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New Netflix series 'Mo' is based on Palestinian comic's life as a refugee in Houston
Judy Woodruff: A new series on Netflix is gaining acclaim for its portrayal of Arab American life rarely presented in popular culture and for the comedian who wrote and stars in the show, co-produced with Ramy Youssef.
Jeffrey Brown talks to Mo Amer, who bases this story on his own.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Mo Amer, Actor/Executive Producer: I went in there for some legal advice.
Jeffrey Brown: Did you hear the one about the Muslim immigrant of Palestinian descent, his Mexican-born girlfriend and Nigerian American best friend?
Welcome to the world of Mo.
Mo Amer: I don't believe in therapy. It's a scam.
Actress: How is therapy a scam?
Mo Amer: Because you pay some Ph.D $200 an hour, when you can talk to God for free any time.
Actress: I never see you get out a prayer mat.
Mo Amer: Yes, I don't walk around with a prayer rug all the time. What am I, Aladdin? This is not Disney.
Jeffrey Brown: The Houston-centered life of Mo Amer and the character he plays in the series "Mo" is an American mash-up or cultural collision, comedy and crisis.
Some things are sacred, like the olive oil he carries in a small bottle at all times, reminding him of his homeland. And don't even think of trying to sell him chocolate hummus.
Mo Amer: Nobody knows where it comes from. Nobody even knows what hummus means. Hummus means chickpeas. Like, people walk up to me like, here's some red bean hummus.
This is not hummus, OK? This is a red bean mash, is what this is.
Mo Amer: So, it's just like clearing that up. And it's — there's so much comedy to unearth there. And it's like this constant irritant that happens.
Jeffrey Brown: See, there you go. I mean, it's comedy, but an irritant.
Mo Amer: Sure.
Jeffrey Brown: It's like pain and pleasure at the same time for you?
Mo Amer: That's where the best comedy comes from. Like, if I'm not attached to it emotionally, I don't think it resonates comedically.
We made it. We made it. We made it, you all.
Jeffrey Brown: Two Netflix comedy specials first raised his profile nationally. Here, he riffs off the pandemic and more.
Mo Amer: That was the second time I ever thought my career potentially might be over. The first time was right after 9/11.
Mo Amer: Someone named Mohammed, I was like, it's not looking good for me out here.
Jeffrey Brown: And now "Mo" the series goes further, pushing Amer into acting and a sensitive, funny, but often painful portrayal of a family very much like his own, parents who left Palestine and migrated to Kuwait, where Mo himself was born, and then, in the Gulf War, fled again, this time for the Houston suburb of Alief, entering the U.S. as refugees.
Mo Amer: I may — I pinch myself daily.
Jeffrey Brown: On a visit to New York recently, he spoke of recent success, but early professional pressure to steer clear of his personal story.
Mo Amer: There was times where like, hey, my friends, my really good friends in stand-up, in comedy, would just be like, oh, my God, they're — I'd work with them. They come in from L.A. and they would do shows in Houston.
And a couple of cases, was like, just change your name, you know, just…
Jeffrey Brown: Change your name?
Mo Amer: Change your name. Just — you're so talented. Just change your name. Like, it will be so much easier. Like, you're just so good. Like, they would just tell me this.
And it would hurt my heart. I'm like, what do you mean? You want me to just pretend to be something else? That's the essence of stand-up. You're talking about acting at that point. Like, you want me to act in my real life? And how long do I hold on the charade for? Like, that's definitely not it?
Jeffrey Brown: "Mo" the series takes it on directly. There's plenty of humor, but Mo and his family are barely scraping by financially. He finds work on an olive tree farm.
As in real life, his father, a telecom engineer, died young of a heart attack, and Mo learns he'd been tortured earlier in his life. Twenty years in, the family is still waiting for citizenship papers, a painful bureaucratic process. It's a portrait of a fragile in-between existence.
Mo Amer: Very similar to my life, where it took me 20 years to get my citizenship. You felt like you were American. I felt like I was. And then somebody would tell you like, oh, wait, you weren't born here? And then they feel a little different.
And we're like, well, how can you pay taxes and still not have your papers? I'm like, yes, it's complicated. And that's been my whole life.
Jeffrey Brown: When you thought about how — what story you wanted to tell in this series, how important is that Palestinian identity, that heritage?
Mo Amer: Well, it's important to me because it's who I am, right? I am Palestinian.
Where I come from, these people do exist. And so it was important to me to just highlight that. But it wasn't the main point. It was — it was — just happens to be, like, the vehicle to deliver all these messages of belonging, if you ever worked paycheck to paycheck, trying to take care of family, and unable to do it. It doesn't — you don't have to be an immigrant to relate to the story. You just happen to be connecting with a Palestinian family while you're doing so.
Jeffrey Brown: Was it always obvious to you that you could use comedy as a way in to look at very serious issues that this series takes on?
Mo Amer: It's a great question. And it's so emotional, and it's so deeply personal to me.
It's like, I don't know if I could share that. Like, that's a lot. Like, how do you share that on camera? Are you comfortable with this? Imagine doing that like, and it's just on Netflix. It's going to go out to every country on planet Earth that had a subscription will be able to see it. That's a really hard thing to do, and very challenging emotionally.
However, it's really important to settle into that, to sit in it, to breathe in it, to feel it.
Jeffrey Brown: A serious moment, his your mother pushing back against his despair.
Actress: Hey, why you are raising your voice on us? What do you want us to do, huh? Sit and cry. Do you think me and your dad sat out there feeling sorry for ourselves because Saddam took everything we had?
Actor: Hey, Mo, my man, only players and coaches allowed on the field, buddy.
Jeffrey Brown: More for fun, Mo marches to the pitcher's mound to exhort his young nephew, who has just given up a home run.
Mo Amer: His name is Osama.
Jeffrey Brown: To live up to his Arabic name, Osama, or Lion.
For Mo Amer, it's all part of a deeply human story.
Mo Amer: Hold on a second, Bob.
Imagine all the things that had to happen for me to come here and to do a series, to end up with a series, It's like we — my mom fled Palestine. They end up in Kuwait. From Kuwait, we were born, and then and then you had to flee war as a little kid. This 9-year-old kid ends up in Houston, Texas. He goes to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, sees stand-up for the first time.
Ah! That's what I'm supposed to do. Four years later, my dad passes away. I'm doing stand-up in English class. So I — my teacher's way of getting me to not skip anymore and to try to help bring me back. So, I think it feels very much like destiny.
Jeffrey Brown: So, how surprised are you to be able to head a comedy show?
Mo Amer: I'm not going to lie. I look around sometimes like, is it real? Like, is it — is this — man, this is great. Like, it's really being received so well.
And I think that it's clear that the appetite is really big for some real stories that connect with people in a big way. And I'm just so grateful. The hard work really pays off, you know? It really does pay off.
Jeffrey Brown: Mo Amer is now waiting to hear if "Mo" the series will be renewed for a second season.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Judy Woodruff: All that hard work looks like it is paying off.
Thank you, Jeffrey Brown and Mo Amer.