Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Kaitlin Fontana

Promotional poster for RAMY.

Kaitlin chats with Ramy Youssef—the writer, creator, Golden Globe-winning star, and frequent director of the Hulu comedy series RAMY—about the importance of representation in crafting his show, what was in his head when he won his Golden Globe, and why if you’re going to be weird you have to earn it.

Ramy Youssef kicked off his industry career as a co-star in the Nick at Nite comedy SEE DAD RUN, where he shadowed the writers’ room. Since then, he’s had a recurring role on USA Network’s MR ROBOT and an HBO stand-up special.

His latest project, RAMY, drops us into the day-to-day life of Ramy Hassan, a millennial Muslim living in New Jersey who’s trying to navigate faith, family and being a first generation immigrant while also waiting in the murky waters of sex, love and trying to be good. Seasons 1 and 2 of the series are now streaming on Hulu, and the show was recently renewed for a 3rd season.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Seasons Four and Five of the podcast are hosted by Kaitlin Fontana. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes and everything in between. Today we welcome Ramy Youssef. Ramy is the Golden Globe winning star of not to mention creator writer and frequent director of Hulu’ Ramy. The second season of which is now streaming. The comedy series drops us into the day to day life of Ramy Hassan, a millennial Muslim living in New Jersey who’s trying to navigate faith, family and being a first generation immigrant while also waiting in the murky waters of sex, love and trying to be good. Ramy and I discuss the \importance of representation in crafting his show, what was in his head when he won his Golden Globe and why, if you’re going to be weird you have to earn it. So, hey Ramy, how are you?

Ramy Youssef: Oh, I think all things considered as good as it can be, right? I think we’re all at various states of coping. I feel like I’m coping well, thankfully.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, are you able to be creative during this time? What does that look like for you?

Ramy Youssef: So much of this time is creative time just because we finished the show in quarantine and we had to get really creative because we had three pickup days we weren’t able to get, and we had only edited three episodes in person. So we edited the majority of the season remotely with various obstacles, that being missing pieces, but then also just not being able to be in the same room. So it was super creative in that sense. Filmmaking’s always problem solving and then there was even more elements.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I think that this time is like bringing out the best of us and the worst of the systems to which we are accustomed. I think, it feels like.

Ramy Youssef: Very, very fair. Very fair to say that.

Kaitlin Fontana: In terms of writing, are you able to find any time? I know you’ve been working on the show and that’s its own animal, but have you found writing easy or joyful during this in any way? Even if it’s just for fun.

Ramy Youssef: I never find writing easy and joyful. Writing is so painful and such a battle of focus. And sometimes it feels like a demonic extraction to get what you want. I have probably my most fun writing on stage because there’s such a tangible deadline. It’s like the show’s tonight at 8:00, and not only is there a tangible deadline, but the reaction’s instant. So many of the things I write are born out of a small premise on stage, but a lot of things aren’t. But that form of writing is always really the most instantly satisfying and then I would say when I’m shifting into TV writing, there is such a great feeling of just flicking your fingers on the mouse pad and scrolling through like a thick 12 page outline is really dope. It’s a really fun visual and a really accomplished feeling, but the path to that feels like such a painful race.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. That old saying of like, “I hate writing. I love having written.” comes into play.

Ramy Youssef: Yeah. That was just a real long ass way of saying that.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, you’re allowed. So congratulations on Season 2, as you said, it came out through a rough midwifery process let’s say, but I wonder if you can go back for, you know, a lot of the listeners of this podcast are themselves writers. There are people who are perhaps getting their first deals. They’re starting out on this journey. I wonder if you can take us back to the first blushes of Ramy as a show and it getting made and what that looked like for you as a writer.

Ramy Youssef: Yeah, it was pretty intense right from the beginning, because I definitely was aware that I was about to show nuances of the type of a family that we haven’t seen a ton of and definitely with the pilot was the first taste of, I’m going to have to do things that I know are going to make the community that I’m depicting and that I care about uncomfortable. But I also know that there are going to be parts of it where they’re really going to love it too, but I know because they’re so little, and I know because of how sensitive the things that we’re touching on are, it’s going to be a tough thing to swallow, I think. I knew that, and so I think pretty early on, I was juggling the weight of this particular project and what it would mean to people. At the time I couldn’t even gather the scope of how much it would be watched.

