By Erin Peterson
A comedian’s opening bit is perhaps the most critical moment to warm up a skeptical audience. And for Munazza Humayun (B.A. ’06), who started her stage career wearing a hijab, the traditional head covering of Muslim women, the stakes were even higher. “‘I don’t know how many of you can tell, but I’m a member of a minority group that’s constantly portrayed negatively in the media,” she’d say as she walked on stage, pausing for dramatic effect. “I’m a lawyer.”
After landing that first laugh, Humayun could joke about anything, from religion and culture to her major in sociology. But making sure the audience was on her side right away was essential. “If you’re a member of an underrepresented group and you want people to see you in a different light, there’s no faster way than to make them genuinely laugh,” she says. “It brings down so many barriers.”
For years, Humayun performed successfully at venues including the Joke Joint in St. Paul and Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis. But now, with a full-time job as a judge for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, she can’t swing the 9 p.m. weeknight start times for performances. (And, after dropping her hijab and embracing atheism last year, she also didn’t have a go-to opener.) Still, she hasn’t given up on humor as a tool to achieve larger goals. She’s working on a series of very short humor essays—along the lines of the New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs—that she plans to collect in a book. Combining her thoughts on religion and what she’s learned in her years as a state employee, she’s already got the title: God is a Bureaucrat.
Humayun hopes to accomplish a goal that’s even bigger than laughter: getting people to talk about tough issues without resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. “Humor can be a really effective tool for making people think about serious issues without confronting them in a way that that makes them shut down,” she says. “I want people to think about things that they may have taken for granted, but do it in a gentler way.”