We’re funny that way: a queer comedy history

[originally printed in Springplay! Spring 2011]

After starring in his own sketch comedy show, followed by the CBC news parody THIS HOUR HAS 22 MINUTES, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Gavin Crawford paced about the house, wondering how to be funny.

“It started because Sky Gilbert had these weird open-mike nights at Buddies, where you got five minutes to do anything,” he says, “It was a complete free-for-all.” Crawford had been inspired by the monologues of Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg but was unsure how to translate that theatrical style into a traditional stand-up comedy format. Egged on by his partner Kyle, he performed at Buddies and the Rivoli before discovering the second year of We’re Funny That Way, Canada’s queer comedy festival produced by lawyer-turned-comic Maggie Cassella.

“I went to Maggie’s house and dropped off a videotape with a letter asking for any advice she could give,” says Crawford, “She called me and said, ‘First of all, I HATE YOU. I watched that tape and I really fucking hate you. Second, I’m putting you in the gala.'” Cassella admits she was tempted for a moment with two choices: reject Crawford or “watch him kill the room, vault over me and get his own show on the Comedy Network, which is what happened.” Crawford says the reaction he got at the gala gave him “a huge boost of confidence” that soon carried him into Second City and beyond.

Of all the performing arts, stand-up comedy offers perhaps the greatest risk and reward. While an actor can rely on a script and a singer can deliver a song, a stand-up comic is alone on a stage, facing an audience with only his or her wit. It’s all the terror of public speaking, up against the subjective nature of one’s sense of humour and, for queer comics, a longtime comedy-club culture of homophobia. Yet they’re compelled to keep getting up in front of the mic, word-warriors ready to kill or bomb. Cassella’s We’re Funny That Way festival captured the energy of the pioneering queer stand-ups and showcased the younger performers now changing the comedy scene itself.

Two decades on, it’s the classic gay joke: “I came out to my family on Thanksgiving,” began Bob Smith, “I said, ‘Mom, please pass the gravy to a homosexual.’ She passed it to my father.” With his boy-next-door charm, Smith began doing stand-up in Buffalo in 1977 at the age of 19 before coming out onstage in New York in 1986.

“I wondered if the audience would be hostile,” Smith says, “The news then about gay men seemed to be only about AIDS,” but he was a hit with audiences and the homophobia he encountered was manageable. “In supposedly liberal Seattle,” he says, “half the audience walked out during my 45 minute set. There was no overt hostility, just voting with your feet.”

Here in Toronto, however, Scott Thompson wasn’t as lucky. Before becoming one-fifth of legendary sketch troupe The Kids in the Hall, Thompson braved the Yuk Yuks amateur stages after graduating university. “It was such a homophobic environment, I couldn’t stand it,” he says, “And I hadn’t even come out of the closet yet! In those days, gay men were the targets. Always.” Viciously homophobic comedians like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay were hugely popular and Thompson was mocked by the other comics even when being introduced. “They’d wipe the microphone or pretend to be getting a blowjob, always attacking my masculinity.”

Thompson was dazzled by British comedian Simon Fanshawe, who appeared in Toronto in 1986: “He told the audience he was gay and the room got really quiet and nervous and he said, ‘That’s the sound of 200 assholes snapping shut.'” Fanshawe won huge acclaim in the UK but soon switched careers and became a respected broadcast journalist.

“I do love [stand-up comedy],” Fanshawe told BBC News in 1998, “but I don’t love it enough to go through the kind of ritual humiliation you do have to go through in order to make it right.” Thompson agreed. Stand-up, he says, “is a macho world and I didn’t have the emotional equipment to deal with it…It’s the football of performing.”

Who better then to take the field than the unstoppable Lea DeLaria? “When I first started in San Francisco in 1982,” she says, “I was billed as ‘That Fucking Dyke.'” Thompson laughs and says, “I don’t think Lea was in the closet a day in her life. She was born clutching a dildo.” After the two met, DeLaria says they bonded over their status as outspoken outsiders, even within the gay community. “I wasn’t a lesbian, I was QUEER and back then, that was very outrageous,” DeLaria says. Yet her influence was huge. Maggie Cassella raves, “I only got my start because Lea said to me, ‘You’re funny, you should do stand-up. Just open the paper and read the news.’ She gave me my act!”

“One great thing about the early performers,” says Bob Smith, “is that we were all mutual fans and would attend each other’s shows.” It was easy to, Smith says, because an “embarrassing” number of queer stand-up comics were still in the closet at that point, afraid for their careers (even Ellen!). When Smith asked Toronto comic Elvira Kurt to open for his comedy trio Funny Gay Males in 1990, it began a friendship that is, he says, “one of the most important relationships in my life.”

