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.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
While Karen and Sara get ready for our final round, it's time for us to meet our next special guest. He's a comedian who was recently on tour with Dave Chappelle. And his Netflix special is called "The Vagabond." Please welcome Mo Amer.
MO AMER: Hi.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. So Mo, when you were 9 years old, your mother and sister and you fled from Kuwait to come to Houston.
EISENBERG: And then five years later, you were actually doing stand-up at 14 years old in front of your class at school.
EISENBERG: How did that happen? Like, why was that okay?
AMER: Well, you know, it was a tough time. We fled war in Kuwait. We ended up in Houston, Texas, which is a, you know, natural destination for refugees.
AMER: You know, it was a very difficult circumstance. And I saw stand-up for the first time when I was 10 at the rodeo. And I told my brother - I was like, this is what I'm going to do for a living.
AMER: And he was like, you're crazy. And then four years later - or five years later, excuse me, my father passed away. So I really stopped caring about school or just anything, really. And my English teacher, who said, don't you want to be a comedian? How would your father feel if you don't graduate? just really pierced my heart. She goes, listen. You go up in front of the class right now and recite a monologue from Shakespeare and I'll let you do stand-up on a weekly basis in class. And - but the deal is that you can't skip. I was like, oh, my God. This is the best deal I ever had in my life.
AMER: I just walked up in front of the class. I mean, I wiped the tears in front of my eyes. And I grabbed the English text. And I just walked onstage or walked in the front of the class - excuse me. And I was just like, to be or not to be? That is the - so I just - from then on. And then the next day, I started doing stand-up. And I was like, oh, my God. I got to write a whole set.
AMER: And I did. And then, I kept writing regularly. And I kept doing stand-up regularly every week in class. And my teacher was just like, oh, my God. She grabbed me, literally grabbed me by my forearm - I'll never forget it - took me to the theatre arts department. She's like, this kid's been coming to class every week writing original content. I think he belongs here. And that completely changed my life. I was an honorary thespian at that point. I mean, like, she - I was, like, doing, you know - a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I've learned I could sing. And I was doing...
AMER: ...Musical theatre. And she completely changed my life. And then I graduated at 17. I graduated early. And I started doing stand-up right out of the gate.
EISENBERG: That's amazing.
AMER: Here it is.
EISENBERG: I can't believe you went on the high school circuit.
AMER: Yeah. I did. I would get out of other - it was like the dream. I would leave class. I'm like, hey, guys. I'm leaving. Like, where you going? Oh, I've got to go to stand-up in Spanish. I got three shows today.
AMER: We got a quiz. Oh, it's fine. Everything's fine.
EISENBERG: You've said that comedy for you is like therapy. Like, everyone has a different reason why they do it, I feel. So in what way do you mean that?
AMER: I mean, 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. And there's something that happens inside of me that knows that this is where I belong, you know? It's just this space where - I grew up in a world where you don't talk about politics. You know, don't say this. Don't say that. You know, we fled war. My mom's fled two or three at this point, you know? So I lived in that world for so long. It was really detrimental to my own soul and being. And I've found stand-up to be one of the most rewarding things that I could do in life because I've had therapy. I've been married almost 13 years at this point and...
AMER: I mean, it's great.
AMER: But it's not like stand-up. It's like the guy on stage - Chappelle's the one who taught me this. He was like, man, 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 on the street when I'm out of the show is actually the fake dude. This is the real dude.
AMER: And that's something, like, that's really, really special when you can truly do that. And it takes a long time. And you don't just walk onstage and you're just real right out of the gate.
EISENBERG: That's fantastic. Now, you've toured the world. You have been on tour with Dave Chappelle. So that's a lot of different audiences. People have different reference points. So what, from your point of view, is your sure-fire material to go to that you know will work, regardless of people's background or where they live?
AMER: 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...
EISENBERG: It's true.
AMER: It really doesn't matter what location you're in. It matters what state of mind you're in. It's meditation. That's what does it for me. It doesn't matter where I am.
EISENBERG: OK. Mo, you used to work at a flag shop in Houston, Texas. You have no idea how excited we were to learn that.
AMER: You have no idea how, you know, scared I am for...
AMER: I'm ready.
EISENBERG: For your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge, I'm going to describe a flag. And you're just going to tell me the country.
AMER: All right. I mean, I've never done this before - I like to say I'm a visual person.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.
AMER: But let's do this.
EISENBERG: OK. Well, it's going to be great.
AMER: All right.
EISENBERG: This country's flag is white with a red circle in the middle representing...
EISENBERG: ...The sun. That's right.
AMER: Thank you. Thank you.
EISENBERG: This Mediterranean country's flag has a cedar tree in the center, which represents...
EISENBERG: Yes, that's right.
AMER: Boom. Oh, Lebanese people came out - or one guy who likes hummus, I'm not sure.
EISENBERG: This country is the only flag in the world that isn't four sided.
AMER: I'm out. No, I'm just kidding (laughter).
EISENBERG: I'm going to give the rest the clue just so the listeners can be like, I needed more. It's made of two right triangles, which represent the Himalayas and also Hinduism and Buddhism - the country's two main religions. But you got it after just the first line.
AMER: Well, it's the only one that doesn't have it. I always find it to be funny. Nepal's like, oh, yeah?
AMER: Two triangles - in your face, everybody.
EISENBERG: That's right.
AMER: You know? I didn't know that's what they stood for, so that's really cool.
EISENBERG: This country's flag has a blue background with six white stars, and the United Kingdom's flag is in the...
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
AMER: New Zealand and Australia - pretty much the same flag. But when you said six stars, that's...
EISENBERG: Six - right. You knew Southern Cross.
EISENBERG: And it's got the United Kingdom's flag in the upper left corner like a picture in picture.
AMER: Yeah, I know.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You...
AMER: That's what I do in my special.
EISENBERG: That's right.
AMER: It's like FaceTiming their flag.
AMER: (Imitating British accent) Oh, hello, Australia. I get a lot of gratification of making fun of the British. I don't know why. Maybe because they occupied the whole world at one point, and I just figure...
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
AMER: You know?
EISENBERG: This is your last clue. This country's flag kind of looks like the Italian flag, but the center bears an eagle with a snake in its beak.
EISENBERG: Yeah - perched on a cactus. Mexico.
EISENBERG: You did incredible.
AMER: Pretty good.
EISENBERG: This was - I was so happy to play this game with you. And you did it. You earned a Rubik's Cube. And you're also just a delight. Thank you so much.
AMER: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Mo's comedy special is called "The Vagabond."
EISENBERG: It's streaming now on Netflix. Give it up for Mo Amer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.