Mohammed Amer Is a Salad Bowl
ALIEF, Texas — Mohammed Amer started up his black Mercedes and pointed to a corner across from Alief Middle School. The location was laden with meaning.
“That’s where I learned to play the dozens,” he said as he turned out of the school parking lot, referring to the age-old game in which combatants insult each other’s mothers.
“At first, I took it so personally,” said Amer, who emigrated from Kuwait when he was 9 years old: “‘How could you guys be talking like this to each other? What’s going on in America?’ Then I realized it was just a big bonding experience. And that’s what introduced me to comedy.”
It’s a good time to be Amer, who goes by Mo, a Palestinian American comedian who grew up in this diverse, working-class Houston suburb. His new scripted series, “Mo,” premieres on Netflix on Aug. 24. He has a role in the upcoming action-fantasy movie “Black Adam,” starring Dwayne Johnson, who taped a spirited introduction to Amer’s most recent Netflix standup comedy special. A youthful 41, he is starting to reap the benefits of years spent busting his tail in the comedy world.
But Alief will always be home, even if he currently lives a few miles away, in downtown Houston. It’s where he discovered how it felt to live in a community defined by its diversity — Black, Mexican, Vietnamese, you name it. To drive through Alief is to see tightly packed strip malls filled with the business equivalent of the United Nations: a Vietnamese restaurant next to a Mexican grocery store next to a Parisian bakery.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, Amer was scared when he first got to the United States after his family fled Kuwait during the first Gulf War. But he quickly found friends from all over the world, and he never really left.
He speaks English, Arabic and Spanish, as does his character on the new show, also named Mo. And he finds humor in the tensions that demarcate his various identities. On “Mo,” his girlfriend, Maria (Teresa Ruiz), is a Mexican American woman who runs a garage. (We drove by the inspiration for the shop, which is, indeed, owned by a Mexican American woman.) But he’s scared to commit, partially because of his low self-esteem but also because he knows his mother (played by the Palestinian Jordanian actress Farah Bsieso) won’t approve.
When Maria takes him to confess at a Catholic church, he explains to the priest (played by the local hip-hop legend Bun B) that he is Muslim and the crucifixion iconography really freaks him out. Then he breaks down crying.
“In many ways, Mo is the melting pot,” said Ramy Youssef, the Egyptian American star and creator of the Hulu comedy “Ramy,” who created “Mo” with Amer. Yousef also cast Amer in a supporting role on “Ramy,” as the owner of a diner.
“Not to use a tired word, but he is very literally multicultural,” Youssef continued. Told of his friend’s analogy, Amer offered a correction: “I like salad bowl better than melting pot. Everybody loses their own identity in the melting pot. In a salad bowl, everything retains its original flavor.”
Alief also has an above-average crime rate for the Houston area, a reality that finds its way into “Mo.” One moment, Mo is decrying the existence of chocolate hummus in a grocery store (“That’s a war crime”). The next, he is catching a stray bullet that grazes his arm. Uninsured, he goes to a sort of chop-shop doctor who stitches him up and gives him some lean, a potentially lethal mix of codeine cough syrup and soda, long popular in Houston’s hip-hop scene. (It was a factor in the overdose deaths of the Houston hip-hop favorite DJ Screw, as well as Pimp C, from nearby Port Arthur.) Mo battles a lean addiction throughout the first season.
Amer wants to make one thing very clear: “I do not have a codeine addiction. I do not sip lean.” But, like his character, he did used to sell knockoff luxury goods from the trunk of his car, including fake Rolex watches.
“There were a lot of drug dealers in the neighborhood that loved flashy stuff but didn’t want to necessarily spend 10 grand,” he said. “Everybody in Alief had a side hustle.” That included the woman in his old apartment building who sold frozen Kool-Aid pops for a quarter.
To watch “Mo” and meet Amer is to wonder where the artist and his creation diverge. Many of the important details of the series are true to life. Amer was a child when he arrived in Alief with his family from Kuwait. His father, a telecom engineer, died of a heart attack soon after. And it took Amer 20 years to get asylum and U.S. citizenship, a process dramatized in the series, often humorously. Unhappy with his unreliable Palestinian lawyer, Mo switches to an American Jewish woman, Lizzie Horowitz (the Austin comedian and actor Lee Eddy), which mortifies his mom.
Amer exudes a sense of authenticity, a quality that endears him to his cast. “He is so honest and genuine,” Bsieso said in a video call. “He doesn’t try to fake anything. He reaches the heart and soul of anybody who listens to him or watches him or works with him.”
In his standup work and on “Mo,” Amer’s comedy is shot through with a sense of anxiety, sometimes playful, other times more serious. In his comedy specials, including last year’s “Mo Amer: Mohammed in Texas,” his voice rises in concern and even confusion whenever he addresses a sticky subject (Covid-19, his recent divorce). Mo is often flustered as he navigates his life in the series. Vulnerability is an essential part of his work.
“Most of my life has been anxiety, and I think comedy is the way I’ve been able to channel it,” he said. “Standup has been a lifesaving thing for me. Standup allows the space for me to emote how I feel at any moment in time. With standup you spend most of your life getting better at it, but also trying to top yourself. Imagine a brick wall. Every time you go onstage, you chip away at the wall until eventually there’s nothing in front of you except the crowd.”
Youssef sees the Mo of the series as a sort of alternative universe Amer.
“I think a lot of the antics that happen in the show are daydreams of what would have happened if Mo hadn’t found comedy,” he said. “What if that wasn’t his path and that wasn’t what he was doing? Life is this fork, and you turn left or right. The fun thing about making a show is asking, ‘What if I went left?’ And then we get to write that.”
Amer turned his car toward his old high school, Hastings, a stone’s throw from another high school, Elsik. The R&B star Lizzo went to Elsik. Beyoncé did, too, and she shot the video for her song “Blow” right down the street, at the indoor amusement park and roller rink Houston Funplex, where Mo has a lean-induced breakdown on the show.
Another Elsik alum, the rapper Tobe Nwigwe, plays Mo’s best friend, Nick, on the show. “Mo” is very much a neighborhood affair, shot where it’s set. It stands apart in that regard from many movies and series set in Texas, which often shoot in nearby states — New Mexico, Louisiana — to take advantage of more generous tax incentives. Amer is fiercely proud of his home base; it’s practically a character in the series. He wasn’t about to shoot in Albuquerque.
The most compelling conflict in “Mo” pits modernity against tradition. Mo loves hip-hop, and the soundtrack is laden with Houston artists, including DJ Screw, Big Moe and Paul Wall, who also has a funny cameo as a courthouse security guard. He loves his assimilated girlfriend. But he is also a practicing Muslim, committed to his faith and family.
“He is modern but also deeply connected with his roots, and we all know that’s a really difficult thing to balance, especially in his position where he is essentially penniless and just trying to maintain his dignity and juggle all these emotions,” Amer said. “He’s definitely modern with the mind-set of the old as well.”
He’s the salad bowl. Welcome to the party. Just don’t bring the chocolate hummus.