A can’t-miss regular on the Chelsea Lately round table, staff writer and self-appointed “staff homosexual” Guy Branum also shows off his pop-culture savvy and shameless salaciousness for Comedians of Chelsea Lately, a live stand-up comedy tour starring the rotating panelists on Chelsea Handler’s late-night E! talk show. Branum gives us the skinny on how to craft a good gay joke and why his bombshell boss doesn't love you as much as Kathy Griffin.
Advocate.com: You recently celebrated a birthday. Judging from the drunk e-mail I got from you that night, I’m guessing you had fun.
Guy Branum: I cannot tell you how obliterated I was. I turned 34 on a Thursday, so I totally went to TigerHeat at Avalon, the trashy and amazing 18-and-over night in L.A., where I listened to pop music, got shit-faced, and talked to people who were born when I was in high school. I also drunk-texted Chelsea, but she always deals very well with my drunk texts. I’m the sort of guy for whom five or more drinks can result in some sort of existential revelation or just deeply needing to tell people how much I love them, so she generally gets one or both of those texts. She’s a great boss, and Chelsea Lately really is like one big family.
Before Chelsea Lately you wrote for shows on TechTV, which was later absorbed by G4 — a network devoted to technology, the Internet, and video games. Was that a gay-friendly environment?
Nerds can be socially awkward, but they’re smart and open-minded, so I was very comfortable in that situation. I also had to do crowd warm-up for a bad talk show I worked for called Unscrewed With Martin Sargent, and all I had were butt sex jokes. Pretty soon my sexual tastes were something my coworkers could come listen to any day. Our audience was primarily 15-year-old boys, so I got to have cool moments where I could reach kids who’d never been exposed to gay people. One time I was playing World of Warcraft with a teenager from the South who thought my job was the coolest thing in the world. He was making homophobic comments, and we talked about why he shouldn’t say those things. It was nice to bear witness to him about homosexuality — to use the vocabulary of evangelical Christianity.
When you’re doing risqué gay material, how do you stay truthful without alienating a heterosexual audience?
As a gay performer, you have to figure out how to express some honest representation of homosexuality that isn’t just about performing gayness for straight people. A lot of gay comics don’t show that honesty so much as they reinforce what straight people already think of us. Early on there were definitely people who said to me, “You’re too out there and you’re talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.” But it’s my life. You may not like it, but I’m always going to be open about who I am and tell the jokes that are funny and interesting to me.
I recently saw a Judy Gold comedy special from the ’90s when her stand-up act was still weirdly straight. Was there a time your act wasn’t gay?
No. Nothing on this planet creeps me out more than somebody who’s a practicing homo but closeted onstage. I don’t understand how you can take pleasure in the stuff you’re talking about when you can’t talk about your real life. For the astounding number of lesbian comedians in the ’80s and ’90s like Wanda Sykes and Carol Leifer who came out later, I realize there was frequently a process of them figuring out who they were. For guys, it’s just different. I can understand how actors don’t want to be too strongly identified with their sexuality so they can take on different roles and still have believable romantic chemistry with a woman, but there’s no such excuse for a comedian. If you’re a closeted comedian, you’re just a coward. There was a time I didn’t want to use the gay thing as a crutch, so every other set I would try to talk about other things in my life. The problem was that some audiences would laugh just at the simple fact that I was gay, so I realized I needed to be on top of and in control of that laugh.
How do you craft a gay joke that’s funny without being offensive?
You have to determine if the joke simply rests on the preposterousness of homosexuality — “two guys having sex is hilarious!” — or if it honestly looks at gay culture and how it relates to straight culture. Basically, don’t objectify people and don’t be an asshole. We shouldn’t make fun of an out gay person for being out and gay; we should respect that. It’s infinitely more successful to make fun of a closeted, possibly gay person who’s pretty fuckin’ gay.
Writing jokes for Chelsea must be easy since she somehow gets away with saying just about anything.
It’s interesting to write jokes in someone else’s voice, which means that sometimes I have to pitch a joke about my vagina. Chelsea is very aggressive in the way she talks, but she does want to respect other people’s experiences and the stuff that she doesn’t quite get. Sometimes she makes a joke and we have to point out, “Hey, I don’t know about that one,” and she gets it. She once made the best tranny joke that felt so fucking true, but we couldn’t use it on the show. I can’t even repeat it.