As a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Houston, Mo Amer has a unique story in the stand-up comedy scene. With his latest Netflix special Mohammed in Texas, the comedian is proving to have a unique talent too.
In this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Amer talks about how a summer spent performing in the Ohio cornfield of his friend and mentor Dave Chappelle prepared him to put out his best material yet. He also shares stories about making David Letterman a fan, finding himself seated next to Eric Trump on a flight, and why he doesn’t believe Chappelle is actually “canceled” after his own controversial Netflix hour.
Amer, who you may recognize as Ramy Youssef’s opinionated friend on the Hulu show Ramy, is currently in a sprint to finish shooting the first season of his own autobiographical series for Netflix.
“The show is loosely based on my life,” Amer says from the series’ Houston set, before correcting himself. “Not loosely, it’s very much based on my life. Basically, it’s a refugee in America, trying to work under the table while working through the bureaucracy and telling the story of someone that’s been in America for 25 years and is still waiting for his citizenship.”
It’s a personal story that he first turned into comedy in his debut special The Vagabond for Netflix in 2018. Chappelle’s voice could be heard introducing him at the top of that hour, but Amer one-upped himself for Mohammed in Texas, getting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—with whom he co-stars in the upcoming DC movie Black Adam—to tape a video intro. Amer jokes that the only way to top himself for his third hour will be to get Barack Obama to come out and surprise the crowd before he takes the stage.
Explaining why he used his previous special to share the intimate details of his unlikely origin story with the audience, Amer says, “It was just so annoying, constantly explaining myself. This one is just, like, real stand-up.”
He spends much of the new hour breaking down what was an unusually eventful 2020. While many comedians were forced to go more than a year without performing live due to the pandemic, Amer was back on stage within a few months at what came to be known as “Chappelle Summer Camp” in Yellow Springs, Ohio. “I was writing my TV series and I was just going from my bedroom to my office, going crazy, just fucking losing my mind,” he recalls. “And the world is literally on fire, George Floyd, civil unrest, it was just crazy. So just having an opportunity to do stand-up and have a creative outlet was necessary, it was needed.”
The high point of the experience, he says, was cracking up David Letterman—who was visiting to interview Chappelle for his Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction—with an extended bit about how the stock market was reacting to the pandemic. “Once I knew he was in the audience, I didn’t give a shit about anybody else,” Amer tells me. “I was performing for Letterman a hundred percent.” When the former Late Show host got on stage and complimented his set, Amer admits he “teared up,” calling it “one of the best moments” of his life.
“Chappelle really did that, man,” he continues. “He really gave everyone an opportunity. He and his wife Elaine are such special people, they’re like family, just such kind, generous people.” Amer still feels that way despite catching COVID-19 twice last year: once while staying with Chappelle in Ohio and a second time when he was opening for the comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan in Austin, Texas.
Following all of the controversy surrounding Chappelle’s latest Netflix special The Closer, there are questions about if and when a new documentary about that summer will be released. “Well, he is doing screenings all over the country,” Amer says, dismissing the notion that Chappelle has been “canceled” amid the backlash to his jokes about the trans community.
The streaming platform is certainly sticking with him. Next year, Chappelle is scheduled to kick off the massive Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival in Los Angeles with a big show at the Hollywood Bowl. Amer, who will headline his own show as part of the 11-day event, says there is a good chance he will appear on stage with Chappelle that night.
Calling Chappelle a “true master of the art form,” Amer says the main thing his mentor taught him was “how to mentally prepare for the altitude” of fame, adding, “He’s really one of the most brilliant minds that I’ve ever met.”
Amer’s first brush with fame came almost by accident in early 2017, when he posted on Instagram about a chance run-in with Eric Trump after he “randomly” got upgraded to business class on a flight to Scotland.
“I hated that so much,” Amer says. “When Dave saw that, he goes, ‘Bro, fame is chasing you.’ And I was like, I don’t want it chasing me like that. You want it to be on the merit of your art and what you’re contributing.” Amer didn’t realize his post had gone viral until he landed and “had hundreds of emails from every publication you could ever imagine.”
He didn’t love the fact that people were trying to live some Trump-confronting catharsis vicariously through him. But even worse was when Trump fans started using the incident to somehow prove that the family that had just tried to implement a Muslim ban was not actually anti-Muslim.
Amer knew the only way he could take control of the narrative was to turn it into a stand-up bit “immediately.” Soon, it became not only the centerpiece of his late-night stand-up debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but also the opening bit in his first Netflix special.
“You’ve got to make it funny,” he says. “If you make it funny, nothing else matters.”
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