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Comedian Ramy Youssef says he used resurgence of anti-Muslim hate for inspiration

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Comedian Ramy Youssef is Egyptian American. He grew up in New Jersey in a post-9/11 environment - not a very warm, neighborly time to be an American Muslim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMY YOUSSEF: I'm done apologizing. I'm done saying that we're peaceful. For 20 years, we've had to prove to people that we're safe, right? Every time you turn on CNN, there's just, like, some Arab dude talking about how Islam means peace. You know that guy? But he's always shouting it. He's always like, we come in peace. You're like, bro, that's the slogan for aliens. That's what aliens say before they take over the [expletive] planet, bro.

FADEL: That's from the new HBO comedy special "Ramy Youssef: More Feelings." That airs tomorrow night. And he says that some of that new material was inspired by hearing that same anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate after the Hamas attacks of October 7 and the now more than five-month retaliation from Israel.

YOUSSEF: A lot of people are feeling a little bit like there's been more of a Band-Aid than actual healing and understanding. So it's kind of this very raw moment. And I say all this in that rawness can also be an opportunity to actually move past certain things. So if we were keeping things under the Band-Aid and now the Band-Aid is ripped off, now feels like an opportunity to say, OK, so what conversations do we need to have in order to actually heal?

FADEL: Is that what you're trying to do with the special? I mean, you at one point was like, I thought this was over.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. I think that is - I think this special is, in a way, a bit of an offering to have some of that openness that I don't think anyone needs to be afraid of. You know, I think everyone wants to feel understood and wants to feel safe. And I think that that should be possible in America. It's really weird. Sometimes the more I think about it, I realize I'm such an American in the sense that I really believe that if we have the freedom of speech that we cherish, there's a reason for all of that, and this is kind of where we can heal, you know? And so I'm a big believer in that.

FADEL: It's an election year, so politicians - good fodder for jokes. You say you're worried that the Biden campaign is going to call you for help. Here's another clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: They called me in 2020. I got a call from Mohammed (ph) at Biden. Of course, right? And, you know, they think that's clever. Like, they're at headquarters. Ben's about to call, and they go, no, no, no, no, let Mohammed do it. Give him that Habibi energy.

FADEL: There is right now a lot at stake in this election. And Arabs and Muslims are a big question for the Democrats. They typically vote Democrat, but many are angry, as are young people. You talk about getting that call. But the bigger message here when you were talking about this election - what was it?

YOUSSEF: I think that we're actually kind of a crucial voting bloc in a few places - not just Dearborn, but I also believe in Atlanta. And there's a couple of things going on, which is, hey, how could you criticize Biden? Don't you know it's going to be so much worse for you with Trump, which outright I reject, because that's kind of textbook abuse, right? It says, hey, you're being hit. Don't speak up because you'll get hit harder, right? So I resent that framework.

FADEL: And just to be clear for listeners, the anger among this voting bloc is about Gaza and the way Biden has handled it.

YOUSSEF: Well, yeah. And I think it also kind of extends beyond that, especially when it comes to immigration, right? So everyone kind of makes, rightfully so, a lot of noise about Trump's Muslim ban, right? So as someone who's Egyptian, I saw that in real time happen, right? So my grandmother was on her deathbed while Trump was president, and her sisters wanted to visit her from Cairo. They were denied their visas because of how hard it was under Trump. Those visas have still not been approved, right? So it's gone from a Muslim ban to a visa backlog. But that visa backlog - you're not feeling that backlog if you're trying to come from the U.K. So, you know, it's - a lot of what we're seeing is there are different names for the same attitudes and the same policies. I would say that people all over are frustrated with the binary of the two-party system.

FADEL: Clearly, Ramy Youssef doesn't shy away from really heavy topics in his comedy, but he's not always political. He also writes and produces a show on Hulu called "Ramy," and the characters there take Arabs and Muslims out of that binary victim or villain. And it was groundbreaking because Muslims were just individuals like Ramy, who really wanted to be a pious Muslim, but he also really liked premarital sex. And that's not necessarily something he wanted his grandma to see.

YOUSSEF: My grandmother, God rest her soul - when we kind of knew she was passing away, we had, you know, a lot of nice moments with her. And one of the moments was that I had our post team edit her a version of a bunch of episodes that were clean. And so...

FADEL: No way.

YOUSSEF: ...I played them for her in the hospital where - yeah, so it was just - you know, it was very short, and it was...

FADEL: So you basically edited out every sex scene, every reference to (laughter)...

YOUSSEF: Yeah. So the whole season played for, like, you know, 33 minutes, and it was just me praying and eating food. And I think she - you know, she loved it.

FADEL: She loved it. She's like, oh, he's such a good boy.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. She never cared about plot.

FADEL: Now, family is a big part of Ramy Youssef's new HBO special, too. He talks about his biggest temptation as a Muslim growing up - wanting a Christmas tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: Any Muslims here with a Christmas tree?

(CHEERING)

YOUSSEF: I don't know how you explain that to God. That's a crazy sin. Like, if you drank at the bar today, you'd be like, all right, peer pressure, but you brought a tree into your house. That's wild. Like, that messes up the environment.

FADEL: OK, I'm a Christmas tree Muslim. I'm sorry. You've never given in to this temptation.

YOUSSEF: No, I never have, you know? But I respect you.

FADEL: No, you don't. I watched your special.

YOUSSEF: Oh. Well, listen (laughter).

FADEL: I don't know why that made me laugh so much, 'cause I know there's, like - you know, you were talking about the - you're growing up, and you're like, no, me growing up, it was me and - what? - two Jewish families, and all of us were bound by our lack of a Christmas tree.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, I mean, I - it's - I think it's really important to be very dumb in comedy. And so I think, you know, I will get passionate about things that I care about and then immediately be as dumb as possible. And I think that that's probably where I also have the most fun, too.

FADEL: That's comedian Ramy Youssef. His new standup special for HBO is called "Ramy Youssef: More Feelings." Thank you, Ramy.

YOUSSEF: Oh, thank you. Great to talk to you again.

FADEL: It was so good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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