While Smith, Kurt, Cassella andthe brilliant political humourist Kate Clinton were slowly winning over mainstream audiences, it was DeLaria who surprised everyone in 1993 by being chosen to appear on the then-top-rated Arsenio Hall Show, where she famously declared, “‘It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer, and I’m a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!” For America, it was a cultural atom bomb and DeLaria laughs, “Someone counted — I was on the air for a total of nine minutes and said ‘dyke’ or ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ 46 times! I was always very proud of that.”

In 1996, Cassella teamed up with documentarian David Adkin to create a showcase for a growing movement. “I was really honored when Maggie asked me to be a part of the first We’re Funny That Way fest,” says Smith and each spring for 15 years now (with an exception here or there), Buddies in Bad Times Theatre has been a platform for Canadian queer performers, including Jonathan WilsonEd Sahely, The B-Girlz, David Tomlinson, Lex Vaughn, Ted MorrisTrevor Boris and Richard Ryder.

“I’d had a few years of standup under my belt when I did Maggie’s festival,” says actor Liam Doherty, “but to be in an all-queer show was really exciting. I’d been used to playing clubs where most of the time I was the only gay comic on the bill and it was more fun to be on a night where everyone was gay. There was a comfort level.” The crowd could easily relate when Doherty explained how no one could pronounce his name in school: “I got called Lyam…Lime…Fag.”

The success of We’re Funny That Way spawned events like Buddies’ annual Homo Night in Canada fundraiser and boosted the profile of queer comics in general but stand-up remained as difficult an art form as ever. Sure, for a few years there, says Cassella, “All you had to do was say you were gay and you got $500 but trying to float a career on just your sexuality is self-oppressive.”

“I know a lot of people, male and female, who were doing standup in the 90s but not now,” says Doherty, “I think it’s a very short-lived career…You’re standing around in a bar, waiting for your five-minute gig at midnight, and as you get older, it’s a very small group of people who can still keep up that energy.”

By 2002, NOW magazine critic Glenn Sumi was asking, “Where are the queer comics? A few years ago they were everywhere…but where are their successors?…With the exception of the annual We’re Funny That Way fest, no one has the will or grace to mount a successful queer comedy night.”

Sumi only needed to be patient. While OUTtv and Proud FM provided new forums for comics like Ryder and Deb Pearce, newbies flocked to the amateur open-mic Wednesday hosted by Jo-Anna Downey at Spirits on Church Street and comic/producer Andrew Johnston stepped up as a rival to Cassella with his all-women showcase for a gay audience, Bitch Salad.

“There’s not really one queer comedy scene,” says Johnston. While he praises Scott Thompson and Gavin Crawford as influences, Johnston says younger gay comics are more aligned with the sensibilities of Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and the women of SNL, rejecting the queer comic label that Cassella and the others built.

“Maggie comes from a time when that was radical,” says Johnston, “I absolutely respect and appreciate that. I would not be doing what I’m doing now had she not done it. But I’m living in a very different world and I don’t think about being gay every second of my day. It doesn’t wholly inform my comedy.”

Ian Lynch, fellow comic and producer, says being labelled a gay comic has mostly helped him but notes, “It was only just a few years ago that people acted like there could only be one gay comic in the city.” Echoing Doherty’s experience, Lynch says, “You’d never see two gay comics together in a show. It was like, ‘one is exotic, two is the drama club,’ so he produced Sausage Party, an all-gay comedy night that included Johnston, Vong Sundara and Marco Bernardi. “There’s a kind of brotherhood amongst young gay comics now,” Lynch says, counting Johnston, and Trevor Boris as friends.

A wistful Scott Thompson says, “Guys like Trevor and Ian are absolutely the new wave…I marvel at their ease on stage. They don’t have to spend their first 15 minutes lulling the audience into submission or bludgeoning them either.” Before, he says, “You couldn’t just say, ‘I’m gay,’ and move on but now…you don’t even have to say it.”

One assumes any jealousy Thompson might feel would be replaced with pride (and perhaps a bit of age shock) upon meeting 23-year-old comedian Mae Martin, who says, “I saw the Kids In The Hall live at Massey Hall when I was about 13 and it was a bit of a religious experience. People were screaming out the lines to sketches like it was a rock concert.” In her own act, Martin enjoys mixing comedy and singing, celebrating “my adventures in androgyny and my secret fantasy of being Justin Bieber.”

