For W’s 2020 TV Portfolio, we asked 21 of the most sought-after names in television to embody their favorite characters from their favorite shows of the past few months—and to explain why we should all be (re-)watching The Sopranos, Ozark, Schitt’s Creek, and, yes, Floor Is Lava. To see all the images and discover their picks, click here.
Ramy Youssef is the underdog breakout star of 2020. That statement might seem like an exaggeration, but in the case of Youssef, it’s not too far off. In his Hulu show Ramy, he tells the story of a lost 20-something living in New Jersey, trying to find meaning in his life while simultaneously searching for answers within Islam. (The series, which is in its second season, is loosely based upon Youssef’s life.) It was a sleeper hit, but a hit nonetheless: The 29-year-old, who got his start as a stand-up comedian, won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in 2020 and is nominated for two Emmys in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series categories. And he’s a serious contender.
But when Youssef gets on the phone for this interview, he’s hardly a brand-new Hollywood diva. He admits he’s “feeling very free,” not only because he’s in a car driving through the winding canyons of Los Angeles, but also because he tore a ligament during a basketball game (“I was trying to be eligible for the NBA bubble. I was just trying to ball, like all of us. Aren’t we all just trying to ball?”), and, for the first time in over a month, he’s finally out and about, simply wearing sneakers, free of the boot that had imprisoned his foot for more than four weeks. He is relaxed, predictably hilarious, personable, and, above all, grateful to be in his position. At times, it seems like he’s more shocked than anyone that his career has taken off the way it has in the past two years. “It’s been cool to be able to get recognized at the level that the show is at,” Youssef said.
Below, he shares his experiences trying to finish season 2 of Ramy during the coronavirus pandemic, how Muslim humor is similar to Jewish humor, and why it’s hard to watch comedies while writing a comedy show.
Tell me about your life in quarantine.
In the beginning, I was visiting L.A. just for a couple of days, and then I realized everyone really took things very seriously once Tom Hanks got it. To me, corona is all about: Where were you when you found out Tom Hanks got coronavirus? That was the defining thing, where America was like, well, if Hanks got it, we’re all vulnerable. I didn’t really have a choice, but it kind of felt too apocalyptic—because we were like, none of us should get on planes. I was here just visiting for three, four days, and then I’ve been here since. I think the initial period was very much trying to figure out how to still make the same release date for the show. We only had three of the episodes edited. And so then it turned into remote editing immediately, because everyone’s quarantined at home. And then additionally, we also had three days of shooting that we needed [to do], and then it became clear that we weren’t going to get those. We had to figure out, with the footage that we had, how we were going to fill in the stuff that we were hoping to get and make it work.
When you’re planning a show, you’re working on it for the whole year, and it’s part of a thing you’ve been thinking about for years, and then you kind of get this global curveball. So early on in quarantine, I was very much in work-strategizing mode. Now is the most chill time I’ve probably had, [since] it’s been pretty nonstop the whole time. And mindset-wise, too, I think at the beginning we were like, Oh my god, will this be over by April? And we’ve so quickly adapted to being like, We’re going to be living differently for another year or two, but then the world is not going to look like it ever did. We’re all certainly not happy about that, but definitely a lot more comfortable with that.
How did you end up filming the episodes that you needed to film? Have you done that yet?
We didn’t need to film episodes, it was just pickup: we had a scene here, a scene there. We couldn’t get it during the traditional production time. So we just launched season 2 without that stuff. It was the first time that I really understood the old adage of “The show must go on.”
Isn’t that getting older? Isn’t getting older figuring out that all those stupid fucking trite sayings are actually true? It takes so long, and then one day you’re an adult, and you’re like, You know what? Practice does make perfect. But you know what? All those sayings got fucked up because people put them on mugs and on those, like, dumb plaques in the kitchen, but they are real. If it’s on a mug, it’s there for a reason.That’s what I learned during this quarantine.
Why did you choose Curb Your Enthusiasm as the show that helped you through quarantine?
A lot of times, it’s hard to watch comedies while you’re making a comedy. So I’ll sometimes watch dramas while I’m making the show—not that our show is a traditional comedy, but I tend to find myself watching more drama stuff. And then this pandemic’s going on, and you kind of don’t want to be watching a drama. I love Larry David, obviously, and so for me, Curb hit that sweet spot this year. As a show, they were really in their stride this season, and it was so fun to watch. I had such a blast unwinding, watching that season. And it’s really cool to see them at top form, even after all these years.
What’s great about Larry is that he has a quarantine attitude of, “Leave me alone. I’m going to stay inside.” I’m trying to capture that energy.
How did Larry David influence your approach to comedy?
Anyone who’s in comedy has been influenced by Larry David—there’s baseline influence in the storytelling structure and the emphasis on character. It’s like when you talk about sports: Even if your favorite player isn’t Michael Jordan, the game is influenced by Michael Jordan. He’s one of those guys whose touch is just there. In terms of the specificity, there is a total twinship when you look at Jewish humor and Muslim humor and the things that we have in our communities.
