Gay Comedy 101
By Larry-bob Roberts
As many a comedian has discovered, gay people are funny.
But, anal sex jokes aside, gay people are much more than
the butt of jokes.
Back in the day, gay humor was mainly the province of drag queens.
In the 50's and earlier, Ray Bourbon hit the nightclub circuit and
put out records featuring risque banter. All this was before
being arrested for contracting for the murder of an irresponsible
petsitter and dying in prison.
Things are a little different now, of course. How different?
Where do gay comics peform? Who are the more prominent gay and
lesbian comics? I'll try to answer some of these questions.
The point of gay comedy venues is not so much the sexuality
of the performer as the sexuality of the audience. The typical
gay person has the idea that if he or she were to attend a
straight comedy club they would be uncomfortable being potentially
forced to listen to homophobic jokes and rendered invisible, or
worse yet made visible by being directly ridiculed by a homophobic
comedian. In a gay comedy venue, the gay audience member can relax
and enjoy in the comfort that they're in on the joke. Donald Montwill,
the late manager of the Valencia Rose and Josie's Cabaret was quoted as
saying, "One of our goals was comedy that doesn't diminish people or
Some gay comics are accustomed to performing to straight audiences
and may have to adjust their material. Sometimes they describe
the usual reaction of straight audiences when they perform in
those clubs. There are some things that shock straight audiences
that won't phase gay audiences at all.
San Francisco's Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, now closed
for over three years, offered an update on the cabaret formula,
with weekend shows by performers like Lypsyncha or Varla Jean Merman
or Pomo Afro Homos, and a low-budget Monday night comedy open mike.
It was run by the people who, in the 80's, ran the
Valencia Rose, a starting place for many of the comedians
still active in the gay comedy world. When the venue closed,
my partner and former Josie's cook Nick Leonard and I started
producing weekly Monday night gay comedy showcases. We've bounced
around among a variety of venues-- from a dive bar to a restaurant
to a faux Parisian cafe to a gay theatre to a yoga studio-- to the current
location, San Francisco's year-old LGBT community center.
We've basically maintained the format that Josie's originated-- a
different featured host each week performing an opening monologue,
ten-minute sets by a half-dozen performers of various sexualities,
and a closing set by San Francisco performing legend Bridget Schwartz.
Schwartz wrings every last hysterical laugh out of any audience,
even one that's already been in the venue for an hour and a half or more.
San Francisco has another gay comedy night as well, Stood Up,
which is a monthly showcase at a bar venue, The Stud. It likewise
features both gay comedians and straight performers.
It's interesting to see what formats other comedy shows utilize,
though. A recent trip to the UK revealed a promised land of gay
comedy, featuring enthusiastic audiences and talented performers.
Comedy Camp is a weekly comedy event in London. It takes place
in the basement of an open plan bar in Soho. The host is Simon Happily, an
aptly-named comedian whose friendly manner welcomes the audience into the
packed cellar. The format of the show is typical for British shows:
long sets by three or four comedians, punctuated by breaks where
everyone gets up and orders pints of beer-- a format made necessary
by laws mandating shorter drinking hours. A
DJ provides music before and between sets-- spinning (thankfully)
tasteful tunes and not dire dance music. Despite the heavy drinking,
the audience seems to be more intelligent and attuned than many
American audiences. They also seem to be nicer than most British
audiences are generally reputed to be, refraining,
for the most part, from the cruel heckling that is the legendary bane of
stateside comedians who visit the Sceptered Isle.
British gay comedy seems closer to the roots of gay comedy--
it's fairly common for a drag or music performer to be featured.
The monthly Screamers show takes place in Brighton, a hip, south coast
seaside town--sort of a British version of Santa Cruz-- in
the basement space of the lovely venue called Komedia. The night
is put together by Chris Green, who mainly performs
dolled up as faux-American guitar-strumming country singer Tina C. Green
has showcased his Tina C. character at the influential Edinburgh
Fringe Festival. More recently he's been appearing as Ida Barr, an old-school music
hall dame now on the dole and attempting a hip-hop flavored comeback.
The night I attended, a biologically female Marilyn Monroe impersonator
performed (complete with her her own fan setup to mimic the famous
air-vent shot) and Spanish-speaking performer Ursula Martinez performed
a musical set. Once again, the format
involved 30-minute-plus sets, punctuated by libation breaks.
Perhaps American comedy clubs, which hew to a waitress-table-nightclub
format, could emulate this British model. The audience was large and
enthusiastic, their appetite for comedy perhaps whetted by the fact that
the show is only scheduled monthly.
In Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasglow are each home to a location of the
mini-chain known as The Stand. Both feature a monthly gay comedy night,
with the same lineup generally appearing at both clubs. The Edinburgh
audience seemed perhaps a bit jaded by too many Fringe Fest shows,
but they were still attentive. The Glasgow room is a bit larger, and the
promoters have been successful in drawing college students
to the event. This is a welcome change from America,
where it often seems that people under 30 don't bother with
Membership cards and student and unemployed discounts are
frequently offered at British clubs. Comedy seems to be taken
more seriously in England. The weekly London listing magazine
Time Out includes not only listings but articles on comedy
and a comedian's choice of five top clubs.
