tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera December 9, 2015 2:30pm-3:01pm EST
raised in kuwait. his family fled the country in the lead-up to the persian gulf war. >> we lost everything overnight, banks were shut down - everything gone... and that's when we discovered that my mom has been saving money for many years. you know, that's when i found out my mother's a gangster. >> the family then settled in houston, texas where he picked up another language. >> which is really great because i'm brown and i speak spanish, so if anything breaks out i can camouflage at any moment in time. i mean every arab needs an exit strategy now-a-days. >> he's toured the world, traveling for a long time without a u.s. passport. amer performed for u.s. troops, pre and post 9/11, but it took him 20 years to become an american citizen. >> 20 years is a mighty long time! >> his biography is the basis for many of his jokes. >> "can i have your passport please"? of course i give him my travel document. he's like, "that's good, yeah". he opens it up, he's like "oh no, says here it's not a
passport". >> i spoke to mo amer at the gotham comedy club in new york. >> why are you a comedian? what do you think that comedy will accomplish? especially in a society where we have so much racism. we have islamophobia. rampant in this country right now. your routine, does that tackle some of that? >> listen you know, feel free to throw as many things at me right off the top, okay? i was born in kuwait. i left kuwait after the first gulf war. i had no idea what standup comedy was. i was depressed, i was kind of feeling down on myself. my brother took me to a livestock show and rodeo concert in houston. and it was bill cosby, and co-headlined with alabama as well, the band alabama. >> bill cosby was the first comedian you saw? >> bill cosby was the first comedian. and that's when i decided i was going to be a standup comedian. i was 10 years old. >> inspired at the age of ten by bill cosby? >> i was. to be a comedian. to be a comedian, obviously. a comedian. so yeah, four years later i
started doing standup. i was a 14-year-old kid. and my teacher gave me a shot, and let me do standup in my classroom. >> how did that happen? >> i was 14 when i lost my father, at the time. i was just like in a weird space in my life. a 14-year-old kid, and losing his dad, leaving war. it was a lotta things that i was juggling emotionally. and my teacher saw that i was just not showing up to class. my mom doesn't know. sorry. but she does now. i would skip. i was living like ferris bueller's day off. i had a job at 14. i was going to, you know, baseball playoff games. >> if you look back at your childhood, i mean, you went through things that most people just simply can't imagine. fleeing kuwait at the age of nine, after saddam hussein's bombs start falling in your neighborhood. when you look back at yourself now, and you look back at what you were like as that nine-year-old kid in kuwait, what do you remember? >> i remember nothing but joyous times in kuwait, to be honest with you. i mean, pre-war, obviously.
family was all very tight. everybody was really close. and for that to be completely just taken from us, literally overnight, was a very difficult thing to cope with, as you can imagine. but moving to the states, coming here as a young child, it was easy for me to acclimate, versus maybe some of my older siblings, for-- >> how did your family escape kuwait? >> that is a long story as well. but, i mean, we lost everything overnight. so my father was really upset. banks were shut down, everything was gone. and that's when we discovered that my mom has been saving money for many years. >> like actually cash? >> yeah, actually cash. we're like, "how we're gonna get outta here-- >> in a tin can in the backyard? or, i mean-- >> i don't know where it was, but she was getting it from different spots of the house. and she was just like-- you know, that's when i found out my mother's a gangster. that's what i say. my mother - she ended up getting my sister and i outta kuwait. and she wanted to smuggle the money out as well. 'cause we found out in baghdad that they were just breaking
suitcases, and taking the money from everyone. so, my mom, savvy human being as she is, the gangster that she is, as i like to refer to her. she grabbed a razor, she cut a clean line behind each zipper, on each side of her purse. and she made two custom money belts, one for her and one for my sister. because at that time they didn't search women. so, we get on this school bus, literally a school bus. with, i don't know, about another dozen families. and we're heading out-- through baghdad to go to amman, jordan. from amman, jordan i was supposed to go to houston, texas, where my brother was getting his ph.d. in biochemistry in u-- at u of h. so, we stop in baghdad. my mom looks out. they're breaking suitcases. and she's becoming very nervous about the last little bit of money that she was a little lazy with. so, she's smiling and talking to my sister, like, "okay." 'cause my sister has zero gangster skills. she's, like, ready to sell us all out. she's the rat. so, my mom told her to get off the bus, take me with her. she had a plan. as we're walking off i see out of the corner of my eye. my mom is messing with the
