By Al Bahmani
A high energy comedic storyteller, Mo Amer is a force to be reckoned with. Mo arrived to the United States from Kuwait at age nine. At age seventeen, he entered Houston’s Funniest Person Contest and made it to the wild card round of the contest. At age nineteen, Mo was being flown out to play to US troops stationed abroad. Mo is also the youngest member of Allah Made Me Funny—The Official Muslim Comedy Tour. Fans have watched him at sold-out shows worldwide in two dozen countries on five continents. Mo took some time off his busy schedule to talk with us. See him tonight at The Comedy Showcase for the New Year’s Eve Party Show!
Why did your family leave Kuwait for the United States?
We had to leave. When the Iraqi military came in everything went fast. My father lost everything and sold as much as he could to get rice, water and essentials for us to survive. My mom smuggled my sister and I out of there. It felt like a movie. All of my family was displaced all around the world, some to Amman, Jordan. I still have an aunt in Kuwait. My mom wanted to get my sister, Haifa, and I out of there.
There was a school bus that would go through Bagdad and keep driving to Amman, Jordan. My father was able to get some cash for Mom to take my sister and I out of the country. My mom made two money belts: one for my sister and one for her because women weren’t searched. I saw my mom cut a perfect line behind each zipper and hide money in there and then sew it up. What she couldn’t fit in the purse she hid underneath the lining of our big suitcase. There was no way you could tell. It was brilliant.
When we got to Baghdad, the Iraqi authorities were ordering everyone to get off the bus. When we looked outside the bus window we noticed everybody was being searched. Not like getting searched where they check your bag. They were breaking open peoples’ suitcases. They knew a lot of people are smuggling gold, money or what have you out of Kuwait.
My mom sees this. Most of the bus was in front of her, so she opens up and messes up the suitcase so it looks like it’s already been searched. She sits back down and tells my sister and me to get off the bus. We get off the bus while everyone is getting back on the bus. A soldier saw my mom sitting there, he runs back on the bus and yells at my mom. He’s telling her to get off the bus.
His superior sees this, runs on the bus and yells at him for yelling at my mom. The supervisor grabs him, “What’s the matter with you? Look at her suitcase! Obviously, it’s already been searched! Look at the smile on this woman’s face! That smile is not that of a liar.” It’s a lot more eloquent in Arabic. The way he said it was really beautiful. The supervisor grabbed him and threw him off the bus. Then he apologized to my mom and we went on our way.
We were in Amman, Jordan for two weeks. My mom sent my sister and me to Paris and from Paris straight to Houston. We arrived in the United States shortly after my ninth birthday in October 1990. It was my sister, Haifa, my brother, Amer, and I. The first school I went to in the States was Piney Point Elementary. I went from a British-style private middle school of wearing a bow tie learning multiple languages to an HISD ESL.
What happened to your parents?
My mother went back to Kuwait because my brother and dad were still there. There were a lot of things that needed to be tied up and taken care of. Also at the time, Saddam Hussein had released a lot of prisoners in Kuwait. I guess he released those prisoners to thieve and loot. I remember hearing people talking about Mercedes dealerships that were completely emptied out overnight. People in 18-wheelers coming in grabbing up all the cars. It was a big looting festival.
My father was imprisoned in Kuwait. My father was very opinionated and said what he felt. He was honest about what he felt. Here in the United States anyone, from you to me to our politicians, can say the most outlandish things and it’s accepted. Freedom of Speech. In Kuwait, it’s not taken that way. My father was imprisoned and tortured by, I guess, Kuwaiti officials. They accused him of being a spy. During that time, they neglected his insulin. I’m a hundred percent certain that’s what shortened his life. He passed away in 1995. I was a 14-year-old lost kid, at that time, swirling with emotions and with very few ways to express those emotions.
Why ESL? You spoke English already.
I spoke British English. Which is way more different than American English. For instance, I got in trouble for asking my teacher for a rubber (eraser). I was at the play ground at recess and a kid asked me if I had a pussy and I said yes. All kids yelled out “Oh my god! Mo has a pussy!” I was yelling at the top of my lungs, “What’s wrong with that?” Because in British English that’s what you called a cat. It was mandatory for foreign students to go through ESL.
I had only heard the “F” word once in Kuwait. A kid said it once. After that kid said it, he was never heard from again. It was creepy. My very first day at Piney Point I heard kids cursing and saw people punching one another. All of a sudden, I was being dragged into dirty bathrooms. Being shown Bloody Mary. Who the Hell is Bloody Mary?