Our show now it’s like second season and it’s like a week straight trending in Cairo, you know, on Twitter. And I’m like, wow. It’s like, you couldn’t have told me that when we’re making the pilot. But I think early on, I was really battling with what I think a lot of writers have and are going to continue battling with of just what does representation actually mean? I think very quickly, and this was really with the help of my co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, really trying to brush off, actually trying to shoulder any of that responsibility and to really focus on what the story needed. And so really focusing on it from a character story perspective that felt challenging to the character that didn’t feel like it was being too diplomatic or too protective of what we were talking about was the first brush of cracking open what we were going to do.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. So previous to that and continuously now you’re also a standup, which obviously is sort of a writing intensive job as well. And so what are some of your earliest memories of writing as a profession in terms of standup and in terms of putting together your work in that way? When you think back to it, like the moment where you’re like, “Aha, that was when I clicked on as a writer.” Is there a moment like that for you?

Ramy Youssef: I think the moment where it really started to feel professional was probably with this show, because I think so much of stand up just grew out of sketch comedy for me. I was writing sketches in high school and I was performing them and shooting videos, and I was putting that on stage. I grew up in New Jersey, but my sneak away hang at 11:00 PM was taking my mom’s car and going to UCB Theatre and watching sketch shows and watching improv shows and kind of watching people do stuff that felt like magic. I saw that and my goals were really like, if you asked me what I wanted, I was like, “Man, I want to get a run at UCB underneath the Grissini’s in New York.” This small theater underneath the grocery store. If I could have a show that I get to run there once a month, that felt like the pinnacle of like whoa, to be on the UCB performer page. Like, wow. That would be crazy, and I never was.

I never got on the UCB performer page. But what all these things were, they were really just like… Like YouTube, they felt like stage work. They felt fun. They didn’t feel necessarily professional. I did have a job. One of my first jobs I wrote for a late night pilot for MTV and I had no business writing. I had only written just sketches for YouTube and for the stage. And I found myself writing on a TV pilot. Had no idea what I was doing. I don’t even think I learned anything because I was just so scared the whole time. I don’t even know what the lesson was. I think it was just like an ability to be able to say, “Well, I tried that.” But it really started to feel like something I was doing professionally. Yeah, probably when we started gearing into making Ramy.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. In some ways Ramy is unique obviously in that it deals with these issues around your life as a Muslim man, but it’s also joining a grand tradition of shows that grow out of a personality, a standup or a comedy person who is creating a TV show based on their life. Are there any of those kinds of shows through the history of TV comedy that you look to as move through the creation of Ramy? Or is it something that you feel like you have to keep separate in your head?

Ramy Youssef: I mean, I’m really wary of… like I’ve never finished watching Louie because I’m so in awe of it. I know what he’s done and I’m like, “Oh, he broke format.” You know, he did stuff in a way that made everything from Master of None, Atlanta, Better Things, Maria Bamford’s work, all these things. These are all things that I’m not saying he is the… it’s not like only because of him, but he really… I mean, this is the dude who edited his own show. I think the authorship of a creator from the standup world being so solidified, he did a lot in breaking open format and breaking open what that could look like tonally. So I’m aware of that. I’m aware of a lot of the things that are happening obviously, but yeah, I’m making my show and especially early on really focused on what I don’t want it to be, and really like zoning out what doesn’t feel good. And so it’s, it’s less of a master plan of it’s going to be this, it’s so much of, well, it’s not going to be that. And then it starts to get really, really granular when you have a really high filter as to what you’re not going to let it be.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. So you won a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy series.

Ramy Youssef: This is thanks to God and Hulu. Hulu, you guys… Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show. It’s…

Kaitlin Fontana: In your acceptance speech, you thanked God, you thanked Hulu and then you said, “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show.” And you got a big laugh from the audience and you go on to say, “It was a very specific show, about a very specific family, in a very specific circumstance.” I wonder if you could put yourself back in that moment for a minute because I saw watching that moment with you… I don’t know if you planned it, I don’t know if it’s something you thought about ahead of time, but I saw you sort of take in where you were and who was looking at you and process that.

It was a little bit of a gentle, like, fuck you in a fun way, I think. And that’s me saying that it’s not you, but I’m curious what was going through your head in that moment when you were talking about that. Because I think it was illustrative of sea change that is happening right now for TV creators. Like you want to go and globe, and you looked out over a sea of people who by their laughter acknowledged that they hadn’t seen your show. I wonder how that felt for you in that moment.

