Comic Mo Amer draws on his Palestinian and Texan roots in a new Netflix series – KSMU Radio
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. My guest, Mo Amer, is a comedian who brings a unique voice to his performances, rooted in his unusual background. Mo is short for Mohammed. He’s Palestinian, but he grew up in Kuwait, where his family enjoyed a comfortable life until he was 9, when the first Gulf War forced his family to flee to the United States in 1991. There, as he explained to Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” things were different.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH”)
MO AMER: I went to a really nice, private British English school in Kuwait, and then we migrated to Houston, Texas. And…
TREVOR NOAH: That’s a culture shock.
AMER: It’s a culture shock. And they put me in ESL class, which is English as a second language class, and I was the only guy that spoke English in the class.
AMER: I walk in, all the kids are like, (speaking Spanish). I’m like – I had a hint of a British accent? I’m like, sorry. What language are you speaking? All of a sudden, this other dude just rolls up out of nowhere. He’s like, you’re weird, dude.
AMER: Why do you talk like that? And that was my teacher, you know? It was a very, very…
DAVIES: Mo Amer grew up in Houston, got into comedy, and, well, it’s worked out. He’s performed in 27 countries on five continents, had two Netflix comedy specials, co-starred in the Hulu series “Ramy,” and he stars in a new TV series based on his own life, which he co-created, co-produced and co-wrote. It’s called “Mo,” and it premieres tomorrow on Netflix. Mo Amer, welcome to FRESH AIR.
AMER: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: I got to tell you, I struggled a little bit when I was writing your introduction because I feel like if I describe you as Palestinian, that doesn’t quite capture the Mo Amer I see in your stuff. You kind of have more than one identity, don’t you?
AMER: That’s really interesting you say that. I mean, I definitely identify as Palestinian American, but I – you know, it’s one of those things that as a refugee-asylee in America, someone that’s trying to fit in and feel like – have some kind of sense of belonging, you kind of become a chameleon. And you really start putting yourself in other people’s shoes almost immediately to be, like, more relatable and understood. It’s very interesting how that works, that naturally and organically it just comes together that way. But, yeah, I definitely identify as a Texan Palestinian. I mean, I know this feels like a juxtaposition and kind of, like, two worlds that should be colliding, but I feel very much at home with those two worlds.
DAVIES: Right. And when people first met you, I mean, given your skin color, they probably assumed you were Mexican American. And I can tell from the series that you speak obviously Arabic. You speak Spanish pretty fluently to me and at least a couple of three dialects of English, too, right?
AMER: Absolutely. Absolutely. I can pretty much cover all the dialects in English. I do – I am conversational – completely conversational in Spanish. My grammar is not perfect sometimes, but yeah, I don’t have any problems at all having a full-on conversation in Spanish, and I’m fluent in Arabic.
DAVIES: All right. Well, I wanted to listen to a scene from the series “Mo,” which, as we said, premieres on Netflix tomorrow. And this will give us a little bit of sense of some of your linguistic ability to fit in. The series is about you – a character, which – named Mo and kind of pretty much you in your 20s, I guess, single, living in Houston, dating a Mexican American woman, which, of course, your Palestinian mom sort of disapproves of. This is a scene where you’ve just lost a job you had in an electronics shop because the owner was concerned about an immigration raid, and you didn’t have your papers.
So you’ve returned to an old side hustle of selling knockoff merchandise out of the trunk of your car. And this scene happens in – you’ve got your big car backed up to the edge of a strip mall, which you see plenty of in Houston. And there’s this heavyset guy and a white guy in a cowboy hat walking down the sidewalk. And you engage them and say, hey, it looks like you got orthopedic shoes there, does that hurt your back, and try and sell them a pair of shoes from the trunk. And they’re these – they’re imitations of these odd-looking shoes marketed by Kanye West, kind of in part made from the foam of…
AMER: The Yeezy Foam Runners.
AMER: And I swear by them, OK? The Yeezy foam runners – and they are – I, like, literally mean everything I say in that clip.
