'Ramy' Star-Creator: Why Being "First" Muslim-American Comedy Comes With Baggage (Guest Column)
Ramy Youssef realized while making Hulu's pioneering comedy that being a trailblazer comes with a lot of pressure: "Ultimately the insinuation of being first is that you might be the last — so you'd better get it all in there."
Every Friday afternoon, for most of my adult life, I've found myself at a mosque. For half an hour, in the middle of a workday, Muslims come together for Friday prayers — it's a time to pray, catch up with the community and get a spiritual recharge. I've always looked forward to this brief moment in the week and the much-needed pause for reflection it provides. While religious culture (and the industry of religion) is plagued with issues, this has always been a religious experience that I have appreciated.
About a year ago, as I was leaving prayers, a middle-aged man firmly grabbed me by the arm. I didn't know who he was, and before I could ask, he started yelling.
"You're the comedian," he exclaimed. "I saw you on Colbert. Mashallah, habibi! I heard you're making a show. Finally someone will make us look good. Everything about us out there, it's so bad. They don't know who we are! Make us proud, habibi. We're counting on you. You're the first."
Maybe it was because of where we were, but he had this look in his eyes — like I was the answer to his prayers, like my show could somehow solve something. And all I could think was … it probably won't.
We're in a landscape that's obsessed with firsts. "First" is a demarcation that's eagerly attached to anyone or anything marginalized or unexplored, like we're in middle school rushing to touch base — the first LGBT this, the first Asian to be nominated for that, the first Latinx to be seen eating a sandwich at this spot usually reserved for the Hollywood elite. As a creator put into this category, the idea of being a first has raised a lot of questions for me.
My Hulu show is often described as being the first look at an "average Muslim family." I think what people are trying to say is that we're not ISIS, but the term doesn't really make sense. We'd never say "average Christian family." We'd ask a lot of questions: "Are they Catholic? Protestant? Do they live in the North or the South?"
In America, statistically, the average Muslim family would be a family of black Muslims — who are the largest group of Muslims in the United States. As an Arab creator, I'm showing an Arab Muslim family. But, since this is the "first Muslim show," is it my responsibility to dive into their storylines too? If I don't, is that an act of erasure and violence?
Does "first" entail high quality? Is it just a qualification used in order to rush to produce something? Is a project's firstness the only thing being brought to the table? Does our fetishizing of "first" just stem from capitalistic social values? Is this all about money?
I don't know the answers to a lot of these questions, but ultimately my choice was to make the show that I was uniquely qualified to make. In the plethora of Muslim experiences, mine is just one, and I chose to wholly focus on that and that alone. I chose to make a show that isn't obsessed with checking boxes. A show that feels the only responsibility is to tell an honest story from a singular point of view. A show that is hopefully given room to grow — and therefore organically encompass other facets and storylines of what it might mean to be a Muslim in America.
Ultimately the insinuation of being first is that you might be the last — so you'd better get it all in there. To operate from being a first isn't the way to make something. You can feel that something knows it's first, and it doesn't usually feel very good. It's jammed, it's rushed, and it's trying to be everything to everyone. It's not fair to the creators, it's not fair to the communities depicted and, most important, it doesn't make for very good TV. I hope that a show like mine can push Hollywood to get obsessed with seconds and thirds, because we need other Muslim stories too.
I don't know what the man in the mosque thinks of my show, if he's seen it. He probably thinks it has too much sex or that I didn't show the right kind of Muslim. But here's what I'd tell him: When we first tested our pilot, audiences thought it was a story about terrorism — because it started in a mosque with people speaking Arabic. People were used to seeing a mosque and then seeing something explode. On my show, you see a mosque, and then I do something really stupid on a date.
That's a first.
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.