“Mohammed returns to Texas” might sound like a strange headline to some, but to those in the know it is one of the most exciting things happening this summer. This weekend Houston’s own Mo Amer returns to the city where it all started Aug 30-Sept 1st at the Houston Improv. Byline Houston’s Radu Bondar had a chance to chat with Mo ahead of his string of shows this weekend.
Amer is a refugee from Kuwait whose family fled to America in 1990, landing in Houston and forever changing his trajectory. “The first time I even saw stand-up comedy was at the Houston Rodeo, back when it was at the Astrodome.“
After years of honing his skills at iconic Houston haunts like The Laff Stop and The Comedy Showcase, he began touring with the world renowned Muslim comedy collective, Allah Made me Funny.
Mo’s talent took him around the world performing stand-up for 20 years on a refugee travel document while awaiting citizenship, a journey hilariously chronicled in his 2018 Netflix special The Vagabond. He has also performed standup on Colbert and The Tonight Show, and played the role of Mo on Hulu’s critically acclaimed Ramy.
His comedy is a calculated blend of thoughtful and absurd that allows him to navigate difficult or deeply personal topics. One person who took note of Amer’s unique voice was Dave Chappelle, who invited Mo on the road with him and asked Amer to be the opening act for many of his specials. In fact the last time Amer performed in the Bayou City was opening for Chappelle and Jon Stewart in 2017 at the Smart Financial Center.
But for Mo, a homecoming weekend in the city that raised him is an honor, and one that he has looked forward to more than others on his busy tour schedule. I got to ask Mo a few questions about comedy and his trajectory as he drove to a gig in the Hamptons.
Byline Houston: It’s a big deal for a comic to perform for a weekend in the town they started in after breaking, does this feel a bit like a homecoming for you?
Mo Amer: Absolutely, it feels that way to me 100%. I’m just really excited about getting Houston pumped up about what I’ve got cooking. It’s the first time I’m doing a weekend at the Improv, usually I come into town with Dave [Chappelle] and haven’t really come back by myself the last few times, so I’m looking forward to coming back after doing my special and the Hulu show. Houston is the city that raised me, taught me everything I needed to know, I absolutely adore it. I still keep my residence in Houston, people don’t even know that I just pop in for a few days and then head out. Its had a significant impact on me especially in standup. Its where I was introduced to the art form at the Houston Rodeo which was at the Astrodome at the time, and I saw Bill Cosby Live co-headlining with the band Alabama. Stand up is an indigenous art form to the US, and it’s not like I had google or youtube or anything to expose me to it before that. But I turned to my brother at that moment and said, “I’m gonna do that. I going to be a comedian,” and he kinda looked at me crazy.
Byline Houston: Did you know when you were creating your special that it would have a thematic component and follow a through line, or was it representative of what your act is usually like?
Mo Amer: No of course not, the idea was that this was always gonna be my introductory piece. It’s my first hour special, you gotta fill in all these blanks, where do you come from, what do you deal with? I mean imagine Richard Pryor not talking about the civil rights movement early on, you gotta talk about what you’re going through and for me that was being a refugee and feeling legally homeless for 20 years. And since I put this out people have less questions about me because I kind of fill in a lot of the gaps with these jokes.
Byline Houston: You seem to have this incredible thoughtfulness and a sense of foresight about your career and standup in general, where do you think that comes from?
Mo Amer: Man, I get chills hearing you say that, I don’t know what it is but ever since I was a kid I’ve always felt like I could see it all ahead of me. I can’t tell you how many things I got passed up for while I was murdering! So many people told me “oh your gonna get Letterman for sure” or Just for Laughs or this or that, and it never happened. They weren’t ready for it, I was so ahead of the curve on a lot of things that the industry wasn’t ready for, I mean I just celebrated my 20 year anniversary in comedy! And also there’s no substitute for timing, if I would have put this out 10 years ago, who knows? To have all this experience, and do like 700 shows with Chappelle before I recorded my special, I mean I would take all those no’s again any day.
Byline Houston: As an immigrant I can imagine your parents reluctance to support you doing something like this vocationally, at what level of your career did your parents finally stop asking you about “backup plans?”
Mo Amer: Haha, well my father passed away in ’95 so I always try to reflect on “what would my dad think of this?”. I think my dad would have been eventually enthusiastic and excited about it, but I’m not certain if he was still alive that I would have gone and done stand up because he was a telecommunications engineer and I was always very involved and around him, I probably would have ended up a really wealthy telecommunications guy! My mother in particular, she wasn’t necessarily hung up on me being a great lawyer or doctor, she was like you can be a great anything, you can be a great entrepreneur and not have to do stand up and drive 12 hours each way for gigs. I would lie to her and say I made 300 bucks on those runs, even though I would make $100 at the Stardome in Alabama and then stop in Louisiana and go gamble (before I was even 21!) to make the other $200 so I could show her what I said I earned. And she was still like “I’ll give you $300 not to go!”. But that was a case of her testing me, she didn’t even have it like that to give me that money but I think she wanted to see if this was really my calling. To me it’s a spiritual thing, it’s something I found at a really early age and it’s kind of a relief having all these accolades now because it means I was right in what I chose.
Byline Houston: I’m sure everyone asks you about the Eric Trump thing (if you’re not familiar you owe it to yourself to catch up on Amer’s run in with the president’s son), but looking back how do you see that moment in your life? Was it just a moment that you got caught up in or is it maybe something important in your career trajectory?
Mo Amer: I think it definitely played a role, there was several different things going on in my head. first of all I had no idea how big of a deal it was, no fucking clue. I was exhausted, I was flying in from Australia to New York and then heading to Scotland, so I was dead tired. And so when I got upgraded I was just relieved I wasn’t gonna be in a terrible seat for a long time, and then I get up there and see him and it’s immediately hilarious. I just thought it was funny and knew I would talk about it at some point, but I had no idea the significance, I didn’t realize that I was gonna be on every major publications front page. Plus this was during the transition, so I forgot that his dad had closed down all media access to them during that time, I didn’t even factor in that I was that only guy on the planet getting to talk to his camp, much less his son, and was able to comment about all the muslim ID cards and the ban and stuff. And I was really blunt, because I wanted to create a situation you know, like the best thing for me would have been getting kicked off the plane (laughingly). But I just took the picture, posted it and went to sleep. When we landed and I turned my phone on, it was like you couldn’t refresh enough to keep getting all the notifications.
Every publication was on it, people you wanted to talk to, people you never want to talk to. I had no clue how to respond so Chappelle was my natural phone call, if anybody’s dealt with anything traumatic on a big scale before it’s him and he walked me through it. He laughed out the gate, he said something that stuck with me still. He was like “Oh man, fame has tasted you”. And I knew I didn’t want to be famous for sitting next to Eric Trump, I wanted to be known on the merit of my content. He told me to pick which outlets I wanted to talk to and control the narrative, then get out. And in the mean time I’m on tour in the UK, all i concerned about is getting out to local shows and open mic’s so I can work out this Eric Trump thing while its still fresh. I went back to New York and got the bit crush, and that’s one of the things that got me on Colbert shortly thereafter. From there Rolling Stone put me on its Top 10 comics to watch list, HBO started courting me after that, and when HBO showed up that’s when Netflix really stepped up. So basically yeah it did have a really effect on my career, but the turning point was solidifying myself into a real standup by taking something that happens to you, and turning it into a banger.