“Mae Martin is THE SHIT,” exclaims fan and fellow cabaret performer Shawn Hitchins, who, like Martin and Crawford, was less interested in stand-up and more involved in character comedy. “I wanted to tell stories,” Hitchins says and the songs entered the scene because, he jokes, “If I’m going to be on stage for 30-40 minutes, I’ll need some filler!” As one-third of the vibrant and beloved drag group The B-Girlz, Hitchins has long strived to expand the boundaries of what queer comedy can be.

​Good, says Lea DeLaria, dropping a challenge on everyone: “The vast majority of gay comics have become very complacent. They just want to tour around, playing to their same audience who will die out with them. I’m interested in the ones who are actually trying to make a statement and affect change. I don’t want to hear about your period or your socks in the dryer or how hard it is to go through airport security now. Who fucking cares?”

Cassella agrees, saying, “I can’t tell you how many tapes I get for the festival and I say, ‘Dude, Bob Smith did that joke! A hundred years ago!’ Unless your coming-out story involves Golda Meir or Gandhi, I HAVE HEARD IT BEFORE.”

Harsh? Not at all, as they’ve watched their friends REALLY work for a joke. A few years ago, DeLaria says, “Bob Smith called me and said, ‘Lea, I have Lou Gerhig’s Disease. And I throw like a girl.'” Then, as the Kids in the Hall reunited in 2009 for their CBC miniseries Death Comes To Town, Thompson was diagnosed with cancer. “Anyone who wasn’t a comic wouldn’t get it,” says DeLaria, “but Scott and I pissed ourselves with laughter when he got cancer. Just joke after joke! It’s how we deal.”

Smith is now a novelist, with a zany Bush-era time-travel novel due this summer, while Thompson plans a return to TV and, perhaps surprisingly, stand-up. “I’m not afraid of it anymore, I love it.” Just don’t put him on a bill with an anger comic. “We all know that if you’re a standup comedian, of course you’re furious. Of course you had a terrible childhood. No normal person would do this,” he laughs.

“Ten years from now, some gay Chris Rock will come along and he’ll be revolutionary,” says Andrew Johnston, “But that’s not right now and it makes my heart ache knowing it won’t be me,” he laughs, though it might be his friend Ian Lynch. In addition to being proud of the dialogue amongst high-schoolers that his MTV talk show, 1 Girl, 5 Gays has created, Lynch says, “With Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, people can form a relationship with their favourite comics. I’ve had lots of young people write me, asking for advice. I post standup clips and I made an It Gets Better video and all that.”

Where comics were once at the mercy of homophobic audiences and club bookers, while dreaming of a TV sitcom, actor/writer David Tomlinson agrees that the internet is making DIY comedy possible. He’s produced a YouTube series called Cordelia, featuring himself and Dora Award-winning actor Ryan Kelly as two gay roommates caught in an amusingly sinister conspiracy. “Why must we always be just the fun sidekicks or bitchy reality-show judges?” Tomlinson asks, “Let’s tell new stories, talk about our culture!” Rather than wait for TV networks to discover comics, he asks, “Why aren’t more of us doing this?”

There will be, says Mae Martin. Over in the UK (but back in town for a Pride show), she says, “There seem to be many more female and gay comics on the club circuit than there ever have been…I think people are realizing that straight male audiences actually can relate to and enjoy gay comics and female comics.”

“The comedy scene today has totally changed while it’s remained the same,” jokes Richard Ryder, “The new comics are always annoying. The old ones are always bitter and the ones in the middle of their careers are too busy to notice or care about anyone but themselves. Trends in humour change but the nature of the beast is forever!”

Ryder will be the first comedy headliner at Maggie Cassella’s next venture: a pub and cabaret she’s called (and trademarked!) a “pubaret.” The Flying Beaver on Parliament will provide performers “a space where they don’t have to be distracted by noises in the back or people walking in during their set or whatever,” says Casella, “I’ve always liked the cabaret space at Buddies…that’s the kind of room I was looking for. We stumbled on a place and basically, I’m buying myself a job,” she jokes.

With this going on, Cassella is postponing the gala 15th anniversary of WFTW until next year, when she hopes David Adkin will be able do a follow-up documentary. In the meantime, the Flying Beaver is ready to go and Gavin Crawford is delighted. “I learned early on that you can’t do character monologues in a curling rink lit by two trucks,” he laughs, “so this is perfect. The more spaces there are for people to get out and do stuff, the better comedy we’ll have…and now that I’m leaving 22 Minutes, I’ll have somewhere to go! I get to knock on Maggie’s door again and say, ‘Hi, I don’t know what to do.'”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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