suitcase, and messes with the clothes. we're all waiting outside. everybody starts getting back on the bus. this soldier sees my mom. he gets furious with her, jumps on the bus, starts yelling at my mom. his superior officer sees him. becomes very upset. he runs in the bus. starts yelling at him. he goes, "hey! how could you yell at this woman? look at her face! this is not a face of a liar. look at the smile on her face. impossible! have you lost all your manners?" grabs him. and he says, "look at her suitcase, it's obviously been searched already." and he threw him off the bus. apologized to my mom. and all i could think of is, man, my mother's a gangster. to be that quick on her feet. and then we ended up in amman for, like, two weeks waiting for our paperwork. and then my sister and i came alone to houston. and then my mom went back to kuwait. to finish it up. >> so, you end up in houston, texas. >> in houston, texas. >> after growing up in kuwait. >> yes. >> what a culture shock that must have been. >> it was. and also, like, i went to private british english school
in kuwait. so, i was used to the english language. but the british english language. and also you had a lotta expats in kuwait. i went to quite a diverse school. and i was learning multiple languages. and i went to school with a vest and a bow tie. >> little bow tie? >> little bow tie. i was an adorable little arab kid with a british accent. i did. and then i ended up in houston in esl class. and-- >> which is english as a second language. >> i was the only guy that spoke english in that class, by the way. i walk in, all the kids are lookin' at me like, "hola! tu eres nuevo aqui?" and i was confused, because they looked like my cousin halil. and i've never seen mexicans before at that point. so i was introduced to a whole other culture. >> you were so bored that you quit goin' to class for a little-- >> i was bored. i just felt like it was so easy. all we had to do was just memorize, and just regurgitate it later. or, just improvise it, because i was so good at improvising anyway. i would just figure it out. and i did. >> through comedy.
>> through comedy. yeah. >> i wanna jump back real quick when you come here, and you speak british english, versus american english. did you have any hiccups? or troubles with that? >> i did, actually. and one of the biggest things is an eraser. you know? you ask for an eraser. but in british english it's "rubber". i was walkin' around in class asking for a rubber. >> in some ways comedy found you. >> comedy totally found me. i mean, it was and you call cats pussycats. like, it was very easy to say, "hey, pussy, pussy." you know? like, that's what you do. and that was a big mistake as well. >> do you remember that first time you walked up on a comedy stage? >> i do. i remember the first time i did standup. >> were you nervous? >> i was definitely - yeah. i wrote the set, like, two days prior. 'cause the whole time-- the last three years before i went up in front of an actual comedy club audience-- i was, you know, doin' high school stuff, you know? how it all came about is i was sitting there reading the houston press. i see in the back of the paper
there's an advertisement for the houston's funniest person contest. and i realized that the deadline was the same day that i was reading this. my buddy nick, he takes me to the comedy club. we sign up. and i realize, hey, i don't have any material. like, this is-- so, we- >> you sign up for a comedy contest and you didn't have a routine. >> yeah. it's like, this is my whole life. i've improvised my whole entire life. that's how i feel. i sat there with my friend kenny, at his house. we were in theatre arts together in high school. and we wrote the set out together. for, like, five minutes. it was horrible. it was horrible. i mean, it went well, people were laughing. but the content was filthy. i grew from there. >> and now you've performed in more than two dozen countries around the world. >> i have. it's crazy. >> tell me about performing for u.s. troops overseas. >> performing for u.s. troops overseas. it's a delicate balance. my name is mohammad. i was born in kuwait. palestinian background. palestinian parents. i'm muslim. like, it's a slew of things going against me. and the first time i took the gig was in april of 2001, five
months prior to 9/11. and the next thing you know, five months later, boom, it's 9/11 occurs. people are telling me my career is over. >> did you change your routine? >> at some point i felt-- i was afraid to be myself. which is so detrimental to a standup comedian. because that's what you have to be on stage. literally be yourself. and for me not to be able to be comfortable to talk about myself. i mean, can you imagine richard pryor doing standup and not acknowledging what's happening in the civil rights movement, and what is the state of black america? african americans? or his personal stories? >> well, you joke about your ethnicity. you joke about your upbringing. >> i do. >> how do you think that affects americans, and those watching in the audience? >> i was literally scared. i was performing in little rock, arkansas, saying-- people are laughing, and they don't know what i am. you know? and then i say i'm an arab american. the room gets quiet. and one guy in the back goes, "oh hell no." and it just-- you could hear a pin drop.
