For Ramy Youssef, All Roads Lead Back to Stand-up

Ramy Youssef. Photo: HBO

Getting your own TV show can bring about a lot of pressure that goes beyond reviews and ratings. There’s also the pressure that even if you’re telling your own story, are you doing it “the right way”? Reviews will speak on the quality — and in the case of Ramy, the self-titled show from comedian Ramy Youssef, the reviews for season one were glowing — but also on the content of the deeper story it’s trying to tell and the context of who helped make the show. There’s diversity inherently built into the nature of Youssef because he’s a Muslim who was raised in the white suburbs of New Jersey, but having diversity in the people who help him create is just as important to him.

In the case of Feelings, his one-hour HBO stand-up special premiering on Saturday, Youssef is mostly working on his own. But while Youssef’s stand-up may be hyperspecific to his experiences as a Muslim in New Jersey, he maintains a focus on writing stories and telling jokes from a perspective that anybody can relate to.

Feelings and Ramy share many of the same topics, such as being accused of being a child terrorist right after 9/11 or entertaining the thought of dating a cousin, but there’s also plenty of new material that’s not in Ramy, as he addresses Jussie Smollett, R. Kelly, and why he is wary of “fake news.” We spoke with Youssef about how the two pieces of material work together and how he intended to build a show that was diverse not only in its content but in who was creating it.

In Feelings you broach topics that in stand-up are usually derided, like Donald Trump and “fake news,” but you take a more empathetic point of view. What was the intention behind that?
The reason the special is called Feelings is so much of it is what emotionally feels true, and that doesn’t mean that it’s right, right? So many things in the special are wrong, whether it be factually or on any level; they’re wrong but they feel right in a moment. And so much to me about stand-up is just sharing moments and sharing those things of This is what I felt. It’s accurate only on an emotional level. I think that when you talk about Trump, that’s kind of how he operates, too — it’s not about what’s factually right, it’s about Well, I’m kinda feeling this thing. So much of it can intersect. It’s not really about trying to meet anywhere politically, it’s about trying to meet somewhere emotionally, but because we are humans we’re going to find places where we actually agree. Whether in truth or not, they fit in an emotional truth, and when you’re seeking an emotional truth the lines are going to be a lot more blurred than you want them to be, and they’re not going to be convenient, politically.

Feelings and Ramy share a lot of common jokes and situations. You can watch the special to hear your story and then Ramy to watch it play out in a TV narrative. How’d the writing process work between the two?
The bedrock of the show, especially the first season, was my stand-up. That’s really what we’re drawing from for the stories and a lot of the dialogue, character development — all of that came from the stand-up. When we shot the show we had a 45-minute tape of me doing stand-up, and it was a lot of what is in Feelings. I would say about half of what’s in Feelings was in that, and the other half is what I’ve written in the last year and a half. So we really used the stand-up to shape the show, and as I was thinking of stuff for the room I would go out onstage and play with it and figure out how it was hitting and then put that in the script. They kind of work as companion pieces, but ultimately the stand-up really came first.

Much of the material in Feelings and Ramy is born out of the internal conflict of a guy who is stuck between the worlds of his Muslim–Egyptian family and the New Jersey-slash-white America environment that he’s spent his whole life in. Where do you think you fit between those worlds today?
I think we’re always going to be intersecting, regardless of where we have our roots and where we’re living and operating and being. I feel very much rooted in being Egyptian, and I also feel very rooted in being a guy from New Jersey. It’s less like “between worlds” and more synthesizing those worlds and reflecting and showing that yeah, there are places where they butt up against each other, but we’re constantly feeling friction with anything that we’re doing, especially when you care about what you’re doing. There’s always going to be a gap between what you believe and what you actually do, regardless of what your background is. I think from a bird’s eye kind of marketing perspective, they feel like “Oh man these things are so different!” But when you really think about it, they’re not. A lot of people have been connecting to the show where we all have that uncle, we all have parents, a mom who maybe we don’t know how to connect with as we become adults. With how specific the show is, it’s been cool to see how universal it is.

There have been several articles accusing brown men in entertainment of being “infatuated” with white women, or using brown women as a “punchline.” You address dating women of various backgrounds — white, brown, Muslim, Jewish — in both Ramy and Feelings. What are your thoughts on those criticisms, and do you have those in mind at all when you approach your work?
I think about “brown men, white women” for sure. I didn’t think about necessarily the feedback that they were getting, because I think everyone has to kind of write to their experience. I think we’re seeing Ramy navigate his desire, his ego, in trying to find the right romantic fit. What was really important for me was to not idealize this idea of erasing culture.

What happens a lot of the time when you see a brown lead guy fall for a white woman [is] what he’s essentially falling for is a completely new lifestyle. And what he’s essentially chasing is the erasure of where he comes from. And so it all gets tied and put under the umbrella of romance, but it’s actually much deeper than that, and it hints at a lot more that that character is trying to shift. And in this show, the only thing that the character of Ramy idealizes is his spirituality and faith. He idealizes wanting to be the best version of himself and be a good person. Now, there’s a lot of issues within that — there’s his ego, his narcissism, all that — but he’s actually striving to synthesize.

That’s the truest part of the show to my real life. He’s not trying to erase, he’s not trying to leave it all behind. If anything, he’s stepping towards his culture, and that does reflect in his dating, or in the tension that he has when he is with a white woman and in his desires when he tries to be with a Muslim woman. So it just sits in a much different place, and that’s something that didn’t come out of what criticism was of other things. It really just came out of what felt truest to me.

Speaking of dating, in Ramy he falls for his cousin, and people can hear your perspective on it again with Feelings. Do you get approached by people thanking you for not harshing the buzz on dating your cousin? Did you have any uncomfortable conversations with your own cousins?
[Laughs.] You know, I’ve gotten a lot of DMs from women saying, “I can be your cousin.” That’s definitely come up. Thankfully I don’t have a cousin who fits the category of being in my age range so it hasn’t quite hit personally in my family, but so much of the concept around that is that it is a common thing in Arab culture. I’m definitely not promoting it; I think there are complications that can come with it, but it’s a fun place to play in.

The issue of diversity and writers’ rooms is one brought up a lot these days, and you have a number of women writers, directors, and producers, including Bridget Bedard, Sahar Jahani, Leah Nanako Winkler, Minhal Baig, Cherien Dabis, and Jehane Noujaim. Was there a focus on not just bringing in more women but also women of various experiences and backgrounds?
Yeah, truly. I think that’s something we’re obviously very cognizant of in trying to tell certain stories. This year we’re kind of expanding the way the room works and in a slightly different way, in which we’re employing a lot of consultants and bringing in different voices even if they’re not necessarily in the writers’ room but looking at our stories and what we do as we shape them. And so it’s just really important to have people who can bring some authenticity to what we’re trying to tell and know the emotions of it because that’s the kind of thing that you can’t intellectualize. You have to have felt it.

For Ramy Youssef, All Roads Lead Back to Stand-up