You may already know Mo Amer for playing a sidekick on “Ramy,” for being the Muslim comedian who somehow got seated next to Eric Trump on a plane, or for being cast to appear alongside The Rock in the upcoming “Black Adam” superhero film.
But you’re about to know him as something else: the star of his own Netflix series.
“Mo,” which began streaming Wednesday, is a semi-autobiographical dramedy about a Palestinian refugee “laughing the pain away” as he tries to navigate life in Houston and the convoluted US immigration system.
Audiences who know Amer through his Netflix standup specials will recognize some of the storyline. Mohammed Amer was 9 years old when the first Gulf War forced his Palestinian family to flee Kuwait. They found a new home in the Houston suburb of Alief, Texas. And it took Amer 20 years to become a US citizen.
His character on the show, Mo Najjar, is still on a long journey fighting for asylum in the United States. And as Netflix says in its summary of the show, along the way he “straddles the line between two cultures, three languages and a ton of bullshit.”
Amer, 41, spoke with CNN about how he finds the humor in bleak situations, what he hopes viewers of his show will see, why language and authenticity were so important to him while making it and one key thing he has in common with his character. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said making this show was the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Why? What did you have to do to prepare?
So much was going on when the show got picked up. The pandemic broke out. We were one of the first shows that was greenlit to have a Zoom (writers’) room. And then not only do we have a global pandemic where everybody was at home, we also had civil unrest and George Floyd’s murder. The emotionality that was involved in it and the roller coaster rides that everybody was going through, my writers, everybody was having so many issues. It was incredibly difficult to work through that. And I was going through a divorce.
And then there was the weight of the story. This is the first-ever (American) show starring a Palestinian with a Palestinian family fleeing war. How do you handle that? How do you balance out all the stories that I’ve accumulated? We had an embarrassment of riches because it was based off of my life, and fortunately and unfortunately, it was a lot that we went through.
It was so hard. But also incredibly invigorating. I can’t tell you how many times I had 20-hour plus days. Sometimes there were two days in a row where I slept an hour.
Has your family had a chance to see the show? What did they think?
To see these scenarios from my life recreated, it was incredibly emotional for my mom, but she’s also very happy. She’s so excited to have these stories being shared.
For people who aren’t related to you, or who are not as familiar with the Palestinian experience, what do you hope they’ll see when they watch the show?
This is a show about belonging. This is a show about identity and wanting to be seen. This is a show about somebody who just wants to feel like he’s part of something. I think that just relates universally to everyone, not just immigrants and refugees. There are people who are struggling to take care of their families, living paycheck to paycheck, people who have to take odd jobs under the table even though they are American citizens.
Also, I want people to take away that Houston (where the show largely takes place and was filmed) is an incredibly diverse city. It has a lot to offer and it’s exported of some of the best music in the world. Nobody really understands the depth that Houston has.
It was really important to factor in all these things and do them as much justice as possible, while also balancing the subject matter of Palestine, politics, religion, Catholicism, Islam and multicultural relationships. It was incredibly important that every piece of it was authentic.
And not only having a show that’s slapstick funny. This is a show that is a comedy, yes, of course. It’s hella funny. But it’s also very grounded. And whenever something emotional happens, we’re going to sit in it and we’re going to embrace it and we’re going to go through it. It’s very important to have those moments and let it breathe.
In “Mo” we see meetings with immigration lawyers, decades-long case delays and the struggle of trying to work under the table without papers. These aren’t topics that sound very funny on the surface. So how do you find the humor in them?
Whenever you hire a shitty attorney, the jokes really write themselves. And unfortunately, when you talk about immigration, it also writes itself, because the immigration process, I hate to say it, but it is kind of a joke. It’s just so incredibly unorganized. This is such a highly digitized world. But still there are all these documents sitting there. There’s such a waiting process that exists for these families.
It’s sad, but it really writes itself. And in deeply depressing or sad moments, comedy is a natural relief. You just naturally start laughing if you cry too much. Also, when you laugh too much, you start to cry. It’s just a natural thing that happens.
The first time we hear you speaking on the show, you’re talking in Spanish with a coworker. And then we also hear you speaking Arabic at home. And then at different points we hear you speaking in English, sometimes in different accents, depending on who you’re talking to. How important do you think language is to the show and the story?
It’s so important to me. A lot of Arab immigrants that I know picked up Spanish really easily, just because it’s basically a common language. So many Spanish words come from Arabic. And it was just easy to speak that way, but also it was an idea of immediately assimilating into an area and connecting with people. And it was really important to highlight this code switching as well of assimilating and really wanting to be seen, and for another person to feel comfortable – whether it be the cowboy that you’re selling Yeezys to or with my girlfriend switching to speaking in Spanish and seeing that connection.
That’s how it is. You come home, you start speaking Arabic. You leave the house, you start speaking English. Millions of people across the world live this way. And what’s important is communicating that and to have that on television. Because I’ve never seen it.
Your character loves olive oil so much that he carries a bottle in his pocket. Is that based on real life?
Do you have a bottle of olive oil in your pocket right now?
Not right now. I did bring one with me to L.A. where I’m shooting this movie (Black Adam). It’s from our home village of Burin. We get shipments every six months of fresh-pressed olive oil, unfiltered like you’ve never had before in your life. Yeah, that’s very, very real.
You wrote the flashback scene showing your family’s escape from Kuwait years ago. Why did you feel compelled to write that down and share it?
(Dave) Chappelle actually said, “You should do a short film in front of your special.” (“Vagabond,” which Netflix released in 2018) I couldn’t sleep for four days. I just kept thinking about it and thinking about it. Then I just had this moment of inspiration, and I wrote it out.
I showed it to Dave and I showed it to other people, I even shared it with Ramy (Youssef, the “Ramy” star who’s now an executive producer of Amer’s show). Everybody was like, “Man, you should save this for a TV show. It’s spectacular.” I just saved it and waited for the right time.