- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mo Amer still recalls the moment he knew stand-up comedy would be the one and only thing he would do with his life.

His elder brother took him when he was 10 to see Bill Cosby perform at the Houston Astrodome.

“I really didn’t know much about American culture,” Mr. Amer told The Washington Times. “That was my first-ever experience of stand-up comedy,” which he calls the only other “indigenous American art form” besides jazz.

He recalls how Mr. Cosby’s act quickly had 60,000 Texans in the palm of his hand. Mr. Amer asked himself, “What is this art that he’s doing? I made the decision right then and there that that was what I was going to do for a living.”

Mr. Amer will record his one-hour special, “Legally Homeless,” at the Warner Theatre on Sunday, the culmination of a lifelong quest.

But chasing a career as a comedian was the last thing his family wanted to hear.

Born in Palestine and raised in Kuwait, he and his family escaped Kuwait in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War. Mr. Amer’s family then settled in Houston. His brother was pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Houston. Education was always a paramount concern for his parents, and Mr. Amer attended a British school in Kuwait before the family’s escape.

“My father came from a well-to-do family and worked for a telecommunications engineer for the Kuwaiti Oil Co. and made millions of dollars,” Mr. Amer said, “but it was all gone overnight [when they came to America]. So it was just this process of acclimating from east to west.”

Adding to his travails in the New World, his father died when he was a teenager. He started skipping school and taking unsanctioned trips to Mexico with his friends.

“[That] was a big, big black spot for my family, especially where I come from,” he said of his “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” period.

Despite his family’s insistence on education, his comedy dreams were not to be erased. A kindly English teacher, fearing Mr. Amer would flunk out of high school, pulled him aside and told him, “’Mo, how would your father feel if you didn’t graduate?’ It pierced my heart. I said it would be absolutely horrific.”

The teacher made a deal with him: If he performed a monologue from Shakespeare in front of her class, she would reinstate his grade before his truancy began and allow him to try his hand at comedy in front of the class every Friday.

“It was a no-brainer to me,” he said. “I would show up every Friday with my new set, excited to go up, terrified, but the first time I heard the laughs, everything else would melt away and I was just a natural at it.”

Mr. Amer graduated and immediately threw himself into his passion, hitting Houston’s comedy clubs as often as possible to refine his act while working a day job at a flag manufacturing company owned by a family friend — and trying to get fired to spend more time at the mic.

Now he is a veteran of two decades of performing at home and at U.S. military bases around the world. He has performed in Muslim countries and found more comedy in those experiences. He recalls being surprised when he met certain Palestinians who spoke with a “redneck” timbre.

“It messes with your head when [someone] speaks Arabic with a Southern accent. That’s hilarious,” he said.

Much of Mr. Amer’s act centers on the typical immigrant story of moving to a new land and the inevitable culture shocks that ensue. To wit, 20 years after arriving in Texas, Mr. Amer was still considered a refugee by the U.S. government and didn’t even have a passport.

“Stand-up comedy, to me, is about being real, about being honest,” he said. “I tell stories. I excel at telling stories in a very particular way. I traveled to over 20 different countries without even having a passport. And you can imagine how many interrogations I had, both abroad and coming back into America.”

He relates an anecdote about flying into Houston from overseas, where he was tossed into a holding area with others without proper documentation.

“We’re all waiting because they have our passports or, in my case, my travel document,” he said.

Striking up a conversation with one of the guards, Mr. Amer commented on the man’s military haircut and which military branch he had served in, saying his own brother was a Marine. After correctly guessing where the officer served overseas, Mr. Amer asked the guard if he could fetch his documents: “He literally comes back two minutes later, and he’s like, ‘Have a good one.’”

Despite turning the pain of feeling like an outcast in his adopted country into comedy gold, Mr. Amer speaks seriously of the plight of legal immigrants like himself. For 20 years, he said, he worked and paid taxes in America despite not having citizenship. (He is now a U.S. citizen.)

“You want immigrants to come here and be like, ‘You know what? America embraced me when I came here, I had nothing on my record, I worked very hard, I gave all I could, I always care, I want to vote, I want to be part of this society, I am part of this society,’” he said, “‘and I just want to be recognized, and to be recognized and to be embraced says a lot.”

At the same time, he is ever-cognizant that there are those who seek entry into the U.S. to do harm. He said closing the borders isn’t the answer but concedes that immigration authorities need to be vigilant.

“As a government, I believe we have to protect our borders — that’s No. 1,” Mr. Amer said. “I agree with that wholeheartedly. [But] they’re incredibly unorganized,” Mr. Amer said of the U.S. immigration hierarchy.

He also has dealt with homegrown hatred: The mosque he attends in Houston has been vandalized on more than one occasion.

“There’s a lot of demeaning language, as well, that hurts people,” he said. “The vast majority [of immigrants] are genuinely here trying to make a living and trying to move forward.”

He recalls that during his citizenship test, the final question on his oral exam was “Have you or anyone else you know been involved or funneled funds to the Nazi Party from the period of 1933 to 1945?”

“Obviously, I wasn’t even alive,” Mr. Amer said. “And then he asked me, ‘Are you a terrorist? Are you not a terrorist?’ That is very demeaning of a person’s spirit.”

All of this and more will be featured when Mr. Amer records his comedy special at the Warner Theatre on Sunday evening — the first one-hour special taped by an Arab-American. He will be joined by Bassem Youssef, known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” because of a similar satirical program he hosts — and on which Mr. Amer once appeared.

Mo Amer is one of my favorite stand-up comedians,” Mr. Youssef said in a statement. “That’s why I had to feature him on my show.”

Mr. Amer also has opened for Dave Chappelle, who describes Mr. Amer as “hilarious, thought-provoking and inspiring.”

Now it is Mr. Amer’s turn to take center stage, a chance he relishes.

“I feel this is my first introduction to the world,” he said. “This is who I am, this is my experience, this is what I went through. Here’s my observations. Maybe there’s some solutions, maybe there isn’t, but I’m telling you this is how I feel and it’s very, very funny.”

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