Spoilers follow for the first season of the Netflix series Mo.
Mohammed “Mo” Amer and Ramy Youssef have been pushing against borders and boundaries, personally and professionally, for as long as they can remember. In their stand-up comedy, Amer and Youssef share experiences from their lives as Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, delivering acerbic jokes about racism and bigotry in one breath, and poking bemusedly at the strictness of religious faith and cultural practice in another. Their overlapping perspectives on immigration, Islam, and identity, coupled with their years of friendship, have also guided their shared TV projects. In Hulu’s Ramy, co-created by and starring Youssef and featuring Amer in the main ensemble, the two challenge the idea of a “good Muslim” with a central tension between the fictionalized Ramy’s self-destructive impulsiveness and his desire to have a closer relationship with God. And with the new Netflix series Mo, which Amer and Youssef developed years ago, the two turn their eyes to loosely adapting Amer’s singular life.
Mo re-creates some elements of the comedian’s history: His parents were forced to leave Palestine and resettled in Kuwait, and the family — renamed in the series as “Najjar” — fled the Gulf War as refugees in 1991. Once they landed in Houston, Texas, they struggled for nearly two decades with America’s asylum process, and Mo begins many years into that ordeal. The series walks a fine line tonally, centering Amer’s biting comedic voice; offering pointed political commentary on Palestinian history, like 1948’s Nakba and present-day tensions at the wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and integrating moments of revealing interiority, from Mo’s unresolved grief after his father’s death to his admiration for the olive oil his mother Yusra (Farah Bsieso) makes by hand. With Mo, Amer and Youssef excavate the mixture of love, guilt, anger, and humor that can define diaspora life.
How did you two meet, and when was the first time the other made you laugh?
Ramy Youssef: The meet was at a brown comedy show at Broadway Comedy Club. Mo had this joke about being made fun of in middle school, where everyone was making fun of his British accent — I think it’s in his first special — and the punch line was, “And that was my teacher.” I had known about him forever, but when I saw him do that joke, I just remember dying at the switch in the way he performed it. Later, I would open for him, and it was always a part I was really looking forward to when I was watching.
Mo, do you remember when Ramy made you laugh for the first time?
Mohammed “Mo” Amer: Still waiting. It’s been really rough.
RY: I could have told you that was coming.
MA: I know, I can’t help myself!
How did you guys decide to work on Mo together?
RY: There was a period of time in 2015 when Mo was staying in Los Angeles for a really long stretch, and we were living together.
MA: You didn’t know I moved in, but I moved in.
RY: It was kind of this thing where I was like, Mo’s cooking at 2 a.m. I’d wake up, and he made me little snacks. Little bananas with cinnamon because he knew I liked them.
It was kind of an incubator of ideas. I remember where I was standing when he walked me through this really specific flashback of leaving, set to Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.” And I remember being like, Whoa, that has to happen. I think he was toying with whether that would happen for a stand-up special or something else, and at a certain point, we started putting together characters. We pitched this show a month and a half after season one of Ramy came out.
MA: Ramy was so much fun to do, and it gave me such an opportunity to show a proof of concept. It wasn’t a new idea, but it was something that we had for a while — certainly that I’ve thought about, my life, and trying to figure it out, and how to package it; such a complicated story with so many layers.
RY: Mo and I are so different as stand-ups, and I think that our shows are reflective of that. Mo’s presence on our Hulu show — and I say “our” about both, because I really feel that both are ours — you can feel his energy. And I think that when you watch our Netflix show, you can also feel that marriage of our energies. Making the show was so exciting for me because I have had a really great experience getting to direct Mo as an actor in that very specific sense, so it was fun to come in and be like, “Dude, you look really good when you’re under pressure. How do we jack that up?” And we started having a lot of those conversations about, How are we going to philosophically make sure that Mo is under that pressure?
MA: And my response is really easy: My whole entire life has been absolute pressure! It’s just a pressure-cooker situation, and the show is kind of this release latch that allows me to have these cathartic experiences of things that are very grounded in my life and my history and my family’s life.
Ramy, you’ve said, “Comedy, by design, is a place to explore the subconscious.” What do either of you think is subconscious about Mo?
