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Television

Ramy Youssef on making TV’s first Muslim American sitcom, Hulu’s millennial comedy ‘Ramy’

Ramy Youssef
Ramy Youssef, star of the Hulu series “Ramy.”
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)
Television Critic

Sex outside of marriage. Sex inside of cars. Sex as a 24-7 preoccupation.

Hooking up, getting busy or whatever you choose to call it is central to Hulu’s new half-hour comedy “Ramy,” which wouldn’t be all that remarkable if the series wasn’t television’s first Muslim American sitcom.

Egyptian American millennial Ramy, who’s played by comedian and show co-creator Ramy Youssef, is an Allah-fearing Arab, but not the sort viewers are used to seeing on their screens. He doesn’t come with decimated war-zone scenery, a dusty keffiyeh headscarf or a Kalashnikov.

Ramy is a shaggy, unsure 28-year-old in a baseball cap, rumpled T-shirt and jeans who still hasn’t kicked a childhood habit of smothering whatever’s on his plate with too much ketchup.

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When he’s not searching for his next girlfriend or hanging out with his wheelchair-bound bestie Steve (Steve Way), he’s looking for a comfortable spot between his parent’s old world (a pre-Arab Spring Egypt) and the new world in which he grew up and still lives (suburban New Jersey). The tension between the two makes for some of the best culture-specific jokes — and universal situation comedy — around.

The 10-episode series, which employs Muslims and Arabs in front of and behind the cameras, premieres Friday. It breaks ground like “Fresh off the Boat,” but with the raw, subculture-specific spirit of “Insecure” or “Master of None.”

A Black Spot on the Heart
Ramy Youssef and Steve Way in a scene from "Ramy."
(Barbara Nitke / Hulu)

ALSO: Never have TV viewers seen such contrast in Muslim images after New Zealand’s attacks »

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When the fictional Ramy tells his friend Mo (Mohammed Amer) he’s trying to abstain from sex during the holy month of Ramadan, Mo calls him out on it: “Dude, you’re really gonna be one of those Ramadan Muslims? You can’t be jerking off all year, then, all a sudden, turn into Malcolm X.”

During a recent interview in Los Angeles, Youssef says, “There’s this idea that when you say you’re Muslim, that you’re either all in or you’re trying to escape it. I love the idea of gradations and levels, just like everybody else has.”

It’s the kind of TV that was missing from his childhood.

“The stories I always see about a first-generation kid trying to erase where they came from, or trying to just be white, I would watch those shows or movies and I was like, ‘I don’t get this,’ ” Youssef says. “This isn’t how I feel. I really respect this culture and this faith, but I’m not perfect and I’m struggling. I’ve drawn my lines, and yeah, I cross them. The best jokes and stories come from that conflict and guilt, and I’ve never seen that talked about on TV.”

“Ramy” is edgy and raw, too graphic for Youssef to show his own parents, but exactly the right temperature for a room full of his generational peers who recently watched a few episodes at a Hollywood screening. It was clear from the laughter that the audience, Muslims and otherwise, recognized themselves or their families in the people they saw on screen.

Do the Ramadan
In a "Ramy" episode called "Do the Ramadan," from left, Ramy Youssef, Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje.
(Barbara Nitke / Hulu)

ALSO: Exploiting fear of Muslims? The far right has nothing on liberal Hollywood »

Executive produced by Youssef, Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”) and Bridget Bedard (“Transparent”), the semi-biographical series — co-created by Youssef, Ryan Welch and Ari Katcher — has its origins in Youssef’s stand-up routine.

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Says Bedard, “Almost every episode was born out of some joke we just pushed deeper. We explored why it was a joke in the first place. What’s the pain behind that?”

Youssef honed his stand up in small New York clubs, amassed a local following, then picked up national attention in 2017 when he appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Youssef now has a stand-up comedy special airing on HBO in June. Clearly, he’s come a long way since his first big break — a Taco Bell commercial and an ensuing gig as a regular on Nick at Nite’s Scott Baio comedy “See Dad Run.”

