Ramy Youssef Mixes Vibes and Politics in His New Special ‘More Feelings’

Ramy Youssef Mixes Vibes and Politics in His New Special ‘More Feelings’

In his new special, “More Feelings,” a captivating comedy that speaks fiercely to this political moment, Ramy Youssef maintains a mannered tentativeness, tiptoeing from setup to punchline, becoming quieter as the laughs grow. Underneath his gentle cadence hides a firm conviction, one fed up not just with the horrific tragedy in Gaza, but also with the conversation in America in response to it.

Because this is an election year, he can feel the pressure coming his way. “I know Biden is going to call me,” he says in the special, debuting Saturday on HBO. He means the campaign will be asking for help, but he makes it sound more intimate, like an annoying friend checking in.

The comic Hasan Minhaj told a similar story on his recent tour about the peculiar anguish of being a Muslim celebrity asked to help get out the vote. They both mock their own momentary vanity of thinking a comic could save the country, but Youssef is a different kind of performer. He approaches his subject more indirectly, leaning into confusion and abstraction. His stories blur into and echo off one another. He describes himself as being at a loss in an argument, because while others have facts, “I just have vibes.”

This sounds overly modest, the old comedian trick of playing dumb, but it’s not only that. The most effective tools of political art are different from those of an op-ed. And artfully expressed vibes can be a powerful thing.

Youssef, the child of Egyptian immigrants, grew up in New Jersey where he filmed this intimate special. He begins by saying the proceeds from his shows will go to humanitarian aid for Gaza, before complaining about supporting charities. Then he describes the unrealistic expectations put on him, including knowing the right way to speak out on Instagram (it’s trickier than you think) and finding a way to convert Taylor Swift to Islam. (Her attendance at Youssef’s show in Brooklyn led to a minor right-wing controversy.)

Then there are the appeals from establishment contingents like the Biden campaign looking to win Muslim and Arab votes in Michigan. The emotional turning point of the special comes when Youssef remembers a call three days after the Oct. 7 attack from a friend casually asking where he stands on Hamas.

“Now I got to prove to you I’m not violent?” he says, umbrage in his voice, adding that he’s been talking about the Palestinian cause his entire life. “You know what’s in my heart,” he tells his friend with earnest passion in his voice, taking a beat: “Bro, I’m a Taliban guy.”

It’s a mischievous joke with a serious point: At a time when a Muslim American judge is being pressed by senators on whether he condemns Hamas, Youssef resents the question.

Positioning himself as the oafish outsider squeezed by left, right and center when it comes to Middle East politics, Youssef evokes Larry David in the Palestinian chicken episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Like David, he spoofs his vanity and delusions of grandeur. But he has his own distinct voice, more politically searching, devout and lyrical, full of pinpoint pivots and parallelisms. “There has to be an unseen because I can’t believe in anything I’m seeing” is how he describes why he believes in God.

Christopher Storer, the creator of “The Bear,” shot this special with a patient and glamorous aesthetic, full of lingering movie-star shots in close-up next to a stark spotlight. With dark glassy eyes between a mustache and a curl of hair peeking underneath a winter hat, Youssef periodically wanders out of the frame, and the camera just stays put, waiting for him to return.

Storer also shot Youssef’s previous special, “Feelings” (2019), a fascinating if more uncertain effort, which operates as a kind of prequel. He finished “Feelings” by explaining how post-9/11 Islamophobia in the United States made him investigate his background more, becoming more committed to Islam. This led, he said, to a horrible and taboo thought. “Islam is stronger and America is weaker, all because of this one thing,” he said of the terrorist attack on the twin towers. “And so the thought I had was … did 9/11 …work?”

Just as comedy can make you see the real world as absurd, it can also present what seems absurd as part of the real world. This was a provocative way to end his last hour — not because it was shocking and dark so much as it was plausible. But asking that question nearly two decades after Sept. 11 is perhaps less daring than making comedy out of Gaza right now.

In a moment when an essay about Israel can be pulled from literary magazines and an Oscar speech sparks an open letter, surely parts of this special will prove polarizing. “You think I like what happened on Oct. 7?” he asks. “It’s why we’ve been talking about Palestine our whole lives.”

But this is a nuanced work of art, not a post on Instagram. The uncomfortable question of the effectiveness of political violence does hover around its edges, as does the tradition of nonviolence. Gandhi plays a critical role in a foundational story from Youssef’s childhood when he plagiarized a book report about him. “All my guilt and shame started with Gandhi,” he says.

Youssef’s language often puts the familial in a military or diplomatic context. When his father seems upset, Youssef doesn’t say he backed off; he says he retreated. After Youssef reveals that he married a woman from Saudi Arabia, he explains in a deadpan how he investigated what she knew about the Saudi government’s involvement in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Two arguments between the comic and women in his life stand out in the show. In both, the specifics are left unsaid, but the shape of these fights are vivid, familiar, resonant. The first dates to a time when he was dating in New York and went back to a girl’s place, only to discover an Israeli flag in her room. “Have you ever been so horny you’re like: I can figure out Palestine?” he asks.

Their political argument never moves beyond talking points, but Youssef aims for more with the second run-in, which involves his wife in couples therapy. He maps out the back and forth: She bottles up her anger, but when she describes her grievances, he feels badly misunderstood. He says he has his own version of history and sees his motivations differently, explaining that some of his actions stem from feeling scared. What he’s describing here is the outline of an argument, its abstract structure, more vibes than facts.

This argument has a more hopeful conclusion and represents perhaps a sign of growth that ties into an earlier anecdote about his father. But there are moments when it also seems like a metaphor for the dysfunctional dialogues in the current conflict, how the pain or fear of one side can lead to ignoring the other. It’s a case for engagement that offers some hope, but not much.

In the line that stands out, Youssef recounts his wife saying, “You only noticed when I got angry.” He utters it with passion and sadness before pausing. Then he says it again, almost as if he’s setting up a punchline that never comes.

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