How’d you end up doing stand up comedy?
When I was ten years old and my brother Amer decided to take me to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Amer told me, “I’m going to take you to see Bill Cosby perform. You need to get your mind off of things.” And I was like “Bill performing what?”
At the time I had no idea what stand-up comedy was. Stand up Comedy is a uniquely American art form. It’s not something a kid from Kuwait would be exposed to at that time before the internet.
Bill Cosby was co-headlining with the band Alabama. I saw Bill Cosby in front of a sold-out crowd and he was destroying from nosebleed seats on down. He was on a rotating stage sitting down on a chair and talking into a lapel mic.
I was like; whatever this guy is doing I want to do this. This is amazing. From that moment forward I told myself and all my friends, that was what I wanted to do.
Fast forward four years later, I was 14 years old and had lost my father during Christmas vacation. I started to skip school. So my English teacher in 9th Grade comes up to me and says, “You want to do stand up?” I was like, “Yeah, of course, I want to do stand-up comedy.” “If you can go up right now in class, recite any Shakespeare monologue, then every Friday you get to go up and do stand up. The catch is you’ve got to be here in class and you’ve got to work. And you got to show effort. Not just this class but all classes.” And I was like, “To be or not to be! That is the question.”
The next week I went to class pumped up. Not only did I kill it with Shakespeare, I get to go up again on Friday. So I wrote my first sketch. I played an Indian pizza delivery guy who gets mugged. It had a lot of physical comedy in it. It ended with me falling down saying, “And what no teep?” And the class all cracked up and laughed. I kept on performing and kept on writing more and more. And I was going to class more and more.
My teacher then took me to the theater arts department. “This kid he’s been in my class, he does all these accents. I don’t know why he’s not doing theater. You need to have him in your class.” One year later, I’m playing Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
I was calling Spellbinders off of Westheimer asking to get some stage time there. Well, we need to see your tape. By tape they meant audio cassette; not video tape. So I recorded myself doing my act and sent it to them. And they were like, “Look, kid, you’re 14, we need you to bring your mom with you. Even if we are paying you to do stand up, you need to bring your mom with you.” I’m thinking to myself, yeah right. Like I am going to go up to my mom and say “Please Mom take me to this bar where they serve alcohol so I can do stand up? ” Yeah, that’s when I realized I have to play the waiting game.
I didn’t know I could do all these things. And for the rest of high school I started doing stand up in the majority of my classes. One teacher started telling other teachers. I remember doing three shows in one day for my Spanish teacher señorita Ferrera. She had me leave all these other classes so I can integrate Spanish into my stand up. I did a lot of crowd work.
I remember opening up the yellow pages. I saw the Comedy Showcase ad; I said to myself “I want to be at that place”.
So one day I had the Houston Press in my hands. It was June 9th, 1999 and on the back was an ad for the Houston Funniest Person Contest. Deadline to June 9th, 1999. Today is June 9th, 1999. I need to get over there. I didn’t have a car. A good friend of mine, Nickolas Jahanian, took me over to the Laff Stop. I was told, “No, the deadline had already passed.” I had the Houston Press in my hand and I was still told no. Mark Babbitt came down and was like, “If the Houston Press says so then we have to honor it.”
Now I’m shitting bricks. You see all the stuff I wrote was for high school. And now I had to go up on stage in three days. A good friend of mine, Kenny Daniels, I was up at his house at 3 o’clock in the morning the night before the contest writing jokes. One of these jokes was a shit joke. No pun intended. It was about Jennifer Lopez and women, you know, how you look at women and it’s wow they are so sexy. You don’t think about the ten-inch log that came out of her ass. The whole crowd laughs and I’m like, “Whoa! This is amazing!”
I end up making it to the wild card round. Mark Babbitt came up to me, and says, “Listen, don’t ever do a shit joke on this stage again.” I was 17. I have nothing else! You don’t know what I went through to write this joke at 2 o’clock in the morning for a contest I just found out about? Give me a break. I was angry and all I could say was “Yes Sir.”
From that, I found out open mic were happening. I started to hit the open mics. I was getting laughs. Yet I noticed I was getting nowhere with the Laff Stop. I felt I needed to get out of the environment. I wanted to further my career not just work the big stage at the Laff Stop.
Steve Stricklin, 1999 Houston Funniest Person winner, told me I ought to go to the Comedy Showcase. “Look I’m working there, you ought to come out”. My buddy Nick took me out to the Showcase and that’s where I saw my wife Peggy on stage doing stand up.
