On ‘Ramy’, he plays a sidekick. Now he’s on his own show
By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
You might already know Mo Amer for playing a sidekick in ‘Ramy’, for being the Muslim comedian who kind of sat next to Eric Trump on a plane, or for being cast to appear alongside of The Rock in the upcoming superhero movie “Black Adam.” .
But you’re about to know him as something else: the star of his own Netflix series.
“Mo,” which begins airing August 24, is a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a Palestinian refugee “laughing in pain” as he tries to navigate life in Houston and the U.S. immigration system. convoluted.
Audiences familiar with Amer through his Netflix specials will recognize part of the storyline. Mohammed Amer was 9 years old when the first Gulf War forced him to 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 an American citizen.
His character in the series, Mo Najjar, is still fighting for asylum in the United States. And as Netflix says in its summary of the show, along the way it “strides the line between two cultures, three languages, and a ton of bullshit.”
Amer, 41, told CNN how he finds humor in dark situations, what he hopes viewers of his show will see, why language and authenticity were so important to him when directing and one key thing he has in common with his character. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You said doing this show was the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Why? What did you have to do to prepare?
There was so much going on when the show picked up. The pandemic has broken out. We were one of the first green-lit shows to have a Zoom (writers) room. And then not only did we have a global pandemic where everyone was at home, we also had civil unrest and the murder of George Floyd. The emotionality that was involved in it and the roller coaster that everyone was going through, my writers, everyone had so many issues. It was incredibly difficult to work on that. And I was going through a divorce.
And then there was the weight of history. This is the first ever (American) show featuring a Palestinian with a Palestinian family fleeing the war. How are you going to deal with this? How do you balance all the stories I’ve accumulated? We had an embarrassment of riches because it was based on my life, and luckily and unfortunately we went through a lot.
It was so hard. But also incredibly invigorating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had days longer than 20 hours. 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?
Seeing these scenarios of my life recreated was incredibly moving for my mother, but she is also very happy. She is so excited for these stories to be shared.
For people who are not related to you or who are not as familiar with the Palestinian experience, what do you hope they see when they watch the show?
It’s a show about belonging. It’s a show about identity and the desire to be seen. It’s a show about someone who just wants to feel like they’re part of something. I think that applies universally to everyone, not just immigrants and refugees. There are people struggling to take care of their families, living paycheck to paycheck, people who have to do odd jobs under the table even though they are US citizens.
Also, I want people to remember that Houston (where the show largely takes place and was filmed) is an incredibly diverse city. It has a lot to offer and exports some of the best music in the world. No one really understands Houston’s depth.
It was really important to consider all these things and do them as much justice as possible, while balancing the subject of Palestine, politics, religion, Catholicism, Islam and multicultural relations. It was extremely important that each element be authentic.
And not just having a show that’s slapstick funny. It’s a show that’s a comedy, yes, of course. It’s awfully funny. But it’s also very entrenched. And whenever something emotional happens, we’re going to sit there and we’re going to embrace it and we’re going to get through it. It is very important to have these moments and to let them breathe.
In “Mo,” we see meetings with immigration lawyers, decades-long delays, and the struggle of trying to work under the table without papers. These are not topics that seem very funny on the surface. So how do you do find the humor in them?
Anytime you hire a shitty lawyer, the jokes really do write themselves. And unfortunately, when we talk about immigration, it’s also written, because the immigration process, I hate to say it, but it’s a bit of a joke. It’s so incredibly disorganized. It’s such a digitized world. But there are always all these documents that are there. There is such a waiting process that exists for these families.
It’s sad, but it really writes itself. And in deeply depressing or sad times, comedy is a natural relief. You naturally start laughing if you cry too much. Also, when you laugh too much, you start crying. It’s just a natural thing that happens.
The first time we hear you speak on the show, you are talking in Spanish with a colleague. And then we also hear you speaking Arabic at home. And then, at different times, we hear you speaking in English, sometimes with different accents, depending on who you’re talking to. In your opinion, how important is the language in the series and in the story?
It’s so important to me. Many Arab immigrants I know learned Spanish very easily, simply because it is a common language. So many Spanish words come from Arabic. And it was just easy to talk that way, but it was also an idea to immediately assimilate into a field and connect with people. And it was really important to highlight that code-switching and assimilation and really wanting to be seen, and have another person feel comfortable – whether it’s the cowboy you’re sell Yeezys or with my girlfriend who happens to speak in Spanish and see this connection.
It’s like that. You come home, you start speaking Arabic. You leave the house, you start speaking English. Millions of people around the world live like this. And what is important is to communicate it and broadcast it on television. Because I’ve never seen it.
Your character loves olive oil so much that he carries a bottle in his pocket. Is it based on real life?
Got a bottle of olive oil in your pocket right now?
Not immediately. I brought one with me to LA where I’m shooting this movie (Black Adam). He comes from our native village of Burin. We receive shipments every six months of freshly pressed, unfiltered olive oil like you’ve never had before in your life. Yeah, it’s very, very real.
You wrote the flashback scene of your family fleeing Kuwait years ago. Why did you feel compelled to write it down and share it?
(Dave) Chappelle actually said, “You should do a short in front of your special.” (“Vagabond,” which Netflix released in 2018) I couldn’t sleep for four days. I kept thinking about it and thinking about it. Then I had this moment of inspiration and I wrote it.
I showed it to Dave and I showed it to other people, I even shared it with Ramy (Youssef, the “Ramy” star who is now the 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 moment.
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