When 38-year-old Mo Amer was cutting his teeth at the Laugh Stop or the old Comedy Showcase, Ralphie May was the one comics looked to for inspiration. Almost 20 years later, Houston’s funniest may be starting to look to Mo Amer.
“When I was coming up it was Ralphie May who was Hollywood successful, who was touring successful,” the stand-up reflects. “[He showed] it was doable. Then there was T. Sean Shannon, who you probably don’t know, but wrote for SNL for like ten years. I saw a lot of guys popping off and I always knew that one day it would happen for me. I just knew it. It had to happen. As a matter of fact, I made the cover of Houston Press when I was 19!”
Having just celebrated his 20 year anniversary as a comic, Amer is ready to make his triumphant return to Houston stages with five shows at the Houston Improv, running August 30 through September 1.
While he’s currently being seen around the world as Dave Chappelle’s long-time opening act, he’s ready to step into the light as the main attraction – but it all started back at Hastings High School. “I started stand-up in Houston when I was 14,” he says. “I wanted to be a comedian after I saw Bill Cosby when I was 10 years-old at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1990. Four years later my father passed away and I was just skipping school all the time, I just didn’t care. I was always going to watch the Astros
lose the playoffs – I was living a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on a regular basis.
"My English teacher actually was like: ‘How would you father feel if you didn’t graduate?’ I was like, go right for the jugular, Mrs. Roberts! It’d be devastating. Well, stop skipping and you do a monologue from Shakespeare for the class and I’ll pass you. I’ll help you and let you do stand-up in class on a regular basis. Then it was a no-brainer. Catch is: you can’t skip anymore.
“So I started do that, killing all the time and my teacher took me to the theater arts department, and told them I was coming in on a regular basis and doing original material, accents – I think he belongs here! I ended up getting lead roles and it completely changed my life. I got into stand-up right after I graduated, went to the Laugh Stop and the Comedy Showcase and starting touring pretty much immediately, I was like 19.
"Started doing stuff globally, doing things for the U.S. troops and touring the country on something called the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ in the south. Then it just kept growing from there. I been with Dave Chappelle, he loved me and started touring me right at the beginning of his comeback. For the last 7 years I’ve been touring with him. It’s pretty crazy – I mean, Jon Stewart is my friend! What?”
The Jon Stewart connection is pretty wild, Amer admits. Though they just completed a tiny tour of Texas with Dave Chappelle and Pete Davidson which swung by Sugar Land's Smart Financial Centre last June, their mutual affections began percolating at Radio City Music Hall.
“How I met Jon, like every cool thing I’ve done, it was through Dave,” Amer says. “I’m about to go on after the warm-up act. The show’s getting started, I see Jon Stewart on the side and I had heard he was gonna be the special guest star comedian during Dave’s run in 2017. Then the stage manager walks up to me - as they’re announcing my name - and tells me I’m doing 15 minutes instead of 20, and I’m coming on after Chance the Rapper to do another 5. I had to walk onstage in front of 500 people, and I’m editing my set on the fly! Just completely destiny though, I totally murdered so good.
"Then I go back again and Jon was just like, that was amazing. He saw me have to edit all that stuff, and then Chance the Rapper does an hour, murders the whole room with high energy – then I have to go back on and do another five! So I do it, murder, and then come back to Jon Stewart, Chappelle standing in the wings and a bunch of other celebrities I don’t remember, and I didn’t care about much besides those two, honestly, because they’re my heroes. Jon [told me] was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen and had an incredible amount of respect for me. He actually shoved the head of Netflix Comedy out of the way at that point – I don’t think he realized who it was, but he just shoved him out of the way to give me that compliment. I was just laughing – I think I’m gonna get a deal now.”
A deal with Netflix he got, releasing The Vagabond in October 2018 – a special which includes at least one famous fan, Will Smith, who shared his adoration on social media. While Amer’s Vagabond taped in Austin (a city also recently visited by the comic’s mentor Dave Chappelle for his Netflix drop Deep in the Heart of Texas), his hour-long debut was actually his second special taped.
“Funny enough, it was 2015 when Dave filmed his special at ACL there and then three months later I filmed a special in Washington D.C. at the Warner Theatre, but never released. Could have sold, I had the opportunity to sell it to either Netflix or HBO, but I backed out because I didn’t feel like it was a good representation yet. It was one of those things where I just wanted to eat the costs. It was insane for me, but then I ended up getting HBO and Netflix in the mix and ending up picking Netflix, and I was like, what better place to do than my own home state.
"I definitely wanted to do Houston first, but the venues and timing were quite sparse. I couldn’t find a venue that could accommodate June and the Wortham Center was damaged by the hurricane the year previous and was in renovation, so it wasn’t going to be ready until September, so unfortunately I couldn’t do that. So I said the neutral territory is Austin in Texas! No way I can film this in San Antonio or Dallas, and do I have any desire to?”
For this current hour, Amer thinks he’s “pretty close” to being ready to record his sophomore effort. “The material is there,” he confides. “I’m prepping for my next special, so its good to get some reps in. It’ll probably be next year, mid next year. I have a few cities in mind, not 100 percent sure. I did a show last night in Toronto, and there was pretty damn hype. There’s like a dozen cities that have really watched my special – it's been everywhere, all over the world, but I’ve traveled I don’t know how many places, but there were like 20 cities that sold out day of. That got that shit. Toronto is on the table, Chicago is on the table – I would film it in Houston, but I think I just did the Texas state so I gotta switch it up. Houston I’m saving for something a lot more special. I can’t wait to make this announcement.”
This mystery announcement, which seemed to be bursting from Amer’s seams, is according to the comic, is “about to flip the whole fucking game.” Tantalizing indeed, and it all seems to come down to a Bayou City
homecoming of sorts for the young performer. “I’m crying right now! I’m just kidding. As a refugee coming to the states, there’s a lot more I could be emotional about. The stuff that makes me feel good, and it makes me excited to see these shows.
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"There's certain achievements in my career that of course make me very emotional, like that time at Radio City Music Hall with Jon Stewart, my mom was in the audience. The time before she saw me in some rinky-dink hotel room lobby, and I destroyed – but she was afraid. I mean, what parent wouldn’t be concerned? But seeing my mom in the audience, seeing me perform at one of the most prestigious venues in the world… it was a pleasure to see her be like, whoa. I walk off stage and she’s like crying and I’m like, you can’t be doing this to me now! There’s definitely some milestones and I’ve always wanted this – to come back to my hometown and do these shows.”
And Amer’s father, who died when the comic was 4? Could he imagine his son not only performing at Radio City Music Hall, but earning the respect of some of the biggest names in the industry? “It definitely gets me sometimes, especially when I’m thinking about my father and him not being here. What would he think? I wish he was here, obviously. That’s the stuff that gets me.”
The world, Houston included, watches in anticipation of what this rising star will be up to next.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m and 9:45 on Friday, August 30, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 31, and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 1 at Houston Improv on 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $20-30.