The old adage about “writing what you know” has paid off exponentially for Daniel Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”) and Ramy Youssef (“Ramy”).
Knowing themselves and their abilities better than anyone else, both men created series in which they would not only star but also make their directorial debuts — and it paid off in spades with them picking up first-ever acting (Youssef in the lead comedy actor race; Levy in supporting) and directing noms at the Emmys this year. (Levy also snagged his second consecutive nom as an executive producer in the comedy series category and a nom for writing.)
Here, the multi-hyphenates and social media sensations came together with Variety to talk about successfully balancing so many responsibilities, the evolution of writing for themselves and on-screen families and staging weddings in their sitcoms.
As you have written for yourselves more, do you find you write to play to your strengths or do you actively try to challenge yourselves?
Ramy Youssef: I’ve been doing stand-up and on-screen I started by doing sketch comedy, making things when I was probably 15 or 16, so I would say that my career has always been me watching myself and trying to understand what my strengths are. But I think so much of the process of it has grown into really just looking at a different person when I’m watching myself. I feel like I learned a lot after Season 1 [of “Ramy”] about how I wanted to write going into Season 2: It was me feeling like, “Oh cool, I know I can play this charming person, but it’s more interesting to see me dealing with things that feel difficult. And then I was watching the finale of Season 2 [where] there’s this scene where I get really angry at my mom and I was like, “Oh that’s what I want to do in Season 3!” I want to tap into that anger because I hadn’t seen that shade on me, but I was like, “Oh yeah this character is hiding that anger.” And in real life, too, I’m probably hiding anger. So you watch stuff and you find the little gems and you want to grow off it.
Daniel Levy: Just as a fan of your show, it’s been so fun and at times really emotional to watch what you’re going through on the show. Not to spend this time gushing about your work, but it’s just really special. For me, before I got into writing [“Schitt’s Creek”] I was hosting television for MTV, which was not what I wanted to do and it did not bring me a tremendous amount of joy. But it was a job that allowed me to explore as a television personality what I liked and didn’t like about myself, just as a person. With live television, you have nothing but yourself to look back on and say, “OK, you can rein it in here and there.” But when it came to the writing of the character of David [on “Schitt’s Creek”], it was always really separate from myself, and so when we were writing I would always picture the character as being something quite different, which led to this strange challenge as an actor because oftentimes I was writing not even remembering I had to play these moments. I was getting engrossed in the story saying, “This is something this character needs to do,” and it was only when we got closer to actually shooting that I started to realize, “Oh f—, I have to actually do some heavy-lifting!” In a way, this was quite good — and bad. You polish the show 24/7. Even the day before our first show ever, I was writing until like 2 a.m., got picked up at like 5 a.m., and it wasn’t until I was in the car that I actually realized I have to act in the show. And that’s where things got weird.
Youssef: Obviously you’re sitting in the edit. What level of recoil do you have watching yourself on screen?
Levy: I think the first season was really tricky because I’d never been in an edit like that before. It was the first time that I ever had to put aside vanity. There’s definitely shots that you look at and you’re like, “Yikes.”
Youssef: But to have the power or authority to be like, “Hey guys let’s not use that angle for performance.”
Levy: “It’s a tone thing. I just don’t think the tone works in that take!” But by Season 2 I think I was able to completely separate watching myself from the show. There’s a level of honesty you have to have with yourself. It’s been helpful because you get over the strangeness of seeing yourself. It’s there, so let’s do what you can. What is that like for you?
Youssef: I’m mostly just yelling, “Who the f— directed this s—?” And then I realize it’s me, and then we figure it out. No, definitely you watch the first cut and you hate life, and then you watch it the next time and you’re like, “Maybe life is amazing.” It’s the back-and-forth.
Levy: The process of putting a television show together is so intense and it can feel so isolating and the problems you run into, whether it’s not having certain coverage or you look at a cut of something and really panic thinking, “OK I guess I’m going to be laughed off television,” I felt, for the longest time, like obviously we were able to cut something into a show but those first couple of glances at each episode, I almost couldn’t sit through them. You have an idea of how it should look in your head and when it doesn’t look like that —
Levy: But it’s so nice hearing from other people that it’s not an uncommon experience. Nobody’s getting a first cut of the show and acting like, “Well I’ve got it!”
