Mo Amer on what makes Mo unlike anything we’ve seen on TV

“Whenever I would feel like it’s slipping into [trauma porn], I would immediately wake us up,” Amer says of his new Netflix series, ‘Mo.’ “That’s not what the show is.”

Culture

Toward the end of the penultimate episode of Mo, the new Netflix show co-created and starring comedian Mohammed “Mo” Amer, our titular protagonist and his family finally find themselves in a courtroom, on the cusp of being granted asylum after a seemingly interminable 22-year wait. The judge, who holds the fate of their American lives in his hand, unexpectedly meanders into a story about how he once knew Mo’s late father. It is a sweeping, sentimental moment unlike any other in the show — and is suddenly undercut by yet another cruel bureaucratic reality that stonewalls Mo’s family.

It’s practically an exact mirror of what actually happened to Amer, who immigrated from Kuwait with his Palestinian family to Alief, the Houston suburb that the show takes place in, when he was nine years old. It took Amer nearly 20 years to finally get his U.S. citizenship, a journey that was beset by such Kafka-esque roadblocks as the one in the seventh episode. Amer wrote the scene some nine years ago, long before he co-created Mo — the first ever American television show, by his count, centered around a Palestinian family — with Ramy Youssef, the comedian whose own semi-autobiographical show, Ramy, he appears on.

The scene is also, in some ways, America and the idea of America in miniature: the judge’s speech is a version of the romanticized story that America tells of itself, a haven taking in our tired, our poor, our huddled masses — a dream that is often dispelled by a much crueler, perplexing state of things. Similarly, Mo cuts through our idea of what an immigrant-refugee experience is like. The Mo we meet is not a foreigner, clinging to life, with nothing to his name: he is a Houston-bred (the show is as much a hilariously loving and honest tribute to Houston in all its eclectic glory) hustler selling bootleg Yeezys out of his trunk to provide for his family. He has been simultaneously living his life and trapped in an endless limbo.

Mo is remarkable for balancing both: the frustratingly bleak facts of Mo’s political reality, and also the sometimes whacky, sitcom-ready version of the standard, distinctly American life he is living. Amer spoke to Mic about how Mo deliberately eschews trauma porn and addresses the ramifications of Zionism, and whether he believes in the American Dream.

The show is a fictionalized version of your own life. But how much of the origin story, including those flashbacks, is based on your own family’s story of coming to and living in America?

Fleeing war and Kuwait all the way through the bus, 90% of that is exactly what happened. What my mother did when we left with our little life savings that we had — there was just a lot throughout the season that we weaved that’s based off of my life. Episode three is how I found out about my dad being tortured in the war. There's so much responsibility with the show. You have the generational heartbreak of being displaced and stateless. I didn't want it to be like, oh, they just fled Palestine, they ended up in Houston, Texas. No, this is really important to note: the [Gulf War] in 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, it was such a turning point for the entire Middle East, North Africa. And still to this day, we're dealing with it. Post-9/11, Iraq. It just hasn't stopped. It's just really important to highlight that era as well, and from a different perspective, from a refugee-asylee perspective, which we haven't seen before.

A lot of the show is centered around Mo’s struggle to get his asylum case through. How much did the process to citizenship mirror your own?

It took me 20 years to get my citizenship almost, a little shy of 20 years. My mom, took her about 20 and a half. So pretty accurate. What happened in episode seven at the end, the way it ends, that's exactly what happened to us in court. Crazy — you don't need to write stuff like that, you know?

The end of that episode is such a brutal rollercoaster.

Bro, you’re telling me. I'm like reliving them again in such a powerful way, it’s so intense to share it to the world. And it's one of those things that, where you're in a writing room and I'm telling stories on my life, everybody's like, “Yeah, we don't need to rewrite this. This is already written. We should save that and build around it.”

(L to R) Mo Amer as Mo, Teresa Ruiz as Maria in episode 103 of MO.

Rebecca Brenneman/Netflix © 2022

For better or worse, this show will be seen through the lens of being a kind of representational breakthrough about a Palestinian family in America. Did you feel that pressure, or did you just make the show you wanted to make?

There's no doubt that I felt a tremendous amount of weight on my shoulders about it. I wasn't thinking, ‘Oh I'm the first blah, blah, blah.’ I never really thought that way. It was about the subject matter and doing it justice. As long as the focus was there, everything else doesn't matter. It shouldn't be a show that's gonna be like labeled as a certain type of show. No, this is a cinematic show that's been shot so well, and the subject matter is absolutely universal. It's not just for refugees, asylees. It’s for anybody that wants to fit in, that feels like they have to work four jobs at a time to provide for their family, who are losing themselves spiritually. This is about how easily you can slip into addiction, how easily accessible those drugs are to you, and what can happen to you if you start to self-medicate, potentially not only when you lose yourself, [but when] you lose things you love the most. It’s for those individuals that feel like less than, that wish they could provide more for their families.

