[Editor's note: Mo Amer was previously scheduled for Rick Bronson's House of Comedy, but had to cancel. Hopefully he will make it to the Twin Cities again soon.]
“I was born in Kuwait after the first Gulf War,” says comedian Mo Amer, “or, as I like to call it ‘The Prequel.’” Born to Palestinian parents, Amer lived a comfortable life in Kuwait. “People ask, ‘Why did you leave?’ Very simple. Our house spoke to us.” Houses don’t speak, of course, unless they are in, say, Amityville, New York, but Amer elaborates: “If a bomb lands a 100 feet from your house, it will speak to you. Boom! ‘Get out!’”
Amer’s parents sent him and his brother to the U.S. when he was about nine years old. Fortunately, he was fluent in English, although there was still some culture shock. “I went to a nice, private British school in Kuwait,” he says. “I spoke British English. I wore a bow tie and a vest.”
Until their parents came to America, Mo’s brother was his guardian, and enrolled him in public school in Houston. “My brother neglected to tell them I spoke English, so they put me in an English as a second language class. I was the only guy who spoke English.” His classmates immediately began speaking Spanish to him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says in an English accent. “I think my parents sent me to the wrong country!”
Sadly, Amer’s father passed away just a few years after he came to Texas. When he wasn’t skipping school, Amer began acting out in class. A teacher intervened, and encouraged him channel that energy into more artistic pursuits. Having seen Bill Cosby at the Astrodome a few years earlier, Amer decided comedy would be his focus.
Watching Amer perform today, his Arab/British English background isn’t immediately apparent, as he is decidedly a Texan. “Damn right,” he agrees. “I do take pride in being a Texan. All my memories and childhood friends I grew up with are from there, so I absolutely have an affinity and a special place in my heart for Texas.”
He does go into his heritage quite a bit onstage, however, such as when he talks about performing in the South. “I was working in Arkansas, and everything was going great,” he tells an audience. “People are laughing, and then I say I’m an Arab-American. Suddenly the whole room gets quiet. One guy in the back goes, ‘Ah, hell no.’ One black couple got up and left.”
Amer isn’t averse to poking fun at his culture, though, or even his own name. “I didn’t know how popular my name was until I watched the Egyptian soccer team on ESPN Deportes,” he says. “They were showing the play-by-play: ‘Mohammad has the ball and passes to Mohammad to Aqmed to Mohammad to Mohammad, back to Mohammad, Mohammad to Mohammad to Aqmed to Mohammad. Mohammad! Goal!’ Was that just one guy on the team passing the ball to himself?”
That bit always kills with audiences, but as an observer of all things, including culture, Amer is keenly aware of the current U.S. climate — one that in some circles is hostile to his culture. That’s why, he feels, it’s even more important that he be a successful comic.
“People will look at it and go, ‘Wow, this guy did it in this time,’” he says, “because when I first started, 20 years ago, there was only like two or three of us that were doing standup from my background.” Amer feels he has an obligation to future generations. “I want to introduce people, through this art form, that we’re something other than terrorists or the evil Muslims that are often portrayed in the media.”
“It’s surprising America hasn’t learned from its previous mistakes and continues to experience the same crap it did with Japanese Americans in World War II or black people in the Civil Rights movement, and way before that,” he says. “I think it’s really important to be able to introduce our community to people so they can see who we really are, and I think standup is great for that purpose. I love being a standup for that reason. I get to talk about things from my perspective and my own experiences and people can walk away with a new perspective. But it’s not a specific agenda. My goal is to be hilarious.”