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Interview: Ramy Youssef Talks Pushing the Boundaries of Comedy in the Third Season of ‘Ramy’

Those who have followed my posts on Awards Radar know that I’ve been singing the praises of Ramy – Season 3 since I saw it in September of last year (read my review here). It is hands-down the best comedy show on TV right now, and season three is the best one yet. It is not only extremely funny and smartly written, but it dives deeper into each character’s arcs than the previous two seasons, which are all brilliantly performed by a core cast of highly talented actors. And as Ramy Youssef explained to Awards Radar on Zoom, the show’s title is slightly misleading because this season focuses more on the ensemble and the core family than on the character Ramy Hassan himself. 

I recently had the chance to talk with Youssef and dive deeper into the show than in our previous interview (seen here). Here, we discussed pushing the boundaries of comedy, reintroducing audiences to Ramy Hassan, writing material that consistently evolves the characters, and how he got several guest stars to appear in some of the season’s episodes. 

Read the full conversation below: 

So I’m going to be very honest with you. I rarely watch anything, whether a film or a TV show, more than once. But I’ve seen season three twice now. It was absolutely incredible, through and through. The writing was impeccable, the performances were amazing, and I laughed hard at certain sequences throughout the show. First and foremost, congratulations on this amazing season. 

Thank you, That means a lot. It’s my favorite one that we’ve done. And I’m really glad that you enjoyed it. 

Yeah, absolutely. So when we last saw Ramy Hassan in season two, he reached beyond rock bottom. When writing season three and reintroducing audiences to Ramy after what happened in season two, how did you want to present who he is now and where he is in his journey of self-discovery?

A lot of our approach with the show has been, and I think you can see it when you watch the third season, though, we’re tracking a bit of an ego death. And we’re watching someone transition from that doe-eyed view of the world as a young person into someone who has to deal with some of his wounds and try and come out on the other end. I think he definitely had a rock bottom at the end of season two, and we felt the most realistic place to put him for the first time in the act of stepping away from his faith. He eventually puts it back together, but it’s a little tougher for him. We don’t pick up on an immediate spiritual upswing by any means.

And how do you always ensure that the show evolves its characters and the material never feels repetitive?

It’s a great question because I think about it a lot. I think there are two types of comedies. There are comedies where you watch a character never change. What’s really fun about those comedies is that they try to change everything around them but themselves. There are a lot of really classic shows and sitcoms that I really love in that category. Larry David’s work is very much like that. Those guys aren’t really trying to soul-search; they’re all just trying to keep doing things the way they do. The It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia people will try demolishing the whole world without trying to go inwards. With our show, we quickly said, “Ok, we could do the cultural confusion guy caught between his spiritual self and his more carnal self,” as we did in season one. When we left season one, we decided: will we keep doing this type of thing with Ramy? Or do we actually want to arc him toward something deeper? I think that’s where we really felt that we wanted to track this ego death and watch things shift. We want to play with different parts of his personality, his ego, what’s behind that charming smile, and strip it back a bit.

I think that’s where we’ve really had the liberty to play with tone on this show. Season three is definitely a tonal combination of things from season one and season two. But to keep things feeling different, we have to use this ensemble. The title of this show has always been misleading, but never more so than by the third season. I love that this is an ensemble show. Obviously, it is all filtered through our team and me. Still, it’s about all these characters because they all mean so much to me, and I often have more fun directing them or writing for them than the things that involve me directly.

The show always perfectly balances laugh-out-loud comedy with a human and emotional core. It also isn’t afraid of making viewers feel extremely uncomfortable. I think of the “congratulations” moment in episode two or the role-play therapy scene in episode six. When I watched that scene in episode six for the first time, I physically could not breathe because I was laughing so hard while also feeling incredibly uneasy. It’s almost as if my body was fighting through that discomfort by laughing. So I’ve always wondered, when you write scenes that will provoke strong reactions in the viewers, what do you hope they ultimately grasp from these moments beyond the general feeling of uneasiness?

I think it’s really getting to the things that feel really vulnerable. In episode two, we’re dealing with vulnerable experiences. The same thing happens in episode six. We’re cracking therapy open in a really vulnerable way. How do we get to those really uncomfortable nerves but also put something in them that’s arguably hilarious? The funnier it is, the closer you can go to the nerve. I think that’s what we really tried to do on the show with our performances. How do we keep them in the pocket of grounded reality but still find a way to get all the feelings that you’re talking about? We make the audience say, “Oh, man, should I be laughing at this?” but push that button so hard that you have to laugh because what you see is funny.  You picked two moments that I think are great embodiments of that and where it was hard to keep it on set because we also felt that way.

Yeah, I always wondered when I watched the therapy scene, like, “How in the hell were they able to film this without laughing?”

Oh yeah, it was probably the most I’ve ever gotten to feeling like I had to yell as a director. I had to pull May Calamawy aside and say, “You have to stop laughing because we don’t have a usable tape.” But she was just like, “I don’t know how.” [laughs] And I get it. Aron Kader did a good job playing her co-therapy classmate, or whatever you want to call him. He was so good. I mean, we were all dying. No one could keep it together. The boom operators were shaking because they were laughing so hard [laughs]

I was also really surprised at some of the guest stars this season, especially Christopher Abbott and James Badge Dale. I’m wondering how did they come aboard the show? Did you write their respective characters with them in mind?

Well, I had never met James. But our casting director Rebecca Dealy suggested that he would play him. I’ve never seen her more passionate about somebody for that role. She just flat-out said, “This should be James Badge Dale. Just trust me.” We didn’t even have him audition. He just came in, day one, and we were just like, “Yep, this guy’s amazing.” He really was fantastic. I had this feeling about Christopher Abbott because I’ve known Chris for many years and have been a big fan of his. We had just worked together a little bit on Poor Things in Budapest with Yorgos Lanthimos, and I just was like, “Dude, I think you would make this feel real,” because the character he played in that episode was definitely a big premise swing for us. We still needed it to hit the groundedness in our tone, and I couldn’t think of anyone outside of Chris that could balance it and bring it to the place that it ended up landing. 

I really can’t even take credit for a lot of the choices that he made where he just really embodied the character. He does it like no one else, so I was so happy to have him do it. The same can be said for Sarita Choudhury, who came in and played Olivia and brought so much dimension to a relationship in Ramy’s life that could have felt totally off and unreal. You have to understand that I love our main family cast so much. So anytime I’m giving screen time to someone who isn’t in our core cast, they must feel like they’ve always been part of the show, right? We’ve built an amazing core cast that I love working with. Even when we brought Mahershala Ali in season two and some of the guests this season, you get this feeling that they’ve always been part of the world. The same thing happened with Amy Landecker in episode six. She’s been a fan of the show for a while, and we found a way to bring her into the cast and complement our core family. We didn’t see any of these characters until the episode we’re seeing them, but we have the feeling that they’ve always been there. 

It was really great talking to you today, Ramy, on the show. Congratulations, once again, it is absolutely the best TV show I saw last year. Hands down, I absolutely loved every single second of it. I wish you all the best on the release of Poor Things, which I know is coming up pretty soon for you, and I hope you have a great rest of your day. 

Oh, that means a lot. Thank you so much, Max. Take care. 

All episodes of Ramy are available to stream on Hulu.

[This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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