Comic Ramy Youssef On Being An 'Allah Carte' Muslim: 'You Sit In Contradictions'

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 10:30 am

In the semi-autobiographical Hulu series Ramy, comic Ramy Youssef plays a first-generation Muslim American who follows some — but not all — of the rules of his religion. Youssef, whose parents immigrated from Egypt, also co-created the series. He says he can relate to his character's "picking and choosing" approach to his faith.

"Sometimes we would call it 'Allah carte,' " he says. "There's the people who are like, 'OK, I'm going to have sex, but I'm not going to drink,' then there's the people who are like, 'No way am I having sex, but let's do acid on Saturday.' Everyone has a code, and I think that that transcends any specific culture or faith."

Youssef adds: "You sit in contradictions, and that has been the space that I'm trying to navigate. And that's kind of the space that I bring to the work."

Youssef says he feels pressure with the series — and with his work as a stand-up comic — to provide a realistic portrait of the Arab Muslim experience. "In terms of positive media, there's not really a lot. In terms of nuance, there's even less, so there is this weight that kind of sits on something that comes from someone like me, and there's an anxiety that comes with that," he says.

His new stand-up special, Ramy Youssef: Feelings, premieres on HBO on June 29.


Interview Highlights

On wanting to have his character be pushed to rethink his beliefs

I think the whole point of this show, the whole point of stand-up to me, the design of it, is to interrogate my character. I've always been really turned off by a show where you're kind of just rooting for someone regardless of the stupid things that they do, or regardless of how their ego is clearly driving what they're doing. From the onset ... we really wanted to challenge our main character.

On how both he and his character go to visit family in Egypt after the revolution and are disappointed when they don't feel the connection they expect

I remember going and feeling like I wanted to find some answers and, like, I wanted to reconnect with my culture. And then you go, and you go to a restaurant and all the menus are in English. You can't even find one in Arabic because there is this obsession with seeming like they're a Westernized, rich [country]. ... There's this attitude of not wanting to talk about certain things that I felt like I wanted to talk about. But I realized that was me projecting what I wanted from people who've been through something that I couldn't even understand. I do feel like a lot of people who are kids of immigrants put that on where they come from.

On how Sept. 11 affected him and his perception of his culture and religion

I don't know if it was that day. I felt it slowly occur over the next two years. ... You see your faith, and you see names that sound like yours, and you see that it's tied to the country your family comes from, and you start hearing this narrative and you don't know a lot of people that are of your culture. ... Again, you're the minority and the only thing you see in the media is your experience being painted a certain way, and so that creates an insecurity that creates an internal dialogue. Are they right? Is that true? And you don't have the confidence at 11, at 12 ... you don't have these world-class answers about your faith and about the history of colonialism that you can spit out to explain anything.

On some of his early auditions in Hollywood

I would get a lot of roles for the ethnic friend and then I would go in for that and not be ethnic enough. They wanted an Indian accent. They wanted something more very visually, clearly specific. And then I would get the terrorist roles. ... I remember even going in for them. I wish I could say I got [the role] and called my agent and said, "Never!" I went in for one or two and they would just be like, "Yeah, we don't believe this. You don't have the vibe." There's nothing worse than that. You were down to do it and then ... they're like, "Yeah, we're not going to let you sell out your people, because we don't believe it." I realized pretty quickly that I was gonna have to figure out my own thing.

On whether it's important to him to marry someone who is also Muslim

I reached the point where I know the way I live my life is not conventional, and so I feel like whatever relationship I do end up in is also not going to be conventional. - Ramy Youssef

It's a question of the series, but it's also one that lives within me — and I think with a lot of people who are first-gen immigrants — which is, what do you want to build? Do you want to hold on to your language? Do you want to hold on to your faith? It's going to be harder if you and your partner are different, foundationally, like that. Like, how is a kid supposed to learn Arabic? I mean, you could, but it's just easier, you know? And so, kind of figuring out what are you going to prioritize? Is it carrying that on? Is it just true love? And for me, I reached the point where I know the way I live my life is not conventional, and so I feel like whatever relationship I do end up in is also not going to be conventional. So I don't operate from feeling like I have to be with someone who is Muslim, or the other way around. But posing that question was really important. ... Where I've arrived at now is that I'm open. But my character certainly has not arrived there, and he's really trying to figure that out.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Ramy 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.

