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Prepare for shock and guffaws when Ramy Youssef gets in his Feelings

Ramy Youssef
Photo: HBO
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If you’ve finished the first season Ramy and are already hankering for more of Ramy Youssef’s elliptical, serenely irreverent humor, the actor-comedian has you covered with Feelings, his first HBO stand-up special. Directed by Christopher Storer, Feelings grew out of Youssef’s pitch for his Hulu series, which offers a poignantly ribald look at the life of a Muslim millennial, and is itself informed by his stand-up, because Youssef’s work is nothing if not interconnected. Feelings is a great companion piece for Ramy—at times, it feels like an extended bonus episode—but it’s also a thoughtful, increasingly bold introduction to Youssef’s brand of circuitous, sharp-witted comedy.

Youssef’s persona is equal parts questioning and horny, and he doesn’t hold back on the queries or the pining (which, as in his half-hour series, eventually becomes consanguineous) throughout Feelings’ 56-minute runtime. Viewers who are accustomed to his endearingly meandering style of storytelling will handle the slightly lackluster opening stretch better than the uninitiated. Early on, Youssef’s musings about power imbalances and famous accused abusers who have mostly evaded (until recently, we hope) any real consequences feel like they’re straining for timeliness, as if they were written for a five-minute gig on a late-night show—all that’s missing from this ruminating is a “did you hear about?” or two.

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But Youssef’s laidback charm sees him through a somewhat rough start, and it’s not long before he’s eliciting gasps and big laughs from the crowd at the Chicago Cultural Center, where Feelings was filmed earlier this year. That would be right around the time Youssef gets to talking about the commander in chief/despot-in-the-making Donald Trump. But while jeering at the sitting president has become a staple for (most) comedic forays, there’s nothing obligatory or even trite about the way Feelings broaches that topic. True to compassionate form, Youssef starts the first of several digressions into Trump not by simply lobbing insults or referencing the constitutional and humanitarian crises that spring up in the president’s wake, but by opening up about his family’s connection to that failed businessman, a story he’s reflected upon in greater detail on Ramy.

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It’s one of many moments, along with expressing a desire to take the term “kissing cousins” much more literally, in which Feelings feels of a piece with his series (which, again, makes sense given that Youssef has said the special consists of a chunk of his Ramy audition tape). But the comedian also takes advantage of the looser structure of Feelings, which allows him to cover more territory than a half-hour episode of TV—he can be even more free-associating in his delivery, ambling from some introspection about how, as a Muslim, his belief in God is interpreted as more of a threat than the religious fundamentalism that’s made its way into the highest levels of American government, to a riff on porn preferences (he likes to think the people having sex on screen are in love).

As laughter erupts over Youssef’s subsequent description of just how pragmatic his approach to sex is, the interconnectedness of all these seemingly disparate anecdotes and observations emerges. The bits about Islam and porn are ultimately shown to be about perception and the expression of belief (yes, really). Youssef goes on many tangents throughout Feelings, and he shines in all of them, whether he’s on a more whimsical riff, like wondering what comes with the canine label of “man’s best friend,” or making pointed jokes about what it’s like to date white women as a Muslim American man. Storer’s direction follows the comedian’s sauntering cue—the cameras are never static, alternately circling their subject or panning out to show the audience, which includes many Muslims. And, just as Youssef ties together the many threads he’s unraveled, the camera steadily makes its way back to the circular stage to punctuate an already sharp joke, like the observation that one person isn’t responsible for bigotry in this country; he’s just become the avatar for it.

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Genial as he is, Youssef still deals in many uncomfortable truths, the kind he notes that his “woke” audience might be unprepared to confront, like just how shaky their “tolerance” really is. As he told Seth Meyers on Late Night earlier this week, even the people who spout their progressive bona fides on the street seek to modify the term Muslim by placing a “moderate” before it. If you’re a follower of Islam, acceptance is conditional: “Nobody wants you to be that Muslim,” Youssef points out, late in the hour. “They just want you to have a good hummus recipe.” In sharing his preteen perception of the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the comedian underscores just how easily acceptance is revoked. Again, the camerawork follows suit, closing in on Youssef so that he’s essentially locking eyes with the viewer at home when he shares these revelations.

Although Youssef has the only microphone, there’s a conversational element to Feelings. He remains in the center of the venue (whose architecture recalls that of a mosque), open to admiration and criticism—a sense of vulnerability runs throughout. His observations about the fraught world around him are accompanied by confessions about how he’s internalized some of that prejudice, leading to a jaw-dropping denouement that’s bound to dominate Monday’s watercooler chats. Feelings is quite complementary to Ramy’s exploration of identity and dating, but it’s also its own vital discussion.

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