My "dual life" as
a stand-up comic and over-educated secretary
May 24, 2005
I have two Ivy League degrees and I'm a
part-time secretary. It's
try not to focus on, but it's hard to ignore. I tell myself I've
made a good
decision for the time being, taking a lesser job to devote more time to comedy
and writing. I think of the prestigious, well-paying jobs I had on Wall
Street, and though I had no taste for them, at least I could justify my career
choices. Now the odds are stacked wildly against me, and the knowledge that
everything could unravel tomorrow gnaws at me. You're only as good as your
last show, goes the saying among comedians.
I sit in my cube and work on a mass mailing. I pick
up one cover letter, one
form, one brochure, and one return envelope. I paperclip them together
stuff them into a big envelope, seal it, stick a label on it, and
move on to
the next one. I'm a drone in a sea of cubes. I have no concept
weather, as there isn't a window anywhere near me.
The phone rings and it's a reporter from the Washington
Post, and suddenly I'm
transformed into Tissa Hami the comedian. I talk to the journalist
self-consciously, wondering what my co-workers in the neighboring cubes think
of this particular conversation. When the interview ends, I hang up and pause
to ponder what I've just said. I wonder who will read my words and if it
make any sort of difference. I take a moment to bask in my own
self-importance. I'm not just a comedian, I tell myself -- I'm
an activist, a
pioneer, a revolutionary.
"Can you make twenty copies of this ASAP?" my
boss asks, handing me a thick
document. "Double-sided. My meeting starts in ten minutes."
I dream about quitting every day. I fantasize about
it. I wouldn't even tell
the club managers. I would simply not show up for my scheduled shows and
them figure out that I've quit. Sometimes when I'm in a club, waiting
turn to go onstage, I think about walking out and never coming back. "I
do it right now," I whisper to myself, eyeing the exit. "I could
walk out of
here and pretend none of this ever happened." What could they do?
"Tissa Hami? Nope, never heard of her," I
picture the club managers saying
the inquiring customers.
But something makes me stay.
Every night is different. Some nights are dreadful,
and other nights are better
than anything I could possibly have hoped for. But I never know what
walking into. I wasn't surprised when the Buddhists cheered, but I
surprised when the Rotarians did. "Some of them have never seen
a Muslim before," the Rotary Club organizer had warned me a week
before the show. It
turned out to be my best show ever.
I've been hissed at, spat at, yelled at, and lauded.
I've received accolades I
never deserved and opportunities I didn't earn. I've received fan
Croatia and hate mail from Australia. I sign autographs one day and
photocopies the next.
"You got a photo shoot today?" my co-worker Melissa asks, looking
hair and make-up. I sneak into the park behind our building an hour
meet the photographer.
"I'll make up the time," I tell my doubtful-looking
cubemates on my
And I always do.
"What was wrong with you yesterday?" my
boss asks me the day after I take
"Just a run of the mill cold," I tell her.
She pauses, and I know what's coming next. "Did
you have a show the night
before?" she asks with a hint of accusation in her voice.
I know there's no point in denying that I did, since
my schedule is on my
website. She gives me a look, and I have half a mind to explain to
mathematics of having ten shows per month. "If I have a show
every third night," I want to shout at her, "then sooner or later I'm
going to be sick the
day of, before, or after a show."
"You expect too much from people," my friend
Lara tells me when I relate the
episode to her later that day. I want her to be sympathetic and to
that my boss is a bitch.
"Obviously she's going to think that
interferes with your job."
"But I'm so good at faxing and filing," I say snidely.
"Look, you chose this," Lara
says. She's having none of my complaints today.
I know it's not a good comeback, but I don't
I log into my e-mail account. The subject line of one of the messages
attention. "Invitation to a breakfast with Nobel Peace Prize
winner Shirin Ebadi," it says. I open the message, telling myself that there
must be some
mistake. "Dear Ms. Hami," the message begins. When they
call me Ms. Hami, I
know it's serious.
There's no mistake. I've been invited to a breakfast
at an ambassador's
residence in honor of a Nobel laureate. I laugh out loud, partly
in glee but
mostly at the absurdity of it. All I do is tell jokes.
"You were invited to what?" my little sister
fucking ridiculous." I want her to be happy for me. If she were
given an opportunity like this, I'd like to think that I'd be supportive. "I
that's right up there with Angelina Jolie meeting with the President
"That's very nice, Tissa," my mother says
when I tell her my news.
"Make sure you talk to her," my father
she can get you
On Wednesday, I will have breakfast with the ambassador
and the Nobel laureate.
When it's over, I will take the bus to work. My boss will wonder
wearing a suit. I will sit in my cube and perform my tasks. And
fantasize about quitting.
Tissa Hami is one of the world's few female Muslim stand-up comics.
She grew up
in a traditional Iranian family in a predominantly white suburb
of Boston. Her
parents are thrilled that she is using her expensive Ivy League
pursue a career in comedy. People who disapprove of her act will
hostage. Visit Tissa's website at TissaHami.com.