A Letter to America
I never told you this, but I have this disease. You see, I’m a smart-ass. My parents aren’t thrilled about it. I remember the scoldings. I remember having to rewrite a 7th grade report on the Holy Grail because the version with jokes, I was told, was insensitive and, worst of all, earned an F. (The snark-less version earned an A, if you were wondering.) Fortunately, at the time my parents were too busy being divorced to pay enough attention to realize the danger my disease was putting my academic future in.
Much later, during my second attempt at college, I was asked in a genuinely curious fashion if I was capable of taking anything seriously, or did I always have a sarcastic retort.
“I think I can be serious,” I told her, wanting to believe that I was in control, not the disease.
As it turns out, there is a cure for my illness.
Despite being told by countless people that it would never happen, I woke up November 9th in a country that had just elected as president a man who had openly proposed banning people like me from entering this country and monitoring those of us already here. This kind of man and ideas like his were not new, America, but what felt new was the cheers and applause with which he and they were met.
Just like in September, 2001, I was acutely aware of the fact that the word “Muslim” had taken on new meaning in our country. This time, however, it felt like a more calculated action. Instead of being an emotional, knee-jerk response to an awful action, this time around, the black flames of hatred were fed by the verbal kindling from an increasingly-popular campaign podium. “This fire,” the followers were told, “this fire will keep us safe.”
I gotta tell you, America, even before November 9th, the year 2016 wasn’t going that well for me. And then the election happened. It felt like I was writing a clever metaphor that just slowly started falling apart, losing the intended meaning and wit, devolving instead into some kind of mumbled tangential rant, and then, at the very end, I found out I wrote “your” instead of “you’re.”
Also, my fly was down the whole time.
That’s kind of what it felt like. But worse.
I woke up November 9th, America, and I was abruptly cured of my snark and sarcasm. If they hadn’t been distracted by worries of possible camps and surveillance, mom and dad would have been so happy! Without the disease, I would need a new way to keep people at an emotional distance. This cure, like with many others, had an unintended side effect: I no longer felt like making people laugh.
This was problematic.
How, without the snark, without the sarcasm, without the humor, could I still be expected to go through with my performance the next day at the Tucson Comedy Arts Festival? What had felt so important to me in the preceding months — my show, America, making an audience laugh! — now felt like an impossible and uninteresting task. Who had time for four-lettered words and blue humor?
Shouldn’t I be working out my plan to flee the country?
How do I get a passport?
Do I need to get special adapters for all of my electronics and gadgets?
What’s the best way for me to ask that special someone to go on the lam with me?
How was I going to take all of my vinyl records with me?
I had a lot of questions, but not many answers.
How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to do this? I asked this over and over, the showtime growing nearer and nearer. How do I pretend this thing didn’t happen? How do I pretend that everything is fine? How do I pretend that I am fine? How how how?
I did something I had never done before in my life as an occasional stage performer: instead of pretending, instead of writing reality to fit my needs, instead of playing a character, a version of myself, I opened myself up under those lights in a way I had never before considered doing. I introduced myself as an American Muslim living in the United States. I was convinced that fiery boos and jeers would follow such a public proclamation in this new country I found myself in. They need that fire to feel safe.
“It’s difficult trying to find the desire to be funny,” I told that roomful of strangers, “but I know that if I don’t try, if I give up on trying to make people laugh, the snark and sarcasm inside of me will build up and most likely turn into malignant tumors.”
The radioactivity of terror may shrink the snark gland, but, as it turns out, it doesn’t kill it entirely.
In the screenplay of my bio-pic, the audience’s applause begins slowly, and gradually builds to take over the theater. Everyone rises to their feet as they begin cheering. The sound is deafening. Flags wave proudly! Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” erupts from the speakers flanking the stage! The audience lets me know that they are with me and I am with them. Together, we are stronger! Together, we are Americans!
But in real life, the audience was quiet and respectful during the foreword, which, in the shadow of what had happened the day before, felt like a huge win. They laughed at my scripted jokes that proceeded. They followed along. They listened. They probably don’t realize it, but their laughter and applause and attention made me feel like I belong.
So I’ll keep trying, America, because the thought of the copays and deductibles for removing snark-tumors in a post-ACA world scares the hell out of me. And because you’re better than this, America, aren’t you? Because you may be an electorate and a podium and a platform, but you’re also an audience. My audience, on my darkest day. And as long as I have an audience, I have a reason to try.