Ramy Youssef, In A New Hulu Comedy, Is A Different Millennial American Muslim A new TV series from the comedian Ramy Youssef — based on his own experience growing up as an Egyptian American in New Jersey — is trying out some different first-generation narratives.
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'Ramy' Is About One Millennial American Muslim — And Everyone's Racist Uncles

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'Ramy' Is About One Millennial American Muslim — And Everyone's Racist Uncles

'Ramy' Is About One Millennial American Muslim — And Everyone's Racist Uncles

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Stories of first-generation Americans tend to stress the same struggles - how do you fit in with your peers when your parents aren't assimilating? How do you balance your instinct to rebel against your parent's traditionalism and customs and religion with your awareness of how much your parents sacrificed to get here? A new TV series called "Ramy" addresses many of those issues. Its namesake character is an Egyptian American Millennial in his 20s grappling with being a practicing Muslim. He's also struggling to blend his religious beliefs with 21st century life in the U.S. - praying, dating, working, drinking, relating to your parents. It's complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

HIAM ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) I don't understand. Why is he getting married before you?

RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) OK, I got to go.

ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Hey, maybe you can find a girl in there.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I'm not going to flirt with girls at the mosque.

ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Why not? The girls in there are high quality.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) The mosque is for praying. It's not for picking people up. And it's like a bunch of families, too. And you can't just walk up to a Muslim girl and, like, start spitting game or something. What am I supposed to say? Like, hey, can I get your father's number?

ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Yes. Why not?

PFEIFFER: The show is out on Hulu. And it's co-written and co-created by Ramy Youssef, an actor and standup comedian. He based the main character on his own experiences growing up in suburban New Jersey as a Muslim who considers himself religious.

Ramy Youssef joins us from Chicago. Ramy, welcome.

YOUSSEF: Hey.

PFEIFFER: So in real life, you seem to have your act together more than the TV version of you does. You know, you've been on Stephen Colbert. You - I understand you have a deal with HBO for an hour-long standup special. You're doing well. But I assume that a lot of what we see in "Ramy," the show, reflects your real life personal experiences. Is that fair to say?

YOUSSEF: I would say it's all very emotionally true. I try to imagine a character that didn't have a creative outlet. In real life, I have these creative outlets. And I have, you know, really clear conversations with my parents. But he's a little more stunted. And I wanted to write from that place.

PFEIFFER: It's in some ways a classic first-generation immigrant experience. But I'm wondering how being a millennial in particular you think makes the experience of growing up as a first-generation American any different than for any prior generations?

YOUSSEF: Well, I think that we face just some different economic things. I mean, I think a lot of the pressure that happens in this show is about money. I mean, we see my character kind of forced into this relationship with his uncle, this family member that is pretty intolerable. But it's clear that the only reason he hangs around is because he has money. And he has this influence over the family. And so you see somebody who is trying to do good and be good and figure out what that means to him morally, but he's also pressed to kind of accelerate his life.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned the uncle. And this is a blatantly anti-Semitic character who says some really terrible things. It's almost as if you're not afraid of offending people. I mean, when you watch the show, you have to be willing to hear and watch some things that might make you squirm or cringe. Were you aware that it might have that effect on people?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. And, I mean, for the record, he's also racist and homophobic and Islamophobic. So he is all of those things. And absolutely, I think that the show isn't going to sit for everyone with the approach that we took. And that's OK. There's a lot of - there's I think 500 shows on TV this year. So we wanted to take this approach not to be sensational, not to offend for the sake of offending.

And I think that many people who have watched this show and they see that character along with seeing the other characters say, I know that guy, you know? I know a Ramy. Or I know an Uncle Naseem. Or I have an Uncle Naseem. And instead of the racist, anti-Semitic thing he says, he actually says stuff about Muslims. Or he actually says stuff about black people. Or he actually says stuff, you know, insert group. And we don't know what to do with him.

And so what we were really looking to do here is to not hide any of these characters but actually set them up and show them and begin their stories so that we can trace out their arc over multiple seasons. There isn't this resolution or instant karma. I think that there's a little bit of an uneasy feeling. And I think that's OK. I think that that's what's really nice about TV is that things can play out a little bit slower.

