How Ramy Youssef, Creator of the First Series About a Muslim-American Family, Reinvented TV

The comedian on keeping audiences on their toes, his creative approach and making a show about faith

Ramy Youssef
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Photo: Ramy Youssef for Adweek
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key insights:

One of last year’s best new series was Ramy, which creator/star Ramy Youssef based on his life as part of an Arab-Muslim family living in New Jersey. While Ramy was a critical success, the Hulu comedy—which is TV’s first scripted show to center on a Muslim-American family—didn’t really break through until January’s Golden Globes. That night, Youssef was the unexpected winner of best actor in a TV musical or comedy series, over bigger names like Michael Douglas (from Netflix’s The Kominsky Method) and Bill Hader (HBO’s Barry).

The audience was surprised, but quickly charmed by the comedian’s acceptance speech. “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show,” said Youssef, to huge laughs. “Everyone’s like, is this an editor?” Looking back on his big win five months later, Youssef tells Adweek, “I guess it was a reverse psychology kind of thing, because a lot of people then started to watch it.”

Now even more people are watching Ramy following the recent release of Season 2, which adds two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Sheikh Ali, a Sufi leader who helps mentor Youssef’s TV alter ego. Like the first season, the new Ramy episodes constantly keep viewers guessing, from a bachelor party that veers in a wholly unexpected direction to an excruciating event that could derail his mother’s efforts to become a U.S. citizen.

Youssef’s expertise in delivering the unexpected was also on display in last year’s HBO standup special Feelings, which mined humor in hot-button topics like #MeToo, 9/11 and last year’s New Zealand mosque shootings. He talked with Adweek about his creative approach, subverting expectations and how he might incorporate the pandemic into his show.

Illustration: Kacy Burdette, Trent Joaquin; Original photo: Ramy Youssef

(Editor’s note: The interview was conducted prior to the nationwide protests prompted by the tragic death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Youssef has encouraged his followers on social media to donate to local bail funds and other social justice organizations supporting Black Lives Matter.)

Adweek: You had never created a TV show before Ramy, so what made you think you could pull this off?
Youssef: I moved to L.A. in 2012 and was on a family sitcom on Nick at Nite [titled See Dad Run]. I really enjoyed it, but I also knew I didn’t move across the country to only do that. I was like, I really want to figure out how to put a real Muslim character on-screen, one that I could identify with.

It’s all small steps. I had been making stuff since I was like 15. I learned how to video edit, I bought my own cameras and I was doing all of that. So much of it is like, you try a joke at an open mic and then three years later you’re telling the same joke in front of thousands of people in a huge place. Yeah, I hadn’t made a show, but I had made so many small things, and it scales. It’s scary how well it can scale if you’re clear on what it is that you want to do.

Much has been made, deservedly so, about how groundbreaking Ramy is as the first scripted series to focus on a Muslim family, but perhaps the even more revolutionary part of the show is that it’s about a character in his 20s exploring his or her faith, period.
It’s interesting—we didn’t pitch the faith part as much during the pitch [to networks]. I’m not going to say I had this super master plan, but I knew I wanted it to be an element. It’s certainly not what we led with, but I remember very clearly having this conversation with Jerrod [Carmichael, one of Ramy’s executive producers] at the time where I was like, I really want to see the relationship I have with God on-screen. I don’t want it to be cheesy, I don’t want it to be angels in heaven, I don’t want to be a cartoon—I really want it to feel real, and I want to crack that.

Youssef is developing a project for Apple TV+ for his friend and Ramy co-star Steve Way.
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

If I were to say what we’re bringing to the table, it’s really a character of faith that feels like someone you know, that doesn’t feel like a caricature. That’s why Jewish people love the show, Mormons love the show, Christians love the show, Muslims, because it’s [about] anyone [of faith] who is trying to straddle that line.

You added Mahershala Ali to the cast this season. How did you insert a two-time Oscar winner in the show without disrupting the world you had created in the first season?
I told Mahershala, our template here is Danny DeVito in [FXX’s It’s Always] Sunny [in Philadelphia]. We need to make sure that you just slip right in like you were always there. I said to him, “You’re going to be my Danny DeVito!” [laughs]. You need to feel like this character actually always existed in this world, but we just never went to his mosque.

We were talking about things for him and initially the plan was that we had a character of the sheikh coming in at the end of the second season. Then one of my co-creators, Ryan [Welch], was like, “That should be Mahershala.” We started to feel like, if he’s going to play the sheikh, are we really going to wait until Episode 7 or 8 [to bring him in]? We should really get into this sooner.

So the big arc for Season 2 was always going to be Ramy’s journey of self-discovery and his efforts to connect more with his faith?
Yeah. Season 1 was very much him trying to figure out who he is, and it was very aspirational. We really wanted Season 2 to be transformational. We really wanted to see him have to reckon with where he’s actually at. We wanted to get into intimacy issues, we wanted to get into a porn addiction—how do people feel loneliness, and how does faith intersect with that? That’s why Mahershala’s character works so well, because it enhances everything we were trying to do anyway.

