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“There are so many times when I’m like, ‘With this scene, we’re either going to get an Emmy or a fatwa,'” says Ramy Youssef, the 29-year-old co-creator, executive producer, co-writer and star of Hulu’s trailblazing comedy series Ramy, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. Earlier this year, Youssef’s semi-autobiographical show — which the New York Times has described as “quietly revolutionary,” and the second season of which dropped on May 29 — was recognized with a Peabody Award, and he won the best actor in a comedy Golden Globe Award. Youssef, who is currently in the running for both the best actor in a comedy series and best directing for a comedy series Emmys, continues, “This show is about an Arab-Muslim dude in New Jersey who jerks off too much. But if you want to really talk about what this show is about, it’s about somebody who is trying to fill that gap between who they want to be — their ideals — and who they actually are.” He elaborates, “There’s a certain dialogue that happens in the public space and then there’s a certain reality that happens privately, and I think that’s really what our show is trying to dissect. That’s the kind of discourse that, for our communities, hasn’t happened under any sort of pop-culture lens in America.”
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Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Natalie Portman, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Hart, Carey Mulligan, Seth MacFarlane, Amy Adams, Trevor Noah, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, James Corden, Cate Blanchett, Sacha Baron Cohen, Greta Gerwig, Conan O’Brien and Samantha Bee.
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Youssef, the son of Egyptian immigrants, was born in Queens and raised in New Jersey, “one of like two Arab families” in his hometown. He spent much of his youth grappling with how to conduct his life as an Arab-Muslim millennial living in America, noting, “I really felt connected to fasting and praying and really kind of knowing that there’s kind of something else,” but also making mistakes along the way. While still in his teens, he began to explore his inner-conflict through sketch comedy and then acting classes, the latter of which, he says, “made me a comedian” with something to say.
At age 20, he landed a supporting role on See Dad Run (2012-14), a Nick at Nite sitcom, starring Scott Baio, for which he moved out to Los Angeles and lived alone for the first time. His part on the show was small, which left him time to focus on other pursuits — sitting in on the show’s writers room; developing and selling to Nickelodeon a late-night show that he was to host from his trailer (it never aired); and venturing into the world of stand-up comedy.
After See Dad Run came to an end, Youssef appeared in small parts on screens big and small, but he was already thinking of creating a show of his own to focus on his faith. Fortuitously, he met another Hollywood creative who was openly religious, Jerrod Carmichael, who was developing the sitcom The Carmichael Show, which would eventually air on NBC from 2015 through 2017. “The original genesis of Ramy,” Youssef says, “was, ‘Why don’t we do an Arab-Muslim family to pair with The Carmichaels?'” He recalls a conversation with Carmichael: “I was just like, ‘Man, I really want to see God the way we think about God. I want to see God as not this cartoonish thing, as not this sanitary, presented-for-TV idea; I want to see the guilt rattling in the back of my head, I want to see the desire to strive for something, I want to see faith.'”
Throughout Youssef’s life, he felt, there had been “a void in terms of nuanced public discourse in media” about Muslims in America, filled by “dehumanizing” TV portraits like those on the post-9/11 drama series 24 and Homeland. Then, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, having run an aggressively anti-Muslim campaign which he would continue after taking office, Youssef and Carmichael felt like the moment had arrived for Ramy. “The night of that happening,” Youssef recalls, “we were like, ‘We’re gonna sell the show.'” Shortly thereafter, they did. (Carmichael serves as an executive producer of the show.)
The first and second seasons of Ramy were critically acclaimed, both clocking in at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. In the era of Peak TV, though, it took viewers — including Emmys voters — a little while to catch up; the first season received no Emmy nominations, but the second is now up for three, the two for Youssef as well as best supporting actor in a comedy for Mahershala Ali. Those who watch the show tend to passionately discuss and champion it; however, given the subject matter, religious fundamentalists are less enthusiastic about it, which, Youssef acknowledges, has resulted in death threats. But it is clear that he has no regrets. “I gotta say,” he emphasizes, “I’m getting to make the thing I want to make, which is really cool.”
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