Ramy Youssef: I think I was looking at Scorsese specifically when that hit me. It was the comic in me that really came out where you’re just looking around and you’re like, “What does this room need to hear?” I did so many strange shows. I’ve done stand up where you drive eight hours to upstate New York to do 30, 40 minutes of stand up in front of a cafeteria of kids who are in the middle of eating lunch. And you don’t realize till after you get there that they booked you just to kind of fulfill, filling out their budget so that they wouldn’t get shorted next semester, and there was no intention of anyone really watching this show that you’re going to do a 15 hour round trip for a thousand bucks.

But you get used to being like, “Well, I need to just address what’s happening in front of me.” And that muscle is just so deep in me that, that was what came out. Because I was not going up there expecting the wind. I’m not going up there understanding exactly what’s going to happen, and there wasn’t any fuck you honestly, it was really like this bizarre thing where I’m like, it felt ancient. It felt just like, here I am in this ceremony getting a gold statue in front of the gold statue people and now I’m a gold statue person. And like now we are in this thing and I’m like, “Is the Illuminati going to call? How does this work?”

It’s like this really weird tear of an experience, and I was just really like, “Man, this is some dumb shit. This is wild. This is some wild, dumb ass shit and I can’t believe that a bunch of jokes that I wrote in my notebook about jerking off have put me here.” And so I just felt wild and really gracious and really again, yeah, acknowledging the moment where I’m looking at Scorsese and I’m looking at a bunch of people and I’m like, “I know you haven’t seen it and you know, that’s okay.” It’s just fun.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, I think I love moments like that because I feel like it sort of rips a hole in the whole facade of all of it. So I appreciated it, and once again, I will repeat that it was not, you who said it was a fuck you, it was me. So one of my personal favorite episodes of Ramy, and I’m sure you hear this a lot is Season 1, Episode 4, which is the 9/11 episode that you wrote and directed. It’s a departure from what had happened in the previous three episodes. We sort of gotten to know you in the world that you inhabit in the show or the Ramy of the show and habits.

And then we get to see this episode that takes place back when Ramy is 11 or 12, 10, 11, and what happens to him the day that 9/11 happens. And it’s this beautiful parallel story about him lying about and trying to learn how to jerk off and also learning what it means now to be Muslim in this moment in America. I wonder if you could dig a little more into that process of that particular episode, because it’s a pretty interesting, and I would say brave thing to go into something like that as early as you did in your show.

Ramy Youssef: Yeah. I think we debated a lot about how early that episode could come or should come in our sequence, and there was this thing where I was like, are we really going to see little Ramy before we even gotten to know big Ramy? And that thing, but it just felt like it made sense. I mean, I think there were a bunch of things that we were pushing for in the first season. That episodes of departure, there’s also an episode that departs into my sister’s storyline and one that departs into my mom’s storyline and so you kind of already have three episodes, three of the first seven of a show called Ramy that Ramy is not in. Yeah, it became this thing where… I mean, I always just wanted the show to be driven by the things that I was interested in and doing them fully and doing them in a cool way.

And a big conversation I had with my co-creators, Ari and Ryan right off the bat was we want tonally to be leaning into short film, and we want it to feel less A, B, C, D story than TV, because it was a little bit of a pet peeve of ours, of just how neat and tidy television can be and how characters again, we’re talking about this like capital R representation, where you get a character to come in and say three lines in the middle of a scene. Someone who probably doesn’t even fit in that scene, but we’re like, “Hey, we did it.” You know, we checked the thing, we checked the box on the thing. And we wanted to not fall into that. We’re building the season and we’re being driven by these bigger umbrella ideas that are interesting, and then how can we singularly focus on what they are?

We know we want to talk about how the politicizing of Islam affects a child because that was always the most interesting angle to me if we’re going to talk about terrorism, I don’t need to bring it up in the context of someone trying to be contemporary Muslim. That’s already what the headline in the news says. And that was always a big thing for me where I’m like, “If the news is only talking about terrorism and Muslim ban and this and that, and then you tune into a show about Muslims and that’s all they’re talking about, you start to feel like, all right, well, that’s all they’ve got going on.” The headline gives me enough, but we don’t need to talk about those things. What context do we need to look at them from? It always felt most interesting to look at it from the context of a kid.

