Mohammed “Mo” Amer is far from the only Arab-American or Muslim stand-up comedian around, but his personal story is particularly resonant in today’s current political climate. After almost 20 years in the business, Amer’s also on the verge of significantly raising his profile when he tapes a Netflix special live at the Paramount Theatre on June 28.
Amer, 36, was born in Kuwait to parents of Palestinian descent. During the first Gulf War in 1990 he fled Kuwait with his mother and sister at age 9, immigrating to Houston. His father, who joined them later in the States, died when Amer was 14. Amer struggled with direction until a sympathetic teacher steered him toward performing. By the time he was 19, he was doing stand-up on USO tours for U.S. and coalition troops stationed in Europe — starting in April 2001, five months before 9/11.
Recalling those days in a recent phone chat, Amer says, “I had all these things in my head that could potentially go wrong, but the reality was the guys couldn’t wait to see me. They were just really excited, and it would create a great bonding moment. It’s really funny, because I wasn’t even a (U.S.) citizen at the time. I never did one USO tour when I was a citizen.”
Not all of Amer’s material is political — he does the requisite riffs on relationships — but much of it is informed by his real-life battles against prejudice and preconceptions. In 2006, Amer joined the Muslim comedy trio Allah Made Me Funny, replacing a previous member. In 2015 — by then an American citizen — he recorded a one-hour show, “Legally Homeless,” recounting his adventures touring the world without a proper passport, and opened for Dave Chappelle on tour.
Amer says the decision to film the Netflix special at the Paramount was his own. “I grew up in Houston, and Austin had always meant so much and has a lot of history for me,” he says, “so I definitely wanted to shoot it in Austin, and I thought of the Paramount as being one of those perfect venues for stand-up. When I did shows with Chappelle at Austin City Limits and before that, even — hell, 17, 18 years ago one of my first headliner gigs was at the Velveeta Room on Sixth Street. I remember comedians would tell me, ‘Man, it’s a really tough room,’ and I just killed. Austin was always a great city to me, and I treat it as a second home.”
Amer says he doesn’t feel obligated, as an Arab-American with a fairly high profile, to speak up for others who can’t, but, he adds, “I feel a responsibility to the art form to be honest and truthful to how you feel and what’s actually going on. Can you imagine Richard Pryor in the ’70s doing stand-up and not talking about black rights, the black movement or the black experience in America? It’s something I deal with personally, and since stand-up is such an honest art form, I do have to acknowledge it, but my responsibility is to make audiences laugh. If you can make ’em think, that would be tremendous, (but) the objective is the laughter.”
In late 2016 Amer hit accidental comedy gold when, after an airline upgraded him to first class, he found himself sitting next to Eric Trump, son of then President-elect Donald Trump, on a flight to Scotland. The encounter, while cordial enough, went viral, and Amer got a lot of mileage out of it on talk shows and the Internet. The incident didn’t exactly endear him to the Trump administration, though.
Asked if he thinks their policies amount to war against refugees and immigrants from the Arab world and Latin America, he replies, “War is such a strong term, so many people die during war — yeah, they are killing families, essentially. Whether they’re doing it on purpose or not, or whether they’re doing it just to appease their base, I don’t know, but the reason doesn’t really matter. It just feels really gross; I don’t know how else to describe it. When you read these stories about children separated from their families, what is the goal here? Is the goal to upset families? That they said it’s not their responsibility — it may (not) be legally, but you know morally you’re doing something terrible.”
Noting our interview is taking place in the middle of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting from sunup to sundown, I ask Amer if he’s observing it.
“There is leeway when you’re traveling,” he says, “so sometimes I, depending on how big of a time change (is) happening … I try to do my best.”
Ramadan is a period of introspection, correct?
“100 percent, absolutely.”
Does that help him at all in his stand-up act?
“I’m a really introspective person all the time, so — it’s a little more, it’s about meditation and prayer and thinking about those who are truly less fortunate, feeling that hunger and thirst and observing it day in and day out, sunup to sundown. It’s quite an experience, yeah. I do feel sometimes I’m missing out because of my travel schedule, because there’s nothing more cleansing — it’s like a spiritual cleanse. I wish I was better, but man, I’m not perfect.”
When: 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. June 28
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.