Mo Amer on Making His Palestinian Refugee Comedy ‘Mo’ and Highlighting Houston with Bun B

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched Season 1 of “Mo” on Netflix.

As I finish interviewing comedian Mo Amer and ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to talk about, he says, “I don’t have a lean addiction, nor have I ever been addicted to lean. I keep saying that every chance I can, because it gets weird out here.”

It’s an important distinction to make, as the mixture of prescription cough syrup, soda and candy has killed many, especially in Houston, where Amer grew up. He is the co-creator, executive producer and star of “Mo,” a comedy-drama series that heavily draws from his true experiences as a refugee — his parents were displaced from Palestine to Kuwait where Amer was born, before the whole family fled to Texas during the Gulf War. Several of the show’s most painful moments — like when, 20 years after his father’s death from a heart attack, is looking over paperwork with his immigration lawyer (Lee Eddy) and finds out for the first time that his father was captured and tortured during the war — are lifted directly from Amer’s life. But when Mo begins sipping lean to cope with an injury he sustains in Episode 1 — Amer says that’s all for the plot.

“I’ve always wanted to show the planes, trains and automobiles of a refugee,” he says, talking about the cliffhanger in the finale in which Mo, an undocumented immigrant, accidentally finds himself trapped in Mexico. But that ethos colors every episode with a supporting cast that includes Mo’s Mexican girlfriend (Teresa Ruiz), his Nigerian best friend (Tobe Nwigwe), his Korean tattoo artist/lean plug (Michael Y. Kim) and his Israeli family friend (Alan Rosenberg), who navigate their overlapping lives with candid humor. (Every time someone confuses Palestine with Israel, Mo calls it “a real branding issue.”)

With Season 1 of “Mo” now streaming on Netflix, Amer spoke to Variety about filming in a Catholic church as a Muslim, learning the truth of his father’s past and writing a love letter to his mother.

Centering this show on a Palestinian refugee, his family, and his Black, Latino and Asian friends makes it look very different than most projects set in Texas. And each episode is full of Houston touchstones. What was the process of developing the homebase for the series?

There’s never been a narrative sitcom filmed out of Houston. It’s the fourth largest city in America. The most diverse city in America. In the neighborhood we filmed out of, my beloved Alief, there 80 languages spoken. So I found it just astounding that that’s never happened. And the landscape of Houston is really fascinating to me. I always described [“Mo”] as wanting to film an urban western. The beautiful skies, the clouds, the sun. Cinematically, it imports itself for some really beautiful shots. It was so exciting just to do it right. I don’t feel like anybody does it right! Anybody that imagines Texas, they think … [Amer puts on an exaggerated Southern accent] “Just a bunch of people just hanging out, bein’ racist! Know what I mean? [He returns to his regular voice.] It’s nice to shift that cognitive frame and show people how diverse Houston is and how much it has to offer. I think “Reba” is the only show that took place in Houston, but they actually filmed it in a studio in Los Angeles. And “Reba’s” a classic three-camera network sitcom, versus a single-cam, theatrical, cinematic vibe. It’s never happened before.

Legendary Houston rapper Bun B guest stars as the Catholic priest Mo visits when Maria encourages him to try confession in lieu of therapy. Did you write the role for him?

No! First of all, I didn’t want there to be some stereotypical, low-hanging fruit cameos. Like, “Here comes Paul Wall, everybody!” Someone from the local casting team [suggested Bun B] — I was like, “Yes. That’s what I’m talking about.” I wanted it to carry some weight. Also, we have a really good friendship, and it requires a lot of trust to do something that vulnerable on screen. He made me feel super comfortable to visualize that really difficult story that my father went through, and allowed me to get into that scene a lot easier, versus a stranger. His voice made everything so familiar. I always look at him as a big brother. Somebody who has done it before, who made it out of Houston on such a national, global scale, and who’s like deeply emotional and sweet and kind. He also used to teach a class at Rice University about religion and hip-hop. He was just perfect for that role.

You’ve spoken about how much of “Mo” comes from your real life. If you feel comfortable sharing, does that include the story Mo shares with the priest about his father being tortured?

Yes. I mean, there was some fictionalizing, but my dad’s story is pretty on the nose. He owned a 99-cent store when he came to the States, even though he was a telecommunications engineer in Kuwait. Highly educated, brilliant guy. And he was unfortunately one of those innocent casualties of war, where a lot of people were being picked up, mostly men, and being arrested and investigated. Unfortunately, he was tortured. And I found out the same way as in the show, [years after his death]. In the lawyer’s office, I looked at the file and that’s how I discovered it. It was so difficult to put it in the show. However, I thought it was really important to be real. I had to push my own feelings aside. And I did mention it to my mother. I wanted to get her blessing, and she was like, “I trust you.”

