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 wgaeast.org. 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.