Ramy Youssef Actor and comedian Ramy Youssef talks about his Hulu series Ramy, working with Mahershala Ali and writing book reports for his dad. Then, Youssef takes a quiz on the history of sneakers.
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Ramy Youssef

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Ramy Youssef

Ramy Youssef

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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Hey, it's time to welcome our special guest. He's an actor and comedian who created, writes and stars in the Golden Globe Award-winning Hulu series "Ramy." The show follows a first-generation American Muslim on his journey to spiritual fulfillment in his New Jersey neighborhood. It's Ramy Youssef.

RAMY YOUSSEF: Hey.

EISENBERG: Hi.

YOUSSEF: Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: Pleasure. Ramy, how's it going? How are you doing in this wacky world?

YOUSSEF: Well, we've been finishing editing the show. We had, like, three days a shooting that we couldn't get. Otherwise really thankful. And just like yeah - staying - learning to cook.

JONATHAN COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: So - right, learning - OK, let's get to that. But first of all, so if you were - four days of stuff that you couldn't shoot, you were able to work around it, basically?

YOUSSEF: We had Mahershala Ali this season, which was amazing. When you get someone like that, you kind of have to, like, you know - you have to work around, like, a certain amount of time, right?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: And so, you know - but it was - we figured it out.

EISENBERG: That's amazing.

YOUSSEF: Like, I'm really proud of what we're making, but yeah.

EISENBERG: So Mahershala - how did that happen, that joining of Mahershala Ali coming onto the show?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it was really cool. It was really organic. He just called me after Season 1 just to say, like, how much he loved the season just as, like, someone who's also a practicing Muslim. And so he was like, let me know if you need anything. And we hung out a couple times. And then I was like, hey, so you know, like, the part about, you know, if I might need anything?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: And kind of was like, you know, here's, you know, an idea. So he's in six of - 6 out of 10 but in a way that he's just a really big part of the story.

EISENBERG: So when you were first pitching "Ramy" - I mean, it is a very personal story, obviously, but it also is - it's very universal, about a guy in his 20s trying to figure out his life and figure out how he fits in with the help of his family and friends.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

EISENBERG: But of course, it also centers around your character and your character's quest for spiritual fulfillment in the Muslim faith. When you were first going out and selling this series, were networks asking you to make it less specific? Were they asking you to back off on the religious aspect?

YOUSSEF: I think the tightrope we're walking that is probably most difficult is to kind of, like, show a person in their 20s, early 30s who has a genuine relationship with their faith, right?

EISENBERG: Right.

YOUSSEF: So it's like a person of faith of this generation is the most specific thing in this show. And if I'm being honest, it's like - it's not exactly how we pitched it. Like, I think, like, we more pitched the show as, like - I remember the line that I had. I had this line when I was pitching the show where I would say like, I'm a Muslim American, and I feel most like the hyphen between the two words. Like, I feel like the thing that's, like, there kind of holding these two.

They're both really important to me. This isn't a story about separation. It's a story about synthesis. It's not about walking away from my faith. It's like how do I, you know, go towards it but also, you know, bring everything else that's important to me in one thing? And so I think that was the thing. And I basically was like, and there's a ton of hyphenated people and, like, everyone is doing some version of this. That was my pitch.

COULTON: Right.

EISENBERG: So I want to go back to the very beginning - how I know you, Ramy.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So...

YOUSSEF: Cabin Bar.

EISENBERG: Cabin Bar. We're doing a stand-up show in the back of a bar that was just, like, kind of a relaxed stand-up show called English as a Second Language. And it was a hip show. But it was just a relaxed show that then all of a sudden got really popular.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So thinking about it and just knowing now more about your career, you're doing stand-up, but you're also - you're spending half of your life in LA doing the Nick at Nite show, "See Dad Run."

YOUSSEF: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. It was really wild. I mean, like, I'm on a thing that - but also, it's like a thing that, like, no one watched. So it was almost, like, the perfect scenario because I think, like, everyone's...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: ...Always, like, trying to make, like, secret money, where it's like, well, I don't want to be known as, like, the guy from that thing. Like, I just kind of want to find a way to, like, be able to, you know, buy Wi-Fi on the plane without having a panic And like...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: And so it was, like, kind of like that, you know, setup. Even our shooting schedule at the time was, like, three weeks of shooting, one-week hiatus, and then I would, like, on my hiatus weeks just fly to New York to just do a week of stand-up.

