Glasgow Comedy Festival - Lesbian comedians
A means of effecting social change? Or a way to get chicks? Allan Radcliffe talks to a trio of lesbian comedians who are winning over the mainstream
Stand-up comedy has always provided a platform for historically oppressed minorities. From the self-deprecatory Borscht belt humour of Mel Brooks and Rodney Dangerfield through Richard Pryor’s fearless exploration of racism to the feminist material of Lily Tomlin, comics have used humour to engineer change. It’s now a decade since stand-up Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, both publicly and on her own prime-time sitcom, and while the show’s ratings nose-dived shortly afterwards, DeGeneres blazed a trail for openly gay female comedians performing to the masses.
Of the handful of lesbian comedians performing at this year’s Glasgow Comedy Festival, Lea DeLaria is the undoubted veteran. The stand-up and jazz musician pre-dated DeGeneres by becoming the first openly gay comic to appear on television in the USA back in 1993. DeLaria, whose comedy output includes DVD releases Bulldyke in a China Shop and Box Lunch, once said of her work: ‘I’m here to educate those heterosexuals who are lesbian-impaired’. While her brash, irreverent material is unashamedly political, DeLaria is determined that her routines shouldn’t get bogged down in politics at the expense of humour. ‘Every socio-political movement has gone hand in hand with a cultural, shall we say, revolution, and stand-up comedy has been a large part of that equation,’ she says. ‘Although most of us are just trying to get laid.’
Fellow US comedian Sabrina Matthews kicked off her career in the ultra-liberal, bohemian environs of San Francisco’s Bay Area. She agrees that shared experiences which play well to a lesbian audience might not immediately appeal to a straight audience or gay male audience; a successful stand-up routine should offer a universal appeal. ‘I guess lesbian comedy is comedy told from that perspective, but it wouldn’t be good comedy if everyone couldn’t relate,’ she says. ‘I enjoy bringing that perspective to a room full of people who might not realise they can understand it. I poke fun at myself, but mostly it’s about having us all laugh together. And it’s not all about being a lesbian – a whole act about any one thing would get old.’
As Matthews implies, the term ‘lesbian comedy’ becomes somewhat limited when applied to the array of performers who fall under that umbrella. A prime example is Manchester comedian Bethany Black, perhaps the world’s only out goth lesbian post-op male-to-female transsexual stand-up. Black feels that performing before mainstream audiences can bring about social change. After all, a well-told joke forces the audience to identify with the teller. ‘As a comedian you’ve got a great responsibility. If you can get people laughing they don’t feel threatened. Laughter can be persuasive.’
Black’s show, Beth Becomes Her, traces the comic’s story through a nervous breakdown, suicide attempts, coming out to her family as a transsexual then coming out as lesbian, having surgery and eventually finding love and acceptance. Despite the unique nature of her story, she feels it translates for mainstream audiences. ‘A number of people come away from this show with a little more understanding and a little more acceptance. If I can make one transperson’s journey a little easier then I’ve done my job.’
Bethany Black, Brel, Tue 11 Mar, 9pm, £6 (£5); Lea DeLaria, Tron Theatre, Fri 14 Mar, 8pm, £12 (£10); Sabrina Matthews is part of Continental Airlines Present America Stands Up, The Stand, Sat 22 Mar, 8pm, £10 (£8).