RY: I think a lot of it was in the process of making it. When the show is about you, it’s great to have people interrogating you because they help you see what needs to come out. When we went in, I don’t think Mo had tracked, really, how much he wanted to talk about his father. That was not really top of mind, and then the more we dug, it was like, Oh, this is sitting there. Because Mo is so good at making people feel good through his comedy and just as a person, this process allows you to look at, well, what’s some of the things that are under that feeling? I feel that love for family is very present here, and I wouldn’t say that it’s not consciously present, but I do think the way in which it is underlined, we found while we were making it.
MA: I think the father piece was definitely based off of fear for me. It was fear of dealing with something that is so deeply personal, and putting it on the biggest platform in the world was really scary. And then you quickly realize that those scary moments, or that thing you feel in the pit of your stomach, is probably, You’re on the right track. It’s so deeply emotional to me and my whole family. What can loss do to a person if it’s not dealt with in a really effective way? It creates this imbalance spiritually inside you, and you start losing yourself. You are who you are — your care toward your family, your tenderness, the teddy-bear feel, all that is there — but inside, the things you’re holding onto are things that could be stopping you from creating a better future for yourself and better spiritual wellness and mental health.
That’s why I love episode three, “Remorse,” so much. It just dives into it: Why don’t you do therapy? It’s such a taboo thing in our culture, to really be open and to really spill your heart to someone. Where do you feel safe? Ramy and I were talking about this with the confessional scene. In those few seconds of time with the character, you see that he deflects with jokes when it’s really serious. He’s trying to avoid the main thing. And then you have this beautiful layer where he mentions, “Jesus was Palestinian,” and you know immediately that there are Palestinian Christians that are forgotten about, which is so upsetting and really hurts me to know that that’s not a conversation. It’s never at the forefront of media.
I was curious about that scene because, Ramy, when you were on The Late Show in 2019, you spoke to Stephen Colbert about confession and Catholic versus Muslim guilt. I was curious if that scene in Mo had any connection to that conversation, or if it was something you lived, Mo.
MA: I didn’t live it personally, but definitely the Catholic-Muslim experience was there for me. I’ve been to Catholic church. When Ramy and I were writing the pilot, it was originally in the pilot. We just thought it would be so different for a Mohammed to walk into a church, and it gave the opportunity for the character to feel safe. If he potentially goes to an imam, the imam might tell his mom.
RY: Yeah, that was a big conversation. If he goes to the mosque, they’re going to tell his family. So there is something funny about him going to the Christians. They’re not going to say anything, they’re not going to talk.
MA: And it’s weirdly a way to appease his girlfriend, right? Okay, I’m going to give this a shot. Two birds, one stone. And then next thing you know, he gets rocked. He has a moment of clarity and reflection and he gets to just pour his heart out in a safe cube, basically.
You’ve both talked about how writing stand-up is an almost instantaneous process between performing, getting feedback, and tweaking your material. How did that compare with working on the show, on which you share episodic writing credits?
RY: When you don’t have the immediate way to test it on the audience, I think it then opens up the debate of, We’re kind of taking a gamble. It was funny: We had a couple things, on the casting end and on the scene end, where one of us would tell the other, “Look, trust me.” And there was a bunch of stuff in the middle where we’d both be like, “Oh, yeah, we gotta do that.” What I’ve enjoyed about this collaboration with Mo is that we both share spiritual language as well as creative language. There really is something kind of amazing about being like, “Yo, at the end of the day, we just gotta trust. God got us this far. Let’s believe that this is going to be right.” I think almost every debate could be capped with that. And so it feels like you don’t have that audience piece, but it’s okay.
MA: Storytelling is a big part of stand-up, but it’s unique to you, onstage, by yourself, in front of an audience. The ways where it relates to the series are, we want to make you laugh, but we also want to make you think. The best stand-up comedians can get you in that zone, where you’re laughing about something but you’re also delivering such truths. Delivering that in the show was very important. But also, you have other responsibilities outside of yourself on a show and on a series. You have other characters. You have origin stories. You have so many commitments to make sure that you give moments for everyone and let it breathe and allow it to play out.
Are there any scenes that one of you had to convince the other to do?
