Believe You Me!
A heart-to-heart about God comes full circle, as a Muslim — Ramy Youssef — and a Christian — Jerrod Carmichael — join forces on Ramy, a comedy that cleaves racial and religious taboos.
When Ramy Youssef met fellow comedian Jerrod Carmichael on set at Comedy Central's Roast of Justin Bieber in early 2015, they bonded not about comedy, but about religion.
Carmichael, a Christian from North Carolina, would go on to star in The Carmichael Show on NBC later that year. And Youssef, a first-generation Egyptian-American Muslim from New Jersey, had just wrapped a costarring role on Scott Baio's Nick at Nite comedy, See Dad Run.
Since then, Youssef has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, notched a three-episode arc on USA's Mr. Robot and taped his first HBO stand-up special, due to air this summer. He's also a creator, executive producer, writer and the star of the new Hulu comedy Ramy. All 10 episodes of the series — about a single, millennial Muslim-American in New Jersey — dropped April 19.
Among Youssef's fellow exec producers is his friend Jerrod Carmichael (also exec-producing are A24's Ravi Nandan, showrunner Bridget Bedard and cocreators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch). Emmy contributor Bob Makela caught up with the duo during a pair of conversations with Youssef — one phone call, one in-person chat in a Brooklyn conference room — and a phoner with Carmichael at home in Los Angeles.
Q: Did you guys really bond talking God at a Justin Bieber roast?
Ramy Youssef: We didn't talk about comedy for years. It was almost two years before we transitioned to me opening for him on the road, where we're really getting into it. But it was a solid year-plus before we were even getting into career stuff.
Jerrod Carmichael: In L.A., a lot of my best friends are atheist or agnostic, or they grew up with religion and it just didn't have a place in their life anymore. With Ramy, it was one of the rare instances where I met somebody and I'm like, "Oh, he's actively maintaining it. [He's] praying ."
RY: We were just friends that found ourselves in Hollywood, but believing in God, too — and also having sex [not with each other]. There's the "I believe in God/Bible camp" Hollywood thing, which I don't judge. It's just not what I'm in. And then there's what we are in, where we're like, "Yo, we believe in God. But our hands are dirty. Let's talk about that."
JC: The entertainment business is an interesting thing, because there's a lot of non-religious people who work in an industry where all you do is practice faith. It's such a hopeful thing, where you need extreme faith and belief — all the tenets and principles of God and religion. And no one has religion. But everyone has those things.
Q: How did the idea develop for Ramy?
RY: I had expressed to him that I really wanted to make something that talked about the way we talk about God and the way we talk about what we believe. But I think at some point Jerrod said to me, "Yeah, we should be doing a show together."
JC: I've been developing television for as long as I've done stand-up. I've always had a love for it. Everything else seems fleeting. You want to produce. You want to be a creator.
RY: I remember telling Jerrod, "I want to talk about God in a way that doesn't sound dumb." Because it's hard. Even me saying the word God right now sounds awkward.
JC: We connected over those conversations and talked about how we applied [religion] to our lives growing up. And talking about that, it was just a natural progression to, "Oh, well, we should show this in some kind of way." It would be interesting to see those challenges play out.
Q: Any plans to appear on the show, Jerrod?
JC: No. You want me in video village with cans on. I'm just here as a resource to hear his thoughts, to be a sounding board. Mostly my role as producer is to be the guardian of the idea. I just try and provide him with the space to do whatever he wants.
Q: Are the supporting characters based on people in your own life, Ramy?
RY: It's a mixture of people. But I'd say every character on the show is predominantly a feeling that I've had, with a sprinkle of a real person I know — especially my family.
It's feelings I had about family, about the family structure, about the culture. Just a peppering of my actual dad and just a peppering of my actual mom — because I think if I actually did my parents word for word, it would be pretty boring.
Q: There's a character, Steve, who uses a wheelchair. What's his story?
RY: [The actor who plays him, Steve Way] is one of my best friends. I've known him since we were, I think, 11 years old. He's been a really important part of my life. I've been making things with him for three years. On YouTube you'll find some things here and there.
What's really cool about Steve and the way he sees the world is that he's so aware of how people treat him differently. And he takes advantage of that and is very cutthroat about it in a way that I think is really cool. It's kind of refreshing.
Q: You also have a character, your uncle Naseem [played by Laith Nakli], who's an anti-Semitic Muslim jeweler. Was there ever any pushback from Hulu?
RY: No, there wasn't. I remember sending that script in and thinking, "Oh well, this part is going to be shot down quick." And... no. [ He cracks up. ] Part of what we agreed to with Hulu when we got into this was: How do we make something that fits in with the reality of what types of people are out there? Because this character is not unique to Muslims. This character is in every family.
Q: You almost have to get into it. That sort of thing exists, and to not portray it would be a disservice to the show.