He co-created, co-writes and stars in a semi-autobiographical Hulu comedy series in which he plays a character who not only shares the same first name, Ramy, he shares the same dilemmas about family, girlfriends and religion. Here's a scene in which Ramy's mother is trying to convince him to settle down and marry. She suggests that when he goes to the mosque, he should look for a nice girl there to date. Here's how he responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I'm not going to flirt with girls at the mosque.

HIAM ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Why not? The girls in there are high-quality.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) The mosque is for praying; it's not for picking people up. And it's just, like, a bunch of families, too. And you can't just walk up to a Muslim girl and, like, start spitting game or something. What am I supposed to say? Like, hey, can I get your father's number?

ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Yes. Why not?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I got to go. I'm going to be late.

ABBASS: (As Maysa Hassan) Ramy, do you want to stay alone forever?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) No, Mom, I don't. Just because I'm not with someone doesn't mean I'm going to be alone forever, OK? I'm just figuring it out, OK?

GROSS: Some of the same issues Ramy Youssef deals with in his series he deals with in a more first-person way in his stand-up comedy. He has a new HBO comedy special called "Feelings" that premieres Saturday night. 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 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: And the last couple of years, I'm watching TV, and I'm just like, Uncle Donald? Really?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: (Laughter) Ramy Youssef - Ramy Youssef, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I - gosh, 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. 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, you know, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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, you know, 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: I'm sure when your parents came here, they had dreams for their children. Probably, those dreams did not include you becoming a stand-up comic and having a series where you talk about your life, your family and being Muslim in America. And you talk about sex (laughter).

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GROSS: So what was their reaction when they saw the direction you were heading in?

YOUSSEF: Well, you know, I try to show my parents anything I'm about to do, probably anywhere from, like, 48 to 72 hours before it comes out to the public. I try to keep it as under wraps as possible, really just to give them the opportunity to say to their friends and the rest of the family - you know, they can very honestly be like, look - he wouldn't let us see any of it. He wouldn't tell us what it was. We had no idea this was happening. I like to give them the ability to say that honestly because I - you know, I don't want them to have to deal with the anxiety of it.

I mean, it - there's a lot of anxiety that comes when you're making something, especially for - you know, a lot of my work works to, you know, talk about my background, which is being an Arab Muslim. In terms of positive media, there's not really a lot. In terms of nuance, there's even less. So there is this weight that kind of sits on something that comes from someone like me, and there's an anxiety that comes with that.

GROSS: You know, you say - I think it's in the stand-up special - you say that sex was a subject that was never discussed in the family. But, of course, you know, you have relationships in your series, "Ramy," and you talk about, you know, some aspects of your sex life in your stand-up. Most immigrants from various countries around the world, except maybe certain European countries, aren't into America's oversharing culture (laughter). And so that must be - it must be really challenging for them.

YOUSSEF: You know, my parents are really cool. I mean, I think that what you said is true, and I think that there is that - you know, foundationally, that's kind of there on a level. But it's less about the specificity of, OK, we're showing sex scenes, or I'm talking about it in my stand-up, and it's more about the why. And I think I had some really good conversations with both my parents. And I remember, you know, even talking with my mom as she was watching the series, and she said, you know, I'm uncomfortable with some of it, but I get why you're showing it, and I get why it's happening.

And I think that they really appreciate that - you know, with the series and with the stand-up, these things aren't coming up to be controversial or confrontational. If anything, they're just coming up because they are real and they are organic. But they fit in this story that is aspirational to faith, you know, and is aspirational to someone who someone who is trying to, you know, hold on to their culture and hold on to their faith. And so that - I think that ultimately, you know, makes it a much easier conversation.