MA: The shooting. It was a scary thing to do because it was such a pass/fail-type thing. Not because I didn’t want to talk about the subject matter — I absolutely want to talk about the subject matter — but it’s about, How do we do it? Even once we completely wrote it out and everything was there, it became such an irritant in the writers’ room. “What!” “How did this happen?” “How do you see it?” It’s one of those things that until you do it, you don’t know how it’s going to be.
But absolutely I wanted that in there. It’s such a unique thing for a refugee to end up in America and then get shot in Texas, right? To flee war for that. And quite frankly, it happened to someone from our village who ended up in Houston, Texas, who worked in a convenience store and unfortunately was killed. It wasn’t a mass shooting, but he was killed. God have mercy on his soul. It was deeply personal to me. I was just worried about so many different implications.
RY: And that’s where I come in and say, “Who cares about the implications?” I toured with Mo, so I got to see his life story onstage and have always known that it would be the stuff of a movie or a show. It was going to be something. For me, I definitely felt like the role of the shooting in this guy’s life, to escape only to be shot in America, and how someone who didn’t have the status in America would have to deal with something so shocking, and how that could then take them into this addiction that we track throughout the season — I remember feeling like this would be the thing that we could anchor all this love and family and story onto because it feels so universal. That was really important for me to protect and to make sure that it was in there. And I knew Mo would be able to pull it off acting-wise. The way that Mo is able to live all those story lines that came off of it is really exciting to see come to life.
Mo, you’ve talked before in stand-up about not knowing the line until you cross it. Do you feel like you crossed any lines in the show’s humor, or was it anything goes?
MA: I think whenever you’re writing a show, you’re conscious of so many different things. You’re not going to write a scene or build out a story line without being hyperthoughtful to every piece of dialogue, every word. We rewrote on set so many times. We just kept going at it until we got it right. I think that having this thoughtfulness behind it and just focusing on that, and not really thinking about what lines are there, what do you talk about or not talk about — it’s like, No. There’s so much about this show that is from my life, some of it directly. I think maintaining that thought process and just staying focused in that way will give it so much meaning. Therefore, there is no line. Oh, did you cross the line on purpose? Are you trying to be provocative? No, this is just the people you’re following: normal people. It was just a conversation, and you’re following these wonderful characters and their trials and tribulations and seeing them be fish out of water or seeing them trying to assimilate in America. In the end, they just want to belong and feel equal.
Episode one, “Hamoodi,” references the “basic Muslim package.” What three things would be in each of your “basic Muslim packages”?
MA: I would say oud, prayer beads, and maybe a traveling [prayer] rug.
RY: Those are the three!
MA: That’s why I went first. Those are the three!
RY: This is actually where Mo and I are super-aligned. I don’t even need to pretend to be creative, because literally oud was my first one. It’s so funny, I was like, Smells over the mat.
MA: It really is the basic package.
Mo, I read that many years ago, you wrote the opening scene to a TV series about your life, folded it up, and put it in your back pocket. Do you still have that piece of paper, and was it what we see in Mo?
MA: Ramy, you found a notebook that I left at your place years ago, with like a vision board, basically? Of career and stuff that related to the series?
MA: Yeah, it’s in there. The opening — sorry, I keep saying “opening,” because it was intended to be in the pilot, but we shifted it into episode seven, “Testimony.” That oner, that very much is what happened, and how it was, and how I visualized it out of the gate. Seeing my mom moving and grabbing, and seeing little Mo being playful while he’s supposed to be serious, and kind of being aware of what’s happening but also trying to be a man, hugging his brother Sameer, saying, “Everything is going to be okay,” being there for his mom, cutting the string, watching her work. You’re seeing the seed being planted into this kid where it becomes a road map for his life, to be creative under really stressful situations. That’s what Ramy was talking about earlier: How much pressure can be put on you? Imagine this 10-year-old, 9-year-old kid with all this pressure already put on him. His dad telling him in front of a bus, “Look after your family.” The opener, where the mom is coming out, all that is intact, and the stuff about the dad was added once we had that breakthrough in the series about the emotionality of the dad not being there, and what effects that will have on the family and Mo.
Ramy, there is an episode in Ramy’s upcoming third season that was shot on location in Haifa and Jerusalem. This season of Mo includes a scene in which Mo has to move through a police checkpoint, and ends with Mo having crossed the border into Mexico. Borders and boundaries come up in both series, literally and figuratively. Can you two talk to me about how you approach those concepts in your work? What do you want to communicate about the experience of being inside versus being outside?