PFEIFFER: A big theme of the whole season is the fact that even though you are a somewhat young, kind of hit millennial, you believe in God. And you don't try to hide that from people. But you don't exactly look like what people might think is a person who would embrace religion. And it can be hard for you to have your peers understand that. You actually address this in a really funny way when you went on Stephen Colbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

YOUSSEF: I grew up in a town where I watched my gay friends struggle to come out to the religious community. And now I live in LA, where I'm a religious person struggling to come out to the gay community.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: I thought that was so interesting. And it made me think about, for example, politicians in the U.S. If someone were to say they were an atheist, it's almost a political death sentence. It's expected that our politicians will believe in God. It's surprising to people when someone as young as you seem to. Talk a little bit about that because that really reflects your real life, doesn't it?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it does. I think it's something that I found early on in doing standup that I could just feel a little bit of a tension in the room when I started talking about it in an honest way because I think church is kind of a punchline, you know, like, that sounds like the end of the joke, right? And then I took her to church.

And I think religion has earned being made fun of. I think that religious culture and the industry of religion pretty much deserves most of the heat that it gets. But I think that there is a human side to why the faiths have continued. And I think that there's some really valuable things. And it is my personal belief, and so presenting a character that isn't trying to erase this part of his life, isn't trying to erase his parent's culture and the tradition that he comes from was what we really tried to do with this show.

And I think as you framed this in the beginning, most of the stories that we've seen is somebody fighting to have the ability to just be - not like their family or like everyone that's in front of them. There's almost this subtext of, like, hey, I want to be white, too. And I have the right to do that, mom. And that feels like every narrative that's been jammed down my throat as a viewer.

PFEIFFER: Two of the 10 episodes in the first season focus on supporting female characters - your onscreen sister and your onscreen mother. We want to play a clip from one in which your sister is upset about what feels like a double standard to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I don't understand how you still don't get it.

MAY CALAMAWY: (As Dena) What do you mean?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) Mom and Dad just say [expletive] to say it. Like, they have all this stuff that worries them. And they think if they say it out loud, then it won't happen. But that's it. You don't have to actually listen to them.

CALAMAWY: (As Dena) They're so different with me. You saw how mom was last night just for me to go to Fatima's.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) You still got to go out, right?

CALAMAWY: (As Dena) Yeah. But...

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) That's it. That's the point. You let them get to you. Just let them say whatever they want. And then do whatever you want.

CALAMAWY: (As Dena) You're so [expletive] entitled.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) You can be, too.

PFEIFFER: Why was it important for you to allow other characters to have the stage rather than your character all the time?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, that was something that I fought for a bunch when we were presenting it to the network. But it was really important because I felt like it was the only way you could understand the world. And I think that when we talk about representation and showing a family that hasn't been seen before, representation isn't three lines in a scene. Representation is actually when the character doesn't have lines, but the camera is lingering on them in their thoughts after something happened. And then we get to see them walk to their car.

You really need to follow a character in order to understand what they're going through. So I didn't want to just play this game where I was checking boxes by giving my sister and my mom a line here or there. I wanted to actually sit with them and experience what they were going through. And I want that to be the tone of this show. So we might not have every type of character or every type of experience yet, but that's because we want to give it the right treatment. And we want to actually represent them.

PFEIFFER: What is it that you want people to think about Muslims or think differently about Muslims after watching the season?

YOUSSEF: I just want people to see Muslims as human. That's it. I don't really think that there's much more you could get out of this series because it's so limited. We're talking about one type of family. To say that all Muslims are like this, to even say that Arab Muslims in North Jersey are like this would be ridiculous. This is my point of view. And that's why I call the show "Ramy." I made the show that I would want to see. I just want to complicate the conversation. I want you instead of thinking of terrorism when you think about a mosque, maybe you can think about the characters in this show.

I would love to reframe certain words and certain settings. But outside of that, even my reframe is not worthy of where your mind should land. It's just a complication of the conversation.

PFEIFFER: That's Ramy Youssef. He's an actor and standup comedian whose new show called "Ramy" is out on Hulu. Ramy, thanks for talking with us.

YOUSSEF: Thank you.

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