GROSS: I think the clip I'm about to play illustrates every point you just made (laughter). I want to play a scene that starts off being about sex and ends up going in a completely different direction. So this is a scene from the first episode. You've had sex with a woman you're dating then. And afterwards, you're checking your condom to see if there were any leaks, and she walks in on you as you're checking for leaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) I was just checking if there was any holes in it. You know, like...

ANNA KONKLE: (As Chloe) Why would there be a hole?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) You ever see the way they ship these things? It's, like, on a truck. There's, like, a bunch of dudes, and it's like, who are those dudes? Like, I don't know them. You don't know - you know? So this just - just to make sure that there isn't a faulty one or anything.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) And you do this, like, every time we have sex.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Yeah. I mean, it just - it just takes a sec.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) I don't know why, but I feel, like, kind of offended.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Chloe, like, this doesn't have to get weird, OK?

KONKLE: (As Chloe) Oh, I'm making it weird.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) No, no, no. There's nothing to worry about. It's just - it's just so that we don't have to worry.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) Even if, like, something crazy happened, you know I'm on the pill, right? And if the pill didn't work, we'd do the responsible thing and, like, take care of it.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Yeah. But we can't just take care of it, right? I mean, we don't even really know what it is. I mean, look; I'm totally pro women getting to choose what to do with their bodies. I am. But I'm Muslim, so I'm just pro us not having to make that choice.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) No, like, you're Muslim, I thought, in the way that I'm Jewish. Like, it's a cultural thing. I didn't know that you were Muslim Muslim.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Yeah.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) You drink. Religious Muslims don't drink.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) I actually don't drink.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) The other night, we were out at the bar, and you bought the entire table drinks.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Yeah, but mine was a Coke.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) Tonight, I asked you, do you want another glass of wine? You were like, no, I'm at my limit.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Well, I was at my limit. My limit's just none because I'm Muslim.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) Oh, OK. So you get girls drunk and stay sober so you can sleep with them.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) What?

KONKLE: (As Chloe) That feels kind of date rape-y (ph).

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) That's not what I do. That's not date rape-y. If anything, I'm taking alcohol out of the equation. I'm like a designated driver. I'm your - like, a friend.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) So why are you hiding everything from me?

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) Look. Chloe, I just - I've met girls who seem open-minded, and then they're not.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) And you think that's me.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy Hassan) No, I - no, I - I just - I thought maybe you'd be into the idea of me being culturally different but hate that I actually believe in God.

KONKLE: (As Chloe) I don't care that you're Muslim. I care that you've been lying to me.

GROSS: So that's a scene from the Hulu series "Ramy," which is co-written and created by my guest, Ramy Youssef.

So Ramy, one of the things I find really interesting about the clip is that you're seeing both sides of this as the creator of the series. You're seeing your point of view, but you're also, I think, really interestingly portraying the woman's point of view. Like, that kind of sounds like date rape - that, you know, you're helping her get drunk, and you're staying sober. And I'm wondering if you wrote that scene with women or a woman and kind of compared points of view on it.

YOUSSEF: At that time we were making the pilot, we didn't have our writers' room, so it was me, and Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch. And so we were going through my stand-up, and I have a bit about, you know, why I only wear condoms. I've, you know, never had sex without one, and it's because I don't want to be in a hypothetical place where I would have to make a choice, mostly because it's not my choice. So I would feel, you know, this kind of helplessness where you don't know where it sits spiritually, and there's all this confusion.

And so the character sits in a lot of confusion. And so we took that joke, and we kind of wanted to create the most dynamic way to talk about that. And so I think the whole point of this show, the whole point of stand-up to me, the design of it, is to interrogate my character. So we drafted it out. I sent it to women that I know, that I trust, and we talked through it.

