Comic Ramy Youssef On Being An 'Allah Carte' Muslim: 'You Sit In Contradictions'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Primetime Emmy Awards are September 20. Today and tomorrow, we're featuring interviews with some of the nominees. Next, we'll hear from Ramy Youssef. He's nominated for two Emmys for the second season of his semi-autobiographical Hulu comedy series "Ramy" for outstanding lead actor and for directing. Youssef is a stand-up comic who often surprises people when he tells them he believes in God - or as he puts it, God God, not yoga.
His parents are immigrants from Egypt. His comedy is often about how he became an observant Muslim and how he also knowingly breaks some of the rules, like rules about dating and premarital sex. When the second season begins, Ramy is addicted to pornography and feeling guilty about it. In this scene, he goes to a Sufi mosque and confides in the sheikh, played by Mahershala Ali.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")
RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I feel like I have this hole inside of me that's - this, like, emptiness. And I'm always trying to fill it with something, like sex and porn. And I feel like the more people I'm with, the more alone I feel. And I've tried to fill it with God. I have. I won't lie. But I just - I don't know how. If I'm being honest, I started watching porn because I wanted to be a good Muslim. Like, I didn't want to have sex before marriage, so I thought I could just watch porn to fill that urge. It just made me do crazier things. Like, I had sex with my cousin, OK?
MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger.
YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) You had sex with your cousin, too?
ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) Absolutely not. Have you ever thought about the actresses, Ramy?
YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) What?
ALI: (As Sheikh Malik) The women you click on. Have you ever considered the plight of the performers, their pain, what they're experiencing? I've heard they don't even have beds, that they're just driven around in white vans. What if you met a porn star, if you looked her in the eyes? Have you considered her feeling?
YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I haven't considered her 'cause I don't consider anything. I just consider myself.
GROSS: I spoke with Ramy Youssef in 2019 after the first season of "Ramy" started streaming. That year, he also had an HBO comedy special called "Feelings." Here's an excerpt in which he's talking about his father. It's going to take a surprising turn.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "FEELINGS")
YOUSSEF: My dad is an amazing human being. He - just a hard worker. Just that thing you think about with, like, just anyone who comes to this country - that's my dad. He can do anything. Not just at work - comes home, he can cook, he can clean, fix the toilet, fix the car. He learned all these jobs just so he'd never have to pay another man. Like...
YOUSSEF: His nightmare would be to hand cash to another man and look him in the eye. And he started working as a busboy, and in 10 years, he became the manager of a hotel. And that hotel was in New York City. It was owned by Donald Trump. So I grew up with this photo in my living room of my dad and Donald Trump shaking hands. I saw it every day as a kid. And when you're a young Arab kid, anyone who's friends with your dad, like, that's your uncle.
YOUSSEF: And the last couple of years, I'm watching TV, and I'm just like, Uncle Donald? Really?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Ramy Youssef. Ramy Youssef, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I - that really surprised me, that little twist. Is your father still working at a Trump hotel in New York?
YOUSSEF: (Laughter) No, he's not. But yeah, that is a true story.
GROSS: So how do you make sense of your father's success at a Donald Trump hotel in New York and Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions? Because as you say, Trump builds his business off immigrants, people like your father.
GROSS: So how do you make sense of that? How do you reconcile that?
YOUSSEF: You don't make sense of it. I don't think that there's a lot that adds up with a lot of the things that are going on, and I think that's part of the absurdity of it. I mean, I don't really find Trump to necessarily be something that's easy to joke about because it's pretty surreal to begin with. But I think laying out certain facts and kind of looking at something like, you know - and how it's tied not only to my family but many families, right? I think families like mine are in many ways the bedrock of most business in a lot of places in this country but, obviously, very specifically to his story and to where he's at.
GROSS: Is the picture of your father and Donald Trump still on the wall?
YOUSSEF: My dad hid it from me because he didn't want me to use it in anything.
YOUSSEF: He sometimes won't tell me things, either. He'll just be like, look - I'm not trying to be part of the stand-up routine, all right? So you just go about your day. And then we hug. And he tells me he loves me, and then he moves on with his day.
GROSS: (Laughter) So your parents came here as immigrants from Egypt. When did they come?