i was really watching my back a lot. and then i could tell some people in the audience, sometimes they would shift. but it's all based outta ignorance. and really just - they've never interacted with an arab. they don't even know what arabs look like. i mean, a lot of arab comics deal with this question. >> how widespread do you think that is in america? how often do you encounter? >> it happens more than anybody should have to deal with. it's dehumanizing. i mean, we're human beings in the end. we all get married and have babies, too. surprise! we do that. i mean, it's like, i don't understand it. so, i do understand that there is an informational gap, and we're partly responsible for that, too. we have not shared our culture in a way that shows it off as we should have. or, you know, now we're trying to play catch-up, and i think standup has a very important role to play in that, just like any other art form, honestly. to share something, to share something so intimate on stage, and to have people relate to it, and laugh at it with you. there's something about that
>> what's really frustrating is i went to disneyland... not one keychain with my name on it. that's f*áked up". >>you're watching "talk to al jazeera". i'm adam may speaking with muslim-american comedian mo amer. >> you've got some hilarious jokes. i don't even know where to begin. do you joke that sometimes you might pretend to be mexican. (laughs). >> it was-- it was-- in esl class. i figured out instead of learning english in this esl class i ended up learning spanish. which is really great, because i'm brown, and i speak spanish. so, if anything breaks out i can camouflage at any moment in time.
i mean, every arab needs an exit strategy nowadays. and i feel like i've stumbled across a gem. >> so, your exit strategy is to pretend to be a mexican? >> hey! you know, you survive another day. you know, you have to survive another day. that's what i've done. i've improvised my whole life, i'm gonna survive that way. if something breaks out in the south, somebody walks up-- be like, "hey boy! you one of them arabs, huh? you one of them muslims, huh?" be like, "no, (speaking spanish)." you know? "mexico"! and i could just get out of there. >> is the story about-- is-- is the story about going to walmart with your nephew osama, is that a true story? >> that is-- loosely true. (laughs) i mean, i have a nephew named osama. and i just thought what would be, you know, i went out with him one time and we're taking him out. and i thought to myself, like, i was about to call out for him. i'm sitting' there... "osimmmm... ssssss... sammy! sammy come here". he looks at me... "no, my name's osama". that's not something that
actually happened, per se. but it's based off of the realities of where we living. we're currently living. i can't even call my nephew's name. because what it causes, psychologically, in the people around me. and the paranoia that it instills in them. and the paranoia in me. like, i don't wanna attract that. it's a very sad state to be in. you should share what your name means. you should share where you come from. you should share this stuff. and that's why i felt like i had to go do this u.s. military shows. because people would try to scare me. "oh, you're never gonna come back. you're just gonna get killed, and do that." i mean, and i got cancelled. i mean, i was scheduled to go to japan, korea, and guam early '02. and i was cancelled, and they were like, "it's for your own safety". >> that was fall out from 9/11? >> yeah, it was fall out, it was like for your own safety. i-- i was upset, and i didn't really get it. and i was frustrated. i was juggling a lot of emotions. but when they said, "hey, we want you to come back," i went back immediately because i wanted to share who i am. and if i can share it in front of a military audience, i can
share it in front of anybody. and then i went back to kuwait and iraq. which was, you know, really emotional. 'cause at that point-- >> yeah, what was it like to go back to kuwait? >> well, first of all, i was doing all this, and can we please acknowledge the fact that i was doing all this without a passport. i wasn't even an american citizen. i had a refugee travel document, walking on military bases around the world. and people had n-- some of the countries didn't even accept a travel document. i literally had to improvise my way into the country, several times. i became really efficient at interrogations. >> any ridiculous questions thrown your way? >> several, yeah. several. >> like? >> several. well, in japan, i'll just say this, they held me. it was a short hold, i mean, it was really appreciative of them. it was about-- only about 45 minutes. but 30 minutes of that was him just trying to understand what i did for a living. and then he starts asking he's like, "how do-- who do the-- who do--" and one guy, "comedian." and then all of a sudden comedian would come out. and one guy goes-- one guy goes
