By Iain Blair
Egyptian-American comedian and writer Ramy Youssef created, produced and stars in the Hulu show Ramy. Part comedy, part drama, the show immediately endeared itself to audiences and critics for its thoughtful, non-stereotypical take on the American Muslim community, as well as its humorous take on the millennial experience.
Ramy follows its titular character, Ramy Hassan (played by Youssef), a first-generation Muslim-American who is on a spiritual journey in his politically divided New Jersey neighborhood. The show brought a new perspective to the screen as it explores the challenges of what it’s like being caught between a Muslim community that thinks life is a moral test and a millennial generation that thinks life shouldn’t be taken quite so seriously.
The series, produced by A24 won an SXSW Audience Award and a 2020 Golden Globe for Youssef. Ramy Season 2 premiered on May 29.
I recently spoke with showrunner Youssef, whose credits include roles on See Dad Run and Mr. Robot as well as his HBO one-hour comedy special Ramy Youssef: Feelings, about making the show and his love of editing and post.
This show definitely broke new TV ground. How hard a sell was this show when you started?
I had the idea for the show for years, probably since 2012, and I found back then that people weren’t so receptive to a show built centrally around an Arab Muslim cast. People would suggest adding a neighbor, or having it just be a “B” story in a larger story. That was the initial temperature in Hollywood for a while, but then we got more specific and focused with the story and zoomed in on the characters. By the time I got the pitch going, places were open and receptive. We took it to seven networks and got three offers, which is a pretty good ratio.
You play a “semi-autobiographical” version of yourself as a millennial Muslim living at home in New Jersey. How much of Ramy is in TV Ramy?
(Laughs) A fair amount, but I was very lucky growing up to have the resources around me to help me with the questions I had and to find answers. I was very lucky to find a creative outlet to help me express myself. But the Ramy I play is different from me since he hasn’t found his outlet yet. And he has a family that doesn’t talk about things as much as my real family does. So he’s a bit more stuck and doesn’t have the answers yet. He’s still going in circles.
Season 2 has expanded the characters and widened the scope. What can you tell us about it, considering a second season wasn’t a sure thing?
It wasn’t, you’re right. For me, Season 1 was very much about the character asking, “Who am I?” and seeing Ramy trying to figure that out in a more abstract way. Season 2 is him trying to deal with who he actually is and a lot of the problems he has. We see that with everyone in the family. We get far deeper into the things that are bothering them and into the secrets of the characters, so we understand more about what they’re dealing with privately in a more open way.
Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but it wasn’t even a case of liking or disliking it — it had to happen with this show because it’s so close to me. I don’t think anyone else would feel comfortable having to make certain choices for the show. It’s a really interesting question because I began shooting things in high school, before I was ever on camera.
We had a really great TV program back then — we put on the morning news for the school, and I learned so much about production. I even got certified as an Apple Final Cut editor while I was still at high school, and all that continued through college. So now, 10 years later, I can walk onto a set and all the small things I learned back then are really useful. It’s just scaled up from what I used to do with no budget at all. I do enjoy the job, though it’s very stressful.
Where do you post?
We do all the editing at Senior Post in Brooklyn. We do audio post at Sound Lounge, and video playback services are done by Visual Alchemy. I’m least involved in the DI, as I have a color deficiency, so I leave the grading to the colorist, Light Iron’s Steve Bodner (using Blackmagic Resolve), and DP Claudio Rietti. I love post, and it’s the realest part of the whole process for me. Writing is imaginative, but in post it’s like, “OK, this is reality.” And the first time I watch a cut of any episode, my barometer is, “Am I fully depressed? Or am I just mildly depressed?” If it’s the latter, I feel it’ll be a good episode.
Post is very emotional for me because I have to watch my face all the time, and I sit in on every edit. Right now, because of COVID-19, I’m doing remote editing and typing up 15 pages of notes per cut, with timecode and everything. The great thing with post is that you’re sitting there and you can make it all happen, and I love writing and then re-writing in post.
[Says Light Iron’s Bodner: “For Ramy Season 2, the DP and I sat down before principal photography, played with his test footage and started discussing the look. Claudio wanted to go with more of a natural look and feel for Season 2 as Ramy seems to be finding himself this season. We did that with reduced contrast and natural color saturation compared to Season 1. In Season 1, Ramy was still trying to find himself, so Season 1 DP Adrian Correia and I went with a more stylized look with some pushed colors and contamination in the low lights. We finished all the color for Season 2 remotely during the pandemic. I was working from home and sending files to Claudio for notes and color sign-off. We hit a groove, and it actually worked out very well in the end. Claudio shot some really beautiful footage for me to work with.”]
