Forget terrorist jokes, Muslim ban witticisms and “us vs. them” gags.
Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef nails his first HBO stand-up special, “Feelings,” by tackling universal predicaments — guilt, self-doubt, sex, dating, bad parenting — from hyper-specific angles.
The New Jerseyan, 28, also wields an arsenal of pop culture references, replicating the formula that made his Hulu series, “Ramy,” a critical success and TV’s first breakthrough Muslim American family sitcom.
In Saturday’s hourlong comedy special, Jussie Smollett, Fyre Fest, R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein are all conduits for his sharp insights into the vilification of celebrities, men’s fraught dance with the #MeToo movement and the truth behind why we all lie.
“We’ve all had our own Fyre Fest,” Youssef says of the “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience” that wasn’t. “When we’ve told people, ‘This weekend is going to be amazing!’ when all we had was a [lame] cheese plate.”
Youssef’s casual, disarming approach is what makes the special pop. He starts off slow, chatting to an intimate audience in the landmark Chicago Cultural Center as if they were friends in a worn booth at a local pub.
The bearded, baseball hat-wearing Youssef looks like any other nominally ambitious millennial. He says “like” a lot, and uses the f-word as a noun, verb and adjective. He bemoans dating apps.
In fact, he appears so unremarkably “American Dude” that viewers may find themselves looking in a mirror — even when he discusses the pros and cons of condom use, his own racist tendencies and why we’re all a bit like Donald Trump.
The president isn’t a person, argues Youssef. He’s “a feeling. An emotion. Sometimes you’re happy. Sometimes you’re sad. Sometimes you’re just Trump. You know that feeling, when you’re in an argument with somebody. ‘Ah, I want to win, but I don’t have the facts’ ... He’s not a man, he’s a mood.”
“Feelings” was taped in front of a diverse crowd, some in hijabs, others seemingly plucked from the key demographic for HBO’s bygone “Girls.”
Their reactions vary depending on the joke. The porn joke has the men laughing. The Michael Jackson vs. LeBron James gag hits everyone at the same time. The one about the Uber driver gets the brown folks in the crowd going.
“I get really upset every time I get a white Uber driver,” Youssef says. “Devastated. Like I lookdown at my phone and I see the little white face, and I’m just like ‘I’m going to be late.’ He’s going to stop at every stop sign. He’s going to make me listen to his band. I’m like ‘Scott, what the ...?!’
“I want one of my people. I want an Omar. I want a Mohammed. I want somebody who’s running from their country. … From the second I get into the car to the time we arrive, I want to hear somebody talk to their entire family. That makes me feel safe. That’s like an emotional seat belt.”
Youssef craftily built his HBO set like a party, with groups of guests from different parts of his life, until all the paths of humor converge: By the last third of the show, he has them all laughing at the same material at the same time.
It’s not his star power that pulls the crowd together. Though his name now comes up in conversations about Emmy contenders, the comedian was a relative unknown before Hulu took a chance with “Ramy,” and he may have the shortest Wikipedia page of anyone who’s landed an HBO comedy special since the advent of YouTube. (HBO taped “Feelings” on April 14, five days before the debut of “Ramy.”)
The winning combination is Youssef’s charming yet unapologetic approach. He doesn’t try to endear himself to the non-Middle Eastern audience members by calming their fears about guys with ethnic origins like his (“I’m one of the good ones!”). He also doesn’t placate the Muslims in the audience by toning down the material. Explicit sexual humor is not the usual fare for the latter crowd — and he delivers it in spades. It’s a risky strategy, and it works.
As for the lines about being a Muslim Arab in America? They’re tailored for absolutely no one — and so appeal to everyone.
On the media: “Some random crime will happen. You’ll hear them say, ‘And he recently converted to Islam.’ They’ll just throw it in there. … That’s why I had to watch the whole R. Kelly documentary. I was just waiting for them to find the Quran. I know it’s going to happen, episode six, we’re going to go in the booth, we’re going to think he’s singing a song, then it’ll be [sings] Allahu Akbar! … It’d be devastating for the Muslim people because it would be the most beautiful call to prayer ever.”
‘Ramy Youssef: Feelings’
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)