ramy youssef montreal cult mtl

Ramy Youssef on returning to standup at JFL and the intersection of Islam and comedy

“A lot of the comedy I did when I first started was, like, clean sets — halal standup. Muslims loved jokes about politics and religion, but if you talked about sex, they were uncomfortable. And then I would go to the comedy club and they loved material about politics and sex, but if you talked about religion, they were uncomfortable.”

Sometimes I describe Ramy Youssef as the Muslim Lena Dunham. The two couldn’t be more different, but they do share a millennial affinity for auto-fiction, in that they both created shows based on people that, on the surface, would seem to easily align with their off-screen, offline personalities. Fiction is fiction, however, and Ramy Youssef is an entirely different beast from the awkward, fumbling and spiritually existential kid he portrays on Hulu’s hit comedy show Ramy. But just like the ways in which many young white women saw themselves in Hannah Horvath, many young Muslims found representation in Ramy Hassan. 


Youssef’s career, thus far, intersects Islam with comedy, and he is bringing this intersection to the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal this year.

My early experience of navigating the push and pull of ethnic and Western identities very much took place online, where I built a community of equally confused members. I asked Youssef whether this was his experience, too.

“I never engaged in the internet too much,” he says, “but I think, for me, a lot of the standup that I did when I first started would involve, like, halal sets of standup. I would be performing at fundraisers, like a charity raising money for (Palestinian Children Relief Fund), and with these shows, you’d have to do a clean set. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, cool, I’m performing in front of a bunch of Muslims here. I want to make them laugh and I want to connect.’ And it’d be really interesting because I’d be there, and I’d realize they love talking about politics and religion, but if you talked about sex, they were uncomfortable. And then I would go to the comedy club later and they loved talking about politics and sex, but if you talked about religion, they were uncomfortable.” He stifles a laugh at the absurdity. 

The point being that he’s eager to leave television and film sets, for a moment, to return to the stage. “What I do miss,” he says, “is that when I used to do comedy, it involved being in the room with people. And I think you lose something when you’re not in the room, you know? We can see each other and realize we’re human. It’s something I’m really looking forward to on this tour.”

From the success of his stand-up came television opportunities. In 2020 he won a Golden Globe for Ramy, and as the crowd applauded, he quipped and said, “I know none of you have seen my show.” He says this response was rooted more in awe, than anything, but did admit award shows were silly. Opportunities are wonderful but, “I don’t believe in gamifying art.” 


This is especially evident when we look at Ramy’s spin-off series released on Netflix in 2022: Mo. Youssef took a fan favourite character and extended the opportunity to fill yet another writers room with diversity and complexity. Mo tells the story of an immigrant in an interfaith and interracial relationship who’s desperate for American citizenship, and spends a lot of the series aghast at the ways white people abuse olive oil and hummus. It’s very funny, and as I point out to Youssef, more palatable than Ramy, a show who sees a character so desperate to be good, and who, as each season develops, only seems to be getting worse.

“With Ramy,” Youssef says, “I think we’re tracking a bit of the death of ego. We’re really looking at the intimacy of a spiritual journey, and peeling those layers back and getting closer to the wound. I think that’s the space where we actually shift something and move. And what I think about Mo is that it’s almost the opposite. It’s a bit more outward — about a guy and his family and what they have to face in a system.”

As he prepares to share new stand-up material, I wonder whether fans can expect the work to stay political. Will the personal always be political for Ramy Youssef? “For sure, I think that’s always going to be intertwined with the material. For anyone who hasn’t seen me do standup since the first special, it will be really fun. Because it’s been four years, and I’ve been playing with a bunch of different types of versions of the new hour for probably a few years. I’m excited to really get it together. So, yes, definitely there’s the personal being political, but also a lot more personal in general.” 

ramy youssef just for laughs june 2023 magazine montreal cover cult mtl
Ramy Youssef on the cover of Cult MTL, July 2023. Photo by Josh Aikin

This fall, fans will also get a chance to see another side of the actor in Yorgos Lanthimos’s next feature film, Poor Things. While he won’t be playing Ramy — he had to learn a British accent — and I still wonder if, like the rest of his work, there was a spiritual element that drew him to the role. “You know, Yorgos is his own universe. I think the spiritual draw for me was just getting to work with truly one of the greatest living directors. It was very fulfilling.” Youssef pauses. “I mean, it is funny, the character I play in the film might be the only character that believes in God, or claims that he believes in God, which is interesting.” ■

Ramy Youssef will be performing three Just for Laughs sets at the Gesù (1200 Bleury) from July 28–29 ($51–$59.25), and will speak at Faith in Comedy: In Conversation with Ramy Youssef at the DoubleTree by Hilton (1255 Jeanne-Mance, Inspiration Room) on July 29, 1 p.m., $33

This article was originally published in the July issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.