DAVIES: Well, here, you open this and then you pull out a little stool. Your stool – you got a little portable store there. So it begins with you engaging this fella. Let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “MO”)
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) How are you doing, brother? Beautiful weather, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, it is.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Yeah, we’re lucky. What do you got, orthopedics?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, sir.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Slow down. Slow down. Now, don’t hurt yourself. What are they, 9 1/2?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Got it again. Yeah, they’re my old trusties (ph).
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) I bet they’re doing a number on your lower back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) God, my lower back is killing me.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Same here, till I switched over to Yeezys. Then my back pain disappeared. Thank Yeezus is what I say. Come on, let me show you something.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, no. I – holy [expletive]. You got a whole store in there.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) That’s right, baby. I’m an entrepreneur. Look at this.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Good for you.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Thank you. Designer yet orthopedic.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, laughter) That don’t look like anything I put on my feet. They look like alien shoes.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Well, they are from whatever planet Kanye is from. But don’t judge them till you try them on, brother. Come on. Come on in for a moon landing. Ain’t gonna take 30 seconds your time. Here we go. You got to look after your lower back.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, that I do.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Here you go. Come on, give them a try.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) All right.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) These are genuine, recycled algae.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Whoa.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Whoa. Oh, my goodness. Look at – son, these shoes are golden. How much?
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Aftermarket, these go for about $350, $1,000. Now, I’m willing to give them to you for $200.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Son, I can’t tell my wife I paid $200 for a pair of algae shoes.
AMER: (As Mo Najjar) Brother, I smell what you’re stepping in, OK? So I’m gonna sweeten the pot. Now, for $300 – I know. Hold on a second. Hear me out. I’m gonna throw in this Chanel purse, all right? Now, this will retail well over $1,000. You ain’t gonna find a better replica than this. She won’t know the difference.
DAVIES: And that is Mo Amer making a sale in the series “Mo,” which premieres on Netflix tomorrow. You know, we hear you speaking kind of the Texan version of English, which, I will say, I grew up in south Texas. I recognize that accent. You use that to connect people, I guess, lots of times growing up, didn’t you?
AMER: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that I actually just connect with in general. I mean, the Palestinian culture is a folksy farmer kind of mentality in life. And when I came to Texas, that’s one of the things that was really attractive to me was the country music, the folksy music, the storytelling tradition of that. And I really just attached myself to it because it’s in my blood. And, you know, in the character in the scene itself is meant to be that I’m, you know, endearing to him and develop trust.
DAVIES: So you did sell knockoff stuff on the street. This is a real thing.
AMER: No comment. Yeah, no, I did.
AMER: I absolutely did. I was a teenager. It’s just something that I just fell into, honestly. I was wearing knockoff Versace sunglasses that I thought were cool, and someone was just like, hey, those are really nice, you know, you selling those? I’m like, yeah, it’s my last one. And it just became my shtick where somebody would walk in or I see someone that might be interested in what I have. I’d put it on, I’d wear it, they’d comment on it, and then I would sell it. That’s how it worked.
DAVIES: I imagine you develop some kind of skills for reading people and communicating that probably helped in stand-up when you got to that.
AMER: No, absolutely. Assessment of situations, of people is crucial to be not only a great salesman but a great, you know, stand-up comedian. So it did help a lot. You know, and it’s one of those things that when you experience such hardships, you become really good at, like, figuring out what’s good and bad and following your gut – more so following your gut, right? Like, you know this could be a good thing. Once you tap into that and you realize that you have a high percentage of hit rate where you’re right, you just start to trust it way more.
DAVIES: Yeah – and when it’s time to close things up and split, too, I imagine.
AMER: Exactly, exactly.
DAVIES: You know, we mentioned earlier that your family left Kuwait and ended up in Houston. Tell us a bit more about that. Your family was in Kuwait, had a comfortable life. And then the first Gulf War happened, which was Sadaam Hussein invading Kuwait. How much do you remember of that departure?
AMER: I remember all of it, every bit of it. That’s why I recreated it in the flashbacks as much as possible whenever budget allowed us to do. You know, I think it’s one of those things that is not really – that’s glossed over. It’s such an important topic, the Gulf War, that really sparked everything, right? And even to this day, we’re still dealing with those – with war, this, like, this domino effect of political relations throughout the region, you know, Middle East, North Africa. And I really believe that that was one of the biggest turning points in that area. I mean, if you think about it, there wasn’t any American military presence there pre-Gulf War. And since then, we’ve never left. And we’ve been present in that area ever since.
