Hailed for breaking ground in expanding representation of Muslim Americans on TV, Ramy is also pushing boundaries in the way disability is portrayed. Steve Way, a stand-up comedian who has muscular dystrophy, plays Golden Globe winner Ramy Youssef’s best friend in the series. The character Steve is straightforward, feisty and – true to Way’s own real-life experience – needs help with everyday activities like eating and using the bathroom. This reality is reflected in Steve and Ramy’s onscreen friendship with an honesty and intimacy that reaches an unexpected level in Season 2, where Steve’s sexual needs become the focus of an episode.
“It’s a storyline that Ramy and I have talked about for a while,” says 29-year-old Way, about Episode 7, Atlantic City. “As you see, his character is basically addicted to jerking off. Then you have someone like me who can’t do it at all.”
In the episode directed by Youssef, we learn that because of Steve’s disability, it is painful for him if he doesn’t ejaculate. Usually his nurse helps him, but she is on maternity leave. Steve tries to take control of the situation by organizing a bachelor party weekend in Atlantic City, where he can pay someone to relieve him, but Ramy gets them kicked out of a strip club and a snowstorm makes it unlikely that a prostitute will arrive in time. Seeing how much pain Steve is in, Ramy offers to help.
“Filming that scene with Ramy, in a room designed like that, how could I not think that this is probably the most absurd thing I will ever do with my life,” shares Way.
Yet through the awkwardness and comedy comes an authentic and rarely seen view of disability and sexual function. “Yes, this is something that affects me personally, but I also think it is something that is universal to a lot of people in this situation, man or woman,” says Way.
In real life, Youssef and Way have been friends since childhood and their backstory is told through their characters in the Season 1 flashback episode Strawberries.“I had just started fifth grade, and it was my first time at a new school, and 9/11 happened,” shares Way. “Kids hear the news and they hear parents talking, and they see Ramy and start making assumptions. For me, as the new kid, it was hard to make friends, especially being disabled. We didn’t know it at the time, but doing the show really made us realize that we bonded over the shared connection of being misunderstood.”
In a series that revolves around religion and what it means to be a good Muslim in today’s world, it’s hard to ignore that Steve is the only central character in Ramy that isn’t religious. “For me, I see religion as a set of rules,“ explains Way. “Instead of guidelines, a set of limitations. And I already have so many physical limitations that I don’t want to put any more on my life.”
Way’s first memory of seeing anyone that looked like him on TV was the annual Jerry Lewis MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) Labor Day Telethon. “Oh, here is the little disabled kid. Give him money,” he shares. “When I got older, I realized that I have a voice that goes way beyond that.”
As a stand-up comedian, Way uses his voice to highlight the absurdities of disabled life; like how every four months, someone from the government comes to his house to make sure he is still disabled; or the fact that it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to get a wheelchair through insurance: “So that’s why I joined the NRA, so I can get a wheelchair faster,” he jokes. But it has a job attached to it.”
Being in Ramy allows Way to humanize the intimate realities of muscular dystrophy to a world-wide audience, and the response from the disability community, which is significantly under-represented on TV, has been overwhelmingly positive. “The best part is having a Muslim wheelchair user come up to me,” shares Way. “For her, both worlds are represented.”
Youssef and Way started creating together when they were freshmen at Rutherford High School in New Jersey. “We took a TV Production class, and there was a full TV Studio in the basement, so we had access to equipment,” explains Way. “That’s where we learned storytelling and how to edit.” In addition to projects for school, they filmed short YouTube sketches, like this Make-a-Wish Foundation parody.
For Way, watching Youssef win the Golden Globe earlier this year was emotional. “It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. I’ve seen all the hard work he’s put in. Getting to work alongside him is a privilege.”
Way, who didn’t want to see any rough cuts of Atlantic City, finally saw the episode for the first time when it was released on Hulu last month. “As soon as I finished watching it, I texted Ramy ‘What have we done? Where do we go from here?’” I guess we’ll have to wait and see.