Ramy Youssef: “Ricky Gervais talks so much about God, he may be a Muslim! “| TV comedy

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isIt’s 8.45am in Los Angeles and Ramy Youssef is at his peak on what will be a long day filled with press interviews. “This is just one of those days when 30 questions in a row are” How is Ramy’s real life different from TV Ramy? “, He says laughing.

Nuanced, funny and humanizing, Youssef’s eponymous TV show Ramy finds himself under the skin of his internal struggles as a young second-generation Egyptian-American, as he explores what it means to be a good person and a good muslim. It’s reminiscent of series such as Dave, I May Destroy You or Fleabag – shows based on flawed but likable protagonists, tackling questions of morality for millennial audiences with humor and obscurity. Since it’s currently difficult to stream in the UK (it’s available on Amazon’s StarzPlay channel here), you might not have heard of it. But, with a Golden Globe win earlier this year and season two Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, momentum is building around the man and the series.

Like TV Ramy, Ramy grew up in New Jersey, visiting his grandparents in New York on weekends and spending his summers in Cairo. The real Ramy loved comedy and filmmaking as a hobby, but it was Laith Nakli (who plays Uncle Naseem in Ramy) who convinced him to pursue comedy in earnest when they first met. at a comedy festival over 10 years ago. At 20, Youssef landed a job on a Nickelodeon sitcom and moved to Los Angeles, where he managed to sell Ramy before he even got a stand-up special. Beyond that, I’m reluctant to ask how deep the similarities go – especially since some of the stories are a bit spicy (Episode 1 has a curling scene where a girl wants Ramy to suffocates during sex).

The focus of the series is not just Ramy himself. Some of the most groundbreaking episodes occur when the lens moves away from him and focuses on other members of his family. Everyone is viewed with affection, but none is without their own, sometimes exasperating, flaws. Ramy’s father is defined by his job and struggles when he loses his job, while his chauvinistic brother-in-law, Ramy Naseem’s uncle, is a successful businessman. Best of all is his neurotic mother (Hiam Abbass of Succession) whose unsolicited advice and objectionable opinions are reminiscent of a classic Arab aunt. What is striking is the way her character appears in episodes Away From Her Children, where she reveals herself as more than just a mother: complex and conflicted like Ramy himself, with her own sexual desires and frustrations. . « I want to look at the way we stereotype ourselves, ”Youssef says.

Many of the themes covered in the show are universal, from generational differences to what it means to be a man. “How was Ramy influenced by the way he was treated compared to the way his sister was treated by their mother and father?” asks Youssef. “It’s like he’s been kept so much because he’s a boy that it’s kept him from becoming a man, or even just a version of his potential.”

Like a prayer… Ramy Youssef to Ramy. Photography: Barbara Nitke / Hulu

In an age where tribalism groups people together based on politics, race, and experience, it’s refreshing to see seemingly contradictory but relatable characters existing even within a nuclear family. The struggle is not just about “us” and “them”. As a practicing Muslim, Ramy does not simply have to deal with an Islamophobic society; some of his biggest problems are coming to terms with himself and his relationship to his own faith.

“I think for every character, especially for Ramy’s character, it’s ‘me against me’,” he explains. “Whether it’s with writers who are in our room or with people who are in my life, I try to imagine: what are they hiding?”

This approach has resulted in a show so honest it can make viewing uncomfortable. In the second series, Ramy gets to know a Muslim woman and tries to be honest with her about her sexual history and the fact that he thinks he has watched too much porn. She advises him to “hide his sins”, a cultural and religious value shared between the different Muslim communities.

So how does he reconcile this principle with making a show that lays bare the transgressions of his characters? “In fact, because this show is fictional, it’s a place to explore sin,” he says. “It allows you to have a point of reference for talking about things, while others can continue to hide their sin.” For Youssef, it is the role of art in the community. “What exactly should the artist do? Show Islam and its perfection? No, that’s what teachers, imams and sheikhs are supposed to do. I haven’t studied Islam, so my job is to show a nuanced story in which we can discuss things. It doesn’t look like a contradiction at all. If anything, that sounds like the purpose of the show.

Youssef was surprised at the positive reception of the show in the Middle East. “They understand that we are skipping all entry level conversations and trying to get into the nuances about faith and ego. There’s that yearning where the American public sometimes thinks to themselves, “Couldn’t you just have had healthy conversations rather than immersed yourself in all the ego, sex, and drugs – all these things you’ve been into.” launched and making people uncomfortable? “

Moonlight ... MahershalaAli and Ramy Youssef
Moonlight… Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef. Photographie: Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu

The appearance of Mahershala Ali in season two, playing a wise and loving sheikh, brought more attention to the series. It is clear that for Youssef this partnership was just as important on a personal level. « To me it seems like a divine collaboration, ”he says enthusiastically. Ali first thanked Ramy for making the first series. “It turned into me to fish so that we could meet, hang and eat,” he continues. Soon Ali was on set, praying with Ramy between scenes. “You never see a religious leader on TV who isn’t full of hypocrisy or corruption, and we get to have this loving guy,” he says. “It’s so hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.”

Even offscreen, Youssef led with his faith. When he received his Golden Globe earlier this year for lead actor in a comedy series, he thanked God in his acceptance speech, saying “Allahu Akbar”, a phrase that in the Western world is often used. associated with acts of terrorism, but for Muslims simply means “God is great”. He was later asked in the press room if he did so for the benefit of host Ricky Gervais – a staunch atheist – whose monologue roasting Hollywood hypocrisies and performative politics has gone viral.

“The timing was funny after what Ricky said, but it was really important,” Youssef says, adding that Gervais is “a really funny and really cool guy”. He even asked Gervais how the line between atheists and believers was closed. “I told Ricky he talked so much about God that he might be a Muslim! he’s laughing.

As confidence in the media and lawmakers wanes, much of the comedy has become more political. What does Youssef think of people who turn to comedians like Trevor Noah and Hasan Minhaj for their news? “To me it’s kind of a comedy,” he said cautiously. “The truth that I think comedy should provide is emotional truth.

“Emotional truths are hard to put into words,” he adds. “But you can make a joke of it. And that’s what the joke is about… I love that I can be factually wrong, politically wrong. [But] I love that I can be emotionally right. And whether it’s as the real Ramy or as TV Ramy, that’s what matters most.

Ramy Season 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video’s StarzPlay starting August 6

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