And there’s so many people that were affected by that war. You know, particularly a lot of Palestinians were affected by it, had to flee from there, was like – now it’s that their – you know, think about my mom and my dad’s perspective. This is the third, second or third time they have to flee because of being stateless and, you know, have to create a new life again. So this is something that was really important to me to show, this, like, generational trauma, essentially, that you’re starting now to see and starting over in Houston, Texas.
DAVIES: Right. They had fled Haifa before, when the ’47 war happened.
AMER: Right. So they were – ’47, so once Israel became a state and then the United Nations was formed, if you were in the – some people were able to – some Palestinians were able to stay in the Israeli, quote-unquote, “territory.” So those people are called Israeli Arabs. And they’re Palestinians, but they’re referred to as Israeli Arabs. And we had to – yeah, my family historically left Haifa and ended up in Burin, which is right outside of Nablus, one of the biggest cities, I think, in the entire area.
DAVIES: Why did your family end up in Kuwait?
AMER: Well, it was before I was born. So I’ll just tell you what I know. I know my father was offered a job at the Kuwaiti oil company as a telecommunications engineer, and that’s why my family relocated to Kuwait. And so we settled there for a long time. My father was actually instrumental in building wireless communication between oil rigs and was one of the first people to build a radio station in Kuwait, he and his team. So we were there for years before that, and they would visit regularly before, you know, everything blew up in Palestine and the intifada and created – the situations became more and more and more tense. And it became more and more difficult to go back and visit.
DAVIES: So tell us what happened in Kuwait. I mean, you were there. Your dad was working in telecommunications, making a good living. You had a pretty comfortable life. What happened that forced you to leave? I mean, I know Iraq invaded, but how did your family experience that?
AMER: Sure. I mean, I was a little kid. I was 9 years old when that happened. So I was, you know, that was my first time seeing my parents worried about anything – right? – like, something as dramatic as this. And I knew it was really, really serious. The conditions became, like, not really livable because of what Saddam Hussein was doing. He released a bunch of prisoners of that time and instructed them to rob the entire area. And everything just became so incredibly unsafe when it was one of the safest places to be in the world. You know, it became so unpredictable. And it was a really scary time and turbulent time. So it was at that moment that my father and my mother both made a decision together that we should leave and head to America. And that’s why we ended up in Houston, Texas.
But that is like not something that you just pick up and leave overnight. You have to – at that time, we had to leave on a bus. And I remember this clear as day – that’s why I put it in the flashback in the series – is I was fleeing on a bus and leaving with whatever we had, and my mom having to hide the money strategically it doesn’t get taken from us, through Iraq to Amman, Jordan. And finally, we got our paperwork to leave. My sister and I actually left and ended up in Houston, Texas. My mom actually went back solo. It’s how much of a gangster, incredible woman she is. She went back to Kuwait to finish everything up with my father and my brother.
And it was a really delicate and difficult situation. Also, politically, it was really different, right? Because at that time, you know, Yasser Arafat gave his blessings to or support to Saddam Hussein. So it became a really difficult time for Palestinians, even though he had nothing to do with us. You know, it was a political thing. And that’s what normally happens – right? – where politicians make decisions that affect the people that have nothing to do with anything. So we had to leave at that time. We had no other choice.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Mo Amer. He has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in the new series based on his life, which premieres tomorrow on Netflix. It’s called “Mo.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with comedian Mo Amer. He has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in a new series based on his life called “Mo.” It premieres on Netflix tomorrow.
So you were describing how your family left Kuwait after the invasion by Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991. You and your mom and your siblings eventually made it to Houston. Your dad wasn’t there for quite a while. He got there a couple of years later. So you got into school. As we heard in that clip, it was a weird beginning. You were used to wearing a bow tie to school and speaking with an English accent, and everybody assumed you were Mexican American. And you managed. You made your way. And then your father died. You were 14. Is that right? What was the effect of that on you?