And then we cast Anna Konkle, who's a great actor, and I talked through it with her. And, you know - and we kind of rewrote some of it on our feet just to make sure that it felt as, you know, fleshed out as something like that could, you know? I've never had someone walk in and have that type of conversation about it. I mean, I've had someone notice it but then kind of not say something. But I really wanted to be as honest as we could.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ramy Youssef, and he is a comic and actor. He has a Hulu series that's semiautobiographical about a young man like himself trying to figure out what kind of Muslim he is and what kind of man he is, and that is called "Ramy." It's on Hulu. And now he has a new HBO stand-up special that will premiere on Saturday night, and that's called "Feelings." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor and comic Ramy Youssef. And he has a Hulu series that's semiautobiographical about a young man named Ramy (laughter) who's trying to figure out what kind of Muslim he is and what kind of man he is. And he also has a stand-up special that premieres Saturday night on HBO.

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 (laughter) know what I mean? 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

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. 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 - 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. Like, my parents showed it to me. And I remember my father telling me, I'm going to show it to you, and then you're going to make your choice. But I always knew what my choice was.

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. I mean, it was just - it was always on my mind. And then I think, you 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 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 it even before that, even before 9/11 and before, you know, this narrative really took hold. But then, obviously, as that narrative took hold, you become even more introspective, too.

GROSS: Were you 11 years old on 9/11?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. Yeah, I think I was in the fifth grade. Yeah.

GROSS: So what was the process like of finding a mosque or a community that had the same approach to Islam that you felt comfortable with, that you wanted to practice?

YOUSSEF: It's a long process. I mean, I don't think I really found my spot until I moved to LA, actually. And I think part of it was, when I moved to LA, I was 20. And it was my first time living alone, but also, you know, my first time - I think it was the first time I did Ramadan by myself.

And so I found this mosque in Hollywood. And I guess it's 'cause it's in Hollywood but - it might be a pretty Hollywood mosque. But I remember going and feeling, you know, oh, this is - it's so culturally diverse, and it's so - I mean, it was just - it was a mix of people in a way that I had never really seen. I think the mosque that I would go to growing up were very predominantly one thing. Like, I'm Arab, so you would go, and it's an Arab mosque. And that's kind of, you know, the point of view you're getting. And so culture becomes really attached to religion.

And so I remember moving to LA, going to the Islamic center in Hollywood and feeling like the cultural element wasn't what we were operating from as much as the spiritual one, and that was really cool. That was really good for, you know, my growth and my development.

GROSS: My guest is Ramy Youssef. The first season of his series "Ramy" is streaming on Hulu. His new HBO comedy special "Feelings" premieres Saturday night.

After we take a short break, we'll talk about shooting some of his series in Egypt after the revolution, and Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Mary Beth Keane. A few years ago, she was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 novelists to look out for. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "WELCOME HOTEL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic and actor Ramy Youssef. His new HBO stand-up comedy special "Feelings" premieres Saturday night. He also co-created and stars in a semi-autobiographical series on Hulu called "Ramy." He plays a young man in his 20s who, like Ramy Youssef, grew up in New Jersey, the son of Egyptian immigrants. The series is, in part, about trying to figure out his relationship to Islam.

There's an episode of your series "Ramy" in which your character goes to Egypt to meet family there, and he expects his cousins to be very observant Muslims and to be thinking and talking about the Egyptian revolution. And instead, you - your character - goes to Egypt and finds your cousins, like, partying and going to clubs and smoking weed and snorting cocaine and greeting each other by saying, as-salaam alaikum, bro. And you don't understand why they're not more focused on prayer and the revolution instead of partying.

So I want to play a clip from that episode. And in this scene, you're at a party. And your cousins are doing drugs, and you're just kind of baffled. And then here's your cousin reacting to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

SHADI ALFONS: (As Shadi) I didn't know you were so judgy (ph), bro. You judged me earlier for not praying, and now you tell me what I can say and what I can't say.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) I'm just worried about you, dude. You're doing coke. That's dangerous.

