Note: This interview discusses some plot points of the new Netflix series “Mo.”
“Unless it’s St. Paddy’s Day, then you’re like, ‘Oh, s---, my great-granddaddy was a quarter Irish!’ ”
The crowd roars, captured in last year’s Netflix comedy special “Mohammed in Texas,” Amer’s second for the streaming service. He oscillates throughout the hour between chuckling and grimacing, an unusual but understandable response to his own sense of humor. As a Palestinian American whose family emigrated from Kuwait on refugee status when he was a child, Amer, 41, has a unique perspective on the societal functions of that extra label. The title of the special underscores the novelty of encountering an Arab Texan on television.
The more Amer works, though, the less rare that occurrence becomes. His Netflix specials set the stage for the semi-autobiographical comedy series “Mo,” now streaming on that very platform (and co-created by Ramy Youssef, with whom Amer previously collaborated on Hulu’s “Ramy”). The show follows fictional Mo Najjar as he and his family navigate the exhausting asylum process years after the death of Mo’s father.
As with Amer’s stand-up, “Mo” strives for a tricky blend of tones. Viewers are as often treated to hilarious outbursts — at one point, Mo describes supermarket samples of chocolate hummus as a “war crime” — as they are privy to shocking revelations based on the history of Amer’s family, such as when Mo learns his father was tortured before the family moved to the United States.
Grounding the show is the Houston of it all, with the trilingual Mo seamlessly transitioning from speaking Arabic at home, to Spanish with his Mexican American girlfriend, to English with the folks to whom he sells copycat luxury goods.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Amer described creating “Mo” as therapeutic. While his nearly 20-year journey to becoming a U.S. citizen in 2009 was too “potent” to forget, writing a fictional version of himself allowed Amer to explore all the what-ifs that lingered in his mind.
“I was very excited to pick it apart and figure out what we wanted to fictionalize to push this story forward,” he said. “There’s stand-up, where you get to address these things and play with it and do accents and share your experiences of traveling the world without a passport. And now we’re talking about, you know, what if I never did stand-up and what if I still had to work under the table? I was creating all these scenarios.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: From what I’ve read, it seems as if you’ve been writing this show for years — maybe on paper, but also in your head. How did you know you were finally ready to put this on-screen?
A: I’ve always looked at writing like a savings account. You don’t know when you’re going to withdraw from it. And also, depending on the content — in this case, for the show — it felt like: When is the world going to be ready for it? When am I, as a Palestinian, going to be allowed to have a show that has this kind of narrative? You never know when you have the moment to do so, so you’d better be prepared.
Q: How did the process of creating “Mo” differ from your Netflix specials? How did it stretch you?
A: In a stand-up special, it’s just you. … The show, even though it’s my DNA and my story, you have so many other responsibilities, other characters, outside of yourself. You have obligations to the viewer to really understand and get to know them better. Weaving that through-line of the father as well, it’s almost like a therapeutic session. … What am I scared of the most to talk about on a television show? Usually, whenever you’re worried or have a little bit of anxiety about something, you’re on the right track.
Q: What were you most nervous about writing into the show?
A: The nerves were in the early writing stages, because it’s so personal. My father’s torture was real. That is something that happened to my dad, and you feel very vulnerable talking about something like that. The world, do they even want to hear it? Should we talk about it? It’s just scary — I don’t know how to describe it — whenever you’re sharing something from your own history and putting it out on a global platform.
Q: You mentioned earlier that there are a lot of storylines to balance here. How involved was your family in the creative process, given that the fictional Mo’s family is such a big part of the show?
A: Well, they have no idea how to write a television show, so not involved at all. What it did afford me were these wonderful conversations I ended up having with my mother. My mom very much knew what I was doing and where I was going. She was excited for me, and she just started sharing these intimate stories I didn’t even know about — even just growing up in Palestine before she got married and moved away with my father. It was just beautiful to hear these things that I’d never really been a part of.