AMER: It was incredibly potent. I didn’t know – you know, so many things changed from 9 to 13, from my age, you know. It’s like so many things already changed so dramatically. And to lose my father was a devastating blow. You know, you have all the things going through your head. I didn’t have enough time. What did I do? What did I say to him? You have regret. You go through all the motions of that. And I was completely lost, to be honest. I started skipping school, stop being interested in it at all in high school, didn’t want to participate in anything. And it was really hard to focus. And I just had it in my head, I was going to be a stand-up comedian anyway. Why do I need this? Just forget this high – it’s a joke anyway. I just had zero interest in anything other than being a stand-up comedian and entrepreneur. I mean, that’s all I wanted.
And then, my teacher, Mrs. Reed (ph), and Mrs. Broderick in English class changed my life. And she woke me up to it. She was like, how would you feel if you don’t graduate? How would your father feel if you don’t graduate? And it pierced my heart. I mean, I’m like, it’d be devastating. I come from a highly educated family. This would be a really, big, black mark on us, like, and myself. And I don’t want that. She goes, don’t you want to be a stand-up comedian? I was like, yeah. Absolutely, I do. She goes, I tell you what, if you don’t – if you stop skipping, I’ll let you do stand-up in class. I was like, what?
AMER: Are you sure I can do stand-up in class? She was like, yeah. She goes, all you have to do is just sprinkle in something – ’cause it was an English class. If you could sprinkle in some Shakespeare or be creative and figure out a way how you can, you know, mix in the curriculum, I’ll give you extra credit even. And I’ll let you do stand-up on Fridays. I was like, this is – sounds like a great deal. I was like, what’s the catch? She goes, you can’t skip anymore. You skip once, and it’s over for you. I’m going to give you a – I’m going to fail you. It’s over.
DAVIES: Let’s back up a second. You said that, you know, you knew you wanted to be a stand-up comedian. How did you know that? What got you interested in comedy?
AMER: First of all, I’d never heard of stand-up comedy. It’s an indigenous art form to America, right? There’s three; it’s jazz, hip-hop and stand-up. So I didn’t know anything about it. I went to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo a few months after being in the States to kind of change things up. My family took me just to kind of get my mind off of things and to try to do something fun. And I saw Bill Cosby performing live.
DAVIES: At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo? (Laughter). That’s great.
AMER: Yeah. So it was him – he was co-headlining with the band Alabama. And I saw it, and I just – in front of 65,000-plus people just telling these hilarious stories. And I looked at my brother. I was like, what is this? He was like, this is stand-up comedy. I was like, oh, my God. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. And my brother was like, OK, yeah. You know? (Laughter). Like, this kid’s having a moment. He had no idea how profound of a moment it was for me and how – like, it was just, like, so real that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
DAVIES: And how old were you when that happened?
AMER: I was 9.
DAVIES: Oh, wow. You were little. And how did you start doing it? Did you start cracking your friends up? Did you do it in front of a mirror? What did you – how did you develop stand-up as a kid?
AMER: I was always really funny. I was always telling stories. I never had, like, you know – that was just natural to me. And my mom would tell me, like, when I was a – when I just started walking, I would walk in front of the television and turn off the TV and start doing gestures and making sounds. But that’s how it worked out. And I did stand-up in high school. Like I said, I was doing it in classes, and I would do impressions of Chris Farley. And I would just, like, roast kids in class as Chris Farley. So that – and it just – it grew in popularity. And I ended up doing different plays, and that kept me going.
And then, when I graduated high school, I walked into The Laff Stop, which is a kind of comedy club – unfortunately, is now no longer open anymore in Houston – that I did shows. I did the Houston’s Funniest Person competition. And that’s where I learned about the world of stand-up and what it takes, like, in a comedy club – open mics and building a set. And that’s where I met my mentor, owner of The Comedy Showcase, Danny Martinez, who ended up teaching me everything I needed to know about stand-up comedy – the art form, you know, getting my wings, and how to become a – you know, a proficient stand-up comedian.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one thing I observed in the performances that I’ve seen of yours is the way you use your voice. Like an instrument, you can quickly get loud and kind of come up in pitch in a way that totally works. Was that something that you always did? Or is it something that you worked on?