Back here in the states, locations such as New
York's Don't Tell Mama's and the Duplex sometimes feature
gay comedy performers, occasionally dipping into the drag and musical
comedy bag. Recently New York clubs such as Caroline's,
Gotham Comedy Club and the Comedy Garden have been doing gay
Chicago is known to be a market that is friendly to sketch comedy, and
is home to GayCo, a gay comedy sketch group. Boston is the home of
lesbian and gay duo Brian and Mal. At one point Seattle
had a monthly gay night, Queer as a 3 Dollar Bill, at
the Comedy Underground, although I believe it is currently on
hiatus. For several years, Maggie Cassella has organized a gay
comedy festival in Toronto called We're Funny That Way,
although it's not going on this year. The Yuk Yuk clubs in Canada
have recently been featuring a group of queer comedians known as
Oot and Aboot.
I have no firsthand experience with the Provincetown summer scene,
which features extended runs for gay comedy and cabaret performers,
particularly women. San Francisco's nearby gay resort town,
Guerneville, located in a rural area 90 minutes
north of the city, has a weekly comedy show at the Russian River
Resort. The audience is a mixture of vacationers and regulars,
who are offered some sort of locals discount. Out of town performers
are frequently featured. The venue also has an annual summertime
comedy competition, a one-night event which rewards the winner
with a headlining opportunity and a cash prize.
In nearby Santa Rosa, We Mean It Productions produces shows a
couple times a year, generally featuring two or three out of town
lesbian and gay performers. The promoters try to find talent not
previously featured in the area. The events attract a large and
enthusiastic audience. Santa Rosa was chosen by Ellen DeGeneres to
kick off here recent tour. She gushed about the top quality of the
There are other producers who do this sort of annual or
semi-annual show. Lisa Geduldig has been producing
events in San Francisco for over half a decade, usually in
large, theater spaces. Feygeleh Schmegeleh features performers
who are queer and Jewish. Queer Comedy Quack-Up is a
gay comedy free-for-all. Lisa books a wide variety of performers and
attracts a wide variety of audiences. Geguldig she has plans to extend the show to other cities.
Lisa brings in out-of-town Jewish performers and attracts media
writeups. One year, her show was Henny Youngman's last-ever gig.
She also periodically produces other events, generally in a large
theatre space. Her flagship event,
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, is a Jewish, not necessarily gay,
comedy event set in a large Chinese banquet hall and has become a
yuletide tradition in the Bay Area. One of her recent Kung Pao shows featured
Henny Youngman's last-ever gig.
Many prominent queer performers eschew the mainstream
club circuit opting instead to perform at concert halls, theatres,
and colleges-- political humorist Kate Clinton or Marga Gomez for
example. Performers such as Eddie Izzard skipped
the American clubs to go directly to extended runs in theatres.
Margaret Cho has forsaken the clubs for larger venues promoted by the
House of Blues, and her show has been packaged as a theatrically released
film. This is a trail previously blazed (with somewhat more modest
success) by Sandra Bernhardt in the mid-80s. A common thread linking
these approaches is a prolific output of material and a personal voice
rooted in sexual identity, ethnic identity or both.
Gay pride festivals are a regular gig for queer comedians, but
performing outdoors in daylight is often a less than ideal situation
for live comedy. People are more comfortable laughing in darkness
where the distractions are fewer. But pride fests
need hosts who can hold the attention of the audience between
grandstanding politicians and lip-synching performances.
Making fun of such provincial pride-fests seems to
have provided grist for more than one queer comedian's set.
Some gay performers make regular appearances on gay or lesbian
cruises. If you can stand being trapped on a boat with a bunch of
sun-worshipping homosexuals and don't mind MC-ing bingo games,
this might be a career option.
I wanted to pass on some of the things we've learned in putting
on comedy shows in a variety of types of venues. While queer comedy
is the main reason of this piece, the thoughts about producing shows
may prove useful even to those whose sexual preference is strictly
missionary. The advantage of producing events in bars is that generally
an arrangement can be worked out whereby the producer receives the entire
door, out of which a host and featured performer can be paid, and the bar
is generally satisfied with the proceeds of liquor sales, especially if it
is on what would otherwise be a slow night. However, the experience has
been that eventually the owner of the venue tires of slow alcohol sales,
since people can be reluctant to order while the show is in progress.
Adopting the British model of drinking breaks may help this problem,
though there is perhaps a risk of losing the audience during lengthy
breaks. It may also be worthwhile having some sort of written contract to
make the venue owner promise not to attempt to book other comedy shows,
since there is a temptation to try to "steal the show" by
booking another show on the same night. However, such attempts are
generally prone to failure due to the booking contacts which the promoter
has and the venue itself lacks.
While audiences are generally more attentive in a theatre or
performance space venue than in a bar, this comes at the price of
having to pay rent. It is sometimes possible to arrange the sale
of alcohol on a donation basis, which can help to loosen up
the audience, but don't expect to get rich selling lemonade
I try to keep my website QComedy.com updated with links to venues,
performers, and comedy festivals around the world. Through this resource
performers and venues have managed to get in contact and arrange gigs that
otherwise might not have happened. It is vital for performers to have
websites since otherwise if someone wants to book you, they will have no
easy way of finding your contact information.
Even while gay performers such as Ellen DeGeneres and Graham Norton
have achieved mainstream fame and recognition, there is still a niche for
performers who are addressing the gay community directly. Some might feel
that this niche ends up being a trap, preventing mainstream exposure. Some
gay performers who operate primarily in the straight club scene have given
advice to avoid the gay comedy circuit, presumably for this reason. On the
other hand, embrace of the mainstream comedy world is no guarantee of
success or fulfillment either. I feel that honest humor that reflects
someone's personal condition is the funniest, and whether that's achieved
through the gay comedy scene or somewhere else is up to each individual
Larry-bob lives in San Francisco, where he is
the co-producer of Monday Night Gay Comedy shows.
His website is at Qcomedy.com