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Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

When Comedians Come Out

Welcome to the latest installment of Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ — sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair — and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.

Though we've made tremendous strides towards embracing homosexuality in the past few years, our society still has an incredibly long way to go. Being openly gay is still a very risky proposition in parts of the United States and the rest of the world. Even in places where we've achieved ‘acceptance,’ there are still numerous ignorant stereotypes to overcome.

Gay comics are in the unique position to publicly address (or not) the topic of their sexual orientation on stage or in their work. Being able to speak candidly about personal and taboo subjects allows them to address their struggles easier than many politicians or public figures. Even the boldest comics have to deal with the reality of public shaming and rejection as well as their own inner demons before they can fully embrace living their life out of the closet.

We’re going to look at four gay comedians who’ve powered through the pain, shame, and judgment of the world at large and have gone on to be loud, proud, and of course, hilarious.

Scott Thompson Accepts His ‘Queeniness’

Comedian Scott Thompson came out of the closet in the mid 1980’s just before joining The Kids In The Hall, the sketch group that made him famous. His most popular character to come out of the series was Buddy Cole, an effeminate, hypersexualized gay man who spoke directly the camera, defying the world to try and keep him down.

According to Thompson, his portrayal of Buddy Cole actually came as a result of the AIDS crisis, which he felt brought homosexuals into the national spotlight. He also never felt ashamed of who he was, and Cole was, like any other sketch character, a heightened (or perhaps “flaming”) version of himself. Although the flamboyant Buddy Cole was well received by many, he was apparently hated by many in the gay community. Recalling the very first time he performed as the character, Thompson said:

Afterward, a gay guy I knew pulled me aside and took me to task over it. He was furious that I was peddling that stereotype, but the thing was, he sounded really queeny while he was yelling at me, and the angrier he got the queenier he sounded. And I thought, Why can't we just accept our queeniness?

Unfortunately, while fully embracing the gay stereotype empowered Thompson, it also led to typecasting in his post Kids In The Hall career. While he played a wide a wide variety of fun characters on his sketch show, everywhere else he went he found himself constantly playing boring, stock gay characters: what he described as the gay equivalent of the “magical negro,” another familiar Hollywood trope.

There’s a level of bitterness and resignation in the interviews Thompson has given in the past few years that shows signs of the struggle he’s been through as an openly gay comic in a period of time when most others remained in the closet. But his career is far from over. After beating cancer a few years ago (something you should be familiar with by now) and doing some stand up with fellow KITT alum Kevin McDonald, Thompson has jumped back into his acting with a non-gay dramatic role in NBC’s upcoming series Hannibal.

Ellen DeGeneres Gives The Homophobic World A One-Two Punch

It’s safe to say that as recently as the late 1990’s, coming out of the closest was a rare event in Hollywood. Though many gay artists would confide their not-quite-private sexuality to those closest around them, even comedians — who open up about all kinds of personal topics in their life — would remain tight lipped on the subject of being gay.

What makes Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out in April of 1997 so interesting is that she did it on two separate fronts: first as herself, then less than a month later as ‘Ellen,’ the character she played on her eponymous show. The decision to have her character Ellen come out of the closet on the show was what precipitated real-life Ellen to publicly come out.

Watching the semi-fictional character Ellen struggle with coming out of the closet brought an added layer of clarity and pathos to anyone following the story. While some immediately decried her supposedly terrible and immoral lesbian lifestyle (Ellen ‘DeGenerate’ was an easy go-to, though DeGeneres said she’d heard that one back in elementary school), many others found themselves empathizing with the plight of a person in her position for the very first time. On top of that, many of her fans who were stuck in the same position finally had someone to look up to.

Even though her show lost sponsors and ratings after the coming out episode, this ultimately all washed over during the next several years as Ellen’s career continued to gather momentum. She eventually became the host of her long running daytime talk show and one of Forbes’ most powerful people in Hollywood.

It’s no understatement to say that DeGeneres’s coming out the closet was a landmark event for not just gay comedians, but gays all over the world. The formula for successfully coming out the closest was finally discovered: be super funny and likeable, have a show where you play a character loosely based on yourself, and then have that character come out the closet right at the same time as you. Easy peasy.

Todd Glass Learns To Laugh At Himself

During the sixteen years since Ellen’s confession, we’ve seen a great number of actors and comedians come out of the closet: Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro, Portia DeRossi, Neil Patrick Harris, and David Hyde Pierce to name a few. But one of the most interesting stories to come out of the post-Ellen era has to be comedian Todd Glass, who shocked the world with his confession early last year when he came out at the age of 47 on an episode of the WTF podcast hosted by Marc Maron.