My brother named Sameer [his counterpart on the show]. I didn’t want him to have a character where he disliked the name. I had my mother name my fictional, on-screen mom. I made sure they were happy with the names, at least.
Q: “Mo” is set in Houston, where you’re from, and part of what I love about it is the natural interplay of different cultures. Tell me about your approach to grounding the show in reality that way.
A: It was very simple: I had to film it in Houston for it to feel that way. I have a major love for the city that embraced me, that loved me, that has made me who I am today. It was really important to do that. And then it being one of the most diverse cities in America, according to Forbes, and not having a narrative sitcom ever filmed there felt like a travesty. … If you live in Houston, that’s how your friend group is. It’s very diverse. You don’t really think about it; you’re just being. You switch from one friend to another; you could be talking to someone from Argentina, and the next second you’re talking to someone from Southeast Asia. That’s how it is. There’s no zoning in Houston, so everybody’s next to each other.
Q: The other thing that strikes me most about the show is its tone. There are low-stakes jokes like with the chocolate hummus, but also surprisingly funny moments with immigration lawyers and other instances in which people might not expect humor. Did you struggle at all to write a comedy in that setting?
A: As far as finding humor in immigration, it was very easy. … There was a lot of stuff I didn’t [cover] in my special that I had notes about on the side. [Note: Spoiler ahead.] At the end of Episode 7, that’s something that really did happen to us: The judge did recuse himself, because he knew my father and was wondering what happened to him. We did have bad lawyers that were taking advantage of people who were seeking asylum. This is often the case in these types of cases, which is so sad to know about.
I had my immigration attorney — who’s been at it for 40 years — consult on the show and share stories that he’s experienced or that he sees day-to-day in asylum court. Whether it be a quirky judge or a failure of the organizational system itself, it’s just a mess. Sometimes it feels like it’s a complete mess, and you’re like, “How do they even know who’s here and who’s not here? How do they keep track?”
Q: How has comedy helped you process experiences like that?
A: The show is about belonging. Feeling seen. The idea of statelessness. Generational displacement and trauma. What does that do to a person? That’s why it was important to showcase Kuwait as well. I didn’t want it to be a show like: “Oh, the family left Palestine. They can’t go back, and now they’re trying to figure it out.” We need to show what it does. You can feel comfortable in Kuwait and feel like, “Hey, we have a place to exist as Palestinians, where we can be a part of society.” And when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, you realize you’re not safe and you have to start over again. Especially for my mom and my father, what does that look like? Losing everything. Going from rags to riches to rags again. How do you deal with that? How do you find the perseverance to go through that? I’m very inspired by my parents.
What my mother has been able to go through, and [still] raise me and my brothers and sisters and look after us and be this pillar of strength, it’s like, wow. That’s why I dedicated Episode 2 to her, “Yamo,” which is slang for mom in Syrian. To have that song-slash-poetry-slash-prayer while she’s making olive oil in Episode 2, these are just ways to honor my history and to also inform the audience while telling a really complex story — all taking place in Houston, Texas. How cool is that? I’ve never seen that before.
Q: You mentioned hearing from viewers who could directly relate to some of the personal experiences you depict in “Mo.” What has it been like for you to be able to connect with audiences across the world?
A: It’s very special. When I first started stand-up — 24 years ago now, sheesh — it was definitely an experience where I felt like I was new to every audience member. They had never heard this perspective. Family experience or whatever I was talking about onstage, it was so new to them, whether they were Arab or not. And most of the time, I was not performing in front of any Arabs, really. It was in the South — many different states in the South — and that wasn’t the experience. I knew there was something special brewing back then, and to put out a piece of art like this where it is so universal and so relatable to many, and they attach themselves to that story whether they’re immigrants or not, … it’s so unique. I have a lot of gratitude, and it’s going to take years, honestly, to fully process the impact and see what it does.