Hulu's Groundbreaking ‘Ramy’ Brings Laughs and Lessons

Hulu's "Ramy" follows the life of comedian Ramy Youssef, who pulls from his own experience as a first-generation American, New Jersey native and Muslim

click to enlarge Ramy Youssef and Steve Way - BARBARA NITKE
Barbara Nitke
Ramy Youssef and Steve Way
Comedies based on the lives of their respective creator/star are nothing new. From Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm to 30 Rock and Girls, we’ve all seen comic performers play slightly different versions of themselves on screen. So we know how the premise behind Hulu’s Ramy works: Comedian Ramy Youssef pulls from his own experience as a first-generation American, New Jersey native and Muslim to create something authentic for viewers to laugh at. But it also breaks new ground as it’s considered to be the first Muslim-American sitcom.

Ramy will initially draw comparisons to Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series Master of None: Both are semi-autobiographical stories by comedians of color that explore first-gen Muslim families and the reconciliation of their religious and cultural roots with that of modern America. Both are centered on millennial men trying to find their purpose and passion. But whereas in Master of None Ansari’s Dev is decidedly not a practicing Muslim — to his parents’ chagrin — religion takes a front seat here. Ramy’s titular character is a devout believer who grasps onto traditions in an ever evolving landscape — and finds a lot of humor along the way.

Ramy is by all measures a nice, normal guy in a textbook 20-something funk. He works at an ill-fated startup, lives at home with his parents and sister, has a hilarious group of friends and dates but would like to settle down. He takes his religion seriously, believing if he follows (almost) every single rule, he’ll reach some level of clarity. If he’s set up with the perfect Muslim woman, he’ll get married, have kids and be happy.

Ramy's mostly squeaky-clean persona doesn't necessarily make him the most likable character — and it certainly doesn't mean that he isn't problematic. He doesn’t always practice what he preaches — he abstains from drugs and alcohol but does have sex — and he can sometimes be judgmental and hypocritical, like the way he treats the non-Muslim women he sleeps with differently than the Muslim women he might marry. He’s so caught up in this idea of what he’s supposed to do and be — based on this image in his own mind, shaped by his family, friends and culture — that he doesn’t seem to even know what he wants out of life.

Amid watching Ramy stumble through life, a few one-off episodes magnify some of the experiences and people who have shaped his world, such as facing 9/11 as a Middle Eastern middle schooler. His sister and mother (expertly played by May Calamawy and Hiam Abbass, respectively) each get an episode devoted to their worlds that shed light on the ways families and society can hold men and women, and people of different generations, in such varying regard.

Ramy is full of flawed, messy humans and diverse characters that are often not portrayed on TV even still today. Yet, it does not force-feed virtue or handle any subjects with bubble-wrapped sensitivity. At first glance, a show featuring a Muslim Egyptian-American man and his friend (Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, may seem like a ’90s math textbook interpretation of “diversity.” But the inclusivity throughout Ramy is genuine. In fact, Youssef and Way have been friends since 2001, just like in the show. It’s a pretty refreshing representation. While there are lessons learned by Ramy and teachable moments for audiences, particularly those unfamiliar with the contemporary Muslim-American experience, Ramy isn’t preachy or pandering.

Through 10 episodes, we follow Ramy from the mosque to house parties, from New Jersey to Cairo. Similarly, the uber-cool soundtrack takes audiences across the globe, featuring artists from Egypt, Australia, Morocco, Ireland and more.

While very specific to Youssef’s life, the story has so many facets that are relatable to many, particularly the quarter-life crisis of wondering what, where and who you’re supposed to be. Add conflicting input from happy-go-lucky friends and meddling family and you’re bound to feel even more lost.

Recently renewed for a second season (alongside fellow Hulu 30-minute comedy PEN15 — yay!), Ramy is an unexpected treat that leads viewers into uncharted — and sometimes taboo — territory, all while showcasing diverse talent while never missing a comedic beat. And with one hell of a cliffhanger, I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.

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