Ramy Youssef and Terry Crews cut loose with pals on taking risks — and fart jokes
So much of television is about exploring the human condition, and we don’t just mean all the “Real Housewives” shows. Even comedy series today delve into morality, social mores and “otherness,” in sometimes outrageous ways. “There’s just a lot more risks being taken,” these days, notes television staple Tony Shalhoub (please don’t call him a veteran!).
Shalhoub joined L.A. Times television critic Lorraine Ali and comic performers D’Arcy Carden (“The Good Place”), Terry Crews (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) and newcomer Ramy Youssef (“Ramy”) in a freewheeling Envelope Roundtable about the varied landscape of comedy on television, representation and the internet’s role in programming. But then, they also gave thought to fart jokes and head shots.
Here are excerpts of their conversation, edited for length and clarity. The full interview will air all month on Spectrum News 1, starting June 14 at 9 p.m.
Television is in a really exciting and creative place. It’s opened things up in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. So, Tony, I wanted to ask you first, you are a veteran —
Tony Shalhoub: That’s one way of saying it.
How have you seen the changes, from “Wings” through “Monk” up to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”?
Shalhoub: When I was starting out in the ’90s, there were like the four networks, so it was “Must-See TV.” There was a schedule. Your show was on at a certain time and if you missed that you couldn’t talk about it around the water cooler, you waited until the summer reruns. So, that’s just on a delivery aspect, but in terms of the way television has gotten more like film, there’s so many more choices. It’s so much more gritty, the dramas are. And the comedies are more outrageous and there’s just a lot more risks being taken. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.
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Can you imagine “The Good Place” happening 10 years ago on broadcast TV?
D’Arcy Carden: It’s too … too weird.
How do you describe “The Good Place” to people?
Carden: It’s an afterlife comedy. No, to describe it, you’re either going to be lying or you’re going to be spoiling something, right? I guess we’ve been doing this now for a few years, I should get better at it.
Shalhoub: I think it’s true of so much TV right now. In the old days, there was a one-line for almost everything. It was like it’s this and it’s set in a bar and dah-dah-dah-dah. And now, so much television is layered in a way that viewers receive it differently, they interpret it differently. My show, for example, the [viewer] demographic is very broad. So people must be keying into it for different reasons and getting different things out of it.
“Ramy” star Ramy Youssef talks about showing an Arab Muslim family, and working from a place of specificity rather than scarcity.
I think the comedies that you’re in are so different, I’m not even sure that I would call “Ramy” a comedy.
Ramy Youssef: I guess it’s like a dark comedy about a Muslim family. And we really get to look at a really specific type of family, in a way that we haven’t been able to before. It’s just hyper-specific in a way that I can’t imagine it living in a different time. There’s no tagline, there’s just the tone and there’s a vibe and people are like, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting. I think I heard about that.” Part of it is the internet, right? So, it’s like the internet helps you figure out shows. It also orchestrated the Egyptian Revolution. There’s so many things that just because of Twitter, we can do and that’s what’s really exciting.
Carden: With Terry’s show, like the internet brought …
Terry Crews: Brought us back.
Crews: We got canceled and the internet brought us back. That was … I will never forget it was the saddest and happiest 24 hours of my entire life.
Gina Rodriguez: It had to have been, right? Such a roller coaster.
Crews: I was down, like, “No!” And then you look online and you’re like, “Well, at least online they like us.” Then boom, we got picked up by NBC and it was directly because of that …
Shalhoub: It happened that fast?
Crews: That fast, 24 hours.
Rodriguez: I believe the internet and social media gives the ability for the audience to speak into existence the kind of shows they want to watch. For so long we thought we have to have these broad, universal stories, so everybody can understand this is an American family. This is what it looks like. But some people were like, “That is not the American family I grew up in and that’s not what it looks like” and I can’t relate to that, oddly enough, universal story. On the contrary, I relate much more to the specific story. Because that actually is what makes me reflect on my own life. That specificity makes it more universal.
So you just wrapped up five seasons of “Jane.” How are you feeling?
Rodriguez: Almost the second we wrapped, you know, about six hours later, I got totally sick. It was just like, and now you’re allowed to feel. But I feel great, because how often do you get the pleasure of being able to complete a story? I know that was one thing going into television you tell yourself — and this was something I told myself from the beginning was take advantage of every single moment, be present. You know, make sure that you aren’t living in the future but really soaking it up, because it will finish.
This is a pretty diverse crew, I’m assuming most of us didn’t see ourselves on TV growing up?
Crews: What’s strange is that you’re bilingual. As a black man watching TV, I know what the universal white family is. I watched “The Brady Bunch” and grew up in that world. I know what “Friends” is like. What’s so weird is you can walk in that world. You have to be a part of that world. And then you come home and it’s like — hey, it’s a whole different thing. It’s “Sanford and Son,” it’s “Good Times.” And when those shows came on it was like, “OK, that’s our thing.”
And you know what flipped me out? It’s like my big inspiration in comedy was Carol Burnett. Watching Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence. And to this day, I mean, I still get goosebumps when I look – I have all the old stuff and I still watch it and it works every time. But then I remember when Richard Pryor had his special and I was like, “Oh my God! This is us and Carol Burnett all in one!”
Tony, your early inspirations, were they comedians, actors? Who were they?
Shalhoub: Well, I started out really in the theater and I always assumed I’d just have a life in the theater. Not because that was necessarily my goal, but I thought that was the only real viable path. I wasn’t ruling out film and television, but I didn’t see me out there. It was hard to find where I would fit in in that. And the emphasis in my training was to play different characters, nothing too close to yourself. So I very fortunately then transitioned into film and television, but as a character guy, so there wasn’t any one specific person or path to follow. I just, like you, I want to be part of changing the conventional perception.