RY: You have to! And I know it sounds bizarre, but my hope is not that somebody watches it and goes, "Oh, Muslims are anti-Semitic." It's not how I feel. My hope is that somebody watches this whole show and goes, "Oh, wow, they were really fair in all parts. And this actually makes me feel connected."
JC: We get a lot of non-specific television, and it's the result of people making sure that the network's happy and everyone's happy — but there is no vision attached to it. I've watched Ramy develop and own his vision.
Q: What do you mean, exactly? How does "owning it" manifest itself day to day?
JC: It manifests itself in the specificity of what you do. Being able to articulate your own thoughts and not imitate what's been done, what's been said. It's challenging for a lot of artists to just own their own thoughts and own a show or an idea as they see it. And I've watched Ramy really grow into that over the season.
The scripts become more specific; the characters become more specific to his world, his vision, his life experiences.
Q: Was there a lot of laughter in your house growing up, Ramy?
RY: Yeah, especially when everyone got together. Also, though, so many things were [said] in sarcasm and deadpan. There wasn't laughter, but you knew it was just fucking funny.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to do comedy?
RY: Growing up, I didn't have any active thoughts about being a comedian. I didn't know what I wanted to be. I had no idea. I never figured it out, actually.
Q: Who was your first comedy hero?
RY: My uncle was playing [George] Carlin for me when I was eight.
Q: So you were exposed to The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television as an eight-year-old?
RY: Yeah. I was eight or nine, listening to everything. My uncle exposed me to stuff my parents never did. But my family is funny. Everyone's got a certain point of view, and it's so clear. To me, the funniest thing is conviction, and the amazing thing about being in a Muslim family is you're surrounded by people who really believe what they believe.
Q: You never went through a rebellious period when you hated your parents and wanted to disavow the faith?
RY: My parents were so generous and so open and loving to us, they made it hard to hate them. They almost emotionally blackmailed us. It was like, "How could you hate us? We've been so good to you." And you'd be like, "Fuck! I guess I have to hate myself." [ He laughs .]
The problems really weren't my parents, it was more like, Where do we fit in? Because the culture is different. So many things are the same, but so many things are totally different. And what I really want to do with the show is highlight both those things.
Q: Do you worry about being accused of portraying Muslims in a negative light?
RY: So many times we [see] so much hatred toward them, so it's like, let's show people how fucking awesome they are. There's this sort of natural urge to want to protect the image and show the best, and that can be effective sometimes.
But what I would connect with more is seeing the rawest, the most open-wound version of people and seeing them with their flaws. One of those things feels a bit like a commercial. The other feels like someone's letting you into their life.
Q: This is one of the few, if any, Arab shows on American TV. Do you feel any added responsibility?
RY: I did at first. Because I love being Muslim. And I love my community. So when I got the show, I was like, "Man, I really want to do right. I want to make people proud. I want to do all those things." And as I really focused on what the show should be, and I started writing, I realized the only way to do that is to just make it as authentically me as possible.
And by nature of doing that, it does not represent everybody. It's very narrow. My show is called Ramy. It barely scratches the surface on the experience of Muslims in America. Because it's only my experience. So the idea of the Muslim-American experience is not a real thing.
Q: Jerrod, what did you learn while making your show that's going to help Ramy's project?
JC: Get great craft services. By that I mean: care about the most specific things on your set. It goes back to ownership. Put a lot of care and a lot of thought into every aspect — production, especially everything that's going on creatively.
That's the energy that I went with into The Carmichael Show. The person at the heart of it has to know what they're trying to say and be confident in their articulation of it. That's a thing you learn in stand-up, and it applies to TV, it applies to film.
RY: It's rare to have an executive producer who thinks like an EP but has also been the talent and creator of his own show in the same way as a front-facing comedian. We have a very similar approach to a lot of things. But there are things that come with experience. And the nature of who Jerrod is has been invaluable to what we're doing.
Q: Are you concerned with how the show will be received in the Muslim community?
RY: Very early on, I embraced that this is going to have a variety of responses. I don't imagine that everyone's going to like it. I think that there will be people in the Muslim community who take offense with how sexual the show is, with the fact that the show is unapologetic about certain things and isn't trying to do a PR piece on how amazing we are.
But I hope it shows that we deserve to have our stories out there. And it shows that because my show's limited, there's room for so many other stories. And that's exciting.
Q: How will your faith help you handle all that's about to come your way?
RY: Dude, that's such a beautiful question, and I'm so glad you asked it. Honestly, for me, it's because I am Muslim and prayer is a huge part of my life and what I believe…. Knowing that God knows my intentions — that's how I've put together this project — that's probably the thing that will help me sleep, regardless of how it goes.
No matter what happens, knowing our mission — making a show that is designed to spark a lot of conversations — for me, the most important conversation is with God. That's what keeps me grounded through however this will play out.
Q: So between the launch of your own show and shooting your first stand-up special for HBO, you're on the cusp of big things. How are you feeling about everything?
RY: I look at all this stuff and the only thing I can think is — how could I not believe in God?
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019