EISENBERG: Right. The show stars a lot of big names like Scott Baio. Do you keep in touch with anyone from that show?

YOUSSEF: It's been a bit. It's been a bit. I talk to a lot of people from the show, though. You know, Mark Curry was on it. And Mark - what was so amazing was, like, he was a really big part of me, like, starting to do stand-up because he would be touring during the hiatus weeks, and he'd tour between seasons. And we had a bunch of our scenes together. And so I was telling him, like, hey, you know, I started in sketch. I'm kind of thinking about dipping my toes into stand-up. And he was like, where do you stand-up? I'm doing a show at Flappers Comedy Club, like, whatever. And he's like, what time? (Laughter) And I'm like, you're not coming, but, like, my set's at 10:15. And I just remember, like, smelling the cigar smoke as he, like, rolled into the Yoo Hoo Room...

COULTON: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: ...Of the Flappers Comedy Club to, like, sit in the back. And I'm onstage, and I hear his laugh, and I hear him, like, shouting tags and, like...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: ...all this stuff, like, during my set. And everyone's like, is that "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper?" And I'm like - I'm almost positive it was the next morning. My manager called me and was like, yeah, so, like, Mark's reps called, and they want you to do, like, all these dates with him. Like, you're going to go open for him, whatever. I had four minutes of material - five minutes of - like, I'm like...

COULTON: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: ...I don't have, like, a ton of stand-up. Like, I don't have a ton. But, like, he was just like, yeah, man, this will be fun. And, like, I go out, and I do all these rooms with him. I'm in front of this crowd that's like, why aren't you funny?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: And it totally like - it, like - it was the best, most humiliating - and, like, I would bomb. I would eat it so hard. And then Mark would just laugh. He would just be like, that was crazy, man. And then he'd go onstage as if none of it happened. Like, it was amazing. And I just - I learned so much. I walked out of doing those shows with, like, 25 minutes of material that, like, actually worked...

EISENBERG: Right.

YOUSSEF: ...Because I was so desperate. I was just, like, in, like, a hotel room in Coconut Grove, like, crying, you know, and, like, writing things.

EISENBERG: Yeah, just trying to crack it.

YOUSSEF: I was like, I got to figure this out. I got to figure this out.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: So I read that when you were a kid, your dad used to make you write book reports about things that you wanted, like Pokemon cards or a dog.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: By your laughter, I assume it's a happy memory.

YOUSSEF: Oh, my God. Where did you - oh, yeah. Where did you...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: I must have said that at some point, but I don't know where that lives online. I wrote so many reports. Yeah, anything.

EISENBERG: He was sort of preparing you for pitching.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: I've never put that together. I got to tell him that because, like - oh, my God, dude. I remember, like, having to be like, well, the thing about Pokemon is...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: ...They blend natural elements. You know, some of them are fire, which is a real element.

COULTON: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: Some of them are plant-based. We're surrounded by plants.

EISENBERG: And then would you get Pokemon cards or a dog or what have you?

YOUSSEF: For the most part, if I actually got to the pitching phase...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: And I think it was very much, like, weeding out, like, OK, if you're not going to take the time to, like, do this, then...

COULTON: Right.

EISENBERG: This is how I know.

YOUSSEF: Then you probably don't want it, really, and, like, were not going to do it. And so I don't remember what fell through the cracks. I just remember the things that, like, I actually did - yeah, did do.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: So, Ramy, in our research, we also noticed that you're a bit of a sneaker head. I hope that's true.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it was actually - that was a thing the night of the Globes - was this big shoe decision, where I had, like, a pair of dress shoes, and then I had the Air Forces that I really like. And that was, like, a game time in the hotel. I was like, look. If I don't win, no one's going to really see my shoes. If I do win, I got to be comfortable. So it just became Air Forces right away.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Like, this is - there's no reason why this isn't the move. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Great. So we have - we wrote a game for you all about sneakers.

YOUSSEF: Oh, man.

EISENBERG: All right? It's multiple choice.

YOUSSEF: See. I definitely don't know the answers because I didn't do the book report.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: Like, this is the problem where it's like because I didn't, like, train for it with my dad, like, I'm just going to be, like, an idiot. But yeah, let's do it.

