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Ask anyone if lesbians are funny, and they will inevitably point to Ellen DeGeneres, America’s favorite daytime-talk-show host. Rewind to 1997, when Ellen made the front pages of newsmagazines for coming out on her sitcom. A year later, once the originality had worn off, the show was canceled. Everyone knows how this story ends: Unlike the brash, post–Tom Cruise–loving, bull-dykey Rosie O’Donnell, even as an out lesbian, DeGeneres’s bland brand of humor has served her well. Not only has her top-rated talk show won 32 Daytime Emmys, this national treasure now serves as the spokesperson for Cover Girl and J.C. Penney.
Clearly, Ellen is the safe, comfortable lesbian Middle America loves. But plenty of comics play up their sexuality and even center their shtick on it. Rather than running from the butch, heavyset, mullet-headed, ultra-p.c. stereotype, these comics turn those images on their heads by embracing them in their acts.
“A sense of humor was something lesbians had to earn,” says Lea DeLaria, who broke the late-night talk show lavender ceiling in 1993 on The Arsenio Hall Show, which led to sitcom and film work, where she was typecast as a brash bull dyke. “They loved me so much, they put me in a niche as the P.E. teacher or police lieutenant,” she says. That persisted until her 1998 breakout performance in Broadway’s On the Town, when audiences realized she could convincingly play a straight romantic lead.
While gay men embraced her brash, politically incorrect brand of comedy, DeLaria’s fellow lesbians booed her off the stage at women’s (or “womyn’s”) festivals. In Northampton, Massachusetts, the epicenter of lesbian political correctness, she faced fundamentalist Christians and militant lesbians, who both agreed on one thing: Her brand of humor was out of bounds. “I put up with it to this day,” she says, “because in the beginning of our movement in the ’70s, lesbians were so tied in with feminists, who were seen as humorless. It’s ingrained in some respect—a last vestige of the lesbian-feminist culture.”
The ’90s might have been the Golden Age of stand-up when comics became pop superstars, but women had to work doubly hard for their share of the spotlight. “I would hear things like ‘We already have a woman’ or ‘Women don’t do well, so we don’t book them,'” Judy Gold recalls. Still, male comedians came to respect her (because, she drolly adds, she wasn’t fucking them or stealing their material). Gold feels today’s lesbian comedians aren’t afraid to tell jokes without excluding a major part of their lives.
Disenfranchised communities have always turned to comedy as a shield. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African-American comedians in their turn were celebrated for poking fun at their ethnicity as a pre-emptive strike to being the butt of the joke. Today’s lesbians comics are taking a page from their script. “In my act, I make fun of myself for not knowing I was gay and listing all the things that make me so fucking gay,” says Erin Foley, best known for her role as Allison, the fact checker, in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
These comics are still being put into a convenient niche. The late professional curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens expressed the prevailing attitude in a 2007 Vanity Fair column, in which he complained that female comics tended to be “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” “It’s as if they are saying if you’re lesbian, Jewish, or fat, you are allowed to be funny,” Gold says. “If you’re hot and sexy, you’re not allowed to be funny.”
Or is that attractive women simply don’t bear the same grudges that are the basis for comedy? “If I see a female stand-up comic, and she’s super hot, it’s hard for me to relate or to believe she was bullied in high school,” says Rebecca Drysdale, who recently appeared as half of a lesbian couple on 30 Rock. “In the same way, because Ellen is famous, it’s hard to believe her joking that she got a bad seat on an airplane.”
Columnist Alessandra Stanley recently called DeGeneres’s persona “light, cheerful, fun, and all-encompassing in an ordinary way that makes for good daytime TV. I’m not saying that other lesbians whose comedy is more tuned into the lifestyle aren’t successful, but they’re not on TV.”
Gold can attest to the pervasiveness of the Ellen Syndrome: “My mother always says, ‘Why can’t you be like Ellen?’ But I don’t talk about my phone call to God.”
On the other hand, Stanley concluded that “being a lesbian comedian is not a strained thing, it’s not something you have to explain or proclaim anymore.” The latest example of that acceptance is the newest member of the Saturday Night Live cast, Kate McKinnon, the show’s first lesbian. True, McKinnon is young, thin, and attractive. But she first garnered notice as a cast member on The Big Gay Sketch Show.
“I know lesbians are going to go crazy about this, and Kate is very pro-gay and out,” Drysdale says. “She got hired because she is the best. I think it’s awesome for young lesbians everywhere to be able to look at her and say, ‘She did it, and so it’s possible.'”
Gold also sees the move as a touchstone. “If we can change one person’s mind, that’s what we want. I’m happy that the president supports my relationship, but it would help for everyone to know that they know and love a gay person—and that lesbians are fucking hilarious.”