The offspring of "Jewish hippie artist feminist Communists," standup comic Jessica Halem '94 knows all about being an outsider. "I grew up in this really small town in Ohio," she says. "This town was so stupid they couldn't even get their anti-Semitism right. I went to school one day, and some kids had scrawled across my locker, in big black magic marker, the word 'KITE.' I know what they meant to say, but the Anti-Defamation League really doesn't have 'kite' under the rubric of hate speech."
After graduation, Halem landed her dream job: executive assistant to the late activist Bella Abzug. She loved it. "I always wanted to be a professional feminist," she recalls in her shtick. "Organizing, rallying, petitioning, just generally being angry for a living. But I knew I couldn't take it anymore, couldn't take another feminist function or women's gathering of any sort because hummus is always involved. If anything happens to chickpeas, the women's movement is over!" Joking aside, she became bitten by the comedy bug after emcee-ing The Young Women's Talent Show at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995. Despite the myriad of languages involved, Halem saw that humor truly is universal. "I really speak two languages," she says, "Political activism, and comedy. And it's comedy that allows me to recognize and comment on the absurdity of what goes on in this country."
In 1996, Halem took a three-week course in standup comedy, then fell in love with a woman who was moving to Chicago to pursue her Ph.D. So she moved to Chicago, too—and discovered, she says, a "wonderful, supportive" comedy community. It was there that this outsider began to feel at home.
Like many contemporary comics, she found inspiration in Richard Pryor. "Comedy lets marginalized groups like African-Americans or gays be heard. They speak the unspoken," she says. "When you laugh at Pryor or at Chris Rock, you're laughing at things you've thought in the depths of your mind but don't dare say aloud."
Three years ago, Halem founded The Hysterical Women, a group of lesbian standup comics who have toured extensively in the Midwest and South. "We're giving voice to the life of the lesbian in the Midwest, which is not reflected anywhere. The part I love the most is communicating in a joyous way with the audience."
Still a social activist, Halem recently became director of the nonprofit Lesbian Community Cancer Project. She also does comedy workshops for gay teens, "Finding the Funny," at the About Face Theater. "My workshops help youth that have been kicked out of their homes, harassed, kicked out of school. I love being a role model, but also helping them turn their stories into humor. Humor is that light at the end of the tunnel."