Ramy Youssef on highlighting anti-Blackness: "The conversation about race in America is very binary"

The "Ramy" creator appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss Mahershala Ali, homophobia & his unusual Emmy strategy

Published August 17, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Ramy Youssef (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
Ramy Youssef (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

Ramy Youssef is not trying to get you to convert to Islam with his critically acclaimed Hulu show, "Ramy." He's simply trying to make you laugh while sharing a glimpse into a Muslim American family living in New Jersey. In fact, as I discussed with the 2020 double Emmy Award nominee (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series) on "Salon Talks," his show, by design, often makes references to Islam and the customs of American Muslims without explaining it in detail. Ramy, who won a Golden Globe in 2019 for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Television, noted that's why we have this thing called Google.

The sophomore season of "Ramy" not only recently won a prestigious Peabody Award, but also (excitingly) features double Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who plays Ramy's imam on the show as he attempts to navigate practicing his faith while being a millennial in 2020 America. What makes the show so vitally important is that it does not seek to present an idealized version of the Muslim American community; in fact, Yossef notes that the show is more focused on the struggle of faith.

"Faith isn't really on our series brought into question," Youssef told me on "Salon Talks." "It's not even so much instructed or even really explained. It's more, we're watching people. We're kind of watching people live in this gap between who they want to be and they actually are. It's all about struggle."

For decades Hollywood has demonized and depicted Muslims irresponsibly as terrorists with no concern for the real-world consequences. Rather, Ramy shares a brutally honest — while often funny— depiction of the Muslim community. In this season alone, the show featured numerous intra-Muslim community issues from anti-Black racism by some Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims to the way the LGBTQ community is viewed inside the community. As a Muslim myself, I'm keenly aware of the challenges these issues pose to our community and perhaps by Ramy holding a mirror up to these issues it will hasten change for the better.

To hear more about Ramy Season 2 and where the creator, actor and director plans to take the next season, watch my "Salon Talks" with Ramy Youssef here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

We've known each other for a long time from your early days of comedy. When you were dreaming of doing something bigger than just live performing. You were doing videos while I was doing stand-up during the Arab Comedy Festival, and then you started doing stand-up and acting. Was your dream to do a show like "Ramy" and sharing a slice of the Muslim-American experience in modern-day America?

I don't think I could honestly say I ever thought it would look like this in this form, but the intention was there, right? We met doing Arab Comedy Festival, which you started. And I remember being so inspired about that environment and being able to talk about who I was in a way that I didn't feel like anyone was talking about. We were living in this era of people talking about Arabs, talking about Muslims, but no one talking with us and no one was having a conversation that felt real. I remember feeling really liberated, getting to do the fest, getting to eventually do stand-up and step into talking about these things. In terms of the desire to figure out how it would scale into something, I remember thinking I was making these videos and I was like, "Will I make a movie or make a TV show?" It was kind of up in the air. But the spiritual intention of "Ramy" has always been there from the beginning.

Your faith is important to you. My faith is important to me. I'm not going to speak for you, but both of our faiths are important, in different ways. When you're creating the show how much of an obligation do you feel to express Islam in a way that's accurate, like not showing this idealized version of what the real version of being Muslim in America.

I think you kind of hit it there where it's like, it's more about being an Arab Muslim than it is about Islam, right? So the faith isn't really on our series brought into question. It's not even so much instructed or even really explained. It's more, we're watching people. We're kind of watching people live in this gap between who they want to be and they actually are. It's all about struggle. And so because of that, I don't feel any pressure because I'm talking about people struggling. And so that's just gonna look messy. That's the design of the thing. So we're not here to really teach Islam or anything, that I would be very worried about and I would also be very unqualified to do.

Look, you made a great point. It's not about Islam 101, you don't even explain things about Islam. You just talk about it. I'm wondering if people are going to get some of the details on hajj, they might get a broad stoke, but with Mo[hammed Amer] and Dave [Merheje], two of the cast members who I know, talking about hajj and stuff. My fiancée Hend, she's from the Middle East, she's Arab and Muslim, and even when I watch your show I'm like, "What's that?" And she'll have to explain it to me. So I'm thinking, "What are white people thinking?" But you don't care, you're not going to explain everything. You're just sharing these lives of these characters. Is that accurate?

Yeah, totally. And people love to Google, man. People look it up, they'll find it. And I think people like watching something that they don't know. I think not knowing is exciting. Everyone's kind of sick of seeing the same thing all the time, so it's a nice opportunity to be able to present something new.

