re just figuring out how to do what we can, small budgets. So that’s my expectation for my career. I’ll just, you know, figure that out.”

But he is also mulling the advice he got from Yorgos Lanthimos, the “Poor Things” director, to get out of TV and start making movies. Then again, an invitation to direct an episode of “The Bear” led Youssef to Copenhagen and a daylong stint staging at the fabled restaurant Noma. “It’s such a hard table to get,” he said. “I felt bad for whoever had waited a year to eat there and then I made their plate.” (The episode garnered him a nomination for a Directors Guild of America Award.) A fourth season of “Ramy,” delayed by the Hollywood strikes, will happen, he promised. “The question is, when?”

Youssef’s childhood — he grew up in an Arabic-speaking household and got into shooting video and doing sketch comedy in high school — is a source of inspiration for another show due this year, an animated satire for Amazon, “#1 Happy Family USA,” about a code-switching Muslim family in the early 2000s (they rearrange not just their personalities, but also their faces).

“It’s so cool to just get to be dumb,” he said, adding, “It is definitely not for kids. It’s barely for adults.” He is also a creator of the Netflix series “Mo,” with Mo Amer as a hustling Palestinian refugee in Houston.

Youssef, who lives in Brooklyn, got married not long ago. He met his wife, a visual artist from Saudi Arabia, through May Calamawy, who plays his sister on “Ramy.” The HBO special has references to his wife, but he does not name her, and they avoid being photographed together publicly. “I kind of give her privacy,” he said.

Our conversation touched on the pitfalls and responsibility of representation, squaring his faith with his comedy, and his support of relief efforts in Gaza. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What was it like having the Oscars festivities coincide with the first night of Ramadan?

There’s this funny tension of, like, are we going to have enough time if we go to the Madonna party, then eat and pray before the sun rises? And the answer is no. We’re not going to make it to the Madonna party, because the sun will rise while we’re there.

We went home, had some eggs and water, and prayed. It was actually really cool, to just shift into a whole different thing. Sometimes it’s hard to decompress after these events.

When did you have a sense that you were funny?

I was always saying things out of a specific anxiety that I had or something that I was observing. Then people would laugh and I would be confused. I wasn’t really going for the joke, unless I was flirting. So I basically knew how to observe, or I knew how to flirt. I guess my comedy became some combination of those things.

As someone who also grew up in a first-generation immigrant family, I have to ask, were your parents supportive when you dropped out of college to study and pursue acting?

There was always this specter of, like, “You’re going to have to go back.” I was really fortunate because I booked an acting job probably within two months of dropping out. Every time I had a job, they wouldn’t say anything, but when the job ended, it would be: “So, are you going to finish the degree? Are you going to go to law school?” They’re like, “I know you can’t do medicine, but you can talk — go to that school where they take people who talk and then they make money for talking.”

The thing that changed it for them was when I did “The Late Show” with [Stephen] Colbert, because they knew Colbert. They said, oh my God, you know Colbert, now you’ll be good. I kind of let them believe that Colbert will help me, like if I’m ever in a bind, I can give him a call.

Making the show [“Ramy”] has only made my relationship with my family stronger because in asking for permission to do certain things or explaining to them why I’m doing them, we ended up having all these conversations. My creative work transitioned our relationship — they started to see my adult self in a different way.

They disagree with certain things. But for the most part they really like the show. The reviews that really nailed it for my parents was friends in Egypt being like, we saw the show, we love it. That was the real thumbs up.

A theme you come back to often onstage is rejecting being representative of the Muslim world. You’ve also called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, and donated money from your standup shows to a relief organization there. How do you think about your responsibility as an artist in this moment?

There is this scarcity [of visible Muslim artists]. And then there’s the idea of wanting representation. On one hand, I realize that’s part of what I’m in. And on another hand, I don’t really believe in being representation. I don’t know how qualified I am for that. You know, I will fail you.

The responsibility is probably going to just feel different for everyone. For me, I care about the communities I’m involved with, and it’s why I do things that are outside of art. But it’s also why I’ll do comedic critiques. It all comes from: I’m part of this, and it’s why I’m making fun of it.

How did you not have to audition or screen-test for Yorgos to get “Poor Things”?

We talked for, like, an hour and a half, a lot about tone. I told him I understood his films as comedy. And he had seen my stand-up. I was in awe of even getting to talk to him.

I had impostor syndrome [before] getting the script. I got off the call with him and I was like, whoa, did this guy make a mistake? Has he lost it? After I read it, I actually felt like it was written for me. I don’t think it was, but it just felt like something I could do, even though it would be way different than anything I’d done. I felt like, oh, yeah, this character could come off really creepy — or sincere. He’s funny, but he’s also serious.

You started standup after you already had some success as an actor. What appealed to you about it?

In a weird way, standup felt like the stability that school gives. There’s no guarantees, but if you actually do it, you will be learning. I’ve learned so much about life by doing standup. I have learned way more about myself, about the patience that you need to have for anything to work.

I find standup to be really expansive, really consistent, because you can always get up [onstage], and it can be faith-building. It could also be the opposite of all those things — I bombed all the time, still do. But I was always getting something out of it.

Your wife is a big part of this special. Does she see the material before?

I don’t run anything by anyone before I go onstage. I’ll build a set and get it to a certain place, and then I’ll say, hey, why don’t you come out? What do you think of this? Stylistically, I’m always the butt of whatever joke I’m telling.

This special, I have stuff about my dad. And the more the special goes on, you realize it’s really about me — anything that’s a critique of my father is a critique of myself. That is what is actually kind of beautiful about family; it is a self-reflective relationship. So there’s a lot of mercy, actually.

Steve Way, your co-star on “Ramy” and a comic who has muscular dystrophy, opens the special. Why did you choose to feature him?

Look, point blank, I think he opened the show way funnier than I ever could. I think Steve is incredibly arresting and hilarious. I’ve been working with him for a few years, filming his standup, figuring out how to expand on telling his story. I still think sometimes networks have a hesitancy to back disabled performers. I think he’s a star, and anytime I get an opportunity to show that to people, I’ll take it.

You and Steve have been friends since fifth grade. Are there other friends from home you work with?

Most of my friends are not in the creative arts. They’re mainly doctors. My group chat is just like a live E.R. report. If I want to write a hospital show, I could do it tomorrow, easy.

Has all this recent success changed the scale of your ambition? Do you want to direct a Marvel movie now?

I mean, sure — if it was the right Marvel, of course. Although, doesn’t everyone think they’re doing the right Marvel?

I’ve definitely put my energy toward future stuff. It’s still about really chasing the stories that feel like only I can do. I’m not trying to fill my calendar with acting just to be everywhere.

Part of why I’m just not letting my foot off the gas is because I do want to have kids. I’m just like, all right, let’s get a bunch of stuff on the board [first].

You’ve talked before about how our world right now is very surreal, and so the idea that religious tales may be illogical is fine, because we’re living in an irrational world. Have you found yourself more drawn to faith at this moment? Is it easier or harder to make comedy out of the world now, because of it?

I always think about it in the sense that we all have a relationship with the unseen. The unseen is where our fears are, and it’s where anxiety is, too. So, to replace that as much as I can with faith and with something that asks of me to expand and be a more loving version of myself — because if I were to boil it down, what is [faith] really asking you to do? To keep choosing love.

Especially in these times, I’ve leaned into my spiritual practice more than ever. The funny does actually kind of come from there, because what’s funny to me is figuring out how to find light in stuff that’s really dark. And spiritual practice is also about seeking light in a different way. There’s nothing in my life that doesn’t have the opportunity for a prayer or a joke. It’s actually really both.





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