Ramy Youssef uses comedy to 'disrupt the context' of minority stories with his best friend at his side

PHOTO: Ramy Youssef’s taking center stage with his own Hulu series “Ramy” and a brand new HBO special.PlayABC
WATCH How Ramy Youssef is changing the comedy game

Ramy Youssef is shaking things up on the comedy scene. It's been a breakout year for the 28-year-old, known for his appearances on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," and FX's "Mr. Robot."

Now, he's taking center stage with his own Hulu series "Ramy" and a brand new HBO special.

"We're not really trying to provide answers in the show," Youssef told "Nightline." "I'm not trying to do that in stand-up. I don't think that that's the job of film or of comedy. I think the only job that we have or that I have, is to just disrupt the context."

PHOTO: Ramy Youssef’s taking center stage with his own Hulu series “Ramy” and a brand new HBO special.
ABC
Ramy Youssef’s taking center stage with his own Hulu series “Ramy” and a brand new HBO special.

The New Jersey boy of Egyptian descent is creating a brand by shining a light on perspectives that are not often examined – including his own as a millennial, practicing Muslim grappling with expectations from his faith, family and community – all while being pulled by the desires of growing up in today's United States.

"This is the perfect time for people to see this family… If anything, the timing is too late," Youssef said. "We've been talking around what it means to be a Muslim. We've been talking around the Arab identity. And we've been talking about it, but never actually talking to Muslims, never actually talking to Arabs and finding out what their problems are and what they love and what they're going through."

He joked his team tries to "balance" that out with "profanity and sex and fun stuff too, so that it's not just a PSA."

PHOTO: Ramy Youssef speaks during the Hulu Ramy FYC event on May 13, 2019 in Hollywood, Calif. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images
Ramy Youssef speaks during the Hulu "Ramy" FYC event on May 13, 2019 in Hollywood, Calif.

In his new series with Hulu, Youssef shows the reality of many immigrant families' experiences, including practices and traditions of being a Muslim Egyptian-American, from speaking Arabic to attending the mosque and daily prayer.

"It was really important to show Arabic being spoken, to show prayer in this show, because the way that our language has been framed in media and in this country is devastating," he said.

It wasn't easy for Youssef to get people to buy in at first. Youssef recounted what happened when the team first tested the pilot episode.

"Our show started at a Mosque, with people speaking Arabic. And for the first 10 minutes, just because it started at a mosque, they thought the show was about terrorism and drama in the vein of 'Homeland,'" he said. "It took them almost to the halfway point, when I was on a date with a girl named Chloe, for them to say, 'Oh, maybe this is a comedy.'"

A part of his experience is just being a regular kid from Jersey.

"We talk about the first look at a Muslim family that's not in the context of violence. I also grew up in New Jersey, and so this might be the first time we're seeing New Jersey not in the context of violence," he joked, while referencing infamous Jersey-shows like "The Sopranos" and "Jersey Shore." "It's exciting to see a family just live."

For Youssef, an essential part of making the show authentic is featuring his childhood friend Steve Way, who has muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes massive muscle loss.

The two brought "Nightline" to their high school stomping grounds in Rutherford, New Jersey, where they started creating together.

"We started making stuff, it was me, Steve, our friends… We learned how to edit and learned how to do... story telling in this way that was really exciting," Youssef said. "My first project, we worked on it together. Our first TV project together."

PHOTO: For Youssef, an essential part of making the show authentic is featuring his childhood friend Steve Way, who has muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes massive muscle loss. ABC
For Youssef, an essential part of making the show authentic is featuring his childhood friend Steve Way, who has muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes massive muscle loss.

Way said they worked off a small 13-inch TV.

"We borrowed it from the school and I broke it," Youssef said. "That was the beginning of Steve taking the fall for everything… Because you can't get mad at Steve!"

For Youssef, diversity on the show didn't just mean showing his own truth – it meant showing Way's reality as well.

Way says the portrayal of his life is "very accurate… especially our dynamic": "I think what you see on the show between us, it's mostly improv. We work so well together."

"The one thing that really made me feel comfortable doing that show was that Ramy was very adamant about making sure that everything I did was specific to me," he added. "So like, for example, we have episode three with the mom when she grinds up my pain pill, that's exactly how my mom would do that. So, for hours a week, Ramy would keep asking me how my mom would do that for me. So, it's just the little details that really make it effective and just feel so true."

Way is a stand-up comedian himself and a substitute teacher at Rutherford High. He saw his opportunity on "Ramy" as a chance to break a glass ceiling for his community.

"There is a lot of gratitude, especially from the disabled community," he said. "You don't really see people like me on television, and if you do, you usually end up feeling good about yourself from watching it and you don't really learn anything. Or, if you see someone who is supposed to be me, look like me, and their story is not truly what they go through, when you see 'Ramy' you see me, my character, and you think, 'Oh, he's a jerk just like me. I get him.'"

He credits Youssef for his starring role.

"If it wasn't for Ramy pushing for me, who knows what would happen," Way said. "We would have seen another character that's supposed to be me, played by someone who doesn't look like me. I've just got a lot praise and gratitude from my community, just overwhelmed that there's someone that looks like them on a major TV show."

At the end of the day, it's just two friends living out their childhood dream.

"It's amazing when you're getting to just do something with your friend," Youssef said. "I mean, there's all the representation stuff he was talking about yeah, but for me it was just fun to have my friend around. It was just fun. We've been doing it since high school so it was fun to just do it with bigger cameras."

Youssef's audience is also getting bigger as he gears up for his debut stand-up special, "Feelings."

"What's been really exciting, is the people who reach out… who say, 'Dude, this reminds me of Puerto Ricans. This reminds me of Jamaicans. This reminds me of being Jewish,'" Youssef said. "When it gets really specific, you can kind of just swap a couple of things out, but you feel the emotion and you know that that's what you felt, too."

"That's the work that we do, and that's the thing that I'm most excited about, is to just have anyone who watch it, be a little less convinced or convicted in whatever stance that they hold, and make some space for other people and other thoughts, and just try and find the humanity," he said.