For me, as someone who knows you, during Season 1 of "Ramy," Ramy felt like it was Ramy the character, not you. The second season though, he was more or less like you. I know's that unfair because this Ramy is getting to be more self-destructive — not in a horrible way, but he's doing a bunch of crap. Do you struggle with being more self-destructive than I know of you?

Definitely and I think on a level, you met me when I was 19, you know, and I already knew what I wanted to do. And so, so much of this character is what if I didn't know what I wanted to do? You know, what would that look like? What if my family wasn't as communicative as mine is? 'Cause I think we can all kind of see a version of our life where we're like, "Oh man, if I went left instead of going, right, oof you know, I could be there, I could be doing that." I definitely deal with battling some of this stuff in the show, just not to the extent of it, because I feel like I've been able to have perspective, but so much of the fun of making this show is getting to daydream about what if I didn't, you know?

I think sometimes people make a show where they're like, oh cool, I'm going to make a show that's like a fantasy of what my life would be. And mine's almost like, a little bit of kind of a nightmare of what my life could be like. Like what, what if it went this way? You know? And what if this is how it felt? And it's almost scarier because it's not that far off, you know. Like you said, he's messing up. It's kind of this lane of, oof, that's a little too close for comfort, and we really liked that pocket on the show.

And you do hit that well. I'm not trying to do spoilers, but I have to ask you, at the end of the second season, you're talking about taking a second wife, of course it's the day after the wedding. Have you heard from Muslims and Muslim Americans and their reactions to that?

Of course I have. I think a lot of the reactions have been like, "I've heard a guy try to make this argument," you know? I think it's less about the principle. I think if you look into the principle of how this occurs in Islam and in the right way, you kind of understand the context. I think the historical context is immediately clear. And I think the context in how it is, is also immediately clear. It's not so much of an issue within the principle, as much as it is the way this character is trying to use it. In the way this character is trying to do what he's doing. I've definitely heard people being like, "Oh my God, I've had a dude try to have this convo with me."

Not only did you get two Emmy nominations for the show, but Mahershala Ali, who people know well — the Oscar winner, Emmy winner, remarkable, co-star in most of the episodes — gets nominated as well. What I really loved is you brought up something that's uncomfortable inside our community and that's anti-Black racism. Arab, South Asian and Black Muslims, they might all be Muslims to an outsider, but from the inside it's often different. Why did you feel important to approach this topic, in your series?

Because I think the conversation about race in America is very binary. It's almost like it's white versus people of color, you know, and everyone's on the same team. And I think when you frame a conversation that way you get so much further from being able to have any sort of real healing. And I think it's really important for us to look at anti-Blackness within our communities.

Even within the point you just made, I don't even know that Arabs and South Asians are so much on the same team. I think they'll talk about each other too. But I think very clearly, the bigger issue and the bigger target is the rampant anti-Blackness. And I think that to ignore it would be dangerous. You can't not talk about it when it's obviously going to be an organic thing that we know that our characters are going to come up against and are going to face. We're never trying to protect our characters. We're trying to really actually show their flaws because we feel like that is the most humanizing path that there is. But yeah, when you're showing closets yeah, you got to show them off.

I think what makes the show so neat because being of Muslim Arab heritage and even just talking about the film I made years ago "The Muslims Are Coming," but we got a lot of flack for people in the Muslim community going, "Why did you have so much cursing? Why did women do this? Why wasn't she wearing hijab and why was this?" And you're like, we weren't making this for our internal consumption of our community. We were trying to show a spectrum of our community from very devout to not devout at all. We're just culturally Muslim. Do you have any of the same issues within the Muslim community where you find yourself going, "Here's what we're trying to portray. It's not a Muslim, it's not a show made for the intra Muslim community; it's made for the broader American community"?

Yeah, I mean, I think that the audience is at a disadvantage because we've seen so little representation that's even trying to speak to anyone under the banner of Muslim. Basically any other imagery that we've seen that has Arabic that has prayer, let alone, even Black Muslims are barely depicted. It's all really under the guise of something really extreme and violent and kind of crazy. And so now we have this show, probably the first intimate look with an Arab-Muslim family in this format. And I think the expectations are very high.

I think the scarcity is very high as to types of content. And also, I think there's something about the marketing that feels like, "Hey, here's your show, like this is you." And so I think that there's kind of an immediate, recoil to that. You know, this show is not a show about Muslims. It's about an Arab-Muslim guy in New Jersey who jerks off too much. That's like a really specific lane. Like you can't convince an uncle and an aunt at the mosque, like, "Hey, you know, pop this on during Ramadan." This isn't for everybody. And I think that's good. I think that's what the show should be because it, it creates a lane for other things to exist. I never want to feel like, hey, I checked all the boxes.

