MO & RAMY
Mo Amer and Ramy Youssef explore the refugee experience in Mo.
Rare is a comedy like Mo, one that traverses humor and drama while shifting viewers’ perceptions about what it means to be a refugee in America. The series is the brainchild of comedians Mohammed Amer and Ramy Youssef, who initially bonded while doing stand-up at the 2014 Arab American Comedy Festival in New York and immediately became like family, even living together for six months in L.A. When Amer mentioned an idea he had for an upcoming stand-up special that involved a flashback to his Palestinian family fleeing Kuwait for the U.S., Ramy suggested it would make a cool TV series. “I was just like, ‘Nah, I want to focus on my first stand-up special,’” remembers Amer.
When Youssef’s show Ramy — starring the Egyptian American comedian as a young Muslim man in New Jersey reconciling his devoutness with his Americanness — was greenlit, he asked Amer to join the show’s cast as Ramy’s hilarious, diner-running friend Mo, a role that came out of their time as roommates. “Mo would always be cooking at the house, inventing these little recipes and essentially feeding me,” says Youssef. “The apartment we were in had the counter with the kitchen behind it, and we had a lot of conversations that way. I was like, ‘Oh, this is a really funny dynamic.’” Ramy went on to win a Peabody Award and has been nominated for three Emmys.
Shortly after Ramy debuted, the pair began shopping Mo, the series they had developed from Amer’s flashback idea and his life experiences as a Palestinian refugee living in Houston, Texas. Despite both Ramy and Mo being self-titled comedies starring their namesakes and centering on Muslim families, the two series are quite different. Says Youssef: “I grew up in America, Mo is a refugee, and I think the tension of what we talk about onstage and how it manifests onscreen is so reflective of that. The Ramy character is this really privileged American and the Mo character is this displaced guy that can’t even get a seat at the table.”
Mo, now renewed for its second season, has earned critical acclaim from the likes of TV host Jon Stewart and director Steven Spielberg and holds an impressive 100% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2022, it won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series, and Amer was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the Best Lead Performance in a New Scripted Series category.
More importantly, Mo has made a huge impact on viewers who feel seen by the show. “Certain people are very passionate when they see me and they want to talk about it and tell me their story,” Amer says. “We did it in a way where it was realistic and stripped down and raw, and they connected with it in such a deep way. I’m just speechless sometimes.”
Mo co-creators Amer and Youssef spoke with Queue about their collaborative friendship, mining one’s history for television, and how writing across differences has strengthened their own self-knowledge.
An edited version of the conversation follows.
Miranda Tsang: Was it difficult to get the show made the way you wanted? Mo is a complicated character.
Mo Amer: Filming it in Houston was a non-negotiable thing. It’s the most diverse city in America. It’s a place that has never been represented in American television before, aside from Reba.
Ramy Youssef: [The series is] putting out this really beautiful bat signal to people who’ve been waiting for something that reflects who they are. Mo’s stand-up was great for figuring out how to craft these indigestible political topics into something that people can actually hear and laugh and chew on and figure out. He has navigated that in terms of being Palestinian in such a great way, in a landscape where that’s not even an identity that people want to acknowledge. Luckily, I think public discourse and our work have aligned.
Many of us who come from immigrant families have the ability to code-switch and sort of fit in everywhere, which is depicted so well in the show.
RY: What I think Mo captured so well in his performance is, he’s talking to the guy he’s selling the Yeezys to [in the show’s first episode] and he’s got the twang, and then he’s talking to someone else in Spanish, and then he’s talking in Arabic. Humans adapt to whoever they’re with. What I’ve always really appreciated about Mo’s performance is that he does that stuff seamlessly where it doesn’t feel put on, it just feels real. When you have a performance like that, you get to make something that feels like a [political] issue just feel like a really lived, embodied experience. That is one of my favorite parts of the show.
MA: Very early on, for me, it was survival. It was just wanting to desperately fit in and understand the other person, but also make the other person comfortable with me as well. [Sometimes] they’d never seen an Arab. Where I was growing up, I was the only Mohammed in school until high school. I was just letting them know that I was one of them and we were just human beings. And then I wanted to make money and work at such a young age, and I was trying to get a job under the table pretty regularly. How do you do that other than code-switching and making people feel like they relate to me?
Has it been difficult to mine your past experiences to put them into a TV show?
MA: It was absolutely emotional. Tapping into this stuff about my father in particular was really, really hard. In some cases, I realized that I didn’t even mourn or deal with things properly in my life. I think a lot of people live with [that feeling of] I wish I had more time with my parent or a loved one that is lost. [We were] seeing what kind of drive that can create in a character, whether it’s positive or negative. So it’s a rollercoaster ride. It was really fucking hard sometimes, but also very rewarding to capture [all those flashback scenes so accurately] and to tip the hat to those that came before.
Mo’s wrestling with his relationship with Maria, and his mom starts out against her since she’s not Muslim. Could you talk about depicting the challenges of their interracial relationship?
MA: Being in Houston, at least for us, it’s a common thing: You’re going to get into a relationship where somebody comes from a different background. And I was married to a Mexican woman who came from a Christian background in my previous marriage, so it was fun to play with that more. Like for real, for real, what if we really did have these differences? Even though Mo’s in love with Maria, he’s still choosing not to [get married] because of the ego getting in the way.
Can you talk about your decision to highlight the mother’s journey in Episode 2?
MA: Mom is everything. In Islam, your access to heaven lies at your mother’s feet. Knowing how much my mom has sacrificed — not only her body, but her mental health and her heart on a regular basis, while asking for nothing in return — is just so special. And to have the opportunity to show some love and respect to your mother in a show is so unique. No matter how much you do, you’ll never be able to pay your mom back for what she’s sacrificed. With any great show, you’ve got to tap into the characters and see what their internal struggle is. It’s not just your main guy that the world orbits.
What does it mean to you that a show like Mo has been so well received by critics and audiences?
MA: It is incredibly rewarding and it feels like a miracle. [We were having struggles while filming the series and then] two years later we got a letter from [Steven] Spielberg — he loved the show and was so complimentary. It’s really special and you feel seen and you appreciate it so much. It’s a massive blessing. It’s a testament to everybody on the team working hard and believing in the project, knowing how important the story is, and doing every single thing in our power to make it the special, unique show that it is.
RY: A lot of what we set out to connect with people on has connected. And it’s the little things: There hasn’t been enough interesting discourse on not just being Palestinian, but even just being a refugee. Someone said to me that when they mention being Palestinian, they’re always used to giving the follow-up explanation of what that means, [but recently they got] cut off by someone who was like, “Oh no, no, I know. I’ve seen Mo.” Or someone being like, “I was at a new job and I was telling them about Ramadan, and I’m about to explain it, and they’re like, ‘I know, I saw Ramy.’” Those things are really priceless. That’s the thing: You hear something like that and, honestly, it’s even cooler than the Spielberg thing because you’re really just connecting with people.
Usually the industry might say there should only be one Arab show around one person. And very early on we were like, “No, we have so many different stories to tell, and what would it look like if we did it together?” Getting to see that actually become a reality over the course of at least seven years, it’s really exciting.