AMER: Oh, I learned that. Yeah, I learned that. It’s so important. You know, I think comedians don’t understand, like, you have an instrument there with your voice. Man, it brings me so much joy that you recognize that. It’s – yeah, it takes years to perfect something like that or to hone a skill like that. And I think that sounds – and again, that’s something that Danny taught me early on in my stand-up career, is how you use – you know, understanding what mic technique is and where you put the mic and the inflection in your voice and when you use it, where. It’s not something that I, like, deliberately try to do. It’s just a natural thing that happens while I’m telling a story that I’m highly conscious of, so I just do it naturally in the moment. But absolutely, you should do that.
And all the great comedians that came before us use that. Carlin would do it all the time. He would switch it up all the time. He’d get really low, and he’d get really high. And the next, you know (ph)? You know, he would do these things that are just so excellent when he’s telling a story or making a point. You would just see the volume changes pretty regularly and the pitch and the inflection. It just makes everything pop more. It’s great. Everybody does it. Everybody that’s excellent at stand-up, has mastered the art form, does it.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Mo Amer. He has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in the new series based on his life, which premieres tomorrow. It’s called “Mo,” also on Netflix. We’ll be back to talk more after this short break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEFTERIS KORDIS ET AL.’S “CELIA”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. We’re speaking with comedian Mo Amer. He’s of Palestinian descent. He lived in Kuwait until he was 9, when the first Gulf War forced his family to flee to the United States. He grew up in Houston and is now an American citizen. He has two Netflix comedy specials and plays a character in the Hulu series “Ramy.” And he’s starring in a new series based on his life, which he co-created, co-produced and co-wrote. It’s called “Mo.” And it premieres on Netflix tomorrow.
So you spent a lot of years traveling as a comedian before you got your citizenship. What was your immigration status? And how did you travel?
AMER: Oh, my God. That pre-getting-my-U.S.-citizenship, it feels like a dream. Like, I don’t even know how I did it. You had a refugee travel document that’s issued. They still do this to this day. It’s only valid for a year, which is so difficult. It has its own implications because some countries require at least six months validity – right? – to any, you know, passport or travel document. It takes four months to get. So you’re just waiting forever for it. And then when you – and then nobody knows what it is, right? Nobody has a clue what it is. The people who should know what it is don’t know what it is.
Like, the people working at the airlines when you first check in – no idea what it is. When you get to the immigration counter, 90-plus percent of the immigration officers from all around the world look at this as an alien landing. Like, what is this thing, you know? And they just freak out by it. How did you get here? Why are you here? The questions start to ensue. And then they realize how, you know, terrible they were to me for hours and hours until they got confirmation that this is a real thing that you can actually travel with, which makes it even more confusing is that it says this is not a passport the moment you open it, right? On the inside, it’s big, bold letters that says, this is not a U.S. passport. It’s just like, well, what is this thing then?
DAVIES: And they would read that back to you, this is not a passport.
AMER: Yeah. I’m like, yeah, I know it’s not a passport. Yeah, exactly. I know exactly this is not a passport. But as a refugee, I would have to become really knowledgeable about what it is, when it was issued, you know, what rights I have attached to it, you know? It was just a mess, just an absolute mess.
DAVIES: So Mo the salesman had to take over, right? I mean…
AMER: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, in some cases, I had to, like, mislead them to enter the country. In some cases, I would have to just, like, completely mislead them or pretend like I don’t know what they’re talking about or just create some kind of situation or attempt to big time it. Like, you know, just you have to, like – I had to assess the situation. And each one was very different than the other. And then I would assess the person and the immigration officer. And then I had to, you know, come up with a quick plan in that moment to get in.
DAVIES: How would you big time it with a skeptical border agent or airline employee?
AMER: You have to be super confident, you know? And so you have to exude this confidence and tell them exactly what they’re doing. And once you tell them you’re a comedian, if they understood what standup comedy was, it made things lighter naturally. But then you just have to be, like, super direct. And then you guilt them. Like, hey, this is my livelihood. I’m coming to work. Like, this is what I do. And this is where I’m going. And would you do this to yourself? Like, would you do this to people you know? Like, what am I doing here? Like, you would just guilt them into – like, basically, let them see how racist this interaction is. And then once they start having that realization and they know that it’s legal and they have to let you go through, they eventually let you go.
DAVIES: You would cite Geneva Conventions (laughter)?
