Ramy Youssef on ‘More Feelings’

Ramy Youssef is tired of apologizing. In his new HBO special, the 32-year-old comedian jokes about how he often has to prove that Muslim men are not inherently violent. After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, he says he received a call from a friend a few days later, asking: ‘Yo bro, where are you at with Hamas?’ His response is exasperated, but sharply funny: ‘Where am I at, like, are we f-cking? Am I a member?’

In Ramy Youssef: More Feelings, which debuts on March 23, Youssef wades through heavy topics with equal parts levity and empathy. He deftly weaves tales of jokingly probing his Saudi wife’s family about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, trying to solve geopolitical crises before hooking up, and how we can’t escape being just like our parents.

The topical nature of his special is in keeping with how he shows up in public: Youssef is among several artists calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, and he has donated some proceeds of his standup tour to the Palestinian NGO Anera.

Youssef has also ventured beyond comedy in recent years. He starred in his first film—the Oscar-nominated Poor Things—in 2023, and directed a Season 2 episode of The Bear set in Copenhagen. He’s also working on a fourth season of his acclaimed Hulu series Ramy.

TIME spoke with Youssef about his new special, what makes his comedy distinctive, and his advocacy for the Palestinian people.

TIME: Tell me about what went into making the special. 

It has been five years since I shot a special. So much about the world has changed. So much about my life has changed. The first special I shot was a week before Season 1 of my show came out. Since then, I’ve put out two more seasons of Ramy, a season of Mo, and I got to do a film [Poor Things]. It was this marker point for me in my life. It’s been a real journey. I’m very grateful that it happened exactly when it did.

Ramy Youssef on 'More Feelings'

TIME: Your special doesn’t shy away from speaking about therapy and intimacy. What was it like leaning into that kind of vulnerability?

I never want to do comedy that feels like it’s critiquing others without critiquing myself. That’s been a rule for me. This special is definitely a more full embodiment of that idea. There’s a hope I have that if I could lay out what’s going on and how I think about it, that maybe I can be someone that makes harder things a little softer to digest.

Was there a discomfort that came with turning inward, or do you feel comfortable with this level of self-disclosure?

Between the first special and the second special, I got a lot more comfortable. Part of that was because of digging inwards in making my show, Ramy. It’s a process that has become much more familiar to me, but then I also feel young. In a lot of ways, I’m just at the beginning of my career.

Is there another season of Ramy?

There is. Whenever we find our way back, there’s going to be a bit of a time jump.

You open your special by talking about the causes you speak out about. Why be vocal about the Palestinian cause?

I did stand-up there many years ago, and I felt a very organic connection to the people there. I have worked with a lot of people who live there, I have friends who are there. They have been incredibly underserved and they are without justice. So for it to blend into my work is just a natural extension. It’s kind of a no-brainer to talk about it.

Are there particular risks that come with that support? 

I don’t think so. It’s about genuinely connecting to people who desperately need that connection. Anytime you put yourself on screen, there’s going to be some blowback of people being like, ’Dude, you’re ugly’ or ‘Hey, you suck.’ For as much as I circle around politics, I’m not actually discussing political theory. I’m more discussing how it makes me feel and that’s why I’ve named both specials Feelings.

You get at how the gay and trans issue has been divisive and complicated for the Muslim community. How have you tried to depict some of that tension creatively in your work?

I try to bring a little bit more dimension, a little bit more humanity, and am less focused on judgments or lanes. I’ve never written anything that didn’t have a gay character. I’ve never written anything that didn’t have a Muslim character, I think it’s really important that we see people not as headlines. 

You also talk about the Biden campaign reaching out to you in 2020 to help them win over Arab Americans in Michigan. It seems you now have more reservations about the President. It’s a feeling echoed by many Muslims, Arabs, and young people in America. Is there something Biden could still do to win you over?

A cease-fire would be a great start. Jon Stewart was great in his comeback. He spoke to this point: Isn’t it the candidates’ job to assuage the concerns of the voters? Or, is it the voter’s job to be quiet so that the other candidate doesn’t win? The idea that if you speak up, it might get worse is almost textbook abuse.

Stewart actually came out to the special taping, and it was surreal. I grew up at a time when the only person on television speaking truth to power for anyone who looked like me was a Jewish man from New Jersey.

What do you say to those who argue withholding support from Biden is like helping elect Trump, who will just put the Muslim ban back in place?

Anyone who’s like, well, there’s gonna be a Muslim ban. I have relatives who, since the first time the Muslim ban was enforced, still can’t get visas. So it actually hasn’t gotten that much better.

You’ve taken on more diverse projects recently. What else can we expect? ?

I’m in a period of chasing a few different ideas: some directing, some acting. A lot of my favorite artists started working young, but made my favorite work of theirs once they were closer to 40. I’m not quite there, but I’m starting to understand why. 

What makes your style of comedy distinct? 

There’s a certain thing that I really love in comedy, that I’ve gotten to flex in a couple of different ways. I’ve been working on an animated show and I’ve been circling around more physical comedy. I love grounded absurdity. I love grounded spirituality. I love the tension between two feet on the ground but almost everything else in the sky. It’s really fun. Everything for me fits in a really fun or f-cked up question, and then letting it go wherever it needs to go.

In your special, you talk about the shame you felt after lying to your dad about a plagiarized book report on Gandhi you wrote while you were in school. What do you want your dad to know once he finds out that you did, in fact, cheat?

I want him to know that it just made me make sure I was a better person for him as an adult. And that I really appreciate everything that he has done for me. Him and my mom are the best people I know.

Correction, March 22

The original version of this story misstated the name of the organization that received donations from Ramy Youssef. It is Anera, not Near East Refugee Aid.

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