Glass’s confession was notable both because of his age and because nothing about his voice, physical appearance or demeanor would imply he was anything but straight. Still, he knew he was living a lie, and the weight of it eventually caught up to him. For decades he mustered the amount of bravery it took to get up on stage and perform live comedy in front of a crowd (while successfully shaming a heckler or two), but he found himself terrified and drenched with sweat whenever he was asked about his dating life or his “girlfriend” during an interview.

Though his confession was likely an incredibly cathartic moment and the response was overwhelmingly positive, Glass had an experience shortly after the podcast was released that let him know he could finally truly rest easy:

I remember walking into the Improv, and Jeff Garlin, really loud, said, ‘Oh my god, Todd Glass, my favorite gay comic.’ And at first I got fucking embarrassed as shit, and then instantly, within five seconds, I realized, Oh, that’s comedy. And I went up to him and gave him a big hug. I went from being like, ‘Oh, no, I just want to come in here and never talk about it again,’ to ‘That’s exactly what we comedians do.’ My friend said comedians roast each other at our funerals. So I can certainly be roasted at the Improv. It was actually great that he did that, and it made me feel really good that I can get teased about it. I want to be teased about it.

Glass admits the topic of being gay hasn’t become a focus on in his stand up just yet, but he’s been able to be more honest in general — i.e, not being paranoid about coming off as too “feminine,” and comfortably expressing his disgust with the Catholic Church’s continued practice of conversion therapy. Allowing no topic to be taken off the table and having a sense of humor about it all has made him an all around better comedian. He’s also recently signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster, which is an impressive accomplishment for a dyslexic man who claims to have never read a book!

A full length discussion with Todd Glass, one year post-coming out, is available here, along with a streaming link to his famous interview with Marc Maron.

James Adomian Makes a Subtle, Comedic Shift

There is a new crop of gay comedians emerging that have all begun their careers in a ‘Post-Ellen’ era. In addition to the benefit of time, these comedians also have many additional outlets — web videos, podcasts, social media, etc. — with which to reach their intended audience. But life still isn’t all anti-homophobic roses for them. They still have many of the same difficulties coming out and being openly gay, despite the world being a marginally more accepting place now than it was ‘Pre-Ellen,’ and they join the same uphill battle in their careers as their predecessors before them.

Of all the comedians to come out of this next generation, one of the most talked about is James Adomian, who’s risen through the podcast scene and most recently as a stand up. On top of being a gifted impressionist, Adomian’s stand up material is nuanced in its treatment of the topic of homosexuality (which, it should be noted, is far from the only topic he tackles). He’s able to delicately shift the tone from gays being laughed at (notably seen during Eddie Murphy’s anti-gay rant at the start of his famous set from Delirious) to gays being laughed with, one punchline at a time.

In the above clip (and also here — can you tell I’m a fan?), he’s taking not-so-subtle jabs at homophobia and stereotypes and how they exist in the media, but he’s not up on a soapbox. Even though the topic is extremely personal and important to him, he’s making the audience laugh the entire time. This could well be considered Stand Up 101, but for such a delicate subject it is still no easy task.

Adomian mentions Scott Thompson as one of his earliest role models, someone who made him realize you could be openly gay and still be successful. While Adomian admits that the life he’s chosen is very much still a challenge, even today, it’s a challenge he’s definitely up for:

I’ve been set back significantly from being out of the closet. It happens, and I’m lucky enough that I’m just good enough at what I do that I can pull it off. And I think being gay and being a comedian… artistically, it’s easier because it’s like I don’t give a fuck what someone thinks about me. I talk about being gay in rooms without a single gay person where they’re all homophobic sometimes, and I make them laugh because it’s what I do. And I can perform for the opposite crowd too.

Given his perseverance and growing popularity, there’s a very good chance he’ll inspire a budding comedian someday just as Scott Thompson did for him.

One last note: a recent New York Times article discussed the bright future for gay male comics, who up until fairly recently have not been prominent members of the stand up community. Though Adomian gets his fair share of the spotlight, he’s joined by several other notable comedians including Eliot Glazer & Brent Sullivan, who pioneered the series It Gets Betterish, a comedy web series that explores gay culture and life in NYC. To bring the ‘laughing at to laughing with’ idea full circle, they have an episode focused on getting an AIDS test, that, unlike Eddie Murphy’s set, is a piece neither comedian will ever be ashamed of.

Matt Shafeek is a writer and performer living in Astoria, Queens. He performs at the Magnet Theater in NYC, and has blogs about life, productivity, and Batman. His love for comedy is matched only by his love for games. He'd love it if you'd follow him @mattshafeek.

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