Changing the punchline: Tamara Issa on comedy, racism, and Lebanese-Australian identity
Updated: Oct 12, 2018
Tamara Issa (unrelated to previously interviewed Zeina Issa) is a Melbourne-based comedian who spent her formative years developing her comedy routines in her family’s fish and chip shop in the Mornington Peninsula. Her goal in life is to become more famous than her father, Michael Issa, whose claim to fame is being a one-time world record holder of the world’s largest vanilla slice. Tamara is a close friend – and I had the pleasure of interviewing her about comedy, racism, and changing the punchline.
Tell me a bit about your background – and you can interpret that whatever way you want.
I grew up around the Mornington Peninsula. I would say growing up I was one of the only non-Aussies around with the exception of sometimes meeting up with family. Other Lebos lived very far away, so I grew up [working] in fish and chip shops in really white neighbourhoods. So I definitely felt that I stood out or didn’t fit in. So small town - in fish and chip shops - in the Mornington Peninsula.
And you were working pretty hard in those fish and chip shops…
Yeah so basically from the age of 12 they started employing us.
They put you to work [laughter].
Yeah. In primary school we used to live in this small town called Pearcedale and that was a milk bar/pizza shop/fish and chip shop across from the primary school. This primary school had about one thousand kids and we were like the Lebos that lived in the fish and chip shop.
Were you conscious that people thought of you as “the Lebos”?
I felt like I looked different because I had the worst hair. It was kind of curly, kind of frizzy, not really doing anything… Dark and thick… everybody else seemed to have really nice, straight, thin hair. We were chubby kids and spoke retarded English… [laughter]… it was just super weird. But yeah, a definite outsider.
How did that lead to comedy for you?
Well I would say that to get along with people I just used humour. That was the one way I knew how to relate to people. That is how I kind of knew if they are laughing and smiling that we are getting along. I would say I was pretty awkward... maybe anxious socially, cos kids were really mean. So I was like ‘Ok, if I can make people laugh then we are cool’. And also, if people thought I was funny then I would like them – they must be a cool person too [laughter].
So it gave you a way to relate to people where you felt like your backgrounds were not compatible?
Yes. But then also hanging out with our family or family friends that were Arabs I didn’t really felt like I fit in with them either. They were really loud and boisterous, and they were always surrounded by heaps of their family and they had this community they were really comfortable around. So you would come in kind of like in the middle of these two worlds and go ‘Ahhh! This is weird’.
So whatever situation you were in you felt like an outsider… Did you find yourself doing similar kinds of jokes or did you have to refine them for your audience?
Um. I feel like my school friends, the “Aussies” were definitely more laid back than Arabs [laughter]. They were more easy going and chilled out. I preferred that company.
So you felt like you could toe the boundary a little bit further [with “Aussies”]?
How would you define your comedic style?
That is a hard question to answer but I would say it is still developing. But I do observational stuff because I have always been watching things and trying to figure it out…
Relating to that “outsider” feeling you mentioned earlier?
Yeah. But I would also say it is a bit obscure. Like I am not afraid for it to get weird. But I find that a tough question to answer.
You have seen me do stand-up? What would you say about my style?
I would say is that your stand-up routine is very different from other stuff you do. You have a conventional stand-up routine that is that one person with a microphone doing observational stuff, and you have a pretty unique perspective on it. But you do a lot of other multimedia content like Instagram stories and that stuff I would describe as esoteric.
Yes esoteric – accessible to a few [laughter]. But that being said it is as hilarious as it is confusing.
I think that both you and Jalil [Tamara’s brother] have qualities of that within the things you do. How did your upbringing in your family context contribute to your comedy?
Well I think my parents are pretty funny. We are all cracking jokes and it is a big part of the culture as well like telling anecdotal stories. If my uncles are there you will realise that everybody is just sitting there telling jokes to each other. They are very set up jokes – jokes you would read in a joke book. But they really love comedy and it is a huge part of Lebanese culture, like skit based comedy and stuff like that.
With my parents we would always joke around with each other and we could push the boundaries as well. It wasn’t like we had to be PG. Also I think because there was a lot of anger in the house…
A lot of expressed emotion….
Yeah! [laughter] And you need to be able to laugh, otherwise it is a f***ing hell hole sometimes. So I think that helps. It would quickly go from being angry to making each other laugh.
In your stand-up show that I saw you did quite sophisticated jokes… some of them were informed by your cultural background, but they were filtered through the lens of a young Australian living in the world today with lots of explicit themes [laughter]. How have you evolved your onstage persona?