You also approach another topic, which is an issue in every community, not just ours, and that's homophobia. I'm talking about your uncle in the show played by Laith Nakli, who I have known for a long time. He is so great in this.

I met him at the Arab festival.

Oh, did you? In Season 1, at least I didn't see signs that he was gay or not, but he comes out this season. He was closeted. Why was it important for you to address it?

I think so much of what we really are excited about exploring is places that people hide and that people feel lonely. And we do that with all our characters. We're trying to find them in these intimate places because that's kind of the goal of the show is to make people feel less alone. There are certain things that are hard to talk about in real life. What's really dope about art or comedy or anything like that is it can get expressed in the arena of fiction. And then people can talk about it as a reference point and people in everyday life don't have to be as bearing of where they're at if there is a reference point to talk about where they're at. It can open doors to some conversations. We really felt like, yeah, this is an important conversation.

It's about understanding the humanity of people, right? We have people who feel not only that they can't be themselves, that's almost a different thing. They almost feel like because of how they feel they shouldn't exist. I mean, suicide is just a huge problem in modern civilization, just in general, the way that we are, the way that we live, the way that we are socially, but then you also have a group of people that just feels so alone that they really feel like they have no way to talk about what's going on in their lives. We take that seriously and we wanted to look at that and we wanted to create a reference point for that.

In another episode you touched on transgender issues and you talk about suicide. It's heartbreaking to learn that transgender teens are about 50% more likely — even sometimes higher than that — to attempt suicide on their lives because of our society. I do think things are moving forward and I mean, that's what gives me hope all the time. So a couple more, before I let you go, my friend. Look, you won a Golden Globe, you get these two Emmy nominations. The obvious question is, do you feel more pressure? On the other hand, does it inspire you more to know that your stuff is being recognized and there's an appetite for it, and it's respected and celebrated?

It feels like fuel to keep going. It's really inspiring because we're still a small show. We're still trying to get people to watch. It's like the Golden Globe win, the Emmy nominations – these feel like it's like, oh cool, we got some good ad space. People, go watch. I'm not a celebrity. Yes, we have Mahershala in the second season, but this is not a celebrity-driven experience or show. This show, it's small. And for it to be recognized on this level is, it's massive. It means so much to what we're trying to do. And I think on an industry level, it means so much to kind of inspire networks to pick up things that they might've thought were too small.

When you accepted your Peabody Award this year, you talked about what it meant to you, that the show was recognized, that people like yourself and other smaller stories. And the idea that smaller stories could be told in a bigger way. Why is representation so fundamentally important to you, to actually be seen onscreen telling your story?

I think it's important to see reference points for your existence, you know, to see your humanity presented, you can't put a price on that. You can't put a price on feeling seen. And I think everyone deserves that. What's also really cool is audiences are sick of seeing the same thing. So it's kind of like you get to have volt. You get to have something that I think is really necessary for a society to have cool conversations that they need to have. And you also get variety.

With your Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy series you're up against Ted Danson and Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle and others. My advice is go Trump, go negative. Go right at them. No one's done that!

Everyone says that's it's just an honor to be nominated. I need to start taking digs. I need to be like, "You gotta vote for me because I'll be the only one who can serve four years."

Before the show got picked up for a third season you said you would do it on TikTok if you had to, but now you've got a third season. You don't have to. Any sense of where this might go?

Yeah, a bunch. I think so much of what we have fun looking at is the secrets that people keep. And it's interesting too, when you have a family that's living in the same house, but the kids are a little older. Everyone's really living their own life, but they're still under the same roof. And I think with what happened with the family and Season 2. Season 3, I think a lot of the things people have been hiding are going to come out in a bigger way. And I think we're going to kind of really feel the ensemble of the family even more and really feel everyone talk about some things that they've been needing to talk about for a while. I'm really excited for a lot of these things to come to the surface.

Any idea when you will actually go film with COVID?

It's going to be a bit. My feeling in terms of how we're approaching and running our set is that we want to lean towards being slow to come back because we certainly want to be the leaders. I think we want to feel like things are safe.  I anticipate that maybe we get back into it late spring or something.

Late Spring. Wow.

To shoot, yeah.

Last thing, I saw you were not just working on your own pocket, you're developing something for Steve Way, who was on the show. You did fundraisers in New Jersey for this guy. You love this guy. And it shows.

I know it's my guy. It's my guy.

What are you trying to develop from there?

We're developing a show, a scripted show with Apple right now that is a deep dive and look at the disabled community. Even Steve's role on my show, playing my disabled best friend, he's still just the best friend. There's an entire universe that could revolve around Steve and you know, the show will, and we'll really be able to view what someone like him goes through and what his community looks like in a real way.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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