There’s something special about art that doesn’t fully make sense until you’ve consumed the whole thing. Ramy Youssef, hot on the heels of his incredible autobiographical Hulu series Ramy, has now released Feelings, his first stand-up special on HBO. And it would be understandable if, based on the first ten minutes, you were confused.
Youssef has built a following with his thoughtful, yet hilarious, examinations of life as an American millennial Muslim. Which is why it may come as a surprise when he opens Feelings with topical jokes that may at first feel three minutes away from being too old to tell. Jussie Smollett, Michael Jackson (okay, Michael Jackson jokes are proving timeless), R. Kelly: the subjects read like a list of topics you wish were banned by open mics.
These topics may have a timer when it comes to our attention span, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t culturally symbolic. What are the unintended outcomes of cultural trauma? What would trusting your kid with a stranger take? Carving gold from these stripped mines takes a gifted writer, and thankfully Youssef is more than up to the task. But what surprised me on repeated viewings of Feelings is how much these jokes inform the special as an entire piece.
Smollett, a gay black man, becomes a symbol of how growing up in a society that hates your existence influences you. People have been making Michael Jackson jokes forever, but why wouldn’t millennials have a take on him? Youssef was 18 when Jackson died, and witnessed the same culture that shamed Jackson mourn his death like royalty. As someone born in 1991, Youssef was part of the generation of kids who sang “I Believe I Can Fly” like a hymn in schools. What viewers, and critics, might immediately write off as quickly expiring subject matter is a window into how our past informs our present. And in one case, it’s a set up to the darkest closing joke in modern HBO stand-up history.
Feelings is an incredibly low-key affair. Filmed at the Chicago Cultural Center instead of a traditional theater or club, it lacks the sound of bombastic laughter found in most specials. Even the biggest laughs often get muted by the tall ceilings of the beautiful room. But rather than hinder the show, they leave the focus on Youssef as he bounds from topics that are seemingly trivial to deeply personal examinations of his life as an American Mulsim.
No other special in stand-up history has been so equally horny and spiritual, often at the same time. He’s constantly thinking about sex like most 20-somethings, often even as he’s tied to God. When a woman finds his continued attendance at Friday prayers after the Mosque shooting in New Zealand hot, Yousseff finds a newfound confidence. In the same spirit, his parent’s lack of sexual education training leaves him terrified of the consequences of unprotected sex.
It’s beautiful how relatable the material is to anyone who grew up in a conservative religious tradition. These moments of commonality inform some of the special’s best bits, from the ethics of dating your cousin to the difference between going to church on Friday and Sunday.
To Yousseff going to church on Sunday, as most Christians do, is almost cheating. “You fuck up the whole weekend, and then are just like ‘God, I don’t know what that was. Make me new.” The entire show is rooted in how our faith impacts, and sometimes doesn’t impact, our daily lives. But at the same time, this isn’t a religious special. At no point does Yousseff seem to be trying to sell you on Islam. He doesn’t care if you believe what he believes, he just presumes you’ll be able to relate to experiences outside your own.
The relatability of Feelings is its biggest strength. When someone says “why does this comic have to talk about race” they often ignore the reality that mainstream white comics are also talking about race and ethnic experiences. We’ve just been trained to accept the white point of view as an unspoken cultural default. People who complain about comics talking about race or identity are just asking “why aren’t they talking about me.” As a Southern Baptist white male, the commonality between our experiences made the moments I couldn’t relate to hit that much harder.
Rather than draw me out, they left me examining what it might feel like to be tested in my faith.That feeling is never truer than during the brilliant, and frankly incredibly brave, closing bit about how 9/11 made him more Muslim. In the aftermath of the attacks, Yousseff was forced to examine his faith in a new light, drawing him closer to its teaching.
It’s a stunning bit of storytelling, weaving his journey deeper into Islam with the political transformation of the country after the attacks. The story culminates in a joke of staggering truth, and darkness, that pulls viewers back to the opening moments of the show. After a relatively light special, the final joke reveals a common theme that’s been subtly running throughout the whole piece. Good joke writing can feel like a magic trick, and this final reveal is just beautiful.
I’ve never watched another stand-up special that made me think about going back to church. It made me question if faith was easy to abandon because I’d never been forced to confront it. Feelings is deceptively subtle but deeply funny. Quoting bits here won’t do them justice, and I’d rather not ruin the joy of discovering his punchlines. But if you love stand-up comedy, and wish it was sometimes a little more thoughtful, you’ll find yourself deeply caught up in Ramy Youssef’s Feelings.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.