So we knew we wanted to get into it, and I was talking to the room about the idea that I’d had for a movie. I’d had this idea for it to be a movie this day during 9/11 and as a kid, I used to have a walkie talkie and that’s like a storyline that was in there. It was one of my first standup bits and I want to do… Like, one of my first standup bits was my mom gave me a walkie talking instead of a cell phone. And at first everyone was like, “Oh man, Ramy has got a walkie talkie. What’s the range on that thing?” And then 9/11 happened and everyone was like, “Oh man, Romney’s got a walkie talkie. What’s the range on that thing? Like we got to figure out what’s going on.” Like suddenly the same sentence became so dark.

I had all these scenes in my head and I used to have this nightmare, that bin Laden was in my kitchen because we were the only Muslim people in town that he came and hid at our house. And I was so fascinated by this nightmare I had, because I realized what the news was doing to me, was making me afraid of myself. We had this idea and it’s like, it’s not really interesting to discuss this idea with Ramy in his 20s. It’s not really interesting to have him talk about that. It’s not really interesting to turn it into a soap box.

The coolest way to do it is to just do it, is to just show it. And in a first season show about an Arab Muslim family in America, you’re going to be idiotic if you don’t talk about terrorism in some way, but this really felt like the way to do it, and so it just became a no brainer and then it just started to feel like, “Well, where’s it going to fit in the season?” And then that’s where you take the risk of being like, “Yeah, actually it should be episode 4.” So all these things kind of go into it. It’s an obsession with being as a singular and focused as we can be. It’s an obsession with wanting there to be no fat on anything. It’s an obsession of wanting a season that’s really built around tent pole ideas that excite us and then building the puzzle piece of what order and how they should fit.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s incredibly interesting and makes total sense by the way. I wonder if you think there’s been a change in the conversations you’ve been having within the quote-unquote industry or people in the industry, since you started making the show. Have you felt like the conversation around Islam, the conversation around your faith, the conversation around who you are, has changed since you started? Have you seen a shift happen with the people you’re talking to?

Ramy Youssef: Yes. In small things. Like we’ll say inshallah, you know, just on some small vernacular and I’m like, “Oh man, inshallah muscle top status. You know, we might be getting in there. We might be able to talk about it all smooth and it can just blend in and it was so funny. One of the ways we got Mahershala Ali to be on the show when he called me after watching Season 1, he was like, the thing that amazed me about your show was the show itself. But also I was talking to my agent and he asked me how Ramadan was going, and I told him it was going well, and I didn’t know when it was going to end. And Mahershala [inaudible 00:20:36] my agent cut me off, and he was like, “Oh yeah because some people end Ramadan with Saudi and some people end with it locally. I know I saw it on Ramy.

That small moment, he was like, “I’ve been in Hollywood, been Muslim for 20 years, and for somebody to beat me to the punch and talking about this, like my new detail about what we do and how we do it for him, it was just this like, that was the watershed moment more than anything else.” Right? And so that is a massive shift from me talking to management and some people about making a show that fully centers around a Muslim family. In 2012, 2013, I get my first acting job. It’s on my mind. I don’t know if it’s going to be a movie, I don’t know if it’s going to be a show, but I knew I wanted to show someone who practice faith, the way that I do in a way that didn’t feel cartoonish, that felt real, and I wanted it to be around a Muslim family.

At the time everyone’s like, “Well, are they neighbors to a white family? Is it just one character that’s in the story of friends?” The idea that there would be enough meat on that bone, the idea that there would be enough interest being that focused was a shock to people. And then you have the person who’s now our president running, saying he wants to ban Muslims, and then suddenly Hollywood’s like, “Oh wait, maybe we need to talk about this. This is a problem.” Hollywood does not push for social change. Social change pushes Hollywood. They push Hollywood just as much as we have to push the CEO of New Balance or any other corporate entity. Hollywood is not as welcoming and whatever you want to assign to the word liberal. It’s not what it appears to be. It is being pushed by social change. It sometimes can push some social change, but that’s not the main agenda, but I’ve seen it change. I’ve seen it change because it’s had to change and so I’m definitely a beneficiary of that wave.

Kaitlin Fontana: It’s funny that you would think that people would have gotten wise to the fact that there’s like I don’t know, like a billion people around the world who might be interested in watching a show about a Muslim man. Okay, so let’s talk about your writer’s room then, because a number of the episodes, obviously it’s based on your own life, but you have a writer’s room and I’d be curious to know how you and your co-creators selected those writers and how you continue to hire, what qualities you’re looking for in those folks and how you find them.

