By Brandon Yu | San Francisco Chronicle
Ramy Youssef is floating. But not exactly in a good way, and certainly not in a spiritual transcendence kind of way. The comic and star of the hit Hulu show, “Ramy” — about a Millennial Egyptian American Muslim adrift in New Jersey, struggling to live a good life and stay true to his faith — is currently holed up in Los Angeles “doing the thing, the quarantine.”
“None of us are good or bad,” Youssef told The Chronicle over the phone, reflecting on the pandemic. “We’re just floating.”
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Nevertheless, he has work to promote. Following up on the premiere season of his show, which earned Youssef (who also writes and directs on “Ramy”) a Golden Globe for best actor this year, the sophomore installment, premiering Friday, May 29, on Hulu, sees the titular Ramy more disillusioned than ever, after his trip to Egypt — a return to the homeland in the hopes of finding some form of enlightenment and guidance — turned disastrous.
To find his way, he turns to Sheikh Ali, a religious leader played by the guest-starring two-time Academy Award winner and Oakland native Mahershala Ali. This season is most immediately memorable for their pristine odd-couple pairing: Ali serving as the austere, sagely balancing presence to Ramy’s shaky, confused youth — that is, until Ramy, ever the self-saboteur, complicates matters.
Youssef spoke to The Chronicle about rewriting the new season around Ali’s guest role, his skepticism of television’s representational import and comedy’s relationship to political correctness.
Q: Mahershala Ali is the big addition to this season. How much of him specifically coming onto the show factored into how you mapped out this season?
A: The idea of introducing a sheikh into Ramy’s world was a plot point that we were building towards for the end of the second season. And then when we found out we could have Mahershala, it became really clear to us that it would be exciting to (introduce him earlier).
Q: So the start of the season, when the sheikh is first introduced, was initially the end. How much of that version had already been written?
A: It’s almost like the (current) start was like, yeah, episode nine or 10, initially. That was kind of the idea in our head, and then, pretty quickly we found out that he wanted to be involved, so we shifted. We were like a month and a half in, so there was a lot of work done, but it was by no means the entire season written. It had been plotted out in certain ways, but it’s always moving.
Q: What did that initial version look like? How different was it?
A: It definitely was different, but I think it still had the same thing in terms of Ramy’s always trying to be the best version of a Muslim that he can be. We definitely were leaning into certain things that were bothering him in terms of porn addiction and understanding his intimacy issues. So we were definitely in the realm of those things. We just were having him lost a little bit longer until he found the sheikh. But then we really felt like based on what we’ve seen of him last season it totally added up to where we find him at the beginning of this one.
Q: The show isn’t just focused on Ramy, though, and you expand on what you did last season by having entire episodes focused instead on the lives of those in his family. Is that a matter of world building to expand on in further seasons, or is it simply to show slices of life?
A: It definitely is world building. This is never going to be too much of a spoiler-plot show or anything like that. You could know what happens and it doesn’t matter, it’s kind of worth just watching how it happens. But it is world building in the sense that I imagine a lot of chapters for these characters and I want you to meet them in different places. I want to build on that especially moving forward.
Q: One of those episodes, focused on Ramy’s mother, Maysa, has this glorious monologue at the end that is pointedly political. You’ve talked about how it would be an impossible task to speak for all Muslim Americans, but a show like yours, being singular on the spectrum of representation, can feel unavoidably weighted by political meaning. Do you consider the show political?
A: No, I don’t think of it as political. I just consider it as what’s on the mind of these characters and how we’re crafting them. So that’s where we’re building from. I’m also not the kind of person that thinks television right now is this thing that changes the way people view the world. I think it can open up some conversations, but this isn’t “The Cosby Show.” And I don’t mean that tonally. I just mean that when “The Cosby Show” came out, whatever was on TV was kind of what people were watching. Today, there are 500 shows a year. You can’t even watch what you want to watch.
So the idea that television is still this catalyst in a way that people want it to be, I don’t know that I would agree with because, well, you could just pick your own reality. There are people walking around right now who genuinely have seen enough media to look you in the eye and tell you that coronavirus isn’t even a real thing because they have enough of their own outlets telling them what they want to hear. So we’re all choosing our own reality.
Q: In that sense, as a comedian, what are your thoughts on what comics often deride as “political correctness”? Should there be a responsibility to that idea?
What’s important about it is that I don’t think comedy should be hurting people who are already hurting like even more. I think it’s OK to wade into the inappropriate, I think it’s OK to wade into the awkward, even the visceral. The job of the comedian is to say things that other people can’t say. So the job of the comedian is to be incorrect, but not disrespectful and not hurtful and not harmful.
You really have to do it from a place where you earn the right to say that stuff, and that has to be earned by either being emotionally (warranted) enough or smart enough, or whatever it might be. But you can’t just take a cheap shot at people. Political correctness — comedians sometimes rail against it, and then I’m like, “What’s the joke you’re protecting?” And then I hear the joke, and I’m like, “Really? You’re fighting for the right to say that?”
“Ramy” begins streaming Friday, May 29, on Hulu.
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