I have two Ivy League degrees and I'm a part-time secretary. It's something I 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 and 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 of time or 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 will 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 let them figure out that I've quit. Sometimes when I'm in a club, waiting for my turn to go onstage, I think about walking out and never coming back. “I could 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 to 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 I'm walking into. I wasn't surprised when the Buddhists cheered, but I was 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 mail from Croatia and hate mail from Australia. I sign autographs one day and make photocopies the next.
“You got a photo shoot today?” my co-worker Melissa asks, looking at my done-up hair and make-up. I sneak into the park behind our building an hour later to meet the photographer.
“I'll make up the time,” I tell my doubtful-looking cubemates on my way out. And I always do.
“What was wrong with you yesterday?” my boss asks me the day after I take a sick day.
“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 her the 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 tell me that my boss is a bitch.
“Obviously she's going to think that your comedy 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 care. I log into my e-mail account. The subject line of one of the messages grabs my 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 asks. “I'm sorry but that's 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 mean, that's right up there with Angelina Jolie meeting with the President of Pakistan.”
“That's very nice, Tissa,” my mother says when I tell her my news.
“Make sure you talk to her,” my father adds. “Maybe she can get you a real job.”
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 why I'm wearing a suit. I will sit in my cube and perform my tasks. And I will 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 education to pursue a career in comedy. People who disapprove of her act will be taken hostage. Visit Tissa's website at TissaHami.com.