AMER: I would. No, absolutely, I would. I would cite Geneva Conventions. And this is my rights here. This is what it is according to the articles of 1948. Yeah, absolutely, I would. Yeah. I mean, it’s been a while, so I need a massive refresher. But it was one of those things that I had to do. And I would also add to it, like, recommendation letters from the respective consulates. I would carry those with me, as well as references, so if they had any issues. I would get them before I leave – before I left Houston. I would get those recommendation letters. And I would have to work that out, right? I would have to call the consulate general in Jordan at that time, like, hey. Can you connect me with the Japanese consulate, and maybe he can write me a letter? So when I get there, if I have any issues, I can show that to them. Or I would do that with all those countries. It was, like, a pretty great hustle for a kid that was, like, 18, 19 years old, to think that far ahead. That’s pretty insane, you know?
AMER: Who has those backup plans like that? And I learned that from my mom.
DAVIES: It took you, I think, 20 years roughly from when you got to Houston before you got your citizenship. Why did it take so long?
AMER: It’s just the asylee process, you know, dealing with the immigration process. And there was a couple of snafus that nobody really saw coming. But the asylee immigrant process is not, like – it’s not that easy.
DAVIES: So your family applied for asylum. And you were waiting for a…
DAVIES: …A hearing and a decision for all those years?
AMER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And more – so you know, my dad passed away. Add another layer of complexity. So we had to, like, start over because we didn’t know who the lawyer was. And it was just a whole situation. And then by the time you get another attorney and you get another court date – it takes a lot of time. It’s not something that happens overnight. And then when you get there, it has a whole nother layers to it. Like, oh, what do you need, this – or this paperwork or that? How can you prove this and that? Like, it takes a while. And then, by the time you do get your asylum – if you’re lucky enough to get it and you’re not deported – it takes you five years to get your green card, another five years to become a citizen.
AMER: It’s just – that’s the way it is. That’s the process. So yeah, it takes time.
DAVIES: You know, you traveled a lot. And I happen to know that there’s one occasion when you got upgraded to first class and seated next to Eric Trump, of all people. Tell us that story (laughter).
AMER: Well, I mean, it wasn’t just a random sitting next to me. It was right after his dad was elected president of United States. And no one from the Trump administration was speaking to the media. And I didn’t even know this because I was so engrossed in touring. I just flew in from Australia to New York – New York, I’m going to Scotland, Glasgow. And I couldn’t think. I didn’t even know, you know? I was so exhausted. I get there. And I sit next to him. I’m like, is this a joke? Like, I thought this was a joke. I’m like, am I being set up? Am I being recruited into the Illuminati and I don’t know it? Like, what’s happening, you know?
AMER: What’s going on? And I just initially thought that the – you know, the ticketing agent had a sense of humor. She was just like, oh, Eric, Trump is on my flight? Let me see who’s on standby here for first class. Oh, Mohammed Mustafa Amer. Upgrade, you know?
AMER: Like, I thought that was potentially what was going on. And I jokingly – you know, I gave him the business. I wasn’t holding back. And I just told him – I was like, hey, this Muslim stuff has got to just stop. I don’t know why it’s happening, you know? You guys need to relax on that. I took a picture with him. And I, you know, had a caption – it’s been a while now, but something along the lines like, don’t worry, guys. There’s no Muslim ID cards – da, da, da, da. And I didn’t know it was going to become, like, a global incident. I landed six hours later in Glasgow. And I have emails from every single publication and news outlets on planet Earth. I was like, holy [expletive], what did I just do?
DAVIES: When you gave him the business and said, you know, talked about the Muslim ban, how did he respond?
AMER: He was just like, come on. My – he was like, the funny thing is, like – he was just like, you know, we do a lot of business in the Middle East. Come on. Nobody’s going to do that. You know, like, I have Arab friends. You know, (laughter) he did one of those things, which was hilarious. And then I told him – I was like, look; I’ve got your dad all figured out. He knows the trigger words – right? – for the media to cover him and create a spectacle, right? He knows those words, so he keeps – the things that he can’t touch, he keeps touching them, the same over and over again, and he knows he’s going to dominate the news coverage. That’s what he does. Without even flinching, he goes, yep, it’s exactly what he does (laughter).
