Comedian Mo Amer Takes His Refugee Experience To Netflix
Comedian Mo Amer came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 9. He tells NPR’s Michel Martin about his new Netflix comedy special, which brings humor to his experience of growing up.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The refugee experience. Now, it’s often in the news these days. And those stories are often sad or thoughtful or even horrifying, but they’re hardly ever a laughing matter. Somehow, though, our next guest manages to talk about his not-always-easy experience of moving to the U.S. as a refugee, and he still makes it hilarious.
Mo Amer moved with his family of Palestinian heritage from Kuwait to Texas when he was 9 years old. And he has mined his experiences to find comedy gold. Now he has a Netflix special out called “The Vagabond,” where he tells many crazy stories, everything from learning Spanish – because people so often assumed he’s Mexican – to being bumped up to first class on a flight, only to find himself seated next to the president’s son, Eric. And Mo Amer is with us now from NPR’s bureau in New York. Mo, thanks so much for talking with us.
MO AMER: Well, thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And congratulations on the special and all of that and…
AMER: Thank you.
MARTIN: …Sold-out shows and all of that.
AMER: It’s incredible.
MARTIN: And I want to start with the incident that went viral a few years ago, which was a lot of people’s first introduction to you. A month after President Trump was elected, you sat next to, then, the president-elect’s son, Eric Trump, on an airplane. Now, this is after a campaign in which the president – the now-president made no secret of his desire to make entry to the U.S. more difficult for people from Muslim countries. And I just want to play a little bit. And, yes, we are going to bleep some words. So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, “THE VAGABOND”)
AMER: I just sat down next to him. And I was like, salaam alaikum (ph), Eric. How’s it going, man? He was like, everything’s cool. I was like, yeah, yeah. I’m just messing with you, man. Listen, my name’s Mohammed. I’m Muslim. I’m Arab and a comedian, so I had to mess with you a little bit. And I also came here as a refugee. Too late, [expletive]. I made it, you know? It was nice.
MARTIN: (Unintelligible). So…
AMER: That’s actually what I said to him, too, by the way. I really did say that…
AMER: I really did say that word-for-word. I didn’t care.
AMER: I was just in the moment. Like, I just came from a flight from Australia, so I was kind of delusional. And I didn’t even know if it was real. I was waiting for somebody to come out – you know? – Ashton Kutcher to come out. You’ve been punk’d, Mohammed, you know? Like, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I just thought I’d go for it and see what happens…
MARTIN: Did he laugh? Because you were…
AMER: He didn’t. He was just like, yeah…
AMER: And when I took the picture, quite frankly, I didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation. Like, I had no idea. I just thought it was, like, a really funny thing. I sent it as a text to my friends, you know? Then, I sent it to Chappelle, like, ha. Look what happened. I sent it to my, you know, friends of my chat group. Like, oh, this is crazy.
And then, when I woke up in Glasgow, Scotland, and I turned on my phone, I realized the magnitude of the situation. I was like, oh, my God. My phone started just going nuts. Like, it was, you know, like you see in movies when you see the numbers just (unintelligible) start to go up. And he turned on his phone. His thing started going on – his phone started going off. He looked at me. I looked at him. It was like a bad one-night stand. We’re like, maybe we shouldn’t have done this. Maybe we should not have done this. It was one of those.
MARTIN: Well, let’s talk about some – about where you came from. You – that is – actually, the source of a lot of your jokes is arriving from Kuwait. You said your parents didn’t do any research and…
MARTIN: …Somehow, you landed in Texas, where you were kind of caught between the…
AMER: Yeah. I was used to…
MARTIN: You tell it.
AMER: Yeah. So I was born in Kuwait. I went to a nice private British English school. I’m speaking, you know, British English, learning multiple languages at the same time. And I ended up in Houston, Texas. And they put me in ESL class, saying this is a second-language class, and I was the only guy that spoke English in that class. And I walk in. All the kids are looking at me like, hola. (Speaking Spanish). And I was like, sorry? What language are you speaking, you know?
AMER: I was just this kid, and this other guy walks up out of nowhere. He’s like, you’re weird, bro. Why do you talk like that? And that was my teacher.
AMER: And it was very, very tough. And then, the – and gang violence was – in my high school years was really, really tough because you had Latino gangs. You have black gangs, and they’re both fighting each other. And I was in the middle of it because Latino gangs, Mexican gangs predominantly wanted to recruit me because they thought I was Mexican. And then, black gangs wanted to beat me up because they thought I was Mexican.
So I’d just be minding my own business. And I see Latino gangs hanging out, and this guy just jumps out of me. Out of nowhere, he’s like, (speaking Spanish). You walk by here every day. You don’t say nothing, don’t do nothing. What? You’re not down with your own peoples (ph), bro? This is your familia, bro, (speaking Spanish), bro. What’s your name, (speaking Spanish)? What’s your name? I was like, my name was Mohammed. He was like, what?
AMER: For real, bro? You look exactly like Hector. How is that possible? They freaked out, and they started laughing. And then, we high-fived just because – you know, nervously. And I saw a gun sticking out of their pockets. I was like, I need to get the hell out of this situation.
MARTIN: And what about the black people, the black gangs, as you put it…
AMER: Yeah. There was a black gang…
MARTIN: OK. I’m taking your word for it. These are gangs, not just, like, people hanging out…
AMER: Yeah. There was – yeah, absolutely.
MARTIN: But OK. And then…
AMER: No, of course.
MARTIN: And what was their attitude about it…
AMER: Yeah. It was – one time, I was walking back home, and I was by myself. And, you know, that’s a big – you should always walk in groups – right? – when you’re going home. And I was by myself just walking down the street, and they were just coming at me. It was like, oh, we got you Jose. You all by yourself, Jose. What are you going to do now, Jose? And I’m looking around. I don’t see anybody else. I’m like, hey, man. Who the hell is Jose? I was like, man, my name is Mohammed. He goes, aw, man. Salaam alaikum, brother. My bad, you know? Like…
AMER: It was hilarious, and we became friends. And that’s how I was able to – not like friends friends. But we just – you know, like, they just didn’t mess with me anymore. And I could just have a life.
MARTIN: So do people recognize you? Like, can you go to the grocery store and all that?
AMER: Yeah. It’s amazing, yeah. I mean, people do recognize me. And it’s also, like, a thing where people walk up to me. Like, oh, my God. DJ Khaled, another one. I’m like, nah, man. I’m Mo, Mo Amer. They’re like, oh, yeah, Netflix special. No, I’m just kidding.
AMER: It – no. I get a lot of – it’s one of those things where people don’t believe that you just would show up, randomly, in front of them. So it just takes a moment where they just, like, stare at you, weirdly, on a regular basis. But then, when they – eventually, they find it out, it’s just – I love it, you know?
It’s just – it’s amazing to touch people in so many different ways like that and for people to watch your special and to relate to it, especially – you hear all these immigrants and people who have similar experiences and do that and, also, for those people who don’t understand it, never seen a Mohammed on stage before. And to see that and hear that experience is very, very powerful. So I’m really, really happy. From the, you know, Sarahs (ph) and the Denises (ph) in the middle of the world to the Mohammeds that are experiencing the same thing I’m experiencing, you know, that’s a massive blessing. And I couldn’t be happier and more honored to have that.
MARTIN: Mo Amer joined me from NPR’s bureau in New York. His standup special, “The Vagabond,” is currently available on Netflix. Mo, thank you so much for joining us.
AMER: Thank you, Michel.