My uncle character on my show is anti-Semitic, and all my Jewish friends would be like, “Oh my god, I have that same uncle. And he said the same thing about Muslim people. He’s an Islamophobe.” We’re Semitic people. And so the connection is really inherent in terms of point of view, and a very skeptical optimism, which is at the core of what we share.
It’s unfortunate. I think a lot of our conversations on planet Earth become very binary. What’s really cool about comedy is that it makes a binary conversation much more gray. There are legitimate grievances, and there are legitimately terrible things that are happening in the communities I mentioned, and in the whole world, and there are things that need to be discussed. But what ends up happening is, we kind of lose looking at the things that are similar. My work is not about showing that we’re all the same; it’s actually about highlighting the differences, because we’re not all the same. But we’re all trying in a similar way, and we’re all feeling in a similar way, regardless of the differences.
Was there anything else that you watched, read, or listened to during quarantine that inspired you?
After I finished making all the work on my show, I was rewatching some stuff. I rewatched Nathan for You, which is so funny and such a classic. It’s that amazing blend of unscripted, but his character is so strong that it feels scripted—they have this ability to go out into the world and craft stories in real time. It’s just so dry and so funny. I’m not someone who often rewatches shows, but I was doing this seesaw between Nathan for You and The Sopranos, which is oddly a great back-and-forth.
What are you most excited about regarding TV right now?
I think that the industry is realizing that things don’t have to be celebrity-driven for people to find interest in them. They need to fit a genuine curiosity and a new way in. People are sick of seeing the same shit, and I think that the industry is realizing that. We’re going to hear from voices that you don’t usually see on television a lot more than we have in the past. Even for our show to be in the Emmy conversation could result in what I hope are larger possibilities for people who are not me. That’s the cool part. I’m excited to watch those shows.
Speaking of the Emmys, this is a big weekend for you. Where were you when you received word that you had been nominated?
I was home, watching the stream. It was early in the morning. I saw that I’d been nominated as an actor. I was very excited. I saw that Mahershala [Ali] had been nominated. That was really cool. And then I saw that the show hadn’t been nominated—I really had hoped that it would, but you know, I was still happy. So I turned the stream off, because, selfishly, I was just watching for the categories that I thought we would be up for. Then I got a bunch of texts from people being like, “You got nominated as a director!” I was like, “What? That’s crazy!” It wasn’t even on my radar.
You said in a previous interview that you realized you’d won the Golden Globe before it was announced because you could tell Jennifer Aniston didn’t know how to pronounce your name. And in your acceptance speech, you said, “I know you guys haven’t seen my show.”
The coolest thing about the Golden Globes is that I was very much the under-the-radar guy. It was exciting to even be nominated, and then, obviously, even more exciting to be able to get the win, knowing that there are 500 shows on TV and a lot of times people don’t watch a show unless a celebrity is in it. And there’s an emphasis on that even in picking up shows. It’s not just a trailer; it’s also like, Well, who’s in it? Did it get any awards? I personally need to hear about a show from six of my most trusted people who I would give my computer password to—that’s the only people I’m listening to if they’re telling me to watch a show. It’s pretty hard to start watching something. So I’m very aware of that.
I wanted to ask you about the zine that you recently made, in which you discuss religion with Mahershala Ali and Mindy Kaling, among other people. Did their perspectives give you any new opinions on religion that you perhaps hadn’t had before?
It wasn’t about new opinions about a faith as much as it was exciting to talk about it openly with people in the industry. It’s one of those things that doesn’t get talked about, or if it does get talked about, it’s not an actual engagement about it. In the sense of getting to have an open conversation, what I did learn was that I felt an intimacy with everyone I interviewed. I felt I got to know the person more. I got to know a lot more about who they are in a really short amount of time because of the subject matter.
Did any of the anecdotes people shared with you about religion from their own lives give you inspiration for potential storylines on future episodes of Ramy?
Oh, that’s funny. No, it wasn’t like that. A lot of these conversations—it’s never really so much about a specific story as it is a point of view. Getting to talk to even someone like Mindy, it was really funny, because she was telling me how she doesn’t really subscribe to a religion, but she was telling me how she feels about religion. I was joking with her—I was like, you’re basically Muslim. The perspective you’re talking about is so many of the things that we believe. It’s such a fine line between being someone who doesn’t believe and someone who does believe. The more I talk with people, the more clear it becomes that we all have a God part of our brain, whether we name it, or whatever it is that we name it. It’s just like being hungry for food. It’s just like needing exercise. It’s just like wanting to have love. It’s a type of energy that we’re all feeling in some way.
What stage are you at with Ramy season 3?
We’re getting into the writers’ room in the next month or two; we’re going to start cracking it. We had just wrapped shooting season 2, and we’d had a few days to do pickup before dropping it in May.
How are you preparing to get into the writers’ room? We had no breaks between season 1 and season 2, so it’s been good to just get a little bit of downtime and to almost not look at it for a little bit. It’s nice to have a little break from fictional Ramy and just focus on real-life Ramy for a minute.