Ramy Yousuf was home, in a manner of speaking. The Egyptian-American stand-up comedian had just finished shooting several takes of a scene for his show, ‘Ramy.’
The set was a mock-up of his childhood New Jersey home and the scene took place inside the dining room. Pictures of Yousuf and his sister were hanging on the wall.
“It was actually kind of emotional when I walked in because I hadn’t seen it,” Yousuf, 28, said last autumn as he stood outside his faux-home, which was built in a Brooklyn studio. He added: “It doesn’t feel exactly like my house but the emotional correctness is totally there. It’s the right vibe.”
The house looks like many middle-class suburban homes: A living room, dining room, kitchen, all unremarkable.
But what is remarkable about ‘Ramy’ isn’t that it significantly differs from other millennial coming-of-age stories. It’s that it doesn’t.
The comedy, which currently streams on Wavo, tells the story of a young American Muslim grappling with his faith along with the usual array of 20-something pressures: romance, career aspirations, parents. It’s a simple formula, but after decades of Muslims being depicted on screen as terrorists and villains or otherwise pushed to the side, it’s practically revolutionary.
“On one level, it’s very clear that there’s nothing out like it,” Yousuf said. “There’s this initial reaction that you have of: ‘Oh, man. I have a lot of responsibility. I have this responsibility to speak for my people.’ Then you start to make the thing and you’re like: ‘That’s an impossible goal. If I try to do that, it just won’t work.’”
He continued, “The more that I got into the process, I realised all I can do is really offer my singular point of view, and make sure that it’s as much me as possible, and that will speak to who we need to speak to.”
Portrayals of Muslims in Western pop culture have historically lacked nuance. If they’re depicted at all, it is usually as the bad guys — see ‘True Lies,’ ‘24’ and ‘Homeland,’ among many other examples. Jack G. Shaheen, a professor and author who spent much of his life cataloguing how Hollywood has stereotyped Muslims and Arabs, said before his death in 2017 that anti-Muslim prejudices on screen were as bad as they’ve ever been, which he cited as a contributing factor to a low view of Islam among Americans. In 2017, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed a warming view of Muslims in the US, but still the lowest among other religious groups in the survey, including Catholics, and evangelical Christians.
In 2010, broadcaster Katie Couric suggested a possible solution to change attitudes about Islam in the United States: “Maybe we need a Muslim version of ‘The Cosby Show.’”
Aasif Mandvi, the former correspondent for ‘The Daily Show,’ gave it a shot with a 2015 Funny or Die spoof called ‘Halal in the Family.’
But attempts to seriously address the issue have become more common in recent years. In 2017, in a widely hailed speech in the British House of Commons, actor Riz Ahmad spoke about the importance of on-screen representation.
“If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism,” Ahmad said.
After Ahmad’s speech gained publicity, Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry, an academic and a tech consultant in Britain, created the Riz Test, the Muslim equivalent of the Bechdel Test, which set criteria for judging Muslim portrayals in film and television. (A representative for Ahmad said he was unavailable for comment.)
“The awareness that there was nothing like it was what pushed me to make it even more unique, because there’s never been a Muslim family show,” Yousuf said.
“I didn’t want to give the Muslim family the same treatment that is given to the Asian family show and the Hispanic family show. There are almost kind of tropes of how an immigrant family is treated on television, and I felt like, ‘No, this needs to go even further than that.’”
“All those things were driven by the reality that we have no other portrayal outside of the news,” he added.
In ‘Ramy’, Yousuf plays a version of himself embracing Islam. It’s not the only authentically Muslim story told in recent years: ‘The Big Sick,’ the 2017 movie written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon, was nominated for an Oscar and told the story about Nanjiani and Gordon’s real-life romance.
The difference between ‘Ramy’ and ‘The Big Sick’ is that Nanjiani spent much of that story trying to run away from his faith, whereas Yousuf fully welcomes aspects of Islam. And in the non-scripted realm, comedian Hasan Minhaj discusses his culture and faith with regularity on his Netflix show, ‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.’
If ‘Ramy’ is not exactly a Muslim ‘Cosby Show’ — this version is far more vulgar — Yousuf, whose stand-up special debuted on HBO on June 29, can claim credit for acing the Riz Test.
“If that’s how it is, I have hopes for it,” Habib said. “It will change the narrative and it will maybe open the floodgates for more shows like this about Muslims.”
The Ramy of the show has to reconcile his faith with the demands of being a young adult in New Jersey. He said that while his character on the show wasn’t an exact replica of himself, “a lot of the rules that are in the show are kind of the ones that I do have for myself personally.”
Most of his love interests early in the season are white and do not understand why he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He has deep conversations at his mosque about how to properly wash his feet and what his place is in the world. (Yousuf doesn’t completely avoid caricatures in the show: His uncle, played by Laith Nakli, is cartoonishly homophobic and anti-Semitic.)
At the same time, ‘Ramy’ explores many of the same issues as other contemporary shows about young adults trying to get by, like HBO’s ‘Girls’ and ‘Insecure.’ Along with the push-and-pull of his faith, Ramy contends with meddling relatives, selfish friends, dating woes and career struggles.
“I do believe in God,” Yousuf said. “I realised that there was this void in entertainment of someone talking about that genuine construct. I have a bit about it I do all the time about how there’s Friday prayers, and then there’s Friday night, where it’s like: ‘No, I want to do both. I want to pray, and then, I also go out, and I have a girlfriend.’”
Born in Queens and raised mostly in Rutherford, New Jersey, Yousuf began conceiving the show when he dropped out of Rutgers University at 20 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Being on the opposite coast of his family, he found more solace in Islam than he had ever found before.
During one of his first acting jobs, on Nickelodeon’s ‘See Dad Run,’ the show was “shooting at Paramount Pictures and I remember praying at Paramount,” Yousuf said. “I had this thought where I was like: ‘Who else has done this? Who has prayed on this lot?’”
Yousuf acknowledged that he would not have been able to make this show a decade ago — the explosion of streaming platforms has created more opportunities for more diverse perspectives and talent. (Steve Way, an actor born with muscular dystrophy, plays a close friend of Yousuf.) It has also created room for formal experimentation.
“We take a lot of tonal and storytelling risks,” he said. “We have episodes that I’m not even in.”
One episode depicts experiencing the September 11 terrorist attacks solely through a young version of the central character. The episode, which Yousuf directed but does not appear in, is indicative of the show’s balancing act — it delivers Yousuf’s distinct point of view while also giving a broader portrayal of the Muslim experience in the United States.
“I think a lot of people look at Muslims and they think every day, the moderate Muslim or the good Muslim — it’s almost like we all have this choice every morning that’s like, [Daesh] or breakfast,” Youssef said.
“As if that’s like a genuine temptation,” he continued. “I don’t know anyone who knows anything about anyone who’s ever been in [Daesh]. We’ve got nothing to do with any of that. Really placing what our actual issues are, and what our actual things are at the forefront is the thing that I think makes us most human. That’s what I want people to see.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Ramy’ is currently streaming on Wavo in the UAE.