It’s a show that is about and informed by the hardship and the trauma that Mo has, but it also refuses to wallow in pity or despair. That essence feels true to the immigrant experience. How conscious were you of avoiding a tone of trauma porn for the show?

It’s exactly what my mom says in episode eight, right? This is what we do. We carry on. It's easy to go into that [trauma porn route]. And I was a big objector to that. Whenever I would feel like it's slipping into that, I would immediately wake us up like, hey, hey, we're not doing that. That's not what the show is.

But at the same time, whenever we had something that was so potent and dramatic and serious, we were just gonna sit in it; we weren't gonna shy away from it, when it does happen. Like the scene with the priest [played by Houston legend Bun B] and confessional, that was something that we just had to be in it, to show the discomfort of Mo and how he tries to deflect right away and then immediately gets very serious and calm and starts to focus and bring it back because he’s in a trusting place, and all of a sudden it just comes pouring out of him.

MO. (L to R) Cherien Dabis as Nadia, Mo Amer as Mo in episode 105 of MO.

Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

The show jokes about the “branding issue” between Israel and Palestine, but it also talks seriously at times about what Zionism has done to Palestinians. Considering how politicized and limited the understanding many Americans watching the show have about Palestine’s history, were there conversations about how to tread around these subjects, or did you see these references simply as statements of fact?

What my family experience is, staying grounded with that was all I needed for a roadmap. As far as politically, making it an overtly political show was not what I wanted to do. No, this is a real family with real problems, trying to find their way, a product of statelessness and generational displacement now dealing with it and what the spiritual implications are, what the worldly implications are. How do you balance all that? You just tell the story from the honest side, from their perspective, from their experience.

I think that showing those relationships in the show as well, with the uncles, I love that so much. I've always wanted to have them playing traditional tarneeb — it’s basically like spades but the spade always changes. It’s just a fun interaction, an honest one, where you have a Zionist, Jewish-background character with a Christian Palestinian, which you don’t hear about at all — when you hear about Palestine, you hear Muslim-Jewish conflict, which is totally not it. And they're going at it. They're having heated discussions, and they're just yelling at each other. But then when the waiter comes, he's like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you want tea?’ He cares, he shows this compassion and care and tenderness to his brother, his friend. It's just a beautiful thing. That's a big enough statement for me.

When you go through things like what happened in the courtroom in episode seven, did that corrupt or change your view of America?

Oh, man. It just made me so sad more than anything else to feel so American yet not be accepted. Not to be legal-on-paper American, not to be able to have a sense of pride of where I come from, from Houston, from Texas. I'm a Texan. I take a lot of pride in that. And then when people would look at me so differently when they find out that I'm not a citizen, [it] just made me so sad, it's the only way I could say it. We can have a great relationship, great conversation, and all of a sudden like, whoa, you're not one of us? Are you one of us? And then at the same time, I go tour overseas and people are like, oh, you're American. I was like, ‘Yo, I was born here. Hold on a second.’ I can't be myself there — I’m not seen as that there, now I'm not seen out here. Like, what the fuck? Where do I go?

That real experience you saw at the end of episode seven, hand to God, that's exactly what happened. It was just so mind-blowing. We got a new lawyer, everything's looking good. All our paperwork's in order, we sit down. All of a sudden, the judge starts asking questions to my mother, oddly personal ones. We were like, okay, this is a good thing then, right? No, it’s not. It's taken away from you. And now you have to wait again. It's just like, what just happened?

Another layer on top of that is that the immigration process is so pathetically disorganized. In this modern age of technology and all these different applications that exist, how is this possible that it's all still on paper and it's in shambles? We don't know when, and things could change in a whim. Could you imagine thinking that you're gonna have court in like a week? And then all of a sudden you get a call, like, sorry. What do you mean sorry? Now you’re just going to have to wait. How long? I don't know. It's just absurd. Basically the immigration system, the way it's set up now, it puts you in a situation to do illegal things. It can be really, really difficult to maintain an above-water lifestyle if you're an immigrant asylee in America.

A lot of people's relationship with the idea of America has changed particularly in the last several years. Do you think the American Dream is real?

You just asked a refugee that fled war at nine years old from Kuwait to Houston, Texas, who has a television series and two standup specials on one of the biggest platforms in the world, if the American dream is real? It’s very real. It’s very real. And hope is a really important part of it, understanding who you are is a very important part of it, being grounded in faith for me was a big part of it. But absolutely the American Dream is alive and well, and I'm a direct example of that.

I don't think my father, God rest his soul, I don't even know what he’d start thinking [if he were alive today]. Like, what happened? I don't think anybody saw this coming — me having my own show and telling a series like this, doing stand-up on the scale is just really mind-blowing. I can't show a clip to my mother without her crying, you know? It's beautiful.