Youssef: I don’t think there’s any version of imagination meeting reality that isn’t at least initially disappointing. That’s so much of what this is. I imagined all of this stuff, but when you’re sitting in the edit, this is the first version of the reality of it. On set you formatted it, and you think if you cut like this, then it will be like that, but then you’re like, “Oh whoa.” Imagination finding the reality of it is such an interesting part of the process. Now we’ve done 20 episodes and I’m much more comfortable with it than I was initially.
How much of that increased comfort is learning to compartmentalize the various jobs you’re doing versus leaning on somebody else for outside perspective versus listening to your own inner critic?
Youssef: So much of this for me is like stand-up where with every humiliation or failure on stage I don’t have anyone else that I can blame it on. And so I do tend to try to all of my rhythms and all of my things as blamelessly as possible. That isn’t to say that you’re not constantly refining and that people aren’t helping. I really feel like anyone who is adding something to it, I’m so grateful for, but if something doesn’t happen the way that I want, I tend to say, “Aw man, I could have done this, I could have done that.” I think that inner critic is important. It’s not self-destructive; it’s self-refining.
Levy: Early on, before I knew what I wanted to do, I read some piece on a person describing how they found the job that they were meant to do. And one of the things they talked about was that you would have an answer for everything. Even if the answer is, “Give me five minutes,” it’s a clarity of focus. When I was hosting at MTV I just felt like I was never in control of my own skill set, and I was never in control of what I was doing, and I always felt like it was a stepping stone. I was very grateful, obviously, for the opportunity and for the relative success that I had, but it always felt like, “I don’t think I can keep this up long term because it’s just not clicked in.” The first season of doing [“Schitt’s Creek”] I realized I had this ability — I recognized I was very at-ease when it came to making decisions. The job of showrunning is people coming up to you 400 times a day, saying, “The desk in the office set, are we thinking mahogany or are we thinking titanium?” or “Catherine [O’Hara] wants to wear this headpiece with this skirt, what do you think?” And I always had an answer for it — the vision was always really clear. And I thought to myself, after that first season, “Well this must be what it is.” And that was such a huge turning point in my life. I found something that I feel completely capable at. Before, I was struggling and I think I always felt I was never the best one at something — I was always trying to make it work and could probably convince people I was good at something — but that was the first time I ever felt wholeheartedly sure of myself. And it was a really great feeling.
So then what is it that you get from performing that is additive?
Levy: It would probably be the second to last episode of our series where we had written this big, revelatory scene where my character basically acknowledges for the first time in the series that he has spent his life trying to impress people because he’s so terrified of being seen as a joke. And for the tone of our show it was a very heavy scene that I knew had to be offset by the other actors in the other scenes that were happening, and that also we slid out of that scene on a joke and that had to be handled properly. But again, it wasn’t until I was learning my lines the night before we shot it that I realized there was a lot of pressure on that scene and I had to do a really good job. A series of my character hinged on this moment. It was a daunting task but because I was so close to the show and because it was one of our last days — ever — of shooting the show, it was a lot easier to access that kind of emotion than, say, in Season 3, when I probably never would have written myself to get that emotional because I just didn’t have that skill set.
Youssef: Speaking to what Dan was talking about where you’re making so many decisions, so much of the job is corporate. In Season 2 I was looking at budgets more, and at a certain point you’re like, “Oh I’m running a business with some people,” but also there’s this emotional thing happening. I have found I feel so excited by the scenes that I do that are all in Arabic. I’m fluent in Arabic but I am not masterful — and so, what ends up happening is, I’m reaching for words. And also, I don’t script out the Arabic dialogue in Arabic; I script it out in English. So I find it is the most engaged I am as a performer because I actually don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Youssef: I feel so in-the-moment because I don’t know the language as well as I know English, and so I find myself dipping into this part of me that I don’t access all of the time in real life. So much of what we do in this field is a mastery of language and we’re very particular about our words, but even outside of this show when I go visit Egypt and am speaking only Arabic I get by more than fine but my nuance goes a little bit out the window and I start feeling really frustrated. My words are part of who I am, but now I’m feeling sad or angry or whatever that may be because I don’t have the words to put behind whatever I’m feeling. But it actually makes it way more raw and way more exciting, and I find out more things about myself when I’m in Arabic-only environments that I would normally hide behind some kind of joke. It’s so live, it’s so in-the-moment, I feel really raw, and I like putting myself in those situations. And outside of the language stuff, I like putting myself in those situations script-wise and plot-wise, too. That’s when I really have fun. I go home on those days saying it was cool because I get to go home on those days feeling something in my body I don’t normally feel.
