Suzanne Westenhoefer: On a Dare to Be Different
Suzanne Westenhoefer can claim a lot of firsts for lesbians in comedy. She broke ground on television as an openly gay comic, for example, with her award-winning HBO comedy special in the early '90s. Westenhoefer spoke with The Advocate about being one of
the first out gay comedians, how she became involved in the LGBT
movement in college, and how her comedy career began as a dare.
The Advocate: Can you talk about your Semi-Sweet tour?
Suzanne Westenhoefer: The truth is, I don’t really stop touring. Comedians don’t stop working, ever. About every year or so, my material changes and my life changes, so I give it a new name. My tour reflects whatever is going on in my life at the time. The reason we decided to call it Semi-Sweet was because I have a lot of negative things happening and a lot of good things, and I’m talking about both of them, so we thought that was clever. People come up to me afterwards; some of the topics I discuss are not pleasant, but they’re things that everyone is going through or have gone through, so people have been really super-responsive about it.
Do you prepare a set specifically for each show or do you draw from the vibe or audience interaction?
I draw on how the audience is responding to what I am talking about and whatever is going on in my life. I know kind of what I am going to say, but if it changes or a weird day happens or something is going on with the audience, it will change according to that.
You perform heavily for gay cruises; is that experience different than performing for straight audiences?
I don’t change what I’m talking about because it’s personal and it’s my life, so I can’t really change it. The biggest difference is that if I have an all-straight audience, I can make fun of straight people more and they kind of dig it. It’s funny and it’s stupid. Whereas, if it’s an all-gay audience, people don’t like it when I make fun of straight people as much. When I’m in a comedy club with a straight audience I can be so mean and silly and mock them, and they kind of love it!
What does it mean to be an LGBT performer? Do you seek to inspire gay youth who are looking to enter the entertainment industry?
I hope so. I could have gone and started stand-up in 1990 when I did and been in the closet and probably have had my own damn television show by now. It definitely had some negative effects on my career. I sure hope the fact that I chose to be out changes it for the next group of queer comics, so they don’t have to get famous first and then come out. They can start right out queer and still end up with their own sitcom and get in movies. I absolutely hope that happens.
I think for all stand-ups — gay, straight, whatever — the best thing about it is that if you make people laugh, you win. You don’t have to look a certain way. You can look like anything and if you’re a good stand-up, you’ll