Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Lea DeLaria became the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night television, when she did a stand-up set on The Arsenio Hall Show. “It’s the Nineties and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a biiiiig dyke!” DeLaria famously declared. The set catapulted the comic to a new level of mainstream fame, and she’s used that platform to loudly stump for the LGBTQ cause ever since.
The Voice spoke to the Orange Is the New Black star about her landmark appearance, concerns about the corporate takeover of Pride, and TV’s “fake lesbian” problem.
It’s been 25 years since you became the first openly queer comic to perform on broadcast TV, on The Arsenio Hall Show. What do you remember of that experience?
I remember everything. Every second of it. It was huge!
Were you approached to perform on his show?
I was in San Francisco performing a two-week run. I was about to go to Highways, in Los Angeles, which is a performing arts venue. The L.A. Times wanted to do an interview with me because of my run at Highways. This was when people actually read the paper. The interview went incredibly well — it ended up below the fold on the cover of the weekend edition’s entertainment section. The show sold out, we had to add shows, and suddenly all these agents and managers and people were calling and calling.
I was completely out of my league — I was a fucking queer performer, you know what I mean? Luckily I had known Melissa Etheridge for a really long time, so I called her and she gave me a whole lot of really good advice. I hung up the phone and I got a phone call from the people at The Arsenio Hall Show. The reason Arsenio Hall called was because, I believe it was in the first paragraph of the article — “Lea DeLaria, you may not know her, they won’t let her do the Tonight Show.” So the bookers from Arsenio called and said, “Well, if they won’t let you do the Tonight Show, I think it’s a no-brainer that you do this.”
What was it like when you showed up to do your set?
I had never met Arsenio, and when I got onto the set, he walked out of his dressing room, grabbed me by the hand, and walked me to my dressing room and sat and talked to me for, like, ten minutes to tell me how excited he was that I was there. He was absolutely lovely. He said, “I’ve heard of you for years, but your comedy is so blue and so outrageous I didn’t think we could ever get a four-minute set from you.” Which is really funny, and true! My comedy was not the sort of thing you saw on TV.
Did you talk with him or any producers about what your set would be like? Was there anything you were told not to say?
No. When you do a late-night set, you go through it with the person who books you. So they knew everything I was gonna say. They didn’t have any objections to anything. I came out, I did my four minutes of stand-up, and I did five minutes on the couch, and I think it was the Advocate that wrote that I was on for nine and a half minutes and I said the word dyke, fag, or queer something like 47 times.
But here’s what people don’t know: After I did that set, the lawyer came down and said, “I don’t think we can air this because she says dyke, fag, and queer.” Arsenio went and fought for me. He said, “If she’s gonna call herself a dyke or a fag or queer, who are we to tell her she can’t?” He really fought for it so that it would go out in its entirety, and it did.
How do you feel about how the representation of queer people on TV has changed over the years? In some ways I feel we’ve come so far, but then you see these GLAAD reports and the numbers still aren’t great, particularly for gay women.
Lesbian representation on television generally isn’t even written by lesbians. Let’s start there. Television is without a doubt filled with fake lesbians. It happens to us all the time, especially butch lesbians.
Right, which is partly why when Orange Is the New Black first came out, I was so blown away by the diversity of women on that show — the variety of body types, sexualities, personalities, ethnicities. It was like, oh yeah, we don’t usually see this.
You have to remember, when I first encountered the script, Big Boo wasn’t in the script. They wrote that part for me. So even in that show they didn’t have butch representation. And by the way, the real Alex [Vause] — not that she’s a friend of mine, I don’t know her from Adam — but the real Alex looks like me. She’s a butch dyke, being portrayed by Laura Prepon with long hair and lipstick.
Do you argue with the writers about things like that? Do you have any input?
When they were doing Big Boo’s backstory, I had a lot of input in that because it was a butch story and I’m a butch dyke, and the person who wrote it was not a butch dyke. There were two things I talked to them about: an attire question and the strap-on. Lauren Morelli wrote this [episode], and when I was handed the script I called her and I was crying — I said, “It’s like you’ve read my diary.” It was taking place in 1997 in the Midwest in a gay bar, and there was something they wanted me to wear, and I was like, yeah, this wouldn’t happen. And the strap-on — they wanted me to wear the strap-on over the boxers. And I said, no butch in their right mind — no, no. It kills the fantasy! I will not put it on over my boxers. So the boxers were laid by the bed and I had to wear what they call a modesty patch.
I will tell you what the problem is that I see: It’s in the writer’s room. They do not hire lesbians. They do not let us write for ourselves. It’s infuriating to me. I don’t know why it’s always acceptable, especially for straight men, to write stories about lesbians. They write it, and then they don’t cast us in the roles! They cast fake lesbians. Most of the cast of Orange is fake lesbians. There’s actual lesbians out there that would love to work, and we’re good!
It’s funny, I talked to Scott Thompson a little while ago.
My buddy Scott!
He was saying, at least in the context of comedy, that he thinks things are harder for gay men because a woman who is interested in other women moves up in power, whereas for a man to be interested in men, you lose power.
Scott and I have had this argument. We’re friends, but we talk about this all the time. Scott, you’re so wrong about this. Because they’re sexualizing us — they don’t think of us as thinking human beings. And as I’ve said to him many times, “Scott, do you think I had it easy in comedy clubs? Look at me, son!” But he is correct in that in the comedy clubs it’s still OK to pick on gay men.
Or I often see a male comic pick on a woman in the audience, in a sexual way, because it’s an easy way to get a laugh.
Well, I do that [laughs]. But I do that to make a point, because first of all, I’m a lesbian. That’s still frowned upon by society. And also I’m a woman, and we’re supposed to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. So I do that as a very feminist, political statement.
You’ve written about how Pride events in the late 1970s and early 1980s were more like angry protests than parades.
They were protest marches. They were about defiance.
Do you feel Pride parades today should have more of that angry protest spirit? It’s amazing to see Pride become this global series of events, but then you’ll see a TD Bank float and it’s like, huh?
I hate the corporatefication of anything. I think the corporatefication of Broadway destroyed Broadway. Thank god for Hamilton and, before that, Fun Home. Thank god for the Public Theater, which still is trying to bring us engaging shows and not just whatever the masses want to see — yet another revival of Carousel. Who wants to see a dream ballet in 2018? We don’t need corporations to make this parade. We don’t need that money. Unless the Citibank float is doing something specifically for queer people other than just being in this parade, then fuck Citibank.
What could they do to make their presence more meaningful, in your mind?
I think if they had a big sign on their float that said, “Fuck Trump,” I’d be OK with them being in the parade.