Youssef: Perception is a big one. It was really cool knowing that Monk was an Arab dude, because that’s not what the role was. And it was just really cool to know that you were just playing a character. All I had growing up was like “Aladdin,” maybe I could be animated — or terrorist roles. And then when I started auditioning, I would go in for them and they were like, “You don’t look enough like a terrorist,” which was so frustrating.
Youssef: Like I wanted the role. “Hey, I’ll do it.” And they were like, “Nah man, no one’s gonna buy that.”
Youssef: So then I played roles where my character’s name is Kevin. And now I get to show an Arab family. It’s an Arab Muslim family but there’s so many different types of Muslims. And so, I even felt this weight with my show, where Muslims will watch it and they’ll be like, “Well, that’s not mine.” And I’m like, “Well, I know, I couldn’t do all of it.” I actually went out of my way to not show your Muslim experience or your Muslim story, because I only want to tell mine. And I want to make space for you to tell yours.
Gina Rodriguez recognized her role immediately, and says playing Jane has made her more honest.
Rodriguez: I felt this extreme pressure when I was playing Jane to represent the entire Latinx community, which is impossible. You support the one and then, the monies come and now we have space for three, right? And then we have space for eight.
It keeps upping the ante for creativity. There’s a fear. Oh no, what is this going to look like?
Rodriguez: It’s like we are living in a fear-based society and that’s the reason why the decisions are made this way. But also, you do not have the best comedy if you’re afraid, if you live in fear.
Do you feel like the role that comedy plays now is – I don’t want to say more important than ever, but there’s so many ways that you can tackle this. It can be super topical. It can be escapist.
Carden: I do think that comedy is more important than ever — for sure, escapism. I know that when things are getting real rough, my favorite thing to do is to just be like, “Tonight, I am not thinking about that,” and just watch whatever thing is going to make me laugh and not think about it.
But then some shows are tackling important issues in a way that to be able to laugh at is so healthy. And I know that a lot of us are feeling anxiety and this new weight of the world, and to look at it through a different lens and to look at it through comedy to me is super helpful.
Shalhoub: Well, it helps to put things in context sometimes and helps us to organize it and compartmentalize it in a way so we’re not feeling overwhelmed by the chaos or the avalanche of information and truths and untruths and conflicting realities. You watch things, comedies and they in a way help us to articulate and hopefully form strong opinions and beliefs.
Rodriguez: I find that comedy for us has really helped us tackle these really devastating, horrific, like, family separations and whatnot that’s happening in our country right now.
Youssef: For me, it’s about putting a face to certain concepts, but it’s also about like messing up the context. Like people think they know something about something and then they watch it and they have more questions. I just think it becomes really dangerous when comedy has to provide answers and like when people look at it for how the world should be.
Because then what’s your responsibility? Are you supposed to show things in an ideal state? Because then that becomes, like, sci-fi, you know? I think showing people being messy and showing them being wrong and showing them in their humanity is something that we can do, but it becomes difficult because there’s this weight put on comedy to be part of change and I’m like, “I don’t think it changes anything.”
Crews: You know, that’s a great point. Sidney Poitier said — and it blew me away — he said, “Entertainment does not solve problems.” He said, “It highlights them, it puts a light under them, it holds up the problem, it dissects the problem. It does all these things to the problem except solve it.”
It’s not necessarily tackling it straight on. I would take “The Good Place” as a good example. It gets at these very messy human conundrums and does it in a funny way.
Carden: I think a lot of people that watch our show kind of find themselves questioning what it means to be a good person and how they walk through life and things they could do to improve. And somehow, the writers manage to do it in a completely non-preachy way, that really just makes you look at your own choices.
Crews: Now you have a question.
Youssef: You have the responsibility to ask the right questions.
Crews: And that’s what this whole thing is about, getting people to think for themselves. That’s what good comedy does.
Carden: Also fart jokes.
If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Carden: Chill out. There’s no time limit. You didn’t miss it. Put your head down, do good, hard work and stop being so stressed out about what other people are doing.
Shalhoub: First, I want to preface what I’m going to say by saying that Ramy doesn’t have a younger self. You should ask him about his older self.
Shalhoub: I would tell my younger self, strive for some balance in your life. Balance your life and your work and your health and your relationship, your family — keep an eye on all of it, so that you don’t become too overly focused. I think where I got into deep water was when I just got hyper-focused on kind of crawling my way up.
Rodriguez: I need that in my life, a lot. That heavily resonated with me.
Crews: For me, every time something ended, it was a personal failure.
Rodriguez: You don’t like saying goodbye.
Crews: Oh no, I had a crisis.
Youssef: Wait until this is over, he’s going to be a wreck.
Shalhoub: We all have had that feeling and continue to have that feeling of, “I’m never going to work again.” But it’s good to go back to the void. The void is scary — was always a scary thing, but it’s a good place to go. You reset yourself, you keep your antenna tuned and your eyes open and then you’ve got to embrace the nothingness.
Crews: I want to play this on the way to work every morning, in his calm, cool voice, “Embrace the nothingness.”
Carden: I remember in college, one of the professors being like, “Take any other class than theater. Anything you’re interested in, even slightly, take the class, because if you just fully submerge yourself in theater, you have nothing to pull from.” We have to be fully-formed people with relationships and, you know, see the world and it can’t just be about our scripts and our set.
Youssef: The only thing I would tell my younger self is, “Don’t pay a lot of money for head shots.” There’s always some dude in Brooklyn that’s like, “Dude, this is gonna get you the job.” And he convinces you you’ve got to pay $700. You don’t! Your head shot doesn’t matter!
Watch the full Roundtable conversation in the video below:
It's a date
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