Mohammed "Mo" Amer has a nephew named Osama. After a party for Osama’s ninth birthday, Amer took him to a Walmart in Texas to buy him a gift.
As Amer continued the joke, based on a true story, the packed house at the Comedy Cellar at the Village Underground in Manhattan grew quiet.
“We get to Walmart, he’s nine years old, he’s running away,” Amer said. “I can’t call him!”
Laughter filled the room.
“Sammy, hey Sammy, come here…” Amer continued. “He looks at me crazy, he goes — ‘No...my name is Osama!’”
The joke was a hit with the audience, one of three that Amer performed for on a recent Friday night in November, as NBC News followed along. But for the 35-year-old comic, a Muslim American born in Kuwait who came to the United States as a refugee in 1990, the story of his nephew Osama exposes a frustrating hypocrisy in American thinking.
“Nobody calls Timothy, ‘Hey, how’s that Timothy, how’s that bombing Timothy,” Amer told NBC News, referring to Timothy McVeigh, a terrorist who killed 168 with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995. “How many other shootings happen in the United States by white extremists, Christian extremists? Nobody talks about that because it’s not frontline news, it’s not important enough, it doesn’t matter, it’s not relevant — they’re not the enemy.”
While often lumped in with the growing cadre of Muslim-American comics, Amer said he prefers to think of himself as a comedian who happens to be Muslim. He also happens to be of Palestinian descent and to have grown up as a teen in Houston, Texas, after fleeing Kuwait with his family during the Gulf War.
Amer’s life experiences have shaped his comedy, which draws on everything from his struggles as an English-as-a-second-language student to his 20-year journey to become a United States citizen.
“I have to think about when I’m going up here, who am I following, what’s happening. I’m not going to go up there and talk about stuff that I just came up with yesterday.”
Now, Donald Trump’s presidency is poised to provide yet another wellspring of material, some of which Amer said he’s still developing and refining.
“I have to think about when I’m going up here, who am I following, what’s happening,” he said while waiting to close out a show at the Village Underground. “I’m not going to go up there and talk about stuff that I just came up with yesterday.”
Amer’s entree into comedy came when he was 10 years old, having lived in the U.S. for less than a year. Bill Cosby was performing at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Amer’s brother brought him there to get his mind off things.
“What appealed to me was the art form, how Bill Cosby painted the pictures,” Amer said. “The fact that he was on a rotating stage, in front of 65,000 people, murdering with nothing more than a lapel mike and a rotating stage and a chair — wow.”
Four years later in 1995, Amer’s father died, and the teen started skipping school. A teacher got Amer refocused by letting him perform stand-up for his classmates, he said.
“First thing I ever wrote was an Indian delivery guy who got beaten up by a dude and he was complaining he didn’t get tipped,” Amer said. “It’s funny now to even think about it.”
That set the stage for Amer’s next 21 years, which has taken him and his comedy to more than two dozen countries on five continents. He has also performed overseas for U.S. and coalition troops, and he opens for comedian Dave Chappelle.
On a flight last week to Scotland to start his United Kingdom tour, Amer was seated next to Eric Trump, one of Donald Trump's children. Amer said Trump told him Muslims would not have to register with the government under a Trump administration.
As an artist, Amer said he sees himself as someone who influences culture, not someone who changes it. He also views himself as someone who can help bridge the gaps of knowledge between Islamic and Arabic culture and the West.
“There are certain things in Arabic that I say on stage that I want people to remember,” he said.
“That’s the way I try to be a part of [culture] or influence it, by introducing certain words,” Amer continued. “Start there, and obviously my stories will introduce things that they probably haven’t heard before anyway.”
But Amer expressed frustration with what he said is an American education system that glosses over the contributions of Muslims to American history. Turning to the recent presidential election, Amer also said Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, which the president-elect later rebranded as extreme vetting, comes from a “place of ignorance.”
“For you to just alienate a particular people and say you can’t enter the country, you need to chop the head off the freaking Statue of Liberty then,” he said. “You need to go [expletive] blow that thing up and return it to France. Chop it up into little pieces and send it to France, because you ignorant [expletive] have forgotten what this country actually stands for.”
“For you to just alienate a particular people and say you can’t enter the country, you need to chop the head off the freaking Statue of Liberty then.”
First eligible to vote in 2009, Amer said he chose to sit out this election, partly because he was on the road and had to be in his hometown in Texas to cast a ballot.
“But the other part was because I really didn’t like who was running, in either party,” he said. “It just stank.”
It would’ve been a different story, he added, had Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) become the Democratic nominee.
“I would’ve gotten a private jet to go vote for him,” Amer said.
Sanders, speaking about the ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict, had said on the campaign trail in March that the U.S. has “to be a friend not only to Israel but to the Palestinian people.”
“The guy really understood it, he got it,” said Amer, whose parents are from Palestine.
As for Trump and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Amer had little positive to say.
“I’m not gonna just vote for somebody because they’re a [expletive] consolation prize,” he said, referring to Clinton. “I guess that’s a bad phrasing, but you know what I mean. To me, they both suck.”
There might, however, be an upside to Trump’s being president for the next four years, Amer added.
“Donald Trump being in office, I believe, is going to make me a rich man,” he said. “I don’t mean that monetarily. I mean that culturally. People are going to be yearning and craving that content. And once they get a taste of it, I think people are going to want more of it.”