Comedy specials don't cut it anymore; you need a semi-autobiographical sitcom to make it as a comedian

Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef joins the long list of comedians who made their mark with starring roles in semi-autobiographical shows about themselves.


                            Comedy specials don't cut it anymore; you need a semi-autobiographical sitcom to make it as a comedian

It's that time of the year when networks and streaming services start announcing the new arrivals to their show lists. Hulu, for one, has just announced that one of its most promising projects in the days to come will be ‘Ramy,' which will star comedian Ramy Youssef portraying the titular role in the semi-autobiographical sitcom. 

'Ramy' co-created and written by Youssef is also co-created by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, who also co-created the highly successful 'Carmichael Show.' This venture also marks A24's first production venture for Hulu.  

According to our sources, the show will narrate the story of an Egyptian-American Muslim man trying to understand what it means to be to be Arab, American and Muslim at a time when those identity markers are going through a crisis of definition. This obviously speaks to the diversity that is prevalent in the realm of TV currently but is also representative of the new age of TV shows that center on the protagonist of the show, who also happens to bear a striking resemblance to the actor playing the character – both literally and figuratively.  

Ramy Youssef speaks onstage during Hulu Upfront 2018 at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 2, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Hulu)
Ramy Youssef speaks onstage during Hulu Upfront 2018 at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 2, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Hulu)

In 'Ramy' specifically, we will get to see a near replication of the real-life experiences that Youssef faced as a first-generation American Muslim. He went through a spiritual journey while navigating the politically-divided New Jersey neighborhood that he called his home. Youssef is caught between two worlds, where the Egyptian part of him reminds him that life is a moral test that he needs to pass, while the millennial side of him wants to live life without fearing about consequences.  

The stand-up comedian has presented his material to the audience of 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,' and has appeared on shows as prestigious as 'Mr Robot,' but landing a deal from Hulu where he will get to play himself and tell his stories – hopefully unadulterated by Hollywood magic - will arguably be his pivotal moment as a comedian.

To know you have made it as a comedian, you needed to be performing at paying gigs in the past, which then graduate to stand-up specials and now nothing less than having a semi-autobiographical show that you star in, would earn you the reverence and respect of being a success story. Every beloved comedian you can think of had a similar show.  

Ramy Youssef performs during Muslim Funny Fest at Comic Strip Live on July 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Muslim Funny Fest)
Ramy Youssef performs during Muslim Funny Fest at Comic Strip Live on July 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for Muslim Funny Fest)

Take Louis CK, for example. Disgraced as a justifiably may be, he is objectively among the funniest comedians in the country and he had the semi-autobiographical comedy-drama 'Louie' where he basically played himself and received much critical acclaim while doing so. It essentially showed the interesting aspects of Louis, not just as a comedian, but also as a divorced father raising two girls.  

The show, which narrated the story of a straight white male, surprisingly had an outlandish approach to divorce, sexual orientation, sex, Catholic guilt and depression, in a way that appealed to the audience and the critics alike. In one particularly brave episode, we see Louis and fellow comic Dane Cook hash out their real-life plagiarism controversy face-to-face. 

'Louie' turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. 

 

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More and more comedians – belonging to sexual, gender and racial minorities - have been getting the opportunity to share their life stories as well. Not just during a half-hour segment or a two-hour comedy special, but in the form of multiple-episode series with more than a couple of seasons.  

Thanks to this format of story-telling we have gems like 'Lady Dynamite' and 'One Mississippi.' The former is the story of Maria Bamford (portrayed by herself), who is trying to rebuild her life from scratch after returning from a six-month recovery getaway, with the help of her friendly agent. That show got so meta, there was a scene in the first season, where you can actually see Bamford actually reveal her decision to not use stand-up comedy as a device of storytelling.   


Even though that is a reasonable way of telling the story, I do have a self-conscious feeling of "I don't want to see the same thing over and over,'" she can be heard saying in the very first episode of the Netflix series.  

In 'One Mississippi,' created by comedian Tig Notaro, depicts the heartbreakingly real story of how the comedian – who had recently had double mastectomy and a C. difficile infection, - moved back to Bay St. Lucille, Mississippi, after receiving news that her mother Caroline would be taken off life support following an unexpected fall. Tig finds her way back to sanity after a long stretch of tough times in the small town, where her mother died, all in the span of a year which she describes as “worst year ever.” 

It is among the most vulnerable shows on any streaming platforms or the TV currently, and to see a terrible experience get turned into art – hilarious art – is like watching magic happen. The show which airs on Amazon Prime is also a brilliant depiction of how various lives lived have various stories to tell.  


Like Notario, Bamford and Louis, there were stories for women such as Rachel Bloom to say as well. Her 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' which came about after years and years of making funny YouTube videos, is an 'emotional autobiography' biography, as she puts it. The musically-gifted comedian, who has been open about responding to late night booty calls once said, "When I was infatuated, all bets were off. I just became a terrible person." 

"The show [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] is an emotional autobiography because for so much of my life I have felt like pathetic and disenfranchised by infatuation. I think that I've always felt a tension between what I want to do and how crazy I want to be and then my level of being afraid of seeming crazy," she said, before adding, "It's almost like in a weird way this show's some kind of wish fulfillment because there are some guys I wish I could have had the balls to slash their tyres." 

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We are definitely here for it, and every other story that shows the journey of the comedian and the story behind his/her jokes. Youssef's sitcom will soon be joined by fellow-comedian Robert Kelly's autobiographical show as well.  
The 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll' is expected to develop a comedy series for FX along with Denis Leary and his Apostle production. The comedian/musician is mostly likely to talk about his issues with various forms of addictions in the recent years, including his dependency on food, with which he still continues to struggle.  

According to the show's official synopsis, it will talk about the compulsive habits that caused Kelly to lose the things that were most important to him, which forces him to take a long hard look at himself and get on a journey to find happiness and purpose. 

This form of comedy has gotten so popular, even non-comedians are looking to try their hand at it – after all, comedy is where the audience is. Musicians Adam Levine and Nicki Minaj, for one, are in talks to create their own versions of the autobiographical sitcoms, although it is not yet clear if they will star in them as well. 

Nicki Minaj visits and performs at BET's 106 & PARTY's New Years Eve special at BET Studios on December 11, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Nicki Minaj visits and performs at BET's 106 & PARTY's New Years Eve special at BET Studios on December 11, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Minaj's project with the ABC Family will reportedly see her as an executive produce and an actress – we do not know if it will be a full-fledged starring role or a blink-and-miss cameo. Hers too is a story of struggle, peppered with ample amounts of laughter. The first-generation American had moved to Queens from Trinidad & Tobago when she was five — and has quite a bit of interesting stories in her arsenal to share.  

The oh-so-handsome Idris Elba, meanwhile, is also joining the club, with his upcoming series 'In the Long Run' that he is making with Sky1.  Not necessarily known for his comedic chops, it is understood that the show created by Elba will be set in the 1980s and is “based loosely on his childhood."  

Idris Elba poses at the 'Yardie' photocall during the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 22, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)
Idris Elba poses at the 'Yardie' photocall during the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 22, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

While they were a scarcity in the past, these autobiographical and semi-autobiographical TV shows are rapidly becoming the norm. Network executives and audiences have finally decided that sitcoms produce magic that is unachievable through stand-up routines and comedy specials.  

These TV shows can delve deep into the subject of what makes someone's jokes funny. What drove them to be funny and most importantly, how has the pain and the hardships nurtured the humor in them.  

Diversity has been the need of the hour, and we sure are glad that more and more voices and stories are being told and heard. We can't wait to watch Ramy Youssef in one of them.