That Underdog Feeling
With his new series on Hulu, Muslim comedian Ramy Youssef busts the stereotypes about a misunderstood minority: New Jerseyans.
Our state hasn’t always had the most accurate portrayals in pop culture. But comedian and Rutherford native Ramy Youssef tries to change that narrative—and the narrative for Muslims— with his new Hulu sitcom, Ramy. The eponymous series streaming now presents a modern Muslim family in which the 20-something title character balances his religious identity with his desire to be a regular ol’ millennial. And North Jersey is the backdrop for the show, a choice Youssef made because it’s where his Egyptian parents immigrated to and where he grew up. Youssef, who’s also gearing up for his first HBO standup special, talks to BERGEN exclusively about his Bergen County upbringing, the “Jerseyness” of Ramy— and why this little ol’ state of ours is so misunderstood.
Congrats on Ramy! Can you briefly sum up the premise of the series?
It’s a dark comedy that gives a look at an Arab Muslim family in a very human way. We’re following my character, Ramy, who is trying to figure out how to sympathize with his culture and his faith and hold onto his traditions while being in the present moment with his peers.
After attending Rutherford High, you did a brief stint at Rutgers. What did you study there?
Political science and economics. I was there for, like, two years. It was Rutgers in Newark, which I like to clarify because it’s a great campus and I feel like people don’t know that.
Yes, I went to Rutgers–New Brunswick, and they’re totally different experiences. Totally different. (Laughs.) I did not have a fat sandwich every night. I had to go and travel for those. So how did you get into comedy?
I started doing sketch comedy with my best friends from high school, including Steve Way, who is on this show. We began performing and then I started acting and I moved to L.A. in 2012, at which point I began to dabble in standup.
In 2017, you made your big TV debut doing a set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Did you two bond over your Jersey backgrounds?
We vibed on the set, and it was nice to expand on that conversation about both being in show business and having Jersey as a part of our lives. I also returned to Colbert last month to promote this show, so it was really cool.
Of course Ramy is based upon your own experiences, but why else did you want the show to be set in North Jersey?
There’s something about Muslims that is misunderstood, but New Jersey is misunderstood too, so I thought it’d be interesting. I have a harder time defending New Jersey than defending Muslims because people have their preconceived notions. I’m like, “It’s one of the most diverse and cool places to be!” But there’s this underdog feeling of being in the shadow of the city. The point is to show a family in a human way, and it felt like Jersey was the best place to do that. It’s where people go to live the best version of their lives.
Will we be seeing a lot of recognizable Jersey landmarks on the show?
We actually filmed in New York. We see a little bit of Jersey in a glimpse but the rest of it is just set in a vague North Jersey town. We don’t go into the specifics of the places they’re in, but we have it in the more upscale suburbs of Paterson, loosely. We have the Jersey diner vibes, for sure.
How does this show depict Muslims and New Jersey differently from what we’ve seen elsewhere in the media?
Arab culture is associated with acts of terror, so to not even put that in that frame and just show a human family is something. As for the Jersey aspect, this show has nothing to do with the Shore or the Mob—we don’t point the finger at the “Jerseyness” of it too much. I wanted to make a story that would be just nonviolent and emotional and funny.
What are some of your favorite New Jersey pop culture moments?
I love The Sopranos. It’s probably one of the best TV shows ever made, but it doesn’t do a great PR job for New Jersey. (Laughs.)
Do you still live in Jersey?
I divide my time between New York City and Los Angeles, but my family is still in Rutherford, so I spend a lot of time there too.
What are some of your favorite spots in Rutherford when you go back home to visit?
Ice Cream Charlie’s and Da Mario’s Pizza are the big winners for me in Rutherford, always. That’s a good night. I also like that little cupcake shop [Sweet Avenue Bakeshop] across from Ice Cream Charlie’s. Sometimes I’ll do a combo of ice cream and cupcakes. Crazy.
Besides your upcoming HBO comedy special, what’s next?
I hope to get more episodes of Ramy. If so, there are a few very specific Jersey ideas we’ll get to explore. As I continue to do different projects, I always want New Jersey to be the backdrop. It’s one of those places that for good and for bad, anything could happen and there are really many sides to it. It’s really cool.