How Ramy Youssef finds humour in religion — and his own Muslim faith

The Golden Globe-winning comedian skips the stereotypes and finds laughs where religion and everyday life meet.

The Golden Globe-winning comedian skips the stereotypes and finds laughs where religion and everyday life meet

In the acclaimed comedy Ramy, comedian Ramy Youssef plays an ego-heavy version of himself — a millennial who’s trying to forge his own identity and figure out how religion, relationships and his family fit into his life. (Mind Tucker)

When comedian Ramy Youssef was doing stand-up, he began to notice a pattern.

When he performed for conservative Muslim audiences, they would get uncomfortable when he started talking about sex.

When he performed midnight shows at comedy clubs, audiences would get just as uncomfortable when he talked about having genuine religious faith.

Those tensions helped to inspire Ramy, an eponymous comedy show about an Arab-Muslim family living in New Jersey.

The program — which also features Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Sheikh Ali Malik — captures the push and pull between religion and everyday life, or as Youssef puts it, "Friday prayers and Friday night."

"That central tension was really important for me to bring out because I felt like there were no depictions of faith or being religious that felt organic to me in the on-screen world," says Youssef in an interview with q host Tom Power.

The Christian film genre feels highly sanitized, almost a commercial for the religion, he says, and other films feature priests gone bad or Muslim leaders linked to terrorist organizations.

"All these really blown-out concepts. So for me, this space that is so real for people who do believe, and for people who are navigating that, was the central focus of what I wanted to make," he explains.

"If anything, it's more about a person of faith of my generation than it is even specifically about being Muslim."

'If other people are the problem then so am I'

Religion itself has become such a punch line in modern society, adds Youssef, that tackling religious belief in comedy actually seems edgy.

However he doesn't fault people who are averse to religious culture because, as he puts it, religion has become an industry.

"The way that these real emotions and these real ideals have been manipulated for a lot of bad and a lot of darkness and a lot of shame that is leveraged toward entire societies, the idea that there would be so much anti-religion is completely justified," he says.

"And I am very anti-religious culture on the whole. But I connect to faith — and those are different things."

Youssef says he doesn't have a problem with Islam; rather, he has a problem with its followers. But Youssef isn't pointing fingers at his Muslim culture or community; rather, the show is about pointing a finger at the follower he knows best: himself.

"The core of my work is self-examining, because if other people are the problem then so am I," he says.

"I'm not exempt from looking at my hypocrisies and my gaps between what I believe and what I actually do."

'I'm going to keep this to myself'

For his performance, Youssef won a Golden Globe earlier this year, a Peabody this week, and is a likely contender for Emmy consideration later this year.

The show primarily centres around Youssef's character, but it also features his family and friends — a fact not lost on his father, who has adjusted his behaviour accordingly.

"He'll be in the middle of telling me a story and he'll just cut it off and be like, 'You know what? I'm going to keep this to myself. I'm not trying to have this show up in your stand-up," recounts Youssef, who tells the story of his dad's unlikely connection to Donald Trump in his HBO special Ramy Youssef: Feelings.

"And I'm like, 'No, man, I only told, like, two bits about you. I don't mention you that much. We can just talk.'"

In the show, Youssef plays a version of himself — a millennial who's trying to forge his own identity and figure out how religion, relationships and his family fit into his life. 

But Youssef, who is Ramy's co-creator, writer and executive producer, reserves the most cutting humour for his own character, and avoids protecting the protagonist or trying to make him look good.

"I really wanted to look at the ego-heavy version of myself. I really wanted to look at what would my life looked like if I went left in the fork as opposed to right," says Youssef.

'We all walk around with questions'

He's always been fortunate, he adds: his family is communicative, he has a passion for his work, and he got involved in comedy and film at a young age.

"I've always had this focus, but so much of the character I created for the show is, 'What if I didn't have that? What if I was really succumbing to my ego? What if I didn't find answers to certain questions and I was a little bit more stuck?"

Many of us live our lives numbing ourselves, hoping that we don't have to think about the things that are actually in our heart, and in our mind.- Ramy Youssef

The second season of Ramy was just released on Hulu and Crave. And while the subject matter is serious, and the show tackles pressing issues of racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, Youssef emphasizes that the last thing he's aiming to do is offer answers.

"I think we all walk around with questions and there's even a thought that we're all actively trying to answer our questions, but I would argue that many of us live our lives numbing ourselves, hoping that we don't have to think about the things that are actually in our heart, and in our mind," he says.

"My goal in opening up some of these things is to bring people closer to whatever questions they might have."

— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Danielle Grogan.


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