Mohammed “Mo” Amer is no stranger to a national audience. Between solo comedy tours, his Netflix stand-up specials The Vagabond and Mohammed in Texas, and a role in Ramy Youssef’s award-winning Hulu comedy series, Ramy, Amer has been around, often drawing from his own life as a Kuwaiti refugee growing up in the Alief neighborhood, on the west side of Houston. It’s no surprise, then, that his new show, Mo, a scripted dramedy series that premieres August 24 on Netflix, pulls from the same well, with more than a little bit of Houston in the scenery.
The first episode opens with an “I love Houston” sign. There’s a shot of an Alief water tower. There’s a “Houston Mobile Spot” at a strip mall, where the vendors sell Selena phone cases. Mo, who plays a fictionalized version of himself, wears Houston Astros hats and T-shirts. Area rappers get camera time: Tobe Nwigwe is Mo’s best friend, Bun B is a priest, Paul Wall is a security guard. You get the idea. The Houston-ness might even feel overwhelming if it weren’t so long overdue. Anyone who knows and loves the city will be drawn in by the H-town pride, and those who have seen Mo Amer’s performances know that they can expect a show that’s engaging. But Mo isn’t just a comic romp. While he can certainly be funny, Amer does not hesitate to steer directly into heavier themes of survival, hopelessness, fear, and tragedy that speak to his experience and the experiences of those who grew up around him. He talked with us on August 19, over the phone, from Los Angeles.
Texas Monthly: How did the show come about? Did you approach Netflix? Did they approach you after your work on Ramy?
Mo Amer: About nine years ago I wrote the flashback that appears in episode seven, and I held on to it for a while. I had a preexisting relationship with Netflix because of my first special, The Vagabond, and my role on Ramy showed what I could do acting-wise. When we pitched Mo, I acted out the flashback and laid out seasons one, two, three, and what the character growth would be and all the possible story lines. We had several interested parties, and Netflix was the one that pushed through and said, “Let’s make this.”
TM: And I know the writing and shooting got pushed during the pandemic.
MA: It was frustrating. The pandemic was difficult to work through, and I got divorced in the middle of it, which I talked about in Mohammed in Texas. But the pandemic essentially forced self-reflection. So I was also happy about the delay sometimes, because it gave me the opportunity to dig even deeper and see what we’re missing and make sure we do justice to the story.
TM: You have the most incredible energy on the screen with Tobe Nwigwe. How did that casting come about?
MA: I met Tobe almost five years ago, when he first started making videos. I saw them and I loved the music. So I started introducing him to my friends. I told Dave Chappelle about him, and then Chappelle told Erykah Badu. I FaceTimed Tobe when I was backstage doing The Tonight Show so he could meet Tariq Trotter, you know, Black Thought. And then Tariq and Tobe did a track together. Artist-to-artist, I was like, “I’m going to try to amplify your signal as much as possible.” And we just naturally became friends from there, became brothers. It feels like we’ve known each other all our lives. That’s a testament to Alief. Both of us grew up in that neighborhood. It felt like we’re already familiar with each other.
TM: Were you surprised by how good an actor he was?
MA: I wasn’t. I was very vocal about him taking that part. Naturally, certain people were going to doubt it because he had no acting background, and I completely understood my team’s concerns. But he just knocked it out of the park. I would just walk around set like, “See?”
TM: Have you shown the finished product to other folks from Alief?
MA: Yeah. I would say that the landmark moment was Wednesday night when we showed bits and pieces at a screening in Houston. Getting to see a crowd of two hundred people watch it and laugh at the things that I thought were very funny when we were editing it in a little cave—what a relief it is to get such a big reaction in the moments where it’s supposed to happen. You could feel the audience like, “Oh, man, keep going!”
I think everybody is also in a state of shock. Like, do we really have a series? Like, is this for us? We’re really doing this? It’s going to go out to the whole world? Especially Houston being the fourth largest city, the most diverse city in America. Eighty languages are spoken in Alief. At a time where we’re speaking to diversity and inclusion, it’s wild that we haven’t had a show out there. I am so happy that I’m able to facilitate that and bring that to my beloved hometown.
TM: How was writing a script with other people different from writing a stand-up routine?
MA: Stand-up is a storytelling medium. And so is television. So that’s great.
The major difference is that when you’re doing stand-up, it’s just you. You talk about yourself, and if you are talking about other things, it’s just you on stage articulating those things, taking people on a ride. And also: it’s an hour.
TV scriptwriting is completely different from that. You’re not only thinking about yourself and your character, but you’re also thinking about all the different layers that you’re adding to it—the whole world you build around that character. It’s incredibly complex.
And then you have eight episodes—essentially, four hours—to pull all that off. Four hours is difficult, especially when you’re talking about a Palestinian family, and about refugees, asylum, immigration, social commentary, and the health-care system.
For example, if you’re an immigrant, you can’t get health care. So what are the implications of that? What about like fleeing war and then dealing with rampant gun violence in America? Somebody I knew from our village fled the war and came to America, and he was shot and killed, just working at a convenience store. Like, oh, man, you fled war only to die here? So it’s adding all those layers, baking them in, and then thinking about it, each character and their trials, struggles, and thoughts.
You also have to bake the religious aspects into it. I’m Muslim. My girlfriend on the show is Catholic. And this is really important to me too: when you think about Arabs, most people think Muslim, right? Most Arabs are Muslim, but most Muslims are not Arabs. And for me, as a Palestinian, you know, people forget that Nazareth is in Palestine. Bethlehem is in Palestine. Jesus is Palestinian! It would be crazy not to have that as part of our dialog. How do you fit that in?
TM: Did you want drama from the beginning, or did it happen as you were braiding all of those themes in?
MA: It wasn’t like “We need to consciously have x in here,” you know? It was never like that. It was more that whenever we do encounter something that’s tragic or something that’s sad, we sit in it. We don’t shy away from it. That’s something that I really wanted to do, specifically in the edit and in the writing. Every comedy has drama relief and every drama has comedy relief; it’s just natural storytelling. With a story like this, you’re going to have a lot of tragedy that happens where you’re fleeing war, talking about displacement and statelessness. It creates this energy of discovery.
When I fled the war in Kuwait, I was so young, and there are things I found out about my father that were really painful. I think that any time you have that, it’s important not to just gloss over it and move on. It’s important to sit in it and have that moment. And I think it sets up the comedy really well too. You take people to a place so deeply emotional and impactful, and then whenever you get to the comedy people are really excited about it and react even stronger.