"You have to outwork everybody": Mo Amer on his Netflix immigrant comedy about hustling in Houston

The comedian appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the Palestinian American experience, Robert DeNiro and olive oil

Published September 8, 2022 7:24PM (EDT)

Mo Amer in "Mo" (Courtesy of Netflix)
Mo Amer in "Mo" (Courtesy of Netflix)

Comedian Mo Amer's new critically acclaimed Netflix show, "Mo," is unlike any other TV show that has come before it. "Mo" marks the first time American audiences get an honest glimpse into the life of a Palestinian American family living in Houston, complete with all laughs, heartaches, struggles and joys that it entails. I spoke to Amer — who I have known for years — on "Salon Talks" about his groundbreaking new show. 

Amer is not new to sharing the lives of Palestinian Americans with audiences. It has been a staple of his stand-up routine that has been showcased in two Netflix specials. But "Mo," co-created by Ramy Youssef, the star and creator of Hulu's "Ramy," gives the audience more than that. We learn about the dreams of Mo's family that are inspired from his own challenges — from losing his father at a young age, to immigrating from the Middle East to Texas, to navigating the asylum system for over 20 years in desperate search of becoming a U.S. citizen.

The eight episodes of this semi-autobiographical comedy also gives viewers insight into the life of undocumented immigrants and the precarious life of those waiting for asylum to be granted. We see the hustle required to survive, the pitfalls of being preyed upon when you can't go to the police, and more. And like the melting pot experience that defines the life of immigrants and their children, "Mo" intersects with other immigrant communities, such as with his Mexican-American girlfriend Maria, played by Teresa Ruiz.

There's something else the show depicts that is so much part of the American experience: the love of their culture and their love of their adopted new home. In "Mo's" case, we see it with his pride of being both Palestinian and a Houstonian. And on a personal note, also being of Palestinian heritage, "Mo" is more than a Netflix show — it's a source of pride for our community in finally seeing the story of a people that has long been demonized shared with Americans in a beautiful, funny and heartfelt mosaic. Watch my interview with Mo Amer here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

"Mo" has gotten incredible reviews, congratulations. I'd love for you to share your story for those who don't know a lot about you. You were born in Kuwait, but you're Palestinian. How did your family get from what was then Palestine, to Kuwait and then ultimately, how did they pick the United States of America?

My father was a telecommunications engineer. And just like if you were in the states and you lived in Texas and your dad gets a job in New York, you moved to New York. And this was the case before I was born. My father ended up getting a job with a Kuwaiti oil company and the rest is history. He was really a brilliant man, really, just ahead of his time, as far as electronics was concerned, and just tech is concerned. I understand he was part of the team that built the first radio station in Kuwait. He's the one who helped with his team create wireless communication from rigs.

He always had telephones since the '60s, like a cell phone, which he held over his shoulder from my mom and was surrounded by electronics constantly. He was so fascinated about how they worked and how they operated. And that's how we ended up in Texas. Then when the Gulf War happened and then you realize you're displaced people and you don't belong. You don't know where you belong. You're constantly looking for a new home, and we just ended up naturally in Houston, Texas.

"Mo" is not just about the Palestinian experience. There's a lot of Arabic and there's also a lot of Spanish because your girlfriend, the love of your life, is Mexican American. It truly resonates as the immigrant experience, but also the undocumented immigrant experience. How important was it for you to share that story that's really never been told either?

The whole idea of the show is to be as grounded, as real as possible. Yes, the show is about belonging. This is about a refugee family's displacement and generational trauma. How do we tap into that most authentic way

"Every time I felt any kind of fear, I knew immediately that was the road that we needed to travel on."

possible? And that's all that really the focus was. And then you have this backdrop of Houston, which so incredibly diverse. It's one of the most diverse cities in America. I think it's like 80 languages spoken in my suburb alone and has never been depicted on television before ever. There's never been a narrative sitcom coming out of Houston.

Being grounded and being honest from my own story made it more believable and relatable. Every time I felt any kind of fear about some kind of subject that's deeply personal to me, I knew immediately that was the road that we needed to travel on. And it was so hard to just push through my own feelings because, man, feelings can be really strong and can deter you from doing something that you should. And in this case, I really made sure to lean into it, although it was scary.

"Ramy" fans may remember you from that show. When I interviewed Ramy Youssef, who's also the co-creator of your show, during the first season of "Ramy," he said something I'll never forget. He said, "Mo's a great comic. But he's actually a better actor." In this show, your acting is very natural, very honest and vulnerable. Is this something you've been studying on the side?

I did not do any of that. I really study Robert De Niro. He's of my favorite actors of all time, so just I study him crazy and I just see how he picks certain facial expressions or eyebrow movements or hand gestures, especially his comedy. There's one scene where our director goes, "Give me a Robert De Niro moment." Acting for me is just being in the moment, being present for your partner that's there and being very natural and organic about it. I don't know how to explain it.

In the last episode, you talk about the weight of the world being on you. You say, "Look mom, this isn't working out. We're not getting asylum, and I got to do all this stuff." And she says back,"What did we do when our family lost our land in Palestine? Did we sit around and cry? When we got driven out of Kuwait, did we sit around and cry? No, we carry on. That's what Palestinians do. We carry on." And it resonated so much with me because I've always thought about how as a half Palestinian, I've been born into struggle. And I have it lucky. I live in New Jersey and New York. I have cousins who live in the West Bank under occupation. That line really hit home. What about that inspires you, is it being Palestinian? 

You have to push forward and it comes with this immigrant mentality where you have to outwork everybody. Just different people that come from disadvantaged communities, like Michael Jordan is a great example. He just came from nothing. Had to outwork everyone to become the greatest basketball player of all time. He spent the time in the gym and that was the big motivation for him to be great.