- "bill cosby!" i swear to god. one guy he goes, "oh! like bill cosby!" i was like, "yeah, yeah. like bill cosby." he's like - "are you sure you're not here to come buy cars-- here in japan? take 'em back to iraq and make car bombs?" i was like where the hell car bombs was part of it? i'm a comedian you know? those kinda questions. >> what's it like to get those kinda questions? asked if you're gonna make car bombs? asked if you're a terrorist? >> it's normal, right? >> normal? >> yeah, it's normal. it's normalized now, right? just like i can ask you what is-- what does it feel like to colonize the entire planet? and do that? does that feel bad to you? it's horrible feeling! it's a horrible feeling, to be guilty before-- just by-- >> do you think that'll stop? >> your name. >> will that stop in our society? >> i think eventually it will. >> how? how do we stop that? >> people get old and die, and new generations grow up. i mean, that's really what happens. i mean, you hope that-- actually, honestly, the real answer is that just sharing
information. not being scared. >> does your comedy help that? >> i mean, i would like to-- people tell me it does. >> why is embracing the fact that you're arab so important to you? >> i wanna be real. i wanna be authentic. that's why i filmed my special entitled legally homeless. that's why i focused on, you know, sharing my immigration experiences, and me traveling the world being interrogated. and these are very unique experiences to me. but also very beneficial for those that are going through the same thing. not only arabs, by the way. i remember doing this large show, and i cut through the back. and there was all these latinos that were working at the establishment. they were saying, "i went through the same stuff. going through immigration, things like that." it's a very universal topic that everybody's going through. i mean, why did we have to wait 20 years to attain that citizenship. >> tell me a little bit about the questions you faced at immigration. >> one of them was-- this is actually on the inter-- during
the interview. they ask you this question. it's in the paperwork. have you or anybody else you know from the time period 1933 to 1945 been involved with the nazi party? i was 27, i'm like, "what the hell are you talking about?" i literally looked at him like, "huh?" like, seriously? you're asking this question? it's like i thought you were-- i thought-- i thought-- i thought you were serious, man. i-- it's such a relief. he goes, "just please answer yes or no." i was like, "no, i was not involved in any nazi party from '33 to '45, or currently". like, what the hell are you talking about? and then it's like, "are you a terrorist?" like, literally, are you a terrorist? i'm like, "who says yes?" like, seriously? who says yes? >> the worst terrorist in the world. >> (laughs) you know? yeah, exactly did you catch somebody off guard? is that what happened? like, hey, have you or anybody else you know been involved with or given funds to any terrorist organizations? like, "oh, you got me! you're so tricky! ah, here's the bomb. be careful, all right? hey, cut the green one, okay? i'm just kidding. the red one. i don't know." right? i mean, like, who does that? >> was that question about ties in the nazi party even a little bit more insulting, given the
fact of your palestinian heritage? >> palestinian background? maybe. i don't know if it was even intentional on his part. because it showed i was born in kuwait. and people are very confused. like, "oh, well, you're born in kuwait, you must be kuwaiti." like, no, i'm not kuwaiti. that's not how it works in the gulf. it all matters where your parents come from. and that was my problem when i went to germany with the travel document. i get there and the guys like, "yah, velcome to germany, how vare you?" i was like, "i'm doin' good." he's like, "can i have your passport, please." of course i give him my travel document. he's like, "yah, it's good. yah." he opens it up, he's like, "oh, no. says here is not a passport. can i please have your passport." i was like, "no, that is my passport." "well, cannot be a passport, yeah. says here you're born in kuwait. can i please have your kuwaiti passport?" i was like, "i don't have a kuwaiti passport." "well, why don't you have a kuwaiti passport!" i was like, "hey man, relax. you know, in kuwait it doesn't matter if you're born there, it matters where your parents come from." he's like, "yah, well, where your parents come from?" i was like, "my parents are palestinian." he goes, "well, give me your palestinian passport!" i was like, "man, i don't have a palestinian passport." "well, why don't you have a palestinian passport!"