ALFONS: (As Shadi) What do you think of us here? You're coming in here, talking to people about the revolution and [expletive]. Bro, we saw people die in front of our eyes. You think we would keep talking about that [expletive]? Mantoteh (ph) - his sister went to jail for holding up a sign, and she died. I see you being all spiritual and trying to make meaning of all of this. Look. I don't know where God is, but I sure as [expletive] know he's not here right now. I'm lost, man. Everybody's lost. I'm like Ashton Kutcher. But I'm like, dude, where's my country?

GROSS: So that's a scene from the Hulu series "Ramy," which was created by my guest Ramy Youssef and stars him, as well.

Ramy, did something similar happen to you in real life where you visited your cousins in Egypt after the revolution and were really surprised by what was going on in their lives?

YOUSSEF: I think it was less about the specifics with my cousins but, you know, my own fish-out-of-water feeling, you know, being there. After that, my relationship with Egypt in general - I think what I have been really interested in exploring is the ways that we can stereotype ourselves. I think we talk a lot about the external, you know, shaping of our narrative, but also the way that we shape it in our own minds and for who we are.

And so very much like myself in real life, you know, for this character, he's kind of turned Egypt into this mystical homeland that's going to have all these answers for him. And I remember going and feeling, you know, like I wanted to find some answers and like I wanted to, you know, reconnect with my culture. And then you go and - you go to a restaurant, and all the menus are in English. You can't even find one in Arabic because there is this obsession with, you know, seeming like they're, you know, a Westernized, rich, you know, place.

And there's this attitude of, you know - and understandably so - there's this attitude of not wanting to talk about certain things that I felt like I wanted to talk about, but I realized that was me projecting what I wanted from people who've been through something that I couldn't even understand. I do feel like a lot of people who are immigrants - you know, kids of immigrants put that on where they come from.

GROSS: Was it hard to shoot in Egypt? Like, whose permission do you get to shoot there?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. But it's still - you're shooting somewhere else. I mean, we were very supported by the crew, and I felt it was a world-class crew. The support we got from them, their knowledge and the way that we were able to get resources, I was honestly blown away by.

And there's also certain limitations. The government is reading your scripts. You know, we wrote them in English. We had them translated into Arabic. They were sent to the government. They were approved. They were then, you know - people from the censorship bureau of the government who, you know - they come to set, and they make sure that you're shooting what you said you were shooting.

So there are certain precautions that we don't go through here - at least yet - but you'd be surprised as to what the censors are looking at. It's not even what you would think - right? - because we have this pretty loaded conversation about the revolution and about what's going on there. And we didn't get any feedback on it.

I mean, what we got feedback more on was - there was a bit - there was this, like, news article about the Cairo Zoo, where they had painted some donkeys. They had painted some stripes on them to make them look like zebras. And then I guess it was hot out, and the paint started to melt. And I wanted to do a bit that kind of referenced that, and that was the thing that the government was like, absolutely not. You know, you can question us. You can question, politically, where we're at and what's going on in the country, but don't mention that thing at the zoo.

GROSS: Why?

YOUSSEF: They thought it would be embarrassing. I don't - it was - it really - it shocked me. I thought there were so many other things that would get shot down in that script, and that was the thing that came back. And so it was just really surprising. And we didn't do the bit.

GROSS: So one of the things you explore in the series is anti-Semitism and kind of, you know, misogyny within the Muslim and Arab world. And so you have created an uncle - Uncle Naseem - who works in the diamond business in New York. And it's a business where he's surrounded by Jewish people 'cause he's the only Arab Muslim in that area in the diamond business. And he's become, like, really anti-Semitic, talking about how the Jews look when they're counting their money and about how, like, on 9/11, like, no Jews went to work that day, you know, 'cause he thinks Jews are part of the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center.

So I don't know if you have an uncle who's like that. Do you?

YOUSSEF: I don't. No, I don't.