When I started I guess the first thing I was writing about was my dad and that relationship where there was a conflict of me being Australian with lots of Australian friends, boyfriends, having sex before marriage and stuff that really wasn’t allowed in my home. Also being a girl and them saying ‘you need to do this’, and he [Jalil] is a boy so he gets to do that. That was on the tip of my tongue. I used to do jokes about that. But then I didn’t just want to be a Lebanese comedian. I didn’t want to fit nicely into that box of being an ethnic comedian and that is what you have to be forever.
And also essentialises your relationship with your father, which is also quite complicated I am sure.
Yeah. I also felt that it was pretty mean how it would come across. I had a joke that I have changed now…it basically was like this one chick said to me ‘go back to your own country you dirty f***ing Arab’ and the punchline is ‘oh my god, that is exactly what I say to my dad’. And I just felt that was really mean, because I did it when my dad was there and then I started thinking that I don’t feel good about this. I need to say the same point, but not so mean. So I changed it. I said this chick said that to me, and I was like ‘I don’t get racism because if we talked she would see that we aren’t so different… Like we were both waiting for the same guy to arrive so we could buy drugs, ’[Laughter]… like we are doing the same thing. We are both buying drugs.
It is a much, much funnier joke.
So yeah that is something I have tried to change. Like what am I trying to say if my dad was sitting there or other Lebos were sitting there. I think when I have done the [original] joke in front of an Aussie crowd and an Arab crowd even they thought it was mean. You have to have respect for your parents – so I had to make it a bit more ridiculous.
Yeah and grounding.
How has your relationship to Arabic culture changed through reframing of the joke?
I think the way I first wrote it kept anger and held on to anger. Now it is more like I am over it, and I am more trying to make the point about how silly racism is. But there is a real story to that. That girl actually did say that when I was in Frankston. I was in the car, and they were in the car next to us… they were about my age and sticking their tongues out. I knew they were going to the clubs in Frankston. I was sticking out my tongue back thinking they were just being friendly, and then she puts her window down and says ‘go back to your country’ etc, and I was like ‘what the f***,’ they were my age and how did they even know I was Arab?
And that escalated quickly…
Yeah…but then I knew where we were going so we followed their car to the carpark of the bar. And I said, ‘come say that to my face’. I was really angry and didn’t realise people would be that small minded around my age. Jess was like, ‘Get back in the car – let’s go to Maccas.’ So we went to Maccas and I got a cheeseburger. I then decided to go back to the carpark because they would be in the bar. So I smeared the cheeseburger all down the side of the car – don’t f*** with the Arabs.
But to answer the question. I think changing the joke didn’t make me so angry, which is what I was for a really long time.
What came first? Your reframing of the joke, or moving away from that anger?
Moving away from the anger. I guess when I wrote it down it seemed really mean. It made me have a look at it. It is pretty similar to Hannah Gatsby in Nannette – she said the way she was writing her stand up was holding on to the moment and that pain, and not really moving past it. I felt that is what it was doing.
How did you do that? It sounds like there was a lot of ways in which you were constrained within your family, but also from the outside by people making assumptions about you. So how did you change the relationship with your upbringing?
Hmm. Probably just having more freedom now, and that my parents have respected that freedom surprisingly well. But also appreciating my upbringing in some ways as well - It made everything way more exciting. Although my behaviour was restricted and I was like ‘that is not fair’, it made me really hungry to do things. So I appreciate that about it. It made me who I was.
You are an experience seeker.
Exactly. Because I couldn’t do much, now I want to do everything!
One of the ideas brought up in Nanette was that she felt like she wanted to do a better job representing the LBGBTIQ community. Do you feel that you represent something about the Lebanese-Australian community?
I think so. I feel like there has to be so many more people like me who grew up in the same situation – really strict parents that wanted to raise them by the ways of our old country, not here. Maybe it would have been different if I grew up in Broadmeadows if everybody was Lebo or Egyptian. I wanted to do things my friends were doing. They would often stay over at each-others houses and my parents didn’t want me to because they didn’t know my friends’ parents. And I was like, ‘but everybody else is doing it’. Plus the hypocrisy of, ‘you’re a girl, you can’t talk to boys. But Jalil can have guys and girls come over and hang out.’ I just knew it was so wrong…and that surely other people would relate to this! Kids who grew up like me would relate to it, and other people who didn’t would be interested and be able to see what it is like for kids that grow up with immigrant parents. I guess that is what I had in mind.
What is next?
I guess I would like to experiment with different styles. I love classic stand-up comedy and it is something I strive to get good at. I want to do more video sketches because I have always tried to write those. But immediately – I have a show in Warnambool on Sunday 14th October with Dirty Angels Comedy, and another one on the 27th October called Off the Cuff.