YOUSSEF: They came at different points in the '80s. They actually met in New York, which is kind of my favorite thing because they probably, you know, grew up very close to each other, maybe within 20 minutes and then travelled across the world to, you know, meet someone not far from home. And it really kind of encapsulates, I think, a lot of what immigrants go through, which is, you know, you put yourself in a situation where you really take a big leap of faith. And then you, you know, try to kind of find comfort and recreate what you know.
GROSS: So your character in your series has been trying to figure out what kind of Muslim he is, and I imagine you have gone through that yourself about where you fit in and what you're going to observe and what you're not going to observe within the religion. And I think so many people, no matter what their religion, go through that. So can you talk a little bit about what your process has been like and how much - how difficult it is to feel like you're not completely all in. Do you know what I mean? (Laughter) Like, you're really - you are a practicing Muslim. You probably practice it slightly different than your parents do. And you're not completely all in. I mean, it's clear. Like, you have premarital sex, for example.
YOUSSEF: Yeah. We would call it the picking and choosing. Sometimes we would call it Allah carte...
YOUSSEF: ...Where we're kind of, you know - everyone's got a different line, and it's really funny. There's the people who are like, OK, I'm going to have sex, but I'm not going to drink. And then there's the people who are like, no way am I having sex, but let's do acid on Saturday. And you know, there's kind of these really - you know, everyone has a code, you know? And I think that that transcends any specific culture or faith. We're constantly rationalizing where we stand and our own code and dealing with, you know, how you can be the best version of yourself.
And that's - I feel like since I was a kid, that was actually my only real goal that I ever felt. I always used to actually find it bizarre when people knew - you know, be that kid at 11 years old who's like, yeah, I'm going to be a rock star. And I would think that was insane 'cause I'd be like, well, how do you know? You don't know enough about yourself. That's just the thing that, you know, you think is cool. But how is that authentic? We're only 11. You know, that would be my...
YOUSSEF: That would be the way I looked at things.
But what I did know from a really early age was I wanted to connect with my higher self and kind of be, you know, the best spiritual version of myself. And I never really felt like I had to be religious. But as you get older, you know, you get pulled in different ways. You get pulled by your desires; you get pulled by your ego. And you sit in contradictions. And that has been the space that I'm trying to navigate, and that's kind of the space that, you know, I bring to the work.
GROSS: Why, at age 11, were you thinking about being your higher self and wanting to connect to your faith? It's not what most 11-year-olds are thinking about.
YOUSSEF: I wish I had a good answer. I don't know. As I got older, you know, I do think that, obviously, being Muslim became politicized and villainized in such a way that I definitely went down really deep kind of rabbit holes about who I was and what it meant to be this thing that supposedly was, you know, the root of all evil (laughter) in the way that it was framed and kind of coming to understanding that it's not that at all.
I mean, that was a big thing for me, and that was a big process for me to kind of work through. But I remember feeling even before that - even before 9/11 and before this narrative really took hold. But then, obviously, as that narrative took hold, you become even more introspective, too.
GROSS: Has trying to work through questions that you have about your own faith, about how you practice it, about your place in the world - has trying to work through that onstage and in your series helped you understand yourself better?
YOUSSEF: Yeah, absolutely. Just the choice of - in the series, we have 10 episodes. In the standup special, I have one hour. You're weeding things out, you know? You're deciding what you're going to talk about first. And so it's helped me realize - what are the priorities of conversations that are on my mind? What are the things that I feel like I'm uniquely qualified to talk about and then gravitate towards?
And then on a spiritual level, I am making this thing about being Muslim. And it's part of my career, and I'm making money off of it. There is this relationship that gets created now where I feel like I really have to be living at a higher level than my character is, you know, I - than my character in the show is, right? I don't want to be monetizing this thing that mean something to me and then losing it, you know? So it's something that kind of raises the bar for, you know, how I want to check myself.
GROSS: Ramy Youssef, thank you so much for talking with us.
YOUSSEF: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: My interview with Ramy Youssef was recorded in June 2019. He's nominated for two Emmys for Season 2 of his comedy series "Ramy," which is streaming on Hulu.
Tomorrow, we'll hear from two people nominated in the category of best host of a reality show or competition series. Padma Lakshmi is a host of "Top Chef." RuPaul is the host of "RuPaul's Drag Race." After we take a short break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will recommend some songs he finds simply beautiful. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.