i was like, "'cause palestine's not a state." he goes, "well, why don't you make it a state!" i was like, "where the hell have you been the last 60 years? and by the way, we're in germany, this was all your damn fault to begin with." right? >> do you think that'll change? do you think the palestinian state will become a reality in your lifetime? >> i don't think so. i don't think so. i think if it does it would still be separate, and isolated. and i don't think it's right. i don't think it's right. if we're really gonna be a democratic state, why don't you just make one state, everybody has equal rights. >> do you think it's a hopeless situation? >> i don't think anything is hopeless. you just need to pull your sleeves up and get to work. there's gonna be a lot of fights, gonna be a lot of arguments. but over time, with interactions, it has a chance. it's the only way it has a chance. >> i've read that you do not like the fact that people call for muslim communities to apologize after mass shootings carried out here domestically. >> i mean, are white people
apologizing for everything that-- every time somebody shoots up a theatre? are white people coming out like, "hey! we are so sorry that we keep shootin' up s*át." like is that happening? i mean, like, why are white people comin' out like, "hey, this is awful. this is really bad for the-- day for the whites. we need to stop this-- just random shootings at batman movies." like, who-- why? why d-- i'm not guilty. i didn't do anything. this was an individual person. under-- battling his own psychological issues. who does that? who murders? i have to apologize for every murder that happens on the earth? are you kidding me? like, i don't feel like that's necessary. i feel like what's necessary is to be more active within your community. you know? fix yourself. work on yourself. i live in texas. what am i apologizing for, for somebody that does something overseas? and i don't even know what's going on overseas. i don't. >> so, when you jump out onstage and you say, "my name's mo, and it's short for mohammad, and it's game on people!"
>> yeah. yeah. surprise! today's the day. i mean, i say that because it just-- it's so in-the-face, and it kinda just melts the ice immediately to me. but it's just, like, to me just kinda get over it. you know who i am. got the chuckle. now let's really address it with some substance. >> you're watching "talk to al jazeera". we'll have more in a minute.
>> our guest this week: mo amer, a member of the comic group "allah made me funny". >> the first comic you saw was bill cosby. >> yes. >> what do you make of the situation that he's in right now? >> i saw this coming. i knew you were gonna ask that. it's a toughie. i mean, it's a bad situation. as an artist, i-- you know, i respect what he's done for the
art form, and he's inspired many a comedian's-- to start standup themselves. >> including yourself. >> including myself-- dave chappelle, and so many others. and what he's done for-- you know, african americans in america has been nothing short of remarkable. like, with his cosby show itself, it just makes it so incredibly sad that all these allegations are comin' out. and it's obviously horrible. >> did bill cosby steal your joke about chess? >> i didn't expect you to bring that up. you know, i started receiving emails and text messages from comics from all around the world. and i started "congratulations, man, you sold your joke to bill cosby". i was like, "i did? what joke?" i think women are so smart they invented chess. the game of chess, because if you really look at it, if you look at it, the "king", can only
move one step at a time - right? the poor guy is stuck in a circle. it's like he's in a marriage, huh? he wants to go but he knows if he does the queen's gonna kill him. hey, what about the queen? oh the queen can go wherever she wants to go! ironically i had met bill cosby five weeks prior to the special coming out. what... what... what!?! spent, you know, ten, 12 minutes talkin' to me. was really nice. and then i walk off, and five weeks later people are tellin' me. so, i was kind of in denial. i was like, "nah. there's no way. it's probably just a similar thing." and then i watch it, and it's just pretty spot-on. so, i don't know how it happened. i don't know what happened. >> the queen... moves anywhere she wants to. >> but it just-- don't-- i would
like to know. i mean, just-- i'm curious to know, as a comedian. you're like, "hey! that's my joke!" and then there's a part of you, like, "hey, bill cosby's doin' your joke, this is crazy. this is why i started standup. >> so, after people watch your routine, do you think they walk outta that comedy club with a different perception of arab americans? >> i think some people do, for sure. i can't say that they all do. i definitely was well-received, in many different situations. i assume it does more better than-- i would hope that it does better than-- adds something beneficial rather than adding something negative. i would hope so. so far i've seen that it does. definitely have seen that it does. >> that's great. >> yeah. >> thank you so much, it was a great conversation. >> my pleasure. >> images matter. >> innovative filmmaker, spike lee - on his controversial new movie. >> the southwest side of chicago is a war zone. >> taking on the critics. >> and another thing... a lot of the people have not
seen the film. >> and spurring change through his art. >> we want this film to save lives. >> i lived that character. >> we will be able to see change. >> ours is an urban planet. the number of people living in towns now exceeds those outside. when this milestone was reached in 2009, few people noticed. across the globe, cities are growing upwards and