When Mo Amer was nine, he left his home in Kuwait with his mother and sister. "It was a tough time," he told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn. "We fled war in Kuwait and we ended up in Houston, Texas. Which is a natural destination for refugees."
Texas is where Amer first experienced stand up comedy. "I saw stand up for the first time when I was ten at the rodeo, and I told my brother that this is what I want to do for a living," he recalled.
A few years later, when Amer was 14, his father died. Amer told Ophira that he stopped caring about most matters, including school. One of his teachers not only helped him get back on track, but also gave him his first opportunities to start performing. "My English teacher, who said 'Don't you want to be a comedian? How'd your father feel if you don't graduate?,' just really pierced my heart," he explained. "She goes, 'Listen, if you go up in front of the class right now and recite a monologue from Shakespeare, I'll let you do stand up on a weekly basis in class, but the deal is you can't skip.'"
Amer said it was the easiest deal of his life. Through his comedy, he became involved in the theater department, which led to him performing in many of his classes. He ultimately graduated high school early, at age 17, and "started doing stand up right out of the gate" while supporting himself by working at a flag store — a job that his mother found for him.
In 1999, Amer entered Houston's Funniest Person Contest and made it to the finals. This marked his big start in comedy, and his early career involved touring and performing stand up on United States overseas military bases. In 2006, Amer joined the comedy group Allah Made Me funny, and appeared in the troupe's concert-documentary film of the same name. Recently, Amer toured the United States with Dave Chappelle, and he released his Netflix special The Vagabond in 2018. Today, Amer continues to tour abroad — and said authenticity is the secret to winning over international audiences.
"The trick is about stand up, is that if you're not real--I don't care if you're in Cape Town, South Africa or in Temple, Texas--people will sniff that out. So, it doesn't really matter what location you're in, it matters what state of mind you're in."
The importance of being genuine is something Amer learned from Chappelle, who served as a friend and mentor for Amer. He said Chapelle taught him "The guy on stage is the guy who's real, it's like Larry David, his show, he's like, 'No, no, that's actually me. Who I am, out on the street, is actually the fake dude. This is the real dude,' and that's something that's really, really special when you can truly do that. "
For Amer, comedy is more than a career, it's a form of therapy. "To have the ability or the platform to speak truths that just gnaw at you on a daily basis, minute to minute, to be able to take it on stage and to make it hilarious, hopefully at least, is very rewarding," he told Eisenberg. "And there is something that happens inside of me that knows that this is where I belong."
Between his extensive travels and working at a flag store, Amer knows a fair amount about flags. Eisenberg challenged him to identify international flags based on their descriptions.
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