When Mo Amer decided that he wanted to become a comedian, there was never a question about where he might find the best material. After all, he grew up in Texas with the name Mohammed.
Stories about his family’s assimilation pains, America’s warped view of Muslims and how chocolate hummus is “a hate crime” have been spun into Amer’s packed live shows, televised specials such as Netflix‘s “Mo Amer: The Vagabond” and his sets with the Allah Made Me Funny troupe. Now the Palestinian American performer has poured his life into the semiautobiographical Netflix series “Mo,” a new eight-part comedy he co-created with Ramy Youssef.
The show follows a Muslim immigrant named Mo (played by Amer, of course) who was born in Kuwait and raised in working-class Houston, where he still lives with his mother and brother. Mo has been awaiting asylum since they all arrived in the U.S. when he was 9. The fear of being caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the pride he has in his misunderstood Palestinian heritage and the universal longing to fit in are the springboard for a bittersweet comedy that dares to venture into dark emotional territory.
The real Mo is a lot like the fictional one: He speaks English, Arabic and Spanish, loves hip-hop and at one point sold knockoff designer fashions from the trunk of his car to survive. Today, however, Amer has a booming stand-up career, his own show and a role in the upcoming DC superhero film “Black Adam.” The 41-year-old performer spoke with The Times about what it took to make the first-ever Palestinian American sitcom. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Your character, Mo, is Houston through and through. He’s loves the city, the food, the people. He listens to local rappers. He drinks lean. But he’s also an immigrant, and that’s a huge part of his story. He presents a unique combo for a comedy series.
Yes, and he has a painstakingly long immigration story. But in reality, it’s every man’s story. I don’t want to be corny, but it’s a story of struggle, a story of identity. It’s a story of wanting to fit in and feel cool. It has all these layers in it where really anybody can truly connect with it. You don’t have to be an Arab or Palestinian or Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t matter. That was the intent of the show and that’s usually what the response is when someone hears my own story — they feel very empathetic towards it and relate to it in some way.
Yet your Palestinian heritage factors hugely into the series. Mo loves his mom’s hand-pressed olive oil. He makes jokes that he should be good at throwing rocks. His family is stateless and he’s haunted by the torture his late father suffered when displaced in Kuwait.
I tip my hat to my mentor Danny Martinez, who always told me to write universal and be universal. It doesn’t mean be hacky or boring. No, it means being grounded in your own perspective and culture but having that nuance. Where it’s truly universal is where the magic trick is.
“Mo” is truly the first comedy of its kind. How do you do something that hasn’t really been done before?
There’s no blueprint for it. Even when collaborators asked how I envisioned the tone of the show, it was, “OK, who am I?” I listen to a little bit of Palestinian folk music and I love bluegrass, and I’m a little bit blues and hip-hop. A little bit chopped and screwed.
What inspired you to move from stand-up to series comedy?
I’ve been thinking about the show since I was a baby. I was 14 or 15 years old when I started writing the show. I was thinking about putting [some of the ideas] in a special and then some friends who I respect immensely said, “No, you need to save this and put it in a TV show.” OK, I’ll do that. So I kept banking all these stories and ideas until we sold the show and started getting into it. You don’t realize how hard it is across eight episodes to keep the right balance. The seasoning throughout story lines, character backgrounds, several different origin stories. This story of belonging, the story of yearning to belong somewhere, to feel accepted and trusted.
Your very ethnicity is often politicized due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you navigate that tension, or play with it, in your comedy?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. (laughs) Just bringing up the topic alone makes anything hyper-political, so it was more about focusing on the relationships in the show. For instance, in the show there’s the Arab uncle and the Israeli uncle together [at the cafe]. They are always at each other’s throats, but they’re best friends in some weird way.
And when they argue about the conflict, Mo refers to them as Arafat and Rabin. He asks if they’re making a podcast. It’s hilarious.
There’s no need to be aggressively political. It’s more about sprinkling certain things throughout the season. You have a Palestinian family on television. Let the characters speak to that experience and that will humanize everything and give people a reference and a face. There has been no face. No reference. It’s just images online, so people don’t know.
Many of your fans have commented on social media that they never thought they’d see the day when a show like yours made it to series.
I saw it the whole time. Everybody else just needed to catch up. I’ve always been here. These stories have always been present. It was frustrating. You have to be patient and just keep writing. That’s the best advice I can give to myself and anybody else. Just keep writing, no matter what, and consider it like it’s a savings account. You don’t know when you’re going withdraw from it.
There’s also a great moment when Mo walks into a Catholic Church at the urging of his Mexican American girlfriend, Maria (played by Teresa Ruiz), and gives confession to a priest played by local rapper Bun B.
I think it’s just a beautiful thread. He trusts his girlfriend. Then we see a Muslim man walking into a church struggling with his beliefs and letting go of those things because in his mind it’s like, “Maybe this is a good thing because there’s anonymity here. Maybe it will be good for me to talk to someone that doesn’t know who I am and doesn’t, you know, look me in the face.” And being Palestinian … Jesus was Palestinian, from Nazareth. This is a crazy overlooked fact. It’s pretty wild seeing Mo’s discomfort, getting rocked by someone who’s completely outside of his religion. But he does get something out of it.
What made you want to be a comedian?
It’s a very easy answer. I saw stand-up comedy live for the first time at the Astrodome when I was 9 or 10. My brother took me to a livestock show and rodeo to get my mind off things. I’d only been in the States, like, four-some-odd months. The show was co-headlined by the band Alabama and Bill Cosby. That was my first time I ever saw stand-up comedy and it was at the height of Cosby’s fame — like “The Cosby Show.” It was the first time I’d ever been introduced to the art form: “Wait, you can get on stage, express yourself in any way and tell any story, and talk about politics?” Like, what?! I’d never seen this before. I knew immediately that that’s what I was supposed to do for a living. I told my brother that, and he was like, “Yeah, OK.” “But no, you don’t understand. This is what I’m going to be!”
Life gave you plenty of material.
Oh, my God! I’m a Mohammed in Texas! Touring the South pre-9/11, as a teenager, I was the only one that had ever done that. I realized very quickly that people were having a cultural experience with me. Not only are they laughing with me and having a blast and wanting to hang out, they’re intrigued.
What else are you working on?
A ton. I’m in the “Black Adam” movie and I’m gonna tour after the release of this special podcast — I made a deal with Luminary, who I am recording with currently. And I’m quietly filming a movie right now. I’m not gonna say what it is. I’m also writing stuff constantly, working on Season 2 of “Mo” in my mind.
Do you ever sleep?
I slept two days ago. I got five hours, which is pretty much standard at this point. I think I’ll get a stretch of, like, eight hours here soon. It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait.