When Mo Amer and the rest of Allah Made Me Funny, the all-Muslim comedy trio, hit the stage in Columbus, Ohio in 2007, they knew it would be a special performance. They had a guest in the audience: Columbus local Dave Chappelle. “Chappelle, his mom, his niece, his brother and sister all came out to watch our show,” Amer recalls. “We were freaking out.”
Following the set, Chappelle, who converted to Islam in 1998, stayed back and performed an hour of his own material—a rare occurrence at the time. The night cemented his appreciation for “Allah Made Me Funny”—Amer, Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss—and sparked what would become a long, close working relationship with the group’s members.
Today Amer is one of Chappelle’s go-to opening acts and has toured in over twenty countries. Tonight he will perform his latest one-hour set, “No Fly Zone,” at New York’s Gramercy Theatre. His material—much of which is based around animated personal anecdotes—draws on his upbringing as a Kuwait-born refugee of Palestinian descent in Houston, Texas, along with his experiences traveling the world as stand-up comedian.
Amer’s family moved to Houston in 1990, seeking asylum from Kuwait during the first Gulf War—“Or as I like to call it, the prequel,” he says in one joke. Amer was nine years old at the time. “It was a massive culture shock,” he says. “In Kuwait I was at a British-English school, and it was very proper.” Once he got to Houston, he was forced to adjust his clothing, manners and way of speaking—often learning through trial and error. “One time I asked my teacher for a rubber, instead of an eraser, and she freaked out,” he recalls, now with a Texas twang.
Amer decided he wanted to become a comedian at the age of 10, after his brother took him to see Bill Cosby perform at the Houston Rodeo and Livestock Show. “He was so damn funny and the crowd was going insane,” he says. “I was sucked in, and I knew in my heart that was it. That was what I was supposed to do.”
Bizarrely, this Cosby fascination came full circle in 2013, when the Cosby repurposed one of Amer’s jokes—a bit in which he compares the game of chess to marriage—in his Comedy Central special Far From Finished. “Years later I’m watching him move his mouth to my joke,” Amer says. “As a comedian you’re mad, like, ‘That’s my shit!’ but as a human being you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s really cool that I’m good enough for that.’”
When Amer was 17, after practicing on his fellow students in middle school and high school, he began performing stand-up in Houston’s comedy clubs, eventually finding a home base at the Comedy Showcase. There, he sought the tutelage of the club’s owner, Danny Martinez. “He became my comedy mentor,” Amer says of Martinez, who later became his father-in-law. “He taught me everything I know about stand-up, about cadence, about timing.”
Amer began touring with Martinez and Caroline Picard, another local comedian. He played at clubs around the South—he refers to the route as the “chitlin circuit”—and even accompanied Picard on a tour of international U.S. army bases. “I had so much momentum going,” he says, but after 9/11 that momentum came to a halt. His tour to Japan, Korea and Bahrain was canceled. He worried about performing his set in local clubs, due to its personal nature and references to his culture. “I was scared,” he says. “For six months I just pretended to be Italian so I could let things blow over.”
But pretending became untenable. “I felt like I was losing myself,” he says. “Eventually I got so frustrated that I decided to go up at a comedy show and talk about who I was.” The experience was far from easy. “The audience went from laughter to complete shock,” he recalls, but eventually the crowd warmed up and he felt renewed worth in his more personal material. “You could feel that you were battling with these people’s emotions.”
Amer has continued to bring this tension into his material ever since, challenging his audience while making them laugh. In 2005 he joined fellow Muslim comedians Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman on tour with Allah Made Me Funny for the first time. After some deliberation, Amer agreed to appear on a few shows, and shortly into the tour realized that the project would become an important part of his life. He decided to jump in with both feet.
He postponed his plans to move to Los Angeles, instead traveling with Moss and Usman for almost 10 years before branching out solo again, and later joining forces with Dave Chappelle. The group toured in Europe, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East, and filmed a feature length documentary called Allah Made Me Funny. While the film only had an indie release, several Muslim comedians, including Hasan Minhaj and Nazeem Hussain, credit it as a driving motivation for their stand-up careers.
For the majority of these early touring years, Amer navigated immigration checkpoints using only a refugee travel document; he wasn’t technically a U.S. citizen until 2009. References to this process appear frequently in his stand-up. In one joke he describes facing trouble at the German border, because he doesn’t have a U.S., Kuwaiti or Palestinian passport. “I don’t have a Palestinian passport, because Palestine is not a state!” he tells an immigration officer, “Have you not watched the news in 68 years? I’m in Germany, this is all your fault to begin with.”
It makes sense, then, that when Amer finally did receive his U.S. passport, some of his first stops were in Jordan and the West Bank. On the trip, he visited family members he had never met before and performed stand-up in Nablus, where his father attended university. “It was a really overwhelming experience,” he says. “There are no words to explain the sense of accomplishment I felt after doing those shows.”
Early last December, Amer had the chance to share some of his story with none other than Eric Trump. On a flight from Newark to Scotland, Amer was upgraded to a seat right next to the president’s younger son. “The lady who upgraded me into that seat was certainly a Clinton supporter,” he later told Stephen Colbert about the experience. “I walked up to him and said ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum, brother, my name is Mohammed, I’m an Arab Muslim and I’m a refugee.’” Before taking off, he posted a picture of the two on his Instagram account, with a caption reading “Good news guys, Muslims will not have to check in and get IDs. That’s what I was told.”
Hey guys heading to Scotland to start the U.K. Tour and I am “randomly” chosen to sit next to non other than Eric Trump. Good news guys Muslims will not have to check in and get IDs. That’s what I was told. I will be asking him a lot of questions on this trip to Glasgow, Scotland. Sometimes God just sends you the material. #Merica #UKTour #HumanAppeal #ThisisNotAnEndorsement #Trump2016ComedyTour
A post shared by Mohammed “Mo” Amer (@realmoamer) on
By the time they landed, the photo had gone viral and Amer knew he had to make the story funny—and do it fast. “God forbid I become just ‘the guy who sat next to Eric Trump,” he says. “I want my body of work to speak for itself.” Almost immediately he began working on a bit, which he performed on The Late Show in March and has developed into a fuller segment in his new hour.
In hindsight, the run-in with Trump seems to have presaged a new phase in Amer’s career, one where he can finally speak truth to power on a larger scale than ever before. “Now people look to me for commentary,” he says. “What I’ve wanted from standup is to be able share my takes and ideas, and the Eric Trump thing has kind of fast-tracked that. It has given me platform that I’ve been wanting for a long time.”
Mo Amer performs tonight at 8 p.m. at the Gramercy Theatre in New York City.
Corinna Burford is an Australian-born, New York-based writer focusing on music, comedy, and pop culture. She has a Master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and an undying love of Houston rap. Follow her on Twitter.