This was a big year for 28-year-old Ramy Youseff, with the premiere of Ramy on Hulu, based on his upbringing as a Muslim first-generation Egyptian-American in New Jersey, and the release of his first stand-up special, Feelings, on HBO. We talked to Youssef about the side effects of his newfound stardom.
What parts of success have you found most surprising?
Ramy Youssef: Ramy is based on a lot of personal things, and it’s interesting to see how many people feel like it’s their story. And how many people view it as this democratic thing that should represent them. It’s about a group that hasn’t been portrayed with much nuance on American television. So you feel these high stakes, as if people want it to solve something on a geopolitical scale.
Seems like a heavy burden to bear.
Lately, people show up to a comedy show expecting the person onstage to deliver a factual, politically sound argument. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and getting upset that they don’t serve pizza. I call it the Daily Show Effect. When Jon Stewart hosted, you had a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t get my news from the news. I get it from The Daily Show.’ Which was very problematic. The Daily Show isn’t geared to tell you the news, it’s to make you laugh. I think we’ve gotten our wires crossed. We’re not all Jon Stewart. I know I’m not. I dropped out of college. Why would you come to me for anything that may influence your fact-based perspective? I think that the job of a comic is to be emotionally true.
How has the comedy world changed since you began?
I mean, the big headline is streaming. I have an odd trajectory: My show came out before my stand-up special. Usually, it’s the other way around: Someone pops up in the comedy scene and a network’s like, “Lets’ build a show around this person!” For me, it all happened at once.
The industry is open in a way that it wasn’t before. I mean, the title of my show is my name. That’s not because I was an established voice. It’s because of a rising number of outlets, and an increased willingness to take risks. All the sudden, people like me are finding themselves in the position to make things. So that’s really exciting.
It seems to me there’s an irony to that. Yes, there are more platforms for comedy than ever before. Which is great for fans. But for comedians, doesn’t that only make it harder to cut through the noise?
It presents different challenges. It used to be tough to get a late-night set. Now it’s like there’s too many late-night sets. I think about this with my show, which came out competing in a landscape with over 520 other shows. Same thing with my stand up special, which is going up against a sea of them. So it’s probably as hard as before, but with a different set of difficulties. At least the current moment has an infrastructure. The paths in stand-up are clearer than ever before.
Are they the same paths as before, just better lit? Or new paths altogether?
You might be competing with more people now. But it still comes down to the same core things you must figure out: Who you are, and what you’re talking about. The essence of it will always be getting down to that honesty. So I don’t think the craft has changed.
What’s comedy’s next frontier?
We talk a lot about our identities, and we talk a lot about working to clear misconceptions about those identities. But it’d be really cool to see someone like myself not even have to talk about being Muslim or Egyptian, because it’s just understood. We can all just be weird and not have to explain everything.