Ramy Youssef on Ramy season two, bagging Mahershala Ali and growing pains

When Reese Witherspoon called his name out at the Golden Globes earlier this year, few people had seen Ramy Youssef’s very excellent TV series.

news.com.auMay 28, 20204:57pm

Self-isolating? Here's what to watch on streaming

Self-isolating? Here's what to watch on streaming

Mythic Quest, Plot Against America and Ramy are all available to watch now on streaming in Australia.

Ramy season two returns this week on Stan (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)Source:Supplied

One week into the new year, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon stood up on stage during the Golden Globe Awards and called out a name: Ramy Youssef.

The 29-year-old Egyptian-American comedian, actor and writer bounded up stage from a table further back in the room to collect his statue for Best Comedy Actor and he said two things in his short acceptance speech that stood out.

The first was “Allahu Akbar” and the second, which he said with mirth, was “I know you guys haven’t seen my show.”

That show is Ramy, a dramedy about a Muslim-American Gen-Yer in New Jersey, torn between the tenets of his faith and the challenges of being young in America. It deals with questions of family, sex and coming to terms with your actions versus your own expectations of yourself.

It’s a smart and wryly funny show with a confident voice.

Youssef co-created and stars in the series which had its origins in his stand-up routines. The first season premiered in May 2019 and returns for season two this week on Stan.

That Golden Globe win gave the little-known show a second boost.

“It felt like our show came out again,” Youssef told news.com.au. “The show came out last (American) spring but it feels like it also came out on January 5 when I won the Globe. It was like everyone who had been meaning to watch it suddenly started watching it really just brought an awareness to the show that we didn’t have.

“No one in our cast was someone people know from anything and it’s a show based on my stand-up but people don’t even know me as a stand-up yet. So it was really great to have something like the Globe, which really changed a lot for us.”

When Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globe in January, few people had seen his show. Picture: Rachel Luna/Getty Images

When Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globe in January, few people had seen his show. Picture: Rachel Luna/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

One of the people who had seen Ramy was Mahershala Ali, who has won two Oscars in recent years, first for Moonlight and then Green Book. Ali, who has also worked steadily on TV including on shows such as House of Cards and True Detective, joins the cast in season two.

Ali, whose mother is a Baptist minister, converted to Islam 20 years ago. He got in touch with Youssef after the first season and professed he was a fan of Ramy.

“He reached out as a fan,” Youssef said. “I was like ‘whaaaat?’ It was very shocking. And it quickly turned into him having a huge part in the second season. It was really fantastic to get him, and in such an organic way.

“We connected over wanting to see characters who are Muslim who have complexity and humanity, and we really had a lot of fun crafting that together.”

The character Ali plays, Sheikh Ali, debuts in the first episode, introduced to Ramy by a friend who describes him as “radical – but cool radical, not radical radical”.

Sheikh Ali has a calmness and authority about him, and asks Ramy to be truthful to him, so that the two can go on this spiritual journey together with honesty, love and compassion.

These moments during which two Muslim characters discuss matters of faith – and not in the context of some terrorist act – are a rarity in Western culture.

Youssef said season two will deal with faith being a transformational experience, “which I think will be interesting for people who don’t know anything about Islam but also interesting for people who are Muslim”.

Oscar winner Mahershala Ali joins the cast in season two. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Oscar winner Mahershala Ali joins the cast in season two. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn/HuluSource:Supplied

It’s only because of the proliferation in streaming services that a show like a small show Ramy with its specific story about being a Muslim-American person in their 20s can ever hope to be greenlit. It’s not a series that would ever fly with the mainstream demands of network TV.

But even then, Youssef admitted his original pitch was a little more secular.

“To be honest with you, the show is more faith-heavy than the pitch was,” he said. “The faith was always part of it, but it wasn’t necessarily how we sold the show.

“When we first packaged up the show it was originally more political but that wasn’t really what I wanted to make but I think it was easier to talk about it that way. But once you actually get into the writing, people start to realise the interesting part of it is the faith, because that’s the universality.

“With any industry, especially when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, you can’t always say that’s what you’re doing because people don’t know how to react to it because it hasn’t been done.”

Having a TV show through which Youssef can explore the concepts Muslim-American identity is a privilege but as one of the very few young voices from his cultural background in the US also comes with a flip side.

Because Ramy is one of the few pop cultural products telling a story from a minority perspective, everyone from that under-represented community who’s hungry to be seen and reflected, wants it to be for them.

Ramy Youssef feels the pressure of being one of the few prominent young Muslim-American voices in the US. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Ramy Youssef feels the pressure of being one of the few prominent young Muslim-American voices in the US. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn/HuluSource:Supplied

And there were some people who wasn’t happy about Youssef’s portrayal of a young Muslim-American who slept with a married woman during Ramadan.

But no one thing can be everything to everyone.

Youssef said he feels the pressure that comes from there not being a plurality of prominent voices from the Muslim-American community.

“It’s part of the job and I’m aware of the fact that it’s currently how it is,” he said. “I’m optimistic that this isn’t what it’s always going to be like but at the moment, there’s not a lot of representation so there’s a lot of weight put on the show.

“But I don’t write that way. I write from a place that I know I’m going to be to satisfy what a lot of people want it to be.

“The biggest mistake someone like me could make is to put it all on my show because then it wouldn’t be very good and it could hurt the potential for other shows like it to be made.

“My responsibility is to be as singular as possible even though there isn’t a ton (of) representation. That’s not always how audiences are going to view it, especially Muslim audiences who want it to be different things or see themselves in a different way.

“But it’s OK, it’s part of the growing pains of getting to tell stories in this industry.”

Ramy season two will be available to stream on Stan from Friday, May 29. Season one is streaming now

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