- Mo Amer is making waves with his new biographical Netflix series, “Mo.”
- The show depicts his initial years as a hustling Palestinian refugee in Houston, Texas.
- He told Insider about creating a new lane on American TV he wishes he had at 10-years-old.
As a young entrepreneurial Palestinian refugee in Houston, Texas, Mo Amer finessed and sold watches out of the trunk of his classic car. But now it’s his time to shine.
The Palestinian American comedian is making waves with his Netflix series “Mo,” a raw depiction of his initial years in the US awaiting an asylum claim after fleeing Kuwait during the first Iraq War as a 10-year-old.
Amer has garnered success as a globally touring comedian for the last 24 years, now in Dave Chapelle’s close circle, but the show sets a new benchmark with him as the first Palestinian refugee lead to break through on American television screens.
It’s contagiously funny in one breath, picking apart the bastardization of chocolate and flavored hummus and devilishly serious at other moments, dealing with intergenerational trauma, the limbo of an asylum claim, and interfaith dating at other moments. Alltogether, the ingredients – and his personal bottle of olive oil – bring viewers into a new world, one that Amer wishes was depicted on TV a long time ago.
He told Insider about the joys of making the show and the newness of being not just famous, but “WhatsApp famous.”
I wanted to start by kind of asking you specifically, as a Palestinian, Palestinian American, how does it feel to be the first Palestinian lead in an American series and to get the kind of feedback you’ve gotten so far?
Yeah, it’s surreal. It’s something that I’ve been waiting for for 20 years. It’s exciting to make this breakthrough on American television and to go out on a platform like Netflix.
It’s just really, it warms my heart, man. It was emotional in the beginning and now the happiness is starting to seep in. I’m like, “Oh, we really did that. I did that. Bro, you did that. You believed in it, did it and you put it together and it happened and with a great team and vision. Everything came together.” It’s very exciting. Very exciting.
I’ve been at it for 24 years, so I felt like I was alone for a long time.
Is it true that you carry around your own little olive oil with you?
Of course it’s true, man. Where do you think it came from? I mean, I’m not as consistent as I used to be with it, but for a while I used to do that. And hot sauce. It was hot sauce and olive oil so any moment in time I can fix the hummus that I’ve ordered. That’s really why I kept it. I get good deliveries from back home. Every six months we get deliveries from our own olive farms.
The care and thoughtfulness that go into pressing the oil set it apart. And also, we basically drink it, so it’s unfiltered to the next level. Whenever I get it from back home and I pour it out of that little tank, there’s chunks of olives coming out. You don’t really see that ever. So it’s really, really rare that way and it’s so flavorful and fragrant.
When you got to the US and until this moment or until you’ve kind of started working on the show, what was kind of your perception of Arabs on TV as a consumer at one point?
Well, I never saw myself or my community on TV. That’s the problem, right? I never saw it ever until this day. Until my series dropped is when I truly saw something that was just realistic and was grounded as seeing a Palestinian family, at least in Houston, Texas. And I’m getting tremendous feedback from overseas saying, “Finally a real Palestinian family on television where you’re talking about actual Palestinians as Palestinians.” It’s not like I’m another ethnic background pretending to be Palestinian. No, I am. That’s never happened. A Palestinian creator of a show has never happened.
The show is hilarious at times and it explores really serious traumatic topics as well, and so I wanted to ask you about how important it was for you to zero in on some of the sacrifices immigrant parents make and traumatic life events that you chose to focus on in the show?
I mean, it’s extremely important to be as real as possible, even in a comedy. So it wasn’t just the sacrifices that was also important, like tipping the hat to your elders and what they’ve done for you to have a better life and the sacrifices they took to get you to America or to get you to Sweden or to get you whatever part of the world that you’re at.
And naturally, it’s going to seep in the drama. It’s going to seep into really sad stuff that happens with war and being displaced and being stateless in our case. There’s going to be a lot of trauma. There’s going to be generational trauma as well. That’s why it was important for me to highlight the Iraq War, which is true in my story where we had to flee there.
