By Lauren La Rose in Toronto, Canada
Long before he was touring the world, starring in his Netflix special “The Vagabond, and counting superstars like Will Smith among his famous fans, Mo Amer first honed his stand-up skills on an unlikely stage: his high school English class.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, the outbreak of the Gulf War forced Amer to flee to the U.S. as a refugee in 1990.
“It was just too much at that point for me to handle,” recalled the Arab-American comedian and writer, who resettled in Houston. “First it was war, and then, not seeing my family, everybody’s being split apart. I lose my father… it was very difficult for me at 14, or I think at any age, to be able to deal with it.”
Amer said he credits a “wake-up call” and support from a concerned English teacher with helping him get back on track.
“It was just too much at that point for me to handle”
“She was like: ‘Listen, how would your father feel if you don’t graduate?’” And I just started crying (saying) “God, it would be awful,’” said Amer. “She said: ‘Don’t you want to be a comedian?’ Because I was very vocal about it.”
So the pair struck a deal: if Amer performed an assigned monologue on Shakespeare, he would receive the same grade he had before the winter break, and could perform his stand-up routine in class. Skipping school, however, was off limits.
It was too good of an offer for Amer to pass up — and he delivered. Amer left his classmates laughing at his monologue, and returned the next day to showcase his stand-up skills. His teacher took notice of his comic creativity and gift for mastering different accents and took him to the theatre arts department.
“All of a sudden, I’m truly receiving roles in musical theatre and singing,” said Amer. “It’s a really transformative experience. And throughout that time I was doing stand-up at my classes for the rest of my high school career.
“One time, I got out of class from other classes to do three shows in one day for my Spanish teacher.”
Amer has since graduated to the comedy big leagues. He was a member of the comedy troupe “Allah Made Me Funny” – the longest-running artistic collective of Muslim comic performers in the world. It’s where he first caught the attention of comedy legend and longtime mentor Dave Chappelle, with whom he has toured extensively performing more than 600 shows.
“All of a sudden, I’m truly receiving roles in musical theatre and singing … It’s a really transformative experience.”
Amer doesn’t shy away from sharing his very personal refugee experience which is central to his Netflix special “The Vagabond.”
It took Amer two decades to obtain his American citizenship. For 10 of those 20 years, he travelled without a passport, using a refugee travel document.
“I have an objective of telling this story properly and doing it justice and trying to try to illuminate these issues that refugees or immigrants deal with on a regular basis,” said Amer. “Especially if someone like myself who has to travel the world, doing what he does without a passport is incredibly difficult.”
The special has earned praise from Hollywood heavyweights like Will Smith who posted a video message of “big congratulations” to Amer for his audience of more than 35 million followers on Instagram.
View this post on Instagram
🗣🗣Hey ya’ll! It’s a wrap! I don’t even know what to say…someone please pinch me. Thank you @willsmith for watching and sharing. Y’all can catch me and my mama getting pedicures today. Much love to Will Smith and the entire Smith familia! @netflixisajoke “THE VAGABOND” NOW STREAMING ON NETFLIX P.S. I say y’all when I’m excited and the Texan in me comes out! Letssss goooo Bad boy for life!! ✊🏽
Amer said he has also been encouraged by the feedback from those who share a similar history and see themselves illuminated in his experience.
“Those people say: ‘Thank you. Finally somebody is talking about this, finally somebody who’s putting themselves out there telling the world what we go through, too.’ That was the power behind it, and that’s what I wanted to do is just kind of wake people up to this reality and that struggle.
“My heart is always with those that are struggling.”
Mo Amer will host the “Stand Up For Refugees” on Friday, August 16 at 7 p.m. at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The fundraising event is in support of UNHCR’s work in support of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. All proceeds from ticket sales will go towards providing global aid, protection and shelter to Syrian refugees.