One highlight from this season is that you once again focus entire episodes on the other members of Ramy’s family—his mother, father and sister, and also his uncle—instead of yourself. Why was this something you wanted to do?
It came out of a lot of early conversations that I’d had with [co-creators] Ari [Katcher] and Ryan where we were feeling like, in a lot of television there’s so many A, B and C stories [in each episode] and we try to get characters’ perspectives in just one line and one scene, and it really makes television feel bogged down. Our goal going in tonally was, how do we construct a TV arc but also have a short film feel? The idea of things feeling really focused was an early priority for us. Out of that, we were like, if we want to talk about the mom or the sister, why don’t we do an episode? Why don’t we focus it in that way? I had so much fun writing those, and so we had even more this season.

From episode to episode, you’re not sure where Ramy is going to take you. Even when you think you know, it goes somewhere different. Was that intentional on your end, to always try to subvert expectations?
Yeah. You never want to do the easy thing of just leaning on [the fact] that some of these topics haven’t been covered before. We want to be bringing something interesting to the table from a filmmaking perspective. Something really important that I think about a lot when crafting anything is that I don’t just want it to be timely, I want it to have a timeless character element to it. I don’t want this to be exciting just because it’s a new trick, just because we haven’t seen a Muslim family like this before. In my vision of the future, there are many Muslim stories, and so I don’t want this to rest on its “first”-ness. It has to really rest on our approach and the fullness of it. We really want these things to excite us as we’re making them, too.

You have the same approach with your HBO standup special, where your first four topics are Jussie Smollett, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and #MeToo. That’s not how most comedians would construct a standup set.
As we talked about with the show, wanting to make things feel timeless, I think that there is in many ways often a really timely element to standup, especially when you’re talking about some of those topics. I tried to approach those topics from a place where they could stand on their own later. I think it’s more talking about the humanity behind these things. I was doing my standup set in Chicago [where the Smollett incident occurred and where R. Kelly is from], and so it felt natural to start with those.

There’s a bunch of jokes in that hour special that I wrote seven years ago, and there’s a bunch of jokes that I wrote the week before. It was fun, as a performer, to give myself that mix of things and just kind of trust that, if you’re into the first couple minutes, you’re going to really like the whole special. And if you’re not, then you’re probably not going to like it. There’s a freedom in that.

Do you have a mantra that you rely on when approaching your work?
I really want to feel—with almost anything I’m doing—is this going to make people feel less lonely? Is this something that’s really going to connect in a place that needs to be recognized? That to me is what representation is, and not so much any of the labels that we put on ourselves, or our beliefs or where we come from. Making sure that space is being touched in a way that feels unique to the thing that we’re doing is really important for me, across everything. If it doesn’t really fit that criteria, if it feels like it’s just for shock value, if it feels like it’s just a news headline repeated, if it feels like I’m working off of tension that is not really relevant to me, then I’m not interested in it.

How does one stay creative during a pandemic, and how did it affect Season 2?
We did finish the majority of our filming. We had three days left, which is actually a lot, because you shoot an episode in five days. We had a lot of pieces to different things that we weren’t able to get. But we figured out solves, we figured out how to do it in the edits; certain things went from one episode to another. We made it work, so I spent a lot of my time figuring out how to do that, and dealing with a very extended editing process. You really realize how much you’re losing when you’re not all in the same [editing] room. This is the first Ramadan I’ve ever had where I didn’t get to go to the mosque; it was all during pandemic. So for me, spiritually and creatively, there’s definitely been this stunted frustration.

But then I have also found myself doing other things that I never get to do. Everyone has that list of movies that they’ve been meaning to watch and I’ve actually started watching them, and reading some of these things I’ve been meaning to read. So there’s something in that, but I definitely miss people—and I miss standup for sure.

How long do you think it might be until you’ll be able to have a “normal” experience doing standup at a club?
If I’m being real with myself, I don’t see it happening until fall 2021, early 2022. But I have a friend who headlined a comedy club this last weekend, and they did it with social distancing. So I think everyone has different views on what they’re going to do and how they’re going to operate. I know we’ll resume at some point, but I don’t want to be part of drawing people out and creating any issues for anybody.

Hulu hasn’t officially renewed Ramy yet for Season 3, but have you started to think about how you might incorporate the pandemic into the show?
Yeah, I have. It will be this fine balance. It will be important to feel the presence of it, but I don’t really want to revolve around it because I think part of the job of what a show like mine needs to do too is, what are things that real-life conversations can’t achieve, that maybe are better to be put into this format? Also, what can the internet not achieve? Every relatable joke about corona has pretty much been tweeted or meme’d or made. What we’re really wanting to see is some funny, emotional aspects of it that only a longer-form show could achieve. So it will be figuring out what are those elements and how they uniquely pertain to our characters.

Is there anything else you’d still like to do in the industry?
I feel so lucky because I’m able to do a lot of the things that I’ve wanted to do for a while. So I just want to be able to continue to do them, and do them as well as I can. The thing that I haven’t gotten near yet is the feature space, and there’s definitely stuff there that’s exciting for me. Eventually, getting there would be really fun.

View Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2020 by category to discover more about this year’s honorees.

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.