Mo Amer Talks Comedy and His New Netflix Special

By Richard Clune
30 September 2018
Mo Amer, Comedian, Culture, Netflix
Mo Amer is a refugee turned comic – and, with a Netflix special dropping, he’s a proud Arab-American whose time is now.

Mo Amer has that Seth Rogan, “I’m feeling the positivity of life right now” strain to his voice. It’s all throaty and warm, dopey and cuddly – like watching a rerun of Cheers.

Whatever it is, it feels right, this voice. And it feels necessary, too. Because Mo Amer is, to use his name proper, Mohammed Mustafa Amer – a proud Muslim of Palestinian parentage who fled his birthplace of Kuwait at nine to take up as a refugee in Texas. Yes, that Texas – cowboys and cattle, Big Oil and bluebells, the Alamo and ranches and guns and white folk.

Amer’s story is Amer’s comedy: an exploration of race and politics and ignorance and life’s roadblocks, both literal and figurative. It’s about the day-to-day experiences of an Arab-American at a time in the world when it’s weird (his phrasing) to be a guy named Mohammad. Ultimately, it’s the telling of a tale that’s led Amer here – to a debut Netflix special pushed across 190 countries to a global audience in the millions.

“It’s mind-blowing and I honestly don't know how to even think about that,” Amer tells GQ of the 56-minute special he filmed in Austin in June. “I’m almost feeling a little queasy about it, you know. I'm looking forward to seeing what everybody else feels about it. It’s about me and what I’ve dealt with for many, many years – but it’s an important piece for everybody.”

Amer’s rise to here, to this point, has been a 20-year play of constant gigging and committed craft.

“I played some tough rooms. I remember playing the Ramada Inn in Oklahoma in front of 12 people. And then driving down to Temple, Texas, and a small group of people. The owner of the bar didn’t want to turn off the TVs because, ‘the big game's on.’"

At 19, Amer found himself performing in front of US troops stationed abroad – certainly the first Arab-American refugee to do so. His opening line to those same troops, who were sat listening with one hand nursing oversized weaponry?

“So, Mo is actually short for Mohammad. Surprise mother****ers!”

For all that’s happened to this point – moving from backroom bars with backroom attitudes to Netflix, an appearance on The late Show with Stephen Colbert and a tour with Dave Chappelle  – it was Eric Trump who gifted Amer his largest audience to date. Upgraded to first class on a flight to Scotland, the comic was sat next to the President’s son. Amer nabbed a viral selfie and a wealth of international headlines. As he wrote on the post, “Sometimes God just sends you the material.” Two years on from that fateful encounter, what would Amer say to that same seat buddy?

“I’d be like, ‘I hear [former Trump lawyer, Michael] Cohen just admitted his guilt, buddy boy.’ I just think [the Trump Presidency] has become a joke. And it’s heading to a really negative place – it's a very dangerous game that's being played right now. Don’t get me started. I'm very political in my head, brother. I'm Arab, brother. I'll talk politics all day.”

Dancing through lasers. It’s a phrase used to acknowledge the intricacies of comedy built on acute social commentary – on getting an audience to laugh and to engage on levels a little deeper. It’s a delicate way of pushing things. It’s Amer’s dance too.

“At the end of the day, it’s my job is to make people laugh. I’m a comedian, that’s what I’m up there to do. But what I’m talking about are important topics – and yeah, it’s a fine line at times, a very tight rope.”

The 37-year-old feels more people are listening now. They’re more engaged with his truth bombs about life as a brown man – with a sizeable beard – in the USA.

“It feels like a lot of like a lot of different people want to hear [my stories] now. I had this white lady come up to me recently, she was from Arkansas, you know. And she’s like, ‘I like Trump, and let me just say something, you really opened up my eyes and I liked what you're saying.’ So that’s powerful. It’s something that resonates.”

Is there pressure though, from being a largely solitary voice charged with building a bridge between cultures and ignorance?

“I felt that pressure for years, I did. I felt a lot of pressure in fact – I’m the only Arab-American refugee comedian. But at the end of the day I’m also just a human being, a comedian, and maybe they should be lowering their expectations of me. I just hope that what I’m doing inspires. That’s the thing for me, that’s what I’m thinking about, hoping to inspire a whole other group of comedians that are coming up, allowing them the space and the freedom to create. And opening those doors for them.”

Mo Amer: The Vagabond is set for release on Netflix on October 8.

From the October issue of GQ Middle East