We’ll go back to the comedy – every comedy has drama relief and every drama has comedy relief. And I feel like it’s, especially in my show, that it was important to just sit in it whenever we felt it.
How did your family receive the show?
They love it. My mom, she just recently stopped crying when she watches it. You know what I mean? It took a minute for her to just stop getting teary-eyed every time she sees it.
She didn’t know what stand-up comedy was when I first started, so. And she told me recently while we’re going out to dinner, just spontaneous when I was driving, she goes, “Remember those years ago when you were 18 years old, you would come home at three o’clock in the morning and I would start yelling at you like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ And this and that after coming home from open mics and this and that.”
I was like, “Yep.” And she goes, “The whole time, you were just laughing at me. You had the whole dream and you had this whole vision that nobody understood.” And she was just like, “I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.”
So they’re all overwhelmed by it. They’re super proud of it. There’s Netflix famous, and there’s WhatsApp famous. And just being WhatsApp famous is way bigger than Netflix famous. When your mom getting messages from people that don’t even know I’m her son, that’s crazy.
You’re in a different radius of aunties.
Yeah, exactly. I’m on group chats on WhatsApp, bro. We made it.
The music direction in the show is so varied, and I know that it taps into all those parts of your background, Palestinian, Houstonian, Arab. And so how was the sound direction process for you? And what did you want to bring to that?
Well, there was really solid understanding of what stylistically we needed to do. We didn’t know what exactly was going to happen. But like you said, I’m Palestinian, so I’m a little bit folk music. I’m a little bit Palestinian folk. I’m in Houston, Texas, I’m a little bit hip hop, a little bit chopped up, screwed up, a little bit jazz. You know what I mean? I’m a little bit country. I love the storytelling aspect of it. So how do we find that balance and bring it into hail to make sure to manage and look out and keep an eye out?
I’m sitting there with the editors going through everything. And there’s so many elements to think about when you’re doing post-production. I had made sure that Suhel Nafar was with me to support the vision, to make recommendations, to kind of oversee things and just try to get us these songs like “Yamo.” And then I brought in Common to come in with Kareem Riggins to help score the show. We had a nine-piece band playing, and I’d fly out to New York and sit in the studio with Common and they would have a scene playing and they would start riffing with it as a unit. And Common and I would look at everybody and Kareem and myself and would be like, “Yeah, take this back. Let’s try this. Let’s try that.”
So every part of it, every second of the show was thought about. If we should have music or not have music, when to bring it in, when not to bring it in. And all of it was completely original, aside from the licensed tracks, but everything was completely original.
In episode four, you hear a waltz because I just thought about it like, “Man, you’re going from one scene to the other and it’s so different. Mo is in a severe situation that could cost him life, and then you have the other side where Maria is at this $6 million mansion.” How do we connect them? I was like, “It’s almost like a waltz.”
They’re like, “Yeah, let’s play a waltz. Let’s see how that works.” And we’re just like, “Okay, no problem. Waltz.” They’re virtuosos, they just get playing and we just play and see how it works.
That’s amazing. And I wanted to ask you, have you seen the American perception towards Palestine and Palestinian rights shift, especially over the last maybe five to 10 years? Have you felt a shift around that?
It’s hard because there’s so much to catch up on. It definitely feels like people are more informed or have seen something that is different from what you always see on mainstream television, which is positive. So I would say yes overall, there is definitely a difference.
I think what it does to people is excite them and feel seen, and I think that definitely helps motivate Palestinians and people to learn more, to see more and to relate to us, to sympathize with at least this family and relate and empathize with the struggle. And not only just Palestinians, man, I’m talking about immigrants, refugees and beyond. People who are struggling to make ends meet – somebody who works multiple jobs to barely pay the bills and take care of their family. They can see themselves in this show. This is not just an immigrant show.
I mean, well, if I was coming up now, if I was only introduced to stand-up comedy now, and I’m a little 10 year old kid, Palestinian kid just moved here, and I see version of me on television, I’d freak out. I’d absolutely lose my mind. And then immediately it would tell me like, “Oh, it’s doable.”