“I moved from New York to L.A. to be on the show,” Youssef says. “My mom was like, ‘It’s amazing. You’re going to meet so many actors. Then, you can become a lawyer for actors.’ Like this show was a networking experience for what would eventually be my future job.”

The fictional Ramy lives at home with parents, Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and Farouk (Amr Waked), and sister Dena (May Calamawy). They speak a mixture of English and Arabic, use Uber and shop at Costco. They aren’t particularly religious, though they do recite Quran surahs and use Islam when needed, as with the sex talk Farouk has with Dena.

After a few references to the importance of pious Muslim behavior, he compares a woman who loses her virginity before marriage to a bottle of Coke: It’s fresh when you open it; then, no one wants it the next day.

On the show, Ramy appears to attend mosque more than his parents, praying with a hole in one sock. It’s there, during one episode, that his friends notice a new face in the crowd. “He’s a spy,” comments one of them casually, referring to Homeland Security’s post-9/11 policy of placing informants in American masjids. Another lets out an exasperated huff: “Look at him. He’s Dominican. The FBI isn’t even trying anymore.”

That’s about as close as Youssef comes to what he calls “All Arabs Are Not Terrorists” humor.

“I didn’t want ‘Ramy’ to be a commercial, like ‘Hey, Muslims are good!’ ” Youssef says. “We’re underrepresented, so the instinct when we get an opportunity like this is to show people that we’re good, that we have the same shared values. What’s more important to me is showing that we have the same flaws. How do you show someone yourself in the most human way possible? You show them you’re struggling to be good.”

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The fictional Ramy tries to be upright and virtuous when he fasts for the Muslim holy month. But it’s not easy when everyone around him at work — his uncle’s Manhattan jewelry shop — is eating.

His stomach growls as he sees the bearded Orthodox Jews who own the surrounding stalls eating delicious, thick sandwiches for lunch. Then, the camera pans to another bearded man eating a turkey sub, only this time, it’s his Uncle Nassem (Laith Nakli).

“You’re eating too? It’s Ramadan,” says Ramy.

“Ramadan starts tomorrow. Any Muslim would know this,” snaps his bossy uncle.

“Everyone I know is fasting today,” Ramy says.

“That’s because they’re following Saudi. I don’t answer to Saudi Arabia. It’s the most corrupt country in the world.”

“I thought [you said] that was Israel?” says Ramy, using his uncle’s own bigoted words from earlier against him.

“They’re Jews. They don’t know any better. Muslims should.”

“My friends and I call that kind of behavior ‘Allah Carte,’ ” says Youssef. “It’s when people pick and choose the bits they want to practice.”

Concerns that “Ramy” might be too culturally specific for a wider audience aren’t, in fact, concerns for the folks behind its creation.

“When people watch it, they’re not really going to see a culture clash, they’re going to see it like, ‘Oh, wait, I see my family in this family,’ ” says Youssef. “I know people want to hear that this is an East versus West culture clash, but the reality is, we’re all clashing with each other in our own homes all the time. This is no different.”

And awkward sex, like family dysfunction, is another universal that “Ramy” is banking on.

“There are a lot of parallels between ‘Ramy’ and ‘Transparent,’ ” says Bedard. “The [characters] are trying to find a comfortable place, but it’s that discomfort that everyone can relate to. And that is also where so much of the humor comes. I don’t think we ever wrote a good sex scene in ‘Transparent,’ like somebody comes away satisfied and the violins come in. That never happened.”

The violins don’t cue up for anyone in “Ramy” either.

“A big part of what I’m trying to do with this show is embrace sexuality and talk about it,” says Youssef, who focuses a lot on the subject in his stand-up as well. “That’s something that Arabs do not do publicly. That is something that Muslims do not do publicly. We’re used to talking about violence, and we’re used to dealing with it. But we don’t talk about our sex lives, and this show really does get into it … That sexuality can come out negatively and positively.”

And wickedly funny too.

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali


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