GROSS: Why did you want to create one? Why did you want to explore that aspect in the series?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, well, I think to also say he's not only anti-Semitic; he's also, you know, sexist and homophobic and racist to kind of everyone. I think it's the type of character that usually try to hide. I think we're making this show about the first look at an Arab Muslim family and, you know, we know this is the type of person who exists not only in our community, but, you know, definitely in our community. But usually, you wouldn't show that.

To me, the important thing here is, you know, to look at how this type of person proliferates and continues to exist. This is someone who is in every family. If you're in a Jewish family - I've gotten this feedback from so many, you know, Jewish people who watch the show, who go, oh, my God. I had the same uncle. He just says all these hateful things about Muslims.

You know, if you - if you're in a white family, you have the uncle who says the N-word and who probably doesn't mind the KKK. This is a guy that hangs out in this fictional family and continues to say what he wants because he has more money than everybody. He has this business, and Ramy needs a job from him and then become linked to him because of the way that he's lent his family money, because of the support that he offers.

And I think when we can start dissecting someone like that, that's how we can start understanding someone like a Trump or, you know, we don't - and we don't talk about Trump in the series, but we have Uncle Naseem. You know, this is the way that we chose to talk about this type of influence and this type of person. And I think that that's really true to real life, that we often go silent or we often don't know how to deal with this person.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ramy Youssef. And he is the star and creator of the Hulu series "Ramy." And now he has a new standup special that will premiere on HBO Saturday night. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor and writer Ramy Youssef. He co-created and stars in the Hulu series "Ramy," which is a semi-autobiographical series about a young man trying to figure out what kind of Muslim he is and what kind of man he is. And also, he has a standup special. Ramy Youssef has a standup special that premieres on HBO this Saturday night. So what was 9/11 like for you? You were 11 years old-ish (laughter).

YOUSSEF: Ish, yeah.

GROSS: And I think you were in school as the attack happened on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So how did that part of the day unfold for you?

YOUSSEF: You know, I think, probably, in many ways, the way that it unfolded for a lot of people - just a lot of confusion, you know? Kids getting pulled out of class - and then all of sudden, half your class is gone. But I grew up not far from Paterson, N.J. I think, obviously, being so close to New York, there was a tension and confusion of, you know, how close are we to something horrible that's happening?

And, you know, there are people who, you know, their family works in New York. At the time, my father was in New York, so, you know, you just don't know where people are at. So there's that confusion and then there's, obviously, the pain that came with knowing, OK. There are people we know who, you know, passed and, you know, friends of friends and all of that. You know, so...

GROSS: You had people who died in the World Trade Center.

YOUSSEF: Not like a direct, you know - I mean, it's within the community. You kind of know of, you know? And so it was - you know, there's just - obviously, there's just that trauma that was kind of echoing. I mean, you could see - where we lived, you could see the smoke, you know? So that's just for a while. And so that's the kind of thing that you don't forget.

And, you know, for us, there's an added cultural layer. And I just remember being a kid and seeing kind of how it played out in the news and, you know, and seeing that the name of the first World Trade Center bomber was Ramzi Yousef. And I think that was a moment - you know, I talk about it in my comedy, but that was a moment where it really hit just the way that the identity of, you know, my faith and who I was was going to get really tied up in this.

GROSS: Right, because Ramzi Yousef was one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. So over the years, have people confused you with him - seen your name and thought, oh, no? (Laughter).

YOUSSEF: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I mean, without a doubt. I mean, there was definitely - yeah, without a doubt, an airport flag for sure - like, that kind of thing, yeah.

GROSS: So on that day in school on 9/11, did people start to see you differently because, you know, it turns out, you know, Muslims were behind the attack on the World Trade Center? And did they see you differently as a result?

YOUSSEF: I don't know if it was that day. I felt it slowly occur over the next two years, but I think the thing that I felt more was just that internal questioning and that internal fear. So it's less, you know...

GROSS: Internal fear - what do you mean by that?