So I walked up to Danny Martinez and without skipping a beat, “So you want to go up at my club” and we clicked immediately. And I went up the next Thursday night. Danny took me aside and told me “I’ve mentored many comics some have gone on to successful careers. If you listen to me you will be very successful and you will be my last student. And was like no brainer. Yeah!
So what happened next?
Danny put me through the ringer. For a year I went up at the Showcase and I still did not get to open. It was a full year before he actually had me opening for him. It was a short jump from that to feature. A year and a half later in my fourth year I was headlining. Danny wanted me to have more time in my pocket because you never know. I felt really prepared. You can’t buy that type of wisdom.
Danny’s advice for me was to write clean, universal material and break the bad habits I developed at open mics. If I didn’t listen to that advice, I would not have been able to capitalize on the opportunities given to me. It was like getting a Masters Degree at the Danny Martinez School of Comedy. From Danny Martinez, I met Don Learned. Don is like an uncle to me. I’m grateful to a lot of people Jim Holder, Olivia Arrington, Caroline Picard. They all took me on the road with them and taught me a lot.
How did 9/11 change your act?
I was on my way getting ready to work at the flag shop. My mom wakes me up, “Oh My God! You have to see this!” Shocked I get into my car and drive to work.
My life turned upside down. How was I going to do Comedy in America? I was already working on being an American citizen myself.
It was the worst. Everyone had his or her own particular moment of anger. Me, I felt my life was over. I remember hearing from everyone around me that my career was over. Before 9/11, I knew there were not many Arab comedians and not many people knew anything about my culture. I thought to myself maybe I can be a comedy ambassador and introduce America to my culture.
It took me four months before I could open up to audiences as myself. After 9/11 that goal became even more important to me.
For a month after 9/11 I was Italian and I hated it. Stand up is about being honest and truthful. If you’re not honest, you’re not funny. I felt I wasn’t doing stand up anymore. I felt like I was a joke within a joke. And I thought of my grandparents, may they rest in peace, and that they’d be ashamed of me pretending to be something I am not. And I hated it. I realized who cares how people are going to think of me, that’s not who I am. They are going have to get over themselves because once you get to know me you’re going to love me.
It was tough. As soon as I told them who I am, the audience would go from laughter and applause to dead silence. I had to work through that and just have faith that better things will come. I just needed to continue to be truthful on stage and continue to get funnier and funnier.
So how did you end up joining “Allah Made Me Funny?”
A lot of people and organizations, Muslim and non-Muslim, were looking for Arab/Muslim comedians. I ended up doing international gigs. I started touring with International singing sensation Sami Yusuf in America. After that, I started touring with Danish R&B singing group Outlandish and the charity Islamic Relief doing sold out shows. I ended up doing shows in the UK at the Royal Albert Hall in ’07 & ’08, Scotland, Manchester and Birmingham. From that, I got booked to tour in Australia. By the way, when Royal Albert Hall booked me for the following year they wanted 30 new minutes.
That’s when I was told I needed to meet this guy named Preacher Moss. Allah Made Me Funny, these guys’ sounds like something from Disney. Turns out Preacher Moss is the founder of AMMF, had twenty years comedy experience. He’s written and toured with George Lopez for many years. He’s also worked with and written for Damon Wayans and Darrell Hammond. Wow, he’s a super legitimate writing machine.
Preach told me, “I may not be the funniest guy but I will outwork and outlast you.” We ended up working the same show in LA. He saw me kill first hand. Then I met Azhar Usman and we clicked immediately like a family. Since then, we’ve toured over 22 countries. Currently, We’re working on trying to get a South Asian tour. AMMF is a tremendous spiritual and stand up experience.
In 2009 I became a US citizen, which enabled me to travel to Amman and I saw my Uncle, cousins, and aunts I hadn’t seen for almost twenty years or meetings for the very first time. It was an amazing and humbling experience.
Any advice to young comics?
If you really truly feel you are destined to be a stand-up comedian nothing should be able to shake that trajectory. If this is your destiny, do it and be happy about it. Do your best, run your own race and don’t be distracted with other people’s successes. If you do, you won’t go anywhere. You need to be happy for other people as much as you can.
Never say, “Oh, why him and not me?” Keep running your own race. Your opportunity will come if you focus on what you need to focus on and that’s your material and your spirit. Your heart has to be in the right place. Remember, there is also a business side to comedy. You need to learn it.
Click Here for the official website of Mo Amer! Follow Mo on Twitter!
Interviewed & Written by: Al Bahmani Edited By: Magee Miller