JFK AND BEYOND
An Admissions Officer Walks into a Comedy
Tissa Hami: Americas
Only Female Muslim Comic?
STEP INTO TISSA HAMI'S SMALL OFFICE, tucked up on
the third floor of the Eliot building, and youd be hard pressed
to find any clues that this admissions coordinator by day is a budding
stand-up comedian by night. No whoopee cushion on the chair where
prospective students sit and ask questions about the Kennedy School.
No posters of Margaret Cho. No wind-up teeth or punching nun puppets
lining the windowsill.
There is, however, a joke bowl a round glass
container about the size of a cantaloupe with a handful of small
pink and yellow Post-Its coating the bottom. Hami says she tries
hard to keep her work separate from her comedy, which shes
been doing for about a year, but the next big joke could be anywhere.
My co-workers gave it to me to write down ideas
during the day, she says, pulling out a pink piece.
Visiting a friend at hospital. Go over whole
sequence. She scrunches her eyebrows and laughs. Im
sure when I wrote this, I knew what I was thinking, but now I cant
remember. This is the danger of the joke bowl.
In truth, Hamis biggest source for material
doesnt come from the bowl, but from her own life as an Iranian-born
woman who grew up in America in a white suburb of Boston. For years,
her friends had been telling her she was funny and that she should
do something about it. She followed the good daughter path, though,
getting Ivy League degrees from Brown and Columbia. Eventually she
landed a proper job on Wall Street. Then September 11
hit and Muslims were all over the news visible, but in all
the wrong ways, she says.
After 9/11, I wanted to use my voice. One thing
I always had was being funny. After that, my friends said, Do
She left Wall Street, got a job at the Kennedy School,
and last year, signed up for a comedy class at the local adult education
center. Shes been doing stand-up ever since. Today, as far
as she knows, shes the only female Muslim comic in the country.
In her day-to-day life, she doesnt wear a veil
controversial to some but she does onstage.
I take it off part way through when I have longer
sets, she says. I joke that I just want to show off
my hot body.
Laugh, provoke Hami tries to do both, but more
important, she tries to get people thinking about Muslim stereotypes,
particularly of Muslim women.
One night at the Comedy Stop, a small club inside
the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square, she peers out from the
veil and starts her gig, which runs about six minutes.
Its hard being Muslim in this country,
she says. I have to put up with a lot of weird comments like
She pauses and scans the crowd.
Go home? What? Lexington?
She tries out other new material something
encouraged on Sundays when the crowds are smaller. Theres
a bit about the curiosity people have with her name. Another joke
pokes fun at the Girl Scout leader who tried to explain camping
to her. The material is smart not your typical ha ha
humor. The response is lukewarm, similar to what the other performers
that night faced, with the audience more interested in their wontons
than the comedy.
That was my 97th show in less than a year. It
was one of the fifth worst. The energy just wasnt in the room.
Overall, though, Hami says her new comic career has
exceeded all expectations. Shes become a regular at hot clubs
around town. The Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune have profiled
her. Shes been recruited to speak at a diversity fundraiser
in New Hampshire. Comedian Jimmy Tingle personally called her to
perform at his club. And one night after a show, an NBC executive
told her she was onto something.
She hopes that one day, when shes clocked more
hours on stage, shell inspire other young women to follow
Ive thought about starting a nonprofit
called Stand Up for Yourself, where women use stand-up as a form
of empowerment and have it be okay, she says. Growing
up, I thought no one wanted to hear what I had to say. Now people
are listening. Its powerful and humbling. You can get away
with saying anything as long as its funny.