COULTON: OK. This is your first clue. In 1989, the Reebok Pump hits stores, outselling Nike Air Jordans with this slogan. Was it A, 21 Pump Street; B, Pump Up and Air Out or C, Just Pump It.

YOUSSEF: You know, I'm going to say A, 21 Pump Street.

COULTON: 21 Pump Street.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's the best one.

COULTON: For comedy. You're going for the comedy...

YOUSSEF: I'm going for comedy. It's probably B, but I'm going for comedy.

COULTON: (Laughter). You know what? I'm going to give you the point because it is B. It is B.

YOUSSEF: Yeah (laughter).

COULTON: Pump Up and Air Out, which is...

EISENBERG: It's not a good slogan. That is not a good slogan.

COULTON: I don't feel like you should put Air Out...

YOUSSEF: No, it's...

COULTON: ...In a marketing thing about sneakers.

EISENBERG: Next up, we have a historical sneaker question for you.

YOUSSEF: Amazing.

EISENBERG: I know. So the first rubber-soled shoes were worn in the 1800s. What were they called? Were they called A, Plimsolls; B, Air Napoleons or C, little Tootsie wrappers?

YOUSSEF: Wow. Plimsolls, Air Napoleons - I'm going to go with Plimsolls.

EISENBERG: You're going to with the correct answer, the actual correct answer. Yeah, Plimsolls is that line on the ship's hull to show how much the ship should be submerged, right?

YOUSSEF: Ah.

EISENBERG: If the water goes above that, that's not good.

COULTON: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And that line was invented by someone. His name was Samuel Plimsoll. So people thought the rubber on the shoe kind of looked like that.

COULTON: OK. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the earliest known uses of the word sneakers appeared where? A, in an 1862 book called "Female Life In Prison" where inmates called the warden's quiet rubber shoes sneaks or B, in an 1891 Boston Globe article about the invention of basketball. Players called their shoes squeakers because of the sound they made on the court, and the reporter misquoted it as sneakers. Or C, a character wearing cheap shoes in "Les Miserables" is described by Victor Hugo as being un sneakere (ph).

YOUSSEF: Huh. That's a tough one. It's - in my - I feel like it's A or B. I'm going to go with A just because the basketball thing feels, like, a little...

COULTON: Inmates in prison?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, what do you got?

COULTON: Yeah, you are correct. That's exactly why.

YOUSSEF: Look at that. I like that. I like that for the back story.

COULTON: Yeah, a little too on the nose, the basketball thing.

YOUSSEF: It's a little too on the nose.

EISENBERG: Yep. OK. This is your last clue. In the 1980s, Nike created an ad campaign around the idea that Air Jordans were banned from the NBA. Why were they supposedly banned? Was it because A, the shoes' red and black color scheme broke the NBA's rules for players' uniforms; B, the shoes went up too high, giving an unfair advantage of too much ankle protection - not good - or C, it clashed with Dennis Rodman's hair?

YOUSSEF: From a marketing perspective, I'm going to go with B.

EISENBERG: I'm sorry. The answer is actually A, the shoes' red and black color scheme broke the NBA's rules for players' uniforms.

YOUSSEF: Amazing.

EISENBERG: Ramy, you did amazing. You did amazing. Season two of "Ramy" is available on Hulu now, all episodes. Ramy Youssef, thank you so much for joining us.

YOUSSEF: Oh, man, thanks for having me. So good to see you again and talk and - yeah, this was really fun.

EISENBERG: Excellent.

That's our show. You've heard so much from us. But now we want to hear from you. That's right. It's a two-way street, people. I want to know about your biggest, most spectacular quarantine kitchen failures. Did you perhaps attempt to bake something called birthday bread and end up with a multicolored doorstop like one of our producers? Call the ASK ME ANOTHER hotline at 848-999-4932. That's 8-IT-XXX-IWEB. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.

COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.

EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by Andrew Kane, Kate Villa, Sonia Wiser (ph), Emily Winter and senior writer Karen Lurie, with additional material by Ashley Brooke Roberts. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiara Powell (ph), Nancy Saechao, James Sparber (ph), Rommel Wood and our intern, Nick Garrison. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our boss's bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.

COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.

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