Last year, at a college Pride celebration, I was introduced by the co-chair as a “Stonehenge lesbian.” I think he meant Stonewall—but in an odd way the label fit. Except in obituaries, female comics are never accorded the “lovable old curmudgeon” encomium of a George Burns or Bob Hope. Still, I wear my Stonehenge pendant with pride. It may be a quaint artifact on frayed rainbow hemp, but it represents several generations of lesbian comics, many still making a living at it, some even able to buy things.
There may or may not be a lesbian comedy boom, but there certainly is a lescom circuit. Gay Pride Month, formerly known as June, is like a rolling trade show for us. We fan out across the country to emcee Pride rallies, perform at local benefits, and headline our own shows. While hosting mammoth fundraising dinners, we vamp when the videos go down, the vegetarian entrees are lost, or the main speaker is stuck in traffic. We perform at summer women’s festivals and on Olivia cruises. Provincetown in summer is the Branson of lesbian comedy—ask anyone who has been subjected to the daily beach leafleting.
These days, lescom nation has some very visible titular heads. Ellen—rehabilitated after her perfectly calibrated emceeing of the much-postponed post-9-11 Emmy Awards—is on the road doing sold-out shows. In many interviews she seeks to reassure audiences that her act is funny-funny, not funny-gay. She has said that, in prospective markets for her new talk show, TV station managers sit in her audience. “I don’t think it’s an audition so much as it is a reassurance that I’m not some big, scary, gay agenda woman.”
Rosie O’Donnell, whose coming out was an awesomely staged campaign, did a reportedly hysterical set at a New York City fundraiser about the pressure she felt. That was before she made her big announcement. But in the mandatory post-coming out interview with Larry King, Rosie, too, sought to reassure audiences that she was funny-funny, not funny-gay. I worry that somewhere, some late-blooming lesbian will postpone coming out because she doesn’t think she can do well on Larry King.
This reticence illustrates how limited the tolerance for actual lesbian humor—as opposed to the laff-riot of porno “lesbians” with blond mullets, long fingernails, tongues flicking in the nipple area—remains, at least among mainstream producers. In fact, straight audiences are less homo-ignorant than the impresarios. Humor that shows lesbians are just like everyone else—they eat meat, too! they are searched at security, too!—is acceptable. But, while straight sexual humor skews from family vanilla to swinger blue, it will be a long Will-&-Grace period before lesbians can crack a dirty joke on network TV. And what goes for sex goes double for politics.
In most queer-comedy lineups, gay men are outnumbered by lesbians—and not because of any rule about gender parity. The entertainment industry affords many more opportunities for funny gay men to make a living. Lesbians are likely to be drawn to stand-up, if only because it’s cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible for women. But the very form of stand-up—with its setup/punchline; up/down; tumescence/detumescence (where the classic “tum-de-dum” rimshot actually originated)—is masculine.
It’s no accident that, in the queer gender-perverse universe, so many funny gay men are drawn to cabaret, piano bar, and drag-oriented, bitchy, campy, big-outfit, big-show formats. The rejection of male power is serious business, and the only way a man is allowed to do it is through morphing vapors of non-threatening feminine drag. But lescoms are allowed to “poke” fun. Their embrace of the stand-up form is a rejection of the “privileges” and props of the feminine. The joke is no longer on them. The layers of double and triple entendre from this essential irony make lescoms bold, bad, and wicked funny.
On any given night in any queer comedy showcase, you might see three generations of lescoms, the first doing material about the what of coming out, the second riffing on the so-what of living out in the world, and the third dealing with the now-what of the changing world we live out in. Robin Tyler was the first lescom to come out on national TV. Lea DeLaria, from the same generation as Marga Gomez and me, kicked the closet door wide open on Arsenio Hall. Although DeLaria concentrates on her singing and acting career, her between-songs patter is still often trenchant, smartass lesbian humor.
Second-gen lescoms, who got their performance chops during the boom-boom Clinton years, are products of a less overtly oppositional time. With Clinton, a president who could say gay and lesbian without spitting up, many people came out, including a large number of lescoms. This allowed for much greater particularity, as in Suzanne Westenhoefer’s material about her butch “homo depot” girlfriend; Vickie Shaw’s material about living out as a divorced, Southern ex-fundamentalist raising three kids; and Karen Williams’s pointed humor about being an African American single lesbian mother.
Julie Goldman, a brawny, brainy butch, is a next-generation lescom. Her edgy, urban humor is about being a young lesbian with no money temping in an office of straight women in a post-9-11 world of hidden cameras and nuclear threats. Goldman, who fronts a mock rock band called Indigo Etheridge, makes a creative community of other next-gen comics, such as Jessie Kierson and Mary C. Matthews, in her hilarious short films.
Lesbian humor is uniquely good precisely because it’s not in the mainstream. Since it isn’t trying to sell anything, it doesn’t have to sell out. Coming out as a lesbian onstage is still a very political act; if it weren’t, more women would do it. Speaking as a lesbian against the current feminist backlash has that same sense of danger—job loss, family and friend estrangement, violence—that it had 30 years ago. It’s the biggest, scariest agenda of all.
For information about the author’s upcoming comedy gigs, visit KateClinton.com.