How Comedian Mo Amer Balances The Funny and Tragic At Once
YouThe first episode of Netflix’s series Mo, a routine grocery store run in Houston results in Palestinian refugee Mo Najjar (Mo Amer) getting caught in the middle of a shooting—but not before he takes a moment to defend something near and dear to his heart.
“Hello, sir,” greets a grocery store worker giving out samples. “Would you like to try some chocolate hummus?”
“The f-ck you just say to me?” Mo asks, incredulous. “Did you say chocolate hummus? “Do you know what you just did? I was just insulted. Yeah. ‘F-ck your lineage. To hell with your culture.’”
“Lo siento,” says the worker, completely serious. “I did not know that hummus was Mexican.”
This comedy is full of funny side-splitting moments. Mo is chock-full of drama—and for that matter, trauma: Mo the character navigates the shooting, a subsequent addiction to lean (a codeine-based drink), and the struggles of navigating the U.S. immigration system as an asylum seeker. The show, billed as a semi-autobiographical dramedy, follows Mo’s trials and tribulations in Alief, the Houston suburb where his family, originally from Palestine, has settled down after initially living in Kuwait. Mo blurs the line between fiction and reality, with much of its plot sourced directly from Amer’s life. Amer, his parents from Palestine were born in Kuwait. They fled to the United States during the first Gulf War.
“Although it’s a comedy, you’ve got to lean into the tragedy,” Amer tells TIME. “You’ve got to let it breathe and can’t shy away from it. Because it is a tragic story.”
Mo serves the supermarket worker pita with homemade olive oil.
Amer, a 41-year-old actor and comedian, lives his life in this manner. Amer will sit with sadness and feel the full emotion. Amer makes a funny situation hilarious by giving every emotion it deserves.
Amer—who co-wrote, created, and starred in Mo—previously filmed two comedy specials for Netflix: 2018’s Mo Amer, The VagabondAnd Mo Amer: Mohammed, TexasIt will be 2021. Both specials brim with an almost palpable anxiety, an issue Amer didn’t realize he dealt with until the pandemic hit in 2020. Mo unfurls in this space, the gray area of anxiety where things can be so funny—and so tragic at once.
“I feel so at home and in the pocket when I’m creating something and channeling that energy,” Amer said. “And making comedy out of it is such a relief. It’s a natural relief.”
There are many scenes to enjoy in MoYou will learn how you can make it as an immigrant, and what the new concept of home is. This is the third episode. Mo opens on a flashback: a lush hillside in Burin, Palestine, zooming in on a white brick house with red awnings—it is, in fact, Amer’s grandparents’ house. Later in the episode, a lawyer lets slip to Mo that his family’s asylum claim to live in the U.S. is based on the fact that his father was tortured, which deeply shakes him. The scene is based on real experiences—something Amer hasn’t shared openly until now.
Mo and his family line up before a bus as they leave Kuwait in a flashback.
Amer realized while filming that this was the first time he’d ever had to cry about it in real life. He also hadn’t experienced the same pain as his father. It felt beyond weird, he said, to show a genuine breakdown on camera for the world to experience alongside him—but it also proved the healing power of art.
“There’s a lot of real things in the show you can’t write,” he said. “You could sit for 10 years, 20 years, and you won’t think of something as good as that. It’s just not going to happen. So when it’s there for you and it’s so good already, you just use it.”
Other instances, though—like Mo’s addiction to lean—are pure fiction. Amer said that it was never like switching between acting and not acting. Rather, his approach revolved around feeling “in touch.”
“I have a sensitive antenna,” he says. “I can feel another person’s energy really quickly. So that lends itself really well for me in acting in the show—or anything I do in front of the camera.”
In the video interview, he wore a silver necklace he designed that says “Mo” in Arabic. It’s also shaped to look like a key, a symbol of deep importance to Palestinians that represents the right to return to their homes. Amer hopes MoHis land is made humane. The character of his mother (played by Farah Bsieso) simultaneously pines for home and puts down roots, eventually starting her own olive oil business with Mo’s brother (played as lovably socially awkward by Omar Elba.) Mo’s sister (Cherien Dabis), on the other hand, has assimilated to the point of estrangement from her family, marrying a Canadian and raising a son between cultures.
“The bulk of it is about belonging: feeling seen as equal to the human that’s next to you,” Amer said. “And I think that for so many years, Palestinians—if not Arabs and Muslims—have been so faceless in entertainment.”
Amer refers to the documentary Beware of Bad Arabs—an extension of a book of the same name by Jack Shaheen—which details the history of how Hollywood has vilified Arabs throughout the ages. His favorite quote is “He’s a great guy.” MoThis is an opportunity to change the direction of representation by looking through the eyes of one beautiful, authentic and dysfunctional Palestinian family.
“It’s like that little restaurant that’s so good that not too many people know about,” says Naim. “Friends got to tell you about it. It’s amazing, it’s not like the commercial spots. This is one of those special spots.”
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