Ramy Youssef: Yeah. I think we always envisioned it as a bit of like a rotating thing. I think that what excites me is a room that can interrogate me and a room where we can get into uncomfortable conversations. I think one thing that I picked up on immediately, you know, I hadn’t written a TV show and I think pretty quickly in Season 1, I saw the way that television outlines were written and I went into an anxiety attack and I was like, “No, this outline is not detailed enough. The lack of nuance in it does a disservice to what I’m trying to say.” I learned that because so many of the things I talk about on stage are such a really fine tight rope walk and I can feel it, and I feel the sensitivities.

I feel the difference between a word. I feel the idea of like, if we’re going to talk about something, it has to be so curated because I’ve done standup in mosques. I’m doing standup in mosques where men are on one side, women are one side and we’re in the prayer area and I’m doing it in my socks. And I know the words that I can’t say, and I know the words I’m going to say so that I can skirt right up to the line. And I know the same feeling when I’m at a comedy club and I’m skirting on genuinely talking about believing in God, and I can feel that discomfort in that room too. So I really quickly was like, “Okay, I’m going to do all the outlines.”

And so my show I was the person who outlined every single episode and talking thick outlines, like nine, 10 pages, single-spaced paragraphs, and really detailed like there’s enough there that you could walk onto set with that outline, you put that outline into final draft and we’re clocking out over 25, 26 pages because it’s important for me from the genesis for it to be clear what’s happening, and then we start nuancing and that’s not to say that we don’t show up on set and throw an entire script out. We do the same thing that anyone else would do, but really important to me from the beginning to understand, okay, there is a tight rope walk around the verb, the word, and I’m just too precious about that because that’s all I’ve ever been obsessed about and stand up for however many years.

So now I’m staffing my room and I’m putting it together, and I’m like, “I want people who are good writers, but what I really want is people who are good at asking questions and who are really good at digging beyond trope, digging beyond convention, digging beyond how things should be.” My room ends up being a mix of people who are TV people who’ve been around for a while and people who’ve never even been near final draft because that gives the most exciting combination of the conversations that I want to be having and the things that I want to be doing. Because personally, from where I stand, as someone who was running a show, I actually don’t need you to write perfect Ramy dialogue, because I don’t know that you could, if I asked you to. It doesn’t really matter because that’s just something that might just intrinsically ring with me. But what I do need is for you to look at what I’m trying to do and really interrogate it and really get to the bottom of, “Well, is there a better way to do this? Is there a cooler way to do this? Is there a way we haven’t done this before?”

And so I’m trying to find people who are similarly weird and similarly fucked up and similarly specific and not to my specificity, but almost to theirs because that’s where it starts to get really interesting. And so I’m just as interested in hiring a practicing Muslim who really vibes with what I do, but I’m just as interested in hiring the inquisitive atheist, because that’s where we’re going to be able to, in my needing to explain something to that person, I’m going to find a gem and that in and of itself is like a Muslim concept. I mean, one of the things in the Quran that I always love is God says, “I made you of different tribes so that you may know one another.” And it’s this idea that we’re different so that if we’re all the same, there’s even the concept of like… my black friends always talk about the nod. Black person walks in the room, I’m black, I give them the nod. Arab comes into a room, I’m Arab we know what’s up.

Something gets lost in that because we’re just nodding and we’re just hugging and we’re like, “Oh, you get it. I don’t need to tell you.” I don’t want to write a room with a bunch of people who is like, “You get it. I don’t need to tell you.” I need people in that room who don’t get it so that I can maybe tell you something that I never thought I even had to tell, or I didn’t even realize it was weird and I don’t think you can get that when the whole room is just one thing, when the whole room is all Muslim, all women, all whatever it might be, you lose an element of debate that I think is really important, and that’s just my personal philosophy.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Well, I think you’re right. I mean, if I walk into a room full of white people, I wince. Is that the same? That’s like a reverse nod. You’ve directed a number of the episodes at this point as well. I think, correct me if I’m wrong, starting with that episode 4 in Season 1, and then now you’ve directed several of them in Season 2. How do your writer and director sides talk to each other or do they? Like, what are you taking from one into the other and vice versa?