YOUSSEF: Well, you see your faith, and you see names that sound like yours. And you see that it's tied to the country your family comes from. And you start hearing this narrative, and you don't know a lot of people that are of your culture. Obviously, you know your family. But it's - again, you're the minority. And the only thing you see in the media is your experience being painted a certain way, and so that creates an insecurity. That creates an internal dialogue of, are they right? Is that true? And you don't have the confidence at 11, at 12. I mean, you're figuring out your body. You don't have these world-class answers about your faith and about the history of colonialism that you can spit out to explain anything. And so it creates a massive insecurity and a massive fear.

GROSS: So when you started doing standup comedy, what did you talk about?

YOUSSEF: I talked - you know, in the beginning, I think I talked a lot about political things that was interesting to me. And then as I kept moving, I realized that I wanted to talk about things that were more personal and kind of realizing that the most effective thing to do would be to talk about the thing you don't want to talk about, which I feel like you hear a lot when it comes to art. But you don't really understand it until you're on stage saying things that you wouldn't say to your family. And you feel how it hits and how it connects because it's so unresolved within you.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of that from your early years in comedy?

YOUSSEF: I was doing stand-up during Ramadan. And I was at a bar. And I broke my fast at the bar just, you know, drinking a cup of water, and then I went up and did a set. And I had had this experience a couple of nights earlier, and I just decided to talk about it on stage, which was that I was, you know, hooking up with this girl and we, like, went out. And then she wanted to watch a movie, and then she was like, oh, let's go to this party. But I was trying to hook up with her before the sun would rise, and then it got really late. And it was, like, 3 in the morning, and I was kind of trying to, like, make it happen.

And then I just realized, you know, that I was - I just felt like a schizophrenic person. I was like, I can't - am I really trying to hook up with someone before the sun rises? This is insane. And I started talking about it on stage, and I just felt like I was talking about something I needed to talk about.

And it really opened up for me, you know, that even though this thing felt so specific - right? I mean, I think from a joke-writing standpoint, it doesn't feel like it's anything that would resonate in any way because it feels so - like, who else is doing this? But then I started talking about it, and I realized just how much it did connect and how needed the conversation was - again, mainly for me, but it also felt that way with the audience, too.

GROSS: So one of the contradictions that your character is trying to deal with in his life is that he dates, you know, white American women but feels like he could probably only marry a Muslim woman. And I wonder if that's a contradiction you're going through in your own life.

YOUSSEF: This is a question I asked myself early on for sure, kind of questioning the validity of my intentions within relationships and making sure that, you know, I wasn't operating from a bias. And I started writing about it, and I realized, on a level, I might have been.

And I think it's a question in the series, but it's also one that, you know, lives within me and, I think, with a lot of people who are first-gen immigrants, which is, what do you want to build? Do you want to hold on to your language? Do you want to hold on to your faith? You know it's going to be harder if, you know, you and your partner are, you know, different foundationally like that. Like, how is a kid supposed to learn Arab - you know, I mean, you could, but it's just easier, you know? And so kind of figuring out - what are you going to prioritize? Is it carrying that on? Is it just true love?

And for me, I reached the point where I know the way I live my life is not conventional, and so I feel like whatever relationship I do end up in is also not going to be conventional. So I don't operate from feeling like something has to be, you know - I have to be with someone who is Muslim or the other way around. But it - yeah, posing that question was really important. It's where I've arrived at now - is that, you know, I'm open, but my character certainly has not arrived there, and he's really trying to figure that out.

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 on stage and in your series helped you understand yourself better?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, even 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 - yeah. It's totally, you know - I'm making this thing about being Muslim. And it's part of my career, and I'm making money off of it. There's 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 means 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, and good luck with the comedy special.

YOUSSEF: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Ramy Youssef's new HBO comedy special "Feelings" premieres Saturday night. The first season of his series "Ramy" is streaming on Hulu. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel she describes as one of the most unpretentiously profound books she's read in a long time. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG-HOLT UNLIMITED'S "SOULFUL STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.