Arts & Entertainment

Ramy Youssef Bears It All at the Den Theatre

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Ramy Youssef isn’t afraid to take risks.

The actor and comedian brought his talents to the lively Den Theatre in Chicago to an energized, raucous crowd Dec. 4. As he approached the stage, it didn’t seem like the audience was in the presence of a Golden Globe-winning actor — it felt like seeing an old friend.

That’s probably because the actor himself isn’t too different from his semi-fictionalized version of the protagonist on “Ramy.” The refreshing Hulu show examines what it means to be a “Millennial Muslim-American” and depicts taboo topics in Islam: sex, alcohol, mental health and failure. 

For this trailblazing reason, though, it has its fair share of detractors — just as his standup did. He isn’t claiming to be the perfect Muslim and yet, critics have accused him of depicting a flawed representation of Islam, alleging stereotypical tropes on “Ramy,” such as the lonely mother character or the sheltered sister.

The show resonated with non-Muslim viewers as well. His segment on potentially selling his Golden Globe worked well and a story about adopting a dog during the early days of the pandemic elicited some of the heartiest laughs in the crowd.

Youssef’s commentary on the stigma of seeking mental health treatment is astute. He mentioned his father finds therapy futile but will use Youssef’s therapists for his own problems in an effort to save money. The crowd found this story humorous and another where Youssef claims he must be on his best behavior prior to his girlfriend’s weekly therapy session — a move many audience members related to. 

Young Muslim-Americans should see themselves in Youssef and understand it’s OK to make mistakes — it’s how we recover from those mistakes that makes us who we are.

Take one of the more controversial portions of his standup where he jokes about his relationship with an Israeli woman. During this whole segment, he’s making fun of himself and isn’t seeking absolution from the audience. This didn’t stop some viewers from leaving the show early, however. 

This part of the show — easily the funniest — is essentially about Youssef dealing with the hilarious and cringeworthy issue of being halal (permissible in Islam) and horny. He quips “no one has ever thought about Palestine when they’re horny.”

It’s dark, shocking, ludicrous and authentic, just like Youssef himself. 

Youssef has been vocal about the plight of Palestine, specifically the unfortunate events that took place in Sheikh Jarrah this past summer when Israeli forces evicted Palestinians from their homes. He brought it up during the show in a poignant moment and posted about his experience doing standup at the first-ever Palestinean comedy festival.

This post and the fact he discussed the inhumane treatment of the Uyghur Chinese Muslims in concentration camps shows he’s invested in Muslim causes throughout the world. He isn’t responsible for leading a revolutionary movement, but he’s open to admitting how he’s been a part of the problem and how he wants to use his platform.

Oftentimes, Muslims are portrayed unrealistically in the media either actively plotting America’s destruction or as perfect students, employees or family members — problematic stereotypes that are far from the truth. 

That’s why it’s important to have personalities like Youssef at the forefront of pop culture. He’s an accurate representation of what it means to be a young Muslim-American. By accurate, this doesn’t mean his way of life is correct, but rather, he represents a generation of Muslims who express their beliefs in their own idiosyncratic way. 

Ultimately, Youssef’s Hulu show and standup expel the notion of “one-size Muslim fits all.” Do all Muslims need to agree with what he’s doing? No. But that’s not the point — no one is in a position to judge him. His content is engaging because it offers a unique, modern perspective on Islam that isn’t found elsewhere. 

Youssef shouldn’t stop taking chances. We should encourage him and other minority personalities to talk about their experiences, unconventional as they may be. His comedy show is fantastic and it’s a shame he isn’t touring in more cities. “Ramy” season three can’t get here any sooner.

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