Ramy Youssef: I think when I look at directing the extension of directing is the edit. And I think the thing that I do on set and then I do very much in the edit as well is I end up throwing out a minimum of 30% of the script.  That comes to me from standup to not be precious about how, you know, I’m so not precious about my writing because my standup is always, I’m trying to tell the same joke, 20, 30 different ways over the course of many months and that bleeds into years, and I’m not the person who is onset with a script and something’s not working and I’m not going to hold up the script and be like, “But what about this thing we wrote in October?” It’s like, who cares? It doesn’t matter.

The goal is what needs to be clear. The essence is what needs to be clear? How do we dilute this? And so we’re in many ways loyal to our scripts, this is not… I mean, I love, and I’ve told [inaudible 00:29:47] what I love. So much of what he does it’s there’s so much improvisation and you’re finding it in that. I personally don’t have the time or money to do it that way at this point in my career. But so I’m loyal to the script, but more loyal to the larger story that we’re telling, and when I step into directing, when I step into editing, the writer who is often me is just, I don’t care about that person. I don’t care about what they thought was going to work. I have to look at what’s actually working.

Kaitlin Fontana: Does it feed backwards to you? I’m a writer director as well and I’ve found that the more I direct, the more honed in on my writing, I get from a line by line perspective.

Ramy Youssef: Oh yeah. The more you’re on set, the more you’re directing, the more you realize how fucking useless that stage direction your writing is like. She ponders the meaning of all this. Like how does she? You know, it’s just like dumb stuff you put in there that reads well, but would never shoot well and vice versa. There are things that you might think read weak, but actually shoot very well. And just because they’re not over explained on the page, doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be effective. You know, some of our most simple on the page, half a page seems like it’s a garbage filler line or a garbage filler scene, and we’re getting to that point in production where we’re slashing scenes, because we’re like, “Are we really going to try and fit this half a page in on a Tuesday when we could be grabbing the driving shot?”

And you’re in the director position, and you’ve got to look at that scene. Again, I cut a lot of scenes, but there’s a scene that is not ringing on the page, but I’m like, “No, no, no, we’re going to shoot it.” I guarantee you this scene with the water, with a cup falling and mom thinks the cup and the water might’ve fallen on the laptop is going to be one of the funniest scenes we have, even if it reads like it’s three random lines. We got to shoot it and then we shoot it, and it’s like, “Oh man, that’s really funny.” You know?  But you don’t see it right away all the time on the page.

And sometimes you have this scene that’s really well written on the page and it’s moving and it’s whatever, and then you shoot it and you’re like, “I already got this from a look that he gave two scenes ago and this monologue is pretty, but I’d rather have a shorter runtime.” And it’s gone, and it was cold that day and we were outdoors and I remember running to find a bathroom and none of that is making the cut.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So this is obviously a moment of reckoning in the industry, long overdue, and especially when it comes to racism, accountability for racism. What do you feel are your responsibilities at this point, as someone who is writing, directing, creating shows. You have an overall deal with A24. You are someone now who can craft conversation around these topics. So do you feel responsibility to that and what do you feel like your responsibilities are?

Ramy Youssef: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel my responsibility is to create stories that are asking the right questions. I don’t think that my job though is to present the world as it should be. That’s not really my approach. I was actually really interested… I did a panel with Daniel Levy from Schitt’s Creek and he said something that was amazing, which he said in his show. He decided to show nobody being homophobic because he didn’t want that to exist in his world, and that’s what he created and what he wanted to do. He wanted to create this reality that’s a little bit different from the one that we have, and it’s a super dope approach and I really appreciate it.

My show is almost the opposite. Like there’s something about that approach that to me, it almost feels like a version of sci-fi because it kind of feels like it’s the future or it feels like it’s something else. And I think that, that’s dope and I think that Dan is in a position that he can do that because while I won’t say like, there’s been a ton of nuanced gay representation or conversation. There certainly has been a lot. There certainly have been a lot of onscreen portrayals and literature in contemporary Hollywood. I am not really afforded that, making something about a Muslim family. So for me to not look at not only the things that happen to Muslims, but the way that our communities, especially looking at an Arab community, for example, that has anti-blackness in it. I need to point that out in my show. I need to do that because if I’m not living in reality and I’m trying to just show the world as it should be, I start feeling like I’m making sci-fi and I’m skipping a step as to things that I think need to be addressed.