DAVIES: Let’s take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Mo Amer. He has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in a brand-new series based on his life. That premieres tomorrow. It’s called “Mo,” also on Netflix. We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET’S “HUG”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with comedian Mo Amer. He has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in a new series based on his life. It premieres tomorrow on Netflix. It is called “Mo.”
One of the interesting things about your career – I read that relatively early in your career, you got gigs performing before American troops in Europe and then in the Middle East, right?
AMER: Yeah. Middle East, Japan, Korea, Guam, Bahrain, Germany, Italy, Sicily, yeah.
DAVIES: What kind of stuff did you do before then? Did you – I don’t know. Did you play upon your ethnic background? Or…
AMER: Yeah. No, it was important for me to be myself. This was like – the first time I did those shows was pre-9/11. It was – April of 2001 was the first time I did those in Italy, Germany and Sicily. I went with another comedian named Caroline Picard who took me on the road with her. And it was – yeah, it was one of those things of just doing stand-up, right? It wasn’t a big deal. And then 9/11 happens five months later, and I had these shows booked in Japan, Korea and Guam. I was like, man, I have to go now. It’s a completely different reasoning now. It’s not just – I’m not just doing stand-up comedy; I’m giving these guys a face, No. 1, to a people that are essentially faceless in the media, in television and entertainment.
And then also for myself, like, I have to see if I can be myself all the time because if that is – if that’s taken away from me in stand-up, then it’s – everything is gone. I can’t fake and be a different persona and different person. Like, no, I have to be myself – that is, the funniest people, the most authentic people, are the best stand-up comedians of all time. I can’t not be myself. It was a devastating time for me. I was really scared that I might not have a career anymore. And little did I know it was actually empowering for me and for them as well.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it’s been 21 years since then, and it’s – there’s a generation of people who didn’t experience that, and people can forget the intensity, you know, of the – well, I mean, anti-Arab and anti-Islam feeling which rippled through the population and, I’m sure, through servicepeople that you performed for. Did you get blowback? I mean, how did you deal with it?
AMER: Very few. I mean, it wasn’t really blowback; it was discomfort. And I leaned into that discomfort because I knew it wasn’t me. It wasn’t – has nothing to do with me, and it has everything to do with their perception or lack of information. So I never took it hard. I never took it to heart. I never was judgmental of them. I made sure that I stand firm in who I am and let the performance, let the subject matter onstage and let the – being funny is what’s most important. Like, you can’t be – already have some projections on you and then they – like, oh, this guy sucks, too. Like, you got to…
DAVIES: Right. That you don’t need.
AMER: You got to be hilarious, you know?
DAVIES: Right, right, right.
AMER: That’s the No. 1 thing. If you’re funny, then it melts most ice, right?
DAVIES: So how did you lean into this discomfort? What did that sound like on stage?
AMER: Well, I ripped off the Band-Aid. I just would go up on stage – when I say stage, I use that loosely because we’re performing in, like, war areas in Iraq. And I would just go up on this gravel stage in front of all these troops who are completely strapped and, you know, armed. And I walk on and say, hey, guys, my name is Mo. It’s actually short for Mohammed. Surprise, bitches. Today’s the day. I thought that was a really good way to rip off the Band-Aid (laughter). And they would just laugh.
DAVIES: They loved it, yeah.
AMER: They ate it up. Oh, my God, they ate it up. And then I went into the storytelling and everything else. And it became such a strong relationship. And I had a lot of very earnest moments with a lot of soldiers. And they would just walk up to me and be very emotional with me, you know? It was incredible experience that I would never take the – ’cause I got a lot of judgment from even Muslims and Arabs. Like, how dare you go over there and do this? And they’re killing us, and this whole idea of that. I was like, Well, you know, obviously, I don’t agree with war, period. This is all just devastating, and the reasoning behind it is all false, and it’s bad, and I just don’t agree with it.
And also, I think it’s important to not shy away from it and be present in their life and to give them a new perspective and all – it was, like, a win, win, win, win, win, you know? And for me as well, somebody who fled that region to begin with, was really cathartic as well for me. It was like, there are so many pluses to going there that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I’m so glad I did.