To add one thing about the priest — that transition is one of my favorites. It goes into “How Great,” the song by Chance the Rapper and Jay Electronica. It gives me chills every single time.

So much of Episode 3 is about Mo needing therapy, but not wanting to go — or having the money to go. Between the confession and Chance’s take on “How Great Is Our God,” it’s interesting that Christianity is at the center of this episode about a Muslim man needing someone to talk to. Why did you decide to set it at a church instead of a mosque?

I feel like I’ve seen that before. A Muslim guy goes to a mosque. It makes sense that he would — so I thought it’d be really clever [if he didn’t]. We wanted to empower Maria and their relationship, so [we thought] that could be a really cool thing for Maria to push for. And then upon thinking further, I was like, “My mom is involved in the mosque. She knows the imam.” So Mo wouldn’t feel safe sharing stuff that his mom might not understand. His lean addiction and personal things could spread in the community. Even though he doesn’t believe in Catholicism, this could be a safe place for him to go. And he’s doing it for Maria. Probably 75%: doing it for Maria; 25%: he really needs help, and he’s going to give this a shot. Not that he’s going to convert, but maybe it’ll be good for his heart to go somewhere safe — and it worked. He broke him down and gave him a revelation.

There’s a lot of humor in the depiction of religion here as well. A lot of millennial characters on TV tend to be atheists or agnostic, with religious characters being more uptight, but Maria is a devout Christian … who also voted for Kanye.

Right, she’s a complex character! I also love the line when Mo is with the priest and says, “I love Jesus! Jesus was Palestinian!” That’s something that’s not really talked about either. That whole 30-second rant of discomfort was so enlightening about who he is and what he believes. I can’t tell you how much I rewrote that scene. Episode 3 took the longest. All the episodes were so important to me, but that one was so tricky and so near to my heart.

It was a real breakdown I had on screen. People on set couldn’t even make eye contact with me. When I got out of the booth, I was just a blubbering mess. I realized in that moment, I had never shed a tear about my dad going through that. I saw that and I just buried it, because my dad had already passed away 20 years ago at that point. And I debated whether I should share that [the torture story] is true or not. But I think the right thing to do is to be honest.

Relatedly, you can’t talk about Palestinian refugees without also talking about Israel. In “Mo,” that happens with both humor and the trauma of the family’s immigration case. What was important to you to include in your depiction of the conflict?

It’s the first time ever that a Palestinian has created [and is the] lead of his own show, and obviously, that’s part of our origin story. It was important to communicate that very clearly without being over the top. A lot of shows are filled with almost-propaganda and want to push so much in your face. Whereas this is just a really gentle tale of a family that’s struggling emotionally after being displaced a second time and trying to put the pieces back together.

I used characters that I’ve always wanted to put on TV: an Arab uncle [Kamal Zayed] and and an Israeli character [Rosenberg] opposite him, and they get to argue in a healthy, sometimes unhealthy way, but they’re still friends. They have some kind of empathy towards one another. We didn’t want to do it like every episode is: “What’s happening with Israel?” And olive oil throughout the season is an amazing symbol. The olive branch; the extending of peace.

What’s the story behind the sequence in Episode 2, when Mo’s mother Yusra (Farah Bseiso) makes olive oil by hand?

There’s this show called “Ghawar” created by Duraid Lahham, who is an iconic Syrian comedic actor. He’s just this funny character, but he gets arrested. He’s in jail, and it’s Mother’s Day, and he sings a song entitled “Yamo” — slang for “mother” in Syrian.

There are only two times I’ve ever seen my father cry: when my mom’s mom passed away, and when he was watching that scene. I was five, six years old and couldn’t grasp what was going on, but I knew it was really heavy. So I always revered this song — it’s not even a song, it’s like poetry-slash-prayer, for mothers. Our “Dear Mama,” essentially. “How much you cared for me, how tired I made you, how many pairs of socks you laid out for me, how you went hungry to feed me.” I always wanted to put it in my series; I just didn’t know where [until] we came up with my mom pressing fresh olive oil as she’s trying to reconnect with her roots and find her purpose. 

And then, how the hell do we license the song? We had an amazing music supervisor, Suhell Nafar, who tracked down Duraid Lahham, who’s in his mid-80s in war-torn Syria and got a letter from him clearing the song for me to use. I have that letter. Probably one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life. I showed it to my mom and she just started bawling. God bless all mothers.

I made it a point that we translate the song. Netflix was like, “We don’t usually do that,” but this was an unusual situation where we needed to. You don’t have to turn on your subtitles for it to pop up. I didn’t want people to have the option. I want everybody to know the song.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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