Ramy Youssef – American/Egyptian stand-up comedian and writer talks to Michele Manelis about his debut series, Ramy, which won him this year's Golden Globe for Best Actor, TV Musical or Comedy
Is Ramy autobiographical?
Yes. Emotionally it's very true but the family in the show is different from my real family because a lot of what I wanted to do with the show was imagine what my life would look like if I wasn't a stand-up comedian. I wanted to put myself in a place where I created a character who was still living at home with his family and what it would look like for him to solve a lot of those problems that come up.
Can you talk a little about your upbringing?
My parents are both from Egypt and we were raised with Islam. I always remember my dad saying, "I'm going to show it to you and then you decide what you want to do." And he was very open-minded in that way. But he always said, "It's my job to show you the faith; it's my job to show you how to pray." And I found myself just gravitating towards it, it was a big part of my life growing up.
How does that play out in the show?
Regarding religion, there's always what you believe and then there's what you actually do and so this show is about that space in between.
How did you get into this business? Is it something you always wanted to do?
No. I went to school for political science and economics but I ended up dropping out because I was really always into creating and making things. So I would always make videos with my friends, perform comedy and act. Then I went to an acting school in New York and then I went to LA to do standup comedy. So, for the last eight years that's been my main focus.
In America, the word Muslim has negative connotations, not helped by President Trump. What is the biggest prejudice you've experienced?
We cover this a little bit in the show but I was 11 when 9/11 happened, I grew up in New Jersey, right outside of New York and I would say that a lot of my feelings growing up were defined by fear. And not only a fear of what happened - because it's one of the most horrible things to have happen - but also your faith and your name because it's associated with these things. I don't want to feel that fear anymore, I don't want to be afraid anymore. And so my life was all about pushing away from growing up in that environment that is set up by things that happened. But this show is just part of a larger thing that's happening with anyone who considers themselves being Muslim. And that is, we don't want to be afraid. And if we're talking about terrorism there's no one that's more afraid of terrorism than Muslims. These are the people who are the most affected by terrorism.
Are there Muslim taboos you wouldn't joke about?
I think you can joke about anything if it's coming from an honest place. And I think the humour in the show and my personal humour is not really to attack anybody. I don't think attacking anyone is fun. I don't get enjoyment out of attacking anyone, I like to make comedy that is me examining myself and in this case with this family. It's very introspective and it's a family looking at themselves. But in terms of am I afraid of extremists? Because of course there'll be Muslims who watch this show that are very offended. There's a chance that the people who are most offended by this show are some Muslims. And I can't operate from making something defined by what other people with think. I called the show Ramy because that's all it is, these are just my thoughts, I'm not saying: "This is how Muslims think."
What were you like at school? When did you realise you could make people laugh?
I never felt like I was really funny, just because everyone in my family is really funny. I'm definitely the least funny person in my family. And so it took me years to kind of realise, "Oh wait, not everyone's this funny. This is unique.' The funniest people I have met in my life were in Cairo, funnier than any stand-up I've ever done or seen.
Who's the funniest person in your family?
The funniest person in my family? It's probably tied between my uncle and my dad. My uncle's clearly really funny but my dad is dry-funny. Four days later you remember what he said and think, "Oh that was good."
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Often Arabs will say that their best friends are Jews. There's this perception that they hate each other – you brought that up on the show. Was it deliberate?
Absolutely. Not only the people that we're really good friends with but the people we work with, the people who get us. Growing up, my best friends were Jewish. I think we both bonded about not celebrating Christmas. There's something about not celebrating Christmas that bonds you as friends for life, because that is pain. It's just, "Oh man, we're not getting that." And so the closest friends to me personally and to my family have
always been Jewish.
Ramy screens on TVNZ On Demand.