April 22nd, 2024

Ramy Youssef constantly asks if jokes are harmful or helpful. He keeps telling them anyway

By Krysta Fauria, The Associated Press on March 20, 2024.

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Fresh off his awards season high after attending the Oscars with his fellow “Poor Things” stars – and presenting – Ramy Youssef is heading back into more familiar territory. The actor and comedian, known for the critically acclaimed Hulu series “Ramy,” will premiere his latest stand-up special Saturday on HBO and Max.

In keeping with much of his previous work, “Ramy Youssef: More Feelings” doesn’t shy away from fraught topics, including religion, the upcoming presidential election and the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Although Youssef says he is “constantly interrogating” whether tackling these subjects through comedy is a good use of his time, he thinks there is enough reason to keep doing it – for now. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: This special felt very timely. I wondered how soon after Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza began that you started working on it.

YOUSSEF: I think actually what’s really interesting about the special is that it appears more topical than it is. There’s definitely jokes in there that were written in the last few months, and there’s some of them that were even written a few days before. But I think that the bedrock of a lot of the stories that you would think I was writing in terms of a response to what was happening, I had been actually workshopping for years. I think that there’s a lot of focus on Oct. 7, rightfully so, because it was obviously a horrific day. And Oct. 6 was horrific, you know?

I think that’s kind of the point I’m making in terms of like this not being topical material. I think there actually is some press from that first week of October that talks about it being the deadliest year ever for children anywhere, in regards to Palestinian children. So, you know, this is something that’s heavy. And I think in terms of trying to find light and trying to find commonality between people, which I think is the goal of the special and kind of the goal of what I’ve always done.

AP: I could see some people being reluctant to broach such taboo topics through comedy. Is it a way for you to process things?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. I think for me personally it’s a processing thing. It’s a place again to kind of create an alternative space that is kind of without logic. Obviously, I kind of go out of my way to be pretty dumb when I’m doing stand-up. I think there’s something in just figuring out, you know, is there a pocket here to let the air out somehow in terms of it being healing? It might be. It could also not be. It also could be part of the problem. I actually have no idea, to be honest with you.

And I think I’m constantly interrogating myself of like, is this helpful? And I don’t think I’ll ever really know. But I do know that there’s a feeling that I get when I do a live show and people kind of walk out and the things that I get from the people who I meet and I get to shake their hand, or the people who write where they kind of feel, like we’ve kind of recharged a little bit. But yeah, no tangible answers or solutions or anything like that. Just maybe, a bit of a recharge, hopefully.

AP: Do you think the fear of it being hurtful is that it minimizes serious things?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. It could. It could be, maybe I should be doing something else with my time. You know, all these things are possible.

AP: It’s like the Bo Burnham joke that he’s healing the world with comedy.

YOUSSEF: It’s interesting because I think I’d had that conversation with Bo about that actually like many years ago, just kind of around the topic of, at the very least, like when we’re doing what we’re doing, that we should be interrogating ourselves.

AP: You don’t shy away from making jokes about faith. I wondered if you have felt like people are kind of holding their breath when you do that or if it’s like a welcome topic.

YOUSSEF: I think there was a bit of a breath-holding when I first started talking about my spiritual inclinations on stage. And I think that’s what made me realize it was really ripe for something in comedy. I would say atheism or a certain mocking of religion is almost like a baseline feature of a comedy set, as much as like going on a date is, you know? God’s a punch line. Jesus is a punch line. It’s funny, like when you’re raised as a Muslim, it’s like you never make fun of Jesus, you know, which would probably surprise people too, right?

I’m obviously not a puritan in any sense. I mean the whole point is that I totally get the culture that I sit in. But I just kind of like to analyze it from a different way. And so it doesn’t come from any sort of, truly there’s no holier than thou. It’s more, you know, watch me kind of drown in the act of trying to be holy. You know, I’m failing and I’ll let you in on my failures. But I think I realized, pretty early on that there was a type of a gasp that made it fun to explore because it is so clear to me that it wasn’t being explored with any sort of sincerity.

AP: That’s fascinating. Do you kind of relish making people squirm a little bit?

YOUSSEF: Probably, yeah. But again, not to be sensational. It’s not like ambulance chasing. It’s just kind of this feeling of this is how I feel and I wonder what it would look like if we felt it together and then kind of did something with that feeling, you know? So let’s bring that up and then kind of look at it and then toss it away and kind of get into something else.

AP: You also talk a lot about politics in the special. Did somebody from Joe Biden’s campaign really reach out to you in 2020?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, we had a Zoom. I mean they’re very nice people, by the way. Like, they’re really good. And I think, you know, obviously in the special, it’s kind of fun to play with those situations. We’re in a really interesting predicament where it’s kind of like, “Hey are you sure you want to complain about Biden? Because Trump is worse.” And then it’s kind of like OK, you know that’s kind of that’s like textbook abuse, right? You know, don’t say anything because then it’s going to get worse. And you say, “OK, I thought we’re in a democracy. Aren’t we supposed to kind of question it and poke at it?”

And then I’m feeling an interesting thing where we’re kind of voicing, you know, what I think is an incredibly fair argument and also starting to feel this feeling of, “Hey, you might blow this election for us.” It’s kind of like, you know, I think you might blow it for you. And I don’t want that. I actually don’t want that. I want this to work. I love being an American. I really want this to work out.

AP: And then I have to ask about Taylor Swift coming to your show. I think people didn’t really know she was into comedy.

YOUSSEF: You gotta see her “Saturday Night Live.” Her “SNL” was great.

AP: So were you guys already friends?

YOUSSEF: It’s so funny. It’s kind of like it’s just one of those things where I think because she’s one of the biggest people, I mean, she was like person of the year, that it kind of becomes this huge talking point or whatever. I kind of have a throwaway joke about it, but for the most part, it’s like we just met, you know? Like she was a big fan of the movie, of “Poor Things.” But there’s almost something slightly embarrassing about like talking about it too much because it’s just like we just met, you know? So I don’t have like a ton to say, but she’s just a really cool person.

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