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 cause pain."

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 comedy.

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 comedy nights.

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 audience there.

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 for grownups.

I try to keep my website 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 performer.

Larry-bob lives in San Francisco, where he is the co-producer of Monday Night Gay Comedy shows. His website is at

Don't know the first thing about gay comedy? Larry-bob will take care of that.


Don't pander. It's sick and wrong to pretend to be gay when you really aren't. Think of the disappointed stalkers when they find out after the gig that you won't put out. Comedy is funniest when it's honest. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to work that well to come out as straight on your first joke, and don't let a host get away with introducing you as your sexual preference. That goes for gay performers in straight gigs as well. Leave the coming out to the performer; preference should not be mentioned in advance by the host. It seems to work best to start with neutral material and come out a third or so of the way into a short set.

Our shows generally feature about two straight performers out of a total of about 8 performers. The "gay" in "gay comedy" is more than anything about the sexuality of the audience and the idea that it's a somewhat safe space where people aren't going to be made unnecessarily uncomfortable by bigoted banter. On the other hand, edgy material is fine, so long as it's actually funny, for instance the context of projecting a character with ill-advised opinions, so long as the audience realizes that the performer shares their political assumptions, but is playing the edge of that reality. Gay comedy shows in general seem to be a refuge for straight women performers, who get treated more sympathetically than in mainstream comedy clubs. HOME Back to the Top