Mo Amer, pictured here at Caroline's on Broadway in New York, begins a three-day run at Houston Improv Comedy Club Friday night. (Matthieu Bitton)
Mo Amer, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart on stage at Royal Albert Hall, one of Amer's most memorable shows. (Matthieu Bitton photo)
Over a mid-morning cup of espresso in a far westside coffee shop, standup comedian Mo Amer reveals his other life. Not the one that you can see on stage this weekend at Houston Improv Comedy Club. But the one where he is best buds with Jon Stewart, mends fences (literally) and designs his own clothes. No one-dimensional character, this guy.
The pioneer Arab-American stand-up comedian (his family fled to Houston from Kuwait in 1990) is riding high — in a new Mercedes S550 to be exact. His 2018 Netflix special, The Vagabond, is a hit. Hulu’s Ramy, in which he is a regular, enters its second season this fall. Following the Netflix success, he appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and was one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Comedians You Need to Know.
And he has a really BIG announcement to make in the next few weeks involving Houston. But he can’t talk about it. Not yet. Stay Tuned.
Amer hit his stride when Dave Chappelle brought him on board as warmup act. A fast friendship and mentorship was born. The two have done more than 600 shows together including last year’s European tour with Jon Stewart, during which another solid friendship was formed.
“In the Muslim faith, you only know someone if you travel together, do business together and bunk together,” Amer says of getting to know Stewart. “I just love him to pieces.”
The Hastings High School grad has just arrived in hometown Houston, fresh from Chappelle’s Sunday benefit concert in Dayton, Ohio, which raised money for victims of the horrific shooting which killed nine and injured 27 in the city’s Oregon nightlife district. Count Stevie Wonder, Chance the Rapper, Jon Stewart and more among the rock star performers. Amer was there just hanging out with his pals.
Back in Houston for a few days before his Improv engagement, Amer settles in at his home near downtown that he shares with his wife, step-daughter and their rescued mutt named Apple. These short breaks between shows are his anchor, he says, escapes from the Hollywood swirl, when he focuses on family (his mother, brothers and sister all live here in H-Town) and when he employs his handyman skills.
“I like working around the house. I can’t sit still. I do much better thinking when I’m active,” he says. For example, “I redid my fence. It was a horrible idea, my genius idea was to do it in the summer.”
Engaging, gregarious and, yes, funny even off the stage, the 38-year-old Amer is a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. Our Q&A over coffee reveals something much deeper than a mere funny man.
What is your pre-performance ritual:
I do just some mouth exercises, just to be sure — that I enunciate everything properly. I do say a prayer to myself pretty often. And then I clear my mind. For the most part my shows and the big shows, I like to sit down, smoke a cigarette, think and just kind of process where I’m at. Tap into how I feel in that moment. Standup is all about trying to be in the moment and being honest and being there.
It’s a big part for me, just to have that time before you go on stage and clear your mind and see where you’re going.
What is your post-performance routine:
I just hang out with my friends. I can’t do anything in the absence of people. Like authors need to be in solitude versus comedians. We need energy around us. We need to engage in conversation and banter.
Is Houston a source for your material:
Houston is a significant part of my standup special. So if you watch The Vagabond, you can see me talking about when I first came to Houston and growing up in Texas and performing throughout the South. And I currently talk about that on stage in my new set. I talk about what it was like touring as a Mohammed in the South in the post 9/11 era.
What was your worst moment on stage:
I mean, I’ve had so many. There’s like a top five. Let’s take Temple, Texas, 150 people in the crowd. We thought it was going to be the most amazing show. (I was) Booed and just abused and heckled for a solid 25 minutes and I remember the headliner looking at me like going ‘Watch how it’s done kid’. . . and he goes up on stage and he proceeds to die for the next 55 minutes which was exceptional to watch especially after what he said.
What was your best moment on stage:
I’ve been so grateful to have a lot of great times. The run with Dave (Chappelle) at Radio City was definitely one of the wonderful moments in my career. Last year, performing with Dave and Jon Stewart at Royal Albert Hall in London and doing that entire tour. I mean, my god, we were performing for 20,000, 10,000 and 15,000, all these domes and venues. And the Royal Albert Hall being so incredibly historic. It’s an incredibly beautiful venue. These were some of my greatest moments.
And for sure filming my special in Paramount Theatre (in Austin), having my mom in the audience and having Chappelle introduce me, surprising the audience. It was ridiculous. I had an icon introduce me on stage. I mean I don’t know what to say on that.
What is your go-to style on stage:
I design a lot of my clothes. I have them made. I don’t like the way slacks fit and I don’t like them hanging down on the floor and getting dirty. So I make them joggers. I draw them out and I have a tailor (in Chicago) make them for me. T-shirt, jeans. It changes from night to night. It’s really about how I feel, how much weight I’ve gained. It depends on what the occasion is and what I feel like.
What is your favorite hotel when on the road:
Now, I’m boujee. Now, I’m very sophisticated. Four Seasons is an easy go to. I like Kimptons. Kimptons are really great. There’re so many that I really love.
What is your favorite meal on the road:
Oh, I love to cook. If there’s a kitchen, I love to cook. Sometimes like when we did the Hamptons, they put us up in a house. So there was a kitchen and like what’s the point of going out when I can cook. I can cook pretty much everything. . . I go to my roots. That’s how I started my cooking. When we came to the states (he was 9), one of the things that my mom gave my sister was a cookbook that has been in my family for several generations. . . So that’s how I learned to cook is just learning authentic Palestinian, Middle Eastern, Shami cuisines.
What’s your choice for luggage:
I am a very sophisticated traveler. First of all, I only get Briggs & Riley bags. That’s the only one to get. There’s no second option. Tumi schnumi, okay? It’s all about being organized inside the bag with Muji bags, little bags inside my bag. Muji is this Japanese brand that is basically all about making things simple and smart. My pants go in a bag. My shirts go in a bag. My undergarments go in a bag.
Everything is separate. I used to travel with a tiny screwdriver because who doesn’t like a window open in their hotel room. That’s how crazy it is. Maybe some Febreze. You gotta have some sometime if the room is not fresh enough and occasionally candles. I like burning candles on the road.
What is your guilty pleasure:
Ice cream, particularly pistachio.
Tickets to Amer’s shows, Friday through Sunday, are available here and at ticketweb.com. His Texas tour resumes in October with shows at San Antonio’s Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club, October 3 to 5, and he returns to the Paramount Theatre in Austin on November 2.