RY: The thing that’s really interesting about what sets apart our experiences is that the Ramy character goes over there to do business, and it’s such a privilege. So much of what we’ve done on the Hulu show is exploring privilege, in a way, and looking at this Muslim American privilege and the ways in which that can be difficult and the ways in which that can be mishandled. And then you have [in Mo] what I think is a really real Palestinian experience of not being able to go to Palestine. For Ramy, it’s a nuanced inconvenience. Mo’s story sits in the plight. I think it’s kind of cool to be able to say, These are two different people who can fit under multiple of the same labels and banners, but they’re on totally different ends of it. Not everyone’s a victim and not everyone’s a hero.
MA: My entire life has been this experience. You’re avoiding the elephant in the room in Mo if you’re not talking about it. It comes specifically with the Palestinian refugee experience that I’ve had, and then going over there after I became a citizen and seeing it with my own eyes, when I was allowed to finally go back to where my parents are born, where my grandparents are born, where my ancestors come from — which is a weird thing to say even out loud. “Finally allowed to go back to where I come from” is so bold in my mind. Walls have never worked. We’re trying to build one now in between Texas and Mexico, or attempting to, or have a certain amount of it up where you’re keeping people separate, but I think the answer is — and I know this sounds cliché — really, love is the answer. Having borders to understanding another person’s plight, trying to separate yourself from it, is not going to work. What you resist shall persist. Once you have a wall up, it’s not going to resolve your issues. It’s only going to make matters worse. Creating more separation is not the answer, and creating more understanding is.
Dallas Goldtooth from Reservation Dogs has talked about using humor to communicate the Native American experience, and about the assumption that “in order to be an activist, in order to be an organizer, you have to be angry all the time. But we have to allow ourselves to access other parts of our emotional spectrum.” What do you think humor brings to conversations about activism that anger doesn’t?
MA: I think to be a great anything, you can’t be angry all the time. Just channeling anger specifically as an emotion is not going to get you to that universality that you need to be a great leader. To be a great activist, to be a great anything, really, you can’t let anger be the thing that pushes you forward. You can use it for fuel every once in a while, that’s fine, to self-motivate. But I don’t think that you’re going to reach the people that really need to be reached if you’re angry. It can make things a little fuzzy when you need to be clear. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be angry, of course. It’s a natural part of life. But having a good filter for it is also so important.
RY: I also think there’s room for both. I think that a lot of the anger and the emotions following what happened last year in Sheikh Jarrah, it became a viral online internet moment that finally pierced the American consciousness — because I do think that European consciousness to the Palestinian plight has been a much more connected experience, versus America, where no one knows how to feel about it and no one knows where it sits. I think there was a lot of anger behind what was happening last year, and that what happened last year from activists paved the way for people to be able to laugh at a show like this, to be able to take in these two shows that we’re both working on that have a clear Palestinian influence or connection.
If you look at the way that Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine have worked together, these are seeds that have been laid by activists for decades. You need them in order to arrive here because you need context for the joke. And sometimes you almost need the angry activist so that the comedian can walk in and say a zinger because the tension is high. I’ve always felt like comedians help hold the door open while the activists run through and do the job, and they go hand in hand.
I don’t think anger is a bad emotion. I think anger should be shown appropriately and anger should be expressed, and there’s many ways to be angry and be respectful, and I think that when people speak on Palestine, they do it all the time. No one should ever speak on Palestine and deride Judaism or deride a Jewish person’s experiences. They can also advocate for Palestine and also be angry and also be respectful, and I think those are the activists that have really paved the way.
Ramy, you’ve called Mo a “melting pot”; Mo, you prefer the term “salad bowl.” I have a different question: What Middle Eastern dip are you? And you can’t say hummus.
RY: Baba ghannouj, baba ghannouj, baba ghannouj in a second.
RY: This is also the first time I’ve ever told Mo this, and you’re here as a witness, and I’m going to go right away after I say it: I don’t like hummus. [Leaves the call.]
MA: Now I’m going to get angry! [Laughs.] He really loves hummus, he’s just joking. If he doesn’t, I’m going to forever let him go. Not going to talk to him ever again.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.