For me, my motivation was that early on in my career in the late '90s, people were telling me like, "Oh man, you're so talented. If only you weren't Palestinian." Just straight casual

"It comes with this immigrant mentality where you have to outwork everybody."

racism. Just like, "Maybe you change your name." Like, "Whoa, whoa. You want me to erase my lineage? F**k. That can't happen." So it was just about being patient and understanding that this was going to be a true marathon.

The best thing you can do for yourself is just be prepared for when you get the ball gets passed to you, you can nail that jumper and win the game. And that's just been my mantra forever. If I'm going to do stand-up, I'm going to go up more than anybody else. And if it takes time to be great at it, then that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to outwork you. That's worked very well for me. That's the only way to do it.

This idea of others telling you don't talk about being Palestinian. I've heard that from other Palestinian-American actors who've been told that. Was there any pushback at Netflix?

No. My writing room was really mixed, really diverse. Harris Danow, who was an EP on the show, he's Jewish, he comes from a Jewish background. It was very important for me to have healthy dialogue in the show with my own writers. Nobody ever gave me any issues regarding anything I did in my show. It was about finding the right spacing and being in integrity for the story. It wasn't about any outside anything. It was really pleasant to finally be in that space.

We're highly paranoid people. I'm just looking around like, "Is this for real, is this really happening?" And it was just such a wonderful thing to be able to tell an honest, grounded experience and having Aba and Nazeer as this Jewish Zionist character with Nazeer, who is a Palestine Christian character and having Palestine Christians also seeing was very important to me and having them be friends, but also being able to have spirited discussions where they can yell at each other and be mad at each other and then be like, "Hey, you want some sugar with your tea?" Be that compassionate also. 

That rings true from what I've heard from my grandmother, from my own mother, these type of experiences that exist. During the Holocaust, one of the most devastating things that's happened in history, Jews were fleeing and going to Muslim countries and seeking asylum effectively in those countries and refuge in those countries. They were embraced and loved and looked after and cared after.

We have a long-standing tradition of working together, being deeply rooted in our faith and aligned that way. I don't really buy into that and I think it's all just fabricated to separate us. The show is about humanizing it all and bringing it all back to what I believe to be the real reality of it and our own instincts of wanting to be close to each other.

The characters in "Mo" also have their own individual stories. Your brother Sameer is intriguing.

He's inspired off of my real brother who has severe OCD that he takes medication for. He definitely has some social awkwardness that we can't really pinpoint 100% where it comes from. He has different other medical issues, and mental health is just something that's never really talked about in a really productive way in America, much less within families sometimes, and specifically Arab families, where it's suppressed in a way or just, you just deal with it and never really directly address it. We have defined his character as somebody who's autistic.

In the show, you address undocumented immigrants and people getting preyed upon. How important was that to show that undocumented immigrants are struggling and hustling to make it and then there's people who prey on them because they can't go to the police.

And lawyers too. That was another thing too, like to have someone within your own community take advantage. That happens all the time. That really happened to us. This attorney claimed that he was an immigration specialist and my mom hired him and he stole $5,000 from us. 

The judge actually fired him in the middle of our asylum case. He was like, "This man's going to get you deported." And he just reamed him in front of the whole court in front of everyone and fired him, which was very nice of the judge. He could have deported us. He could have just been like, "Well, what are you going to do? You f**ked up and you're deported." It could have happened, but we were very fortunate that the judge didn't do that. 

It was just really important to show, not only the systematic problem that we have in immigration, but also that being an asylum refugee in America essentially forces you to do things that are criminally adjacent. To absolutely survive and function essentially forces you to do things in an illegal manner, which is mind-blowing in a country where just constantly complaining about crime and things like that when you don't have the legal space to create opportunity for them to have the legal job, much less trying to just feel like part of society and feel accepted.

My dad passed away a little over 20 years ago, and I wish he was alive to see "Mo" because it's not something you see on American TV, seeing Palestinians in a slice of life, being happy, dancing and not even a hint of terrorism. The olive oil that you carried around. Olive oil is part of Palestinian life. The olive tree is a big part of your show is such an important symbol to Palestinians. Can you share a little bit about what it means to Palestinians that people don't understand that?

We get shipments every six months from our olive farms back home. Olive oil is a big part of our life. We basically drink it. Having unfiltered pure olive oil not only has cultural significance, but also religious as well and medicinal

"Olive oil is a big part of our life. We basically drink it."

significance to us. So for Muslims definitely. And it just culturally is whether you're Christian or Muslim, it has the same kind of play as well. And then you have the destruction of olive trees that happens to Palestinians and the uprooting in Palestinian trees and homes.

I was just kind of playing into that, but also a symbol of peace as well, extending an olive branch of peace. So it's really just a great way, as such a phenomenal layer of sophistication to the whole series and depth that couldn't really achieve with anything else.

Also to have the parody of the Mexican American experience in Texas and what they must feel that this used to be Mexico and what it was like for them. In the end, you do have Mexico, you can still go back to a country where you feel like you belong to that being the big difference. But there's just so many parallels with the wall that's being built in Mexico and the wall that exists in Palestine. It's just great commentary on separating people doesn't really work and it's never worked in human history and it's time to work together and create some kind of dialogue and understand without being overtly political, which I don't really like.

Is there any word from Netflix on a second season? 

Not yet. I mean, I stepped into this very confidently. I'm like I want everything to be in the first season. Well it's impossible. The story's so rich, the experiences are so wide that it's impossible to have everything in. There's so much to unearth. I mean we barely started scratching the surface and I look forward to the opportunity, but it feels good so far. It feels good that we're trending in the right direction.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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