Levy: That’s such a fun way to keep the acting alive — especially, I’m sure, when you have to do take after take after take. Does that part still feel somewhat improvised in each take?
Youssef: It’s growing. I’m continuing to find it. It’s almost like muscle memory when I’m doing a scene and going into this reserve that I don’t usually touch. Because growing up in this country, as the years went on and my parents were here longer, they shifted into English more. So I’m drawing back on a period where we only spoke Arabic in the house, but that’s like pre-teen. I’ve been able to keep it and preserve it and I know it, but I have to draw it out and it grows with each take — like, “Oh this is another way to say that.” And here, someone asks for a line and only the script supervisor says it, but when we were shooting in Cairo, the guy who’s running Crafty or a lighting guy will come up to you between takes and say, “Yo yo yo, say it like this.” It’s not even a language thing, they’ll just pitch you a brand new line.” Everyone is all up in your shit, and you just feel yourself expanding. And that’s the kind of thing I think reads emotionally on screen.
For some people the most emotional thing is a wedding and your characters both got married in the most recent seasons of your shows. Why do you feel such a big step in a relationship and a big tentpole event are such attractive things in comedy today?
Levy: When you try to break story you try to think of ways to bring characters together, and there are only a handful of events in life that bring everybody together — weddings being one of them, but funerals, birthdays and holiday celebrations. But in our case so much of the series was about the romance and the love that existed in a place that [David] never thought he could find, it felt really appropriate to end the show on that note. So much of what we wanted to put out with the show was love and acceptance, and I think to end with a wedding between two guys felt so in-line with our show and also in-line with the character. And it also allowed us to have Catherine officiate, which would inherently be funny. And weddings have that fine line of being very emotional while also having such high pressure that oftentimes it gets funny — because people are acting nuts.
Youssef: I think similarly the wedding in the second season of my show is very supportive to what we’re trying to do with my character, which is strip back what he actually believes versus what he’s actually doing. We’re looking at the performance of religion and we’re looking at the performance of being a person versus where you’re actually at as being a person. And a wedding is a really good place to do that as well. For me, what was really cool about getting to do this wedding was he had to face reality in a way that he never has before: He makes small mistakes, he makes small fumbles, it always gets chalked up to, “Oh you’re just growing up, you’re just figuring it out” — but there’s nothing more exciting to me than a really clear moment of failure or needing to make change. And so for us it felt like a good time to introduce it. Like Dan was saying, it’s a really good device to bring people together, but a wedding also brings to the surface everything. We’re going to not only join two people’s choices, we’re going to join two entire family units and their choices.
Although some early dynamics or character traits may come from your real families, over time the cast can feel like a family. How does that blending enhance and evolve what you’re doing?
Youssef: It’s been a balance. At the end of Season 1 I started to find out things about my characters that were definitely deviations from real life. We uncovered things about my uncle, like, “Oh this is where we’re headed” because of something we created. There was something about watching everything on the first season that made it feel clear. They’ve certainly taken on a life of their own, but there’s still inspiration from my real family. We have this scene in my dad’s episode where he takes the dog to the vet and the vet tells him the dog is depressed, and that was actually a scene my dad pitched me because it was a thing that happened with our family dog growing up. He went to the vet and he was like, “I need Xanax, not the f—ing dog.” So he called me and was like, “This would be really funny if you put this in the show.” And the really funny thing about it is that scene in particular went viral in Egypt and all of his friends in Egypt were saying, “Wait didn’t you used to tell us this story?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I should be a f—ing EP.” It’s cool because I do think the characters are different enough that my parents feel separate from them, but there are similarities. My mom just became an American citizen; she has been an Egyptian and Canadian citizen my entire life, and recently she recently felt like she should be voting so she decided to become an American citizen. But then a lot of other things come from watching Hiam Abbass: This person is a comedic genius and there’s all this stuff we can do with her and stretch into her performance.
Levy: It’s a thrill when you have a cast that can handle anything. I hired these actors that, for the most part, I didn’t know. You have gut instincts and hope for the best. I have had such a joy with our cast, and I’ve been — not even surprised because I knew they were all great but — thrilled to be able to push them, to say, “OK I’m going to write a musical number for this character” or “I’m going to take this character in a completely different direction because I know they can do it.”