So if I’m not looking at misogyny from the lens of what men subconsciously and unknowingly do and putting that on display, I feel like I’m not doing my job. If I am creating false unity and false victories for characters, because that’s the way I think things should be, that’s cool and that might feel rewarding for some people, but it feels kind of not really that satisfying for me. Not that I’m trying to capitalize on pain, but I’m trying to get closer to real questions, and I think that a lot of the time we need to just zone… And you’ve got to do a nuance and it’s not just about like, again, you’re not just supposed to put the tension on screen and just do it in a way where you’re not crafting it. Like I want to do it in the coolest way, in the most interesting way to me. But that’s what I feel my responsibility is. It’s like we’re all walking around with a lot of undigested experiences and pain and thoughts and the hope of any good work is that it helps you chew on it a little bit, and it helps you think through some of it.

That’s a little different than it causing any sort of change though. I think that that’s where it can get really tricky because if you feel like it’s your responsibility to help change things, then the work has to get really democratic and it has to get a little bit instructive and it has to get didactic and it feels boring to me.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I think you do make a forum for change when you do make it entertaining. When you let people into the story and you make them laugh and you make them love Ramy and you make them want to be close to that world, I would argue that that is the forum for change because then it isn’t about finger wagging or like you said before, talking about the 9/11 episode, it’s not about showing or teaching a lesson, it’s about welcoming yourself into a world where you’re like hanging out with this kid. So I think that there’s real power in that that is instructive. And I also think like to your point before, about the idea of the multiplicity of voices, like it’s great that there can be a Schitt’s Creek and it’s great that there can be a Ramy and both are doing different things in different directions.

So man, a crossover episode would have been something else I tell you that. So in Season 2, you snagged Mahershala Ali, as you said before. So if there is a Season 3 inshallah, there we go, I’m helping, then how are you going to top that? What’s the season three guest star? What’s the season three thing that’s going to grab us?

Ramy Youssef: Oh, man. I think where we leave our characters at the end of Season 2 in so many ways as a creator, and I think even just as people watching, I really feel like we’re just getting started with this cast that we have. So we didn’t need to add Mahershala. We had such an amazing core, but Mahershala because his role was so organic in what we were trying to do, he’s now part of that core too. But I don’t walk into it being like, I need a guest star, I needed this or any of that. Again, I would have been fine with my six main characters from Season 1, but to get to bring in Sheikh Ali, to get to bring in Zainab, these are characters who really inform the core of what we’ve had. So moving forward, it’ll just be yeah, who continues to inform that core, but I really want to spend time with the people that we now know, because there’s so much more to dig into with them.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. So this is going to be about deepening as opposed to broadening for you, you think?

Ramy Youssef: Yeah. I think that’s a really good way to put it. I think that we certainly broadened in Season 2 in a way that I’m excited about, and the main focus is deepening because we brought in a couple of people who are really worth taking deeper dives with.

Kaitlin Fontana: I mean, obviously right now you are at a place where, as we all are, we’re in this holding pattern, but you have some stuff on the horizon. Like I mentioned before you have this A24 deal. I don’t know if you can talk about anything, but beyond Ramy, what are you excited to write, to make, create?

Ramy Youssef: Right now I’m developing a show with Apple, with Steve who is on Ramy. He plays my best friend with muscular dystrophy and we’re creating a show that focuses on the disabled community in a way that I think it’s so exciting to me. I shouldn’t even say this, but if I had to pick, I would throw everything away and just work on that because it’s such a world that I really haven’t dug into and I’m very thankful to God that I don’t have to pick. But it’s talk about a group that’s always been side characters and we are going to live in this world where they are the main characters and their families and what those families experience and go through. And so I’m really pumped about that. That’s one of those things that we’re hoping we can get picked up at Apple. And so we’ve been working on that. That’s been post Ramy release quarantine writing for me. That’s what I’ve really been zoning in on.

And then developing another show at Netflix. That’s a deep dive on immigration that I’m really excited about, and it’s a dark comedy that digs into that, that I’m really pumped about. And then just pitching a few other things that I think are going to be… Again, I think the way you put it too and I think everything I want to be working on fits into that specific type of responsibility, but it is broad in the sense that I just want to make things that make people feel less lonely and I want to be able to make them in a way that is as messy and fun and ridiculous as can be. But yeah, always want to make sure that we’re earning the however weird we are and however wild it gets.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Well, congratulations again and good luck with everything, and thank you so much for being here today.

Ramy Youssef: Oh, thanks Kaitlin, I appreciate it.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at You can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast, and you can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinfontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in right on.

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