DAVIES: And the emotional moments that you had with soldiers, what kind of things did they say to you?
AMER: It was some remorse. Some of them cried on my shoulders. Some of them had a lot of respectful things to say. And some of them just acknowledging how wrong they were about the projections they had upon the region and the friends that they made that are local, that are Arab, that are Muslim, they found to be, like, really profound moments. And since I came and performed there and we had moments where we could share with each other and have tea and whatever is afforded to us to have a drink together. It was a really potent and hyperreal moment. I mean, it can’t get any realer than that.
DAVIES: You know, in the – your Netflix special, “Muhammad In Texas,” you end with a really touching story of you that now that you got your American passport, you went and paid a visit to the village near Nablus where your family had come from. Was that your first time in Palestine?
AMER: Yeah, that was my first time there.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, what happens in the standup special is you see you describing some things about this visit. And we see footage from the documentary. And, you know, you talk about tender moments with your family, aunts and cousins. And then you see a mosque, and you go and pay a visit to this mosque in the middle of this town where you pray. And then men in the mosque insist that you say the call to prayer, which is, you know, broadcast from a little sound system in the mosque. And the whole village hears it and knows that it’s time for prayer. And you say, no, no, no, no, I can’t do this. And they say, well, don’t you know the prayer? You say, well, don’t you know the call? And you say, yes, of course, I know the call, but I can’t. I can’t. They just absolutely insist and you agree to do it. And so now – I want – at this point, I want to pick up the story from the special where you’re describing the moment when you have agreed to go and do the call for prayer. Let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “MO AMER: MOHAMMED IN TEXAS”)
AMER: And I walk up. I was like, cousin, be next to me because I’m nervous. Make sure I don’t mess up. So I do the call for prayer throughout the whole entire village. And I’m overcome. I was like, oh, my God. This is amazing. What is this thing that’s been written for me? I can’t believe this happened. Right as I’m thinking this, a man just crashes right into the masjid. Who did the call for prayer? Like this. And everybody sells me out – this guy. This guy did the call for prayer. This guy did the call for prayer. I was like, yo, forget y’all, man. Y’all forced me to do the call for prayer. He’s like, why did you do it? I was like, I just told you. They forced me to do the call for prayer.
He goes, well, you just did it 10 minutes early, bro. You did it 10 minutes early. I was like, that clock is flashing, man, it’s saying it’s time because that clock is 10 minutes ahead. I was like, I don’t know. That’s a digital clock. Push little buttons and we’ll fix the whole thing. OK? You want me to do it? And then he goes, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I’ve been in the village my entire life. I know everyone in the village. Who are you? I’ve never seen you before. Who is your father? I tell him who my father is. He goes, oh, my God. He goes, oh, my God. Your father is Mustafa? I was like, yes, my father is Mustafa. He goes, you know who installed the sound system in this masjid? Your father did.
AMER: It was truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in my life.
DAVIES: And that’s our guest, Mo Amer, from his Netflix comedy special, “Mohammed In Texas.” Does it still give you a chill to hear that?
AMER: Yeah, man, chokes me up. I can’t believe it happened. You know, it’s crazy. It’s absolutely mind blowing. It just – and I meant it, like, what is this thing that’s written for me? Like, it’s wild.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, it’s like this – the mosque is centuries old, and there’s this thread pulling you back to it.
AMER: Yeah. And then to find out that – because my father was a telecommunications engineer, but more this – more so than that, he was really familiar with technology of all sorts, from televisions to radios and barely. This is where I learned, like, your father had a shop here in Burin, and he would teach people what technology was because nobody knew what it was. And he made a joke. He’s like, oh, before your dad, they used to plant antennas in the ground and pour water on them, hoping they’d get a signal, you know. And he was just making an analogy of what my dad did for the town. And he goes, yeah, your dad is the one who installed this sound system. I was like, are you kidding me? Like, that is just mind blowing.
DAVIES: Well, Mo, Amer, it’s been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
AMER: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much. I have had a great time.
DAVIES: Mo Amer has two comedy specials on Netflix, and he stars in the new series based on his life, which premieres tomorrow. It’s called “Mo,” also on Netflix. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album from jazz drummer Billy Drummond’s Quartet. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.