You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
On Season 1, we had three editors; Season Two we have two — supervising editor Joanna Naugle and Matthew Booras from Senior Post. Joanna is our main editor with whom I’ve worked closely since the start. The big advantage of that is that she really gets it all — not just the tone of the show, but the type of takes we like and the timing in a scene; it’s been great to grow and learn together. It’s a really cool partnership, and I love collaborating with creative editors, as they come in with fresh eyes and pitch ideas. I don’t want to look at it just in terms of what’s in my head.
[Says Senior Post’s Josh Senior, who is the post producer on the show: “I made the decision to switch from three to two editors as a result of the cross-blocked shooting schedule. During much of production we weren’t able to see full episodes, with many scenes slated to shoot in other blocks. With two editors we were able to have the most work done over the longest period of time with the least amount of unusable downtime.”]
What are the big editing challenges?
Often, it’s all about losing moments. For me, what ends up on screen has to be essential. That doesn’t mean they’re all “perfect moments,” but you need them for the plot. They stay. Then you have moments that are so perfectly funny, and they stay. So then it’s cutting things that work pretty well, anything that’s “in the middle.” And those are often hard decisions, but I really focus on making each episode as lean as possible. (The show is shot on ARRI’s Alexa Mini and edited on Adobe Premiere.)
[Says Senior Post supervising editor Naugle: “Before the pandemic, Ramy and I would spend hours together really digging into scenes and mining all the takes for the best comedic and dramatic moments. The best part is that since Ramy is in so many of the scenes himself, he remembers what he was doing on set and can say specifically, ‘Look for the take when I played it more sincere,’ or ‘I remember trying a take where I was more combative.’
“During Covid, we had to adjust to a remote workflow but we stayed in touch constantly, sending super-low-resolution exports of scenes as soon as they were ready so I could get Ramy’s feedback immediately and adjust almost in real time. Ramy and I sent a lot of voice notes back and forth and I’d export stringouts of line readings that our AEs put together to be sure we were using the best possible options. But we couldn’t have stayed organized without the full post team.
“Matthew and I ended up sharing a few episodes in order to meet deadlines and to simplify this process; we had mirrored hard drives so we could each reconnect the media easily without sending back and forth a ton of individual files.”]
Ramy is a fairly quiet show compared with a lot of comedies. How involved are you with the sound?
Very. I listen to every mix, and you’re right, it is fairly quiet. I try not to overuse music or sound. I have a great sound team, led by re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor Steve “Major” Giammaria, and we really focus on small details, like the mosque scenes in Season 1. I kept thinking, “What’s missing?” And it hit me — there’s always that ticking clock sound in the far distance. I’m not a sound mixer, but I’ve spent a lot of time in mosques. I was able to give Steve that thought, and then he built up something so subtle but so important. You might not even notice it, but it’s there.
[“Ramy’s vision for the show is so clear — not only from a story perspective, but sonically as well. Restraint was crucial because we didn’t want to overwhelm some of the more intimate (and sometimes awkward) moments with sound,” explains Giammaria. “Those pockets of restraint then allowed us to really shine in other sections where the sound design could be featured. Finishing during a pandemic certainly presented some technical challenges, but luckily the team was quick to adapt and rose to the occasion to deliver a great season.”]
Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is appearing in the show. Was he hard to get?
(Laughs) I’m a huge fan, but I didn’t even try to get him. He called me and said, “I watch your show; let me know if I can help.” That was pretty cool. He plays Sheikh Malik, a mentor to Ramy.
Are you already planning Season 3?
I have a lot of ideas, and I’d love to do five, six seasons. But who knows what’ll happen with the whole pandemic? Right now, it’s a race to finish Season 2.
What’s next? I heard you recently signed an overall deal with A24?
Yes, it’s really exciting, and we’re working on creating and developing projects with Apple and Netflix. The first show for Apple focuses on the disabled community and will star [Ramy series regular] Steve Way. I’m also doing a show with Netflix that I co-created, but I’m not in it. I’m also developing some standup specials for comics I’m really inspired by, so there’s a lot going on.
Congrats on your Golden Globe. How important are awards for a show like this?
Thank you! It was crazy and so unexpected. I felt we got a great commercial for the show. That was the best part of it. I thought people who’ve never heard of it will watch now, and they have. So, yes, awards are important in getting the word out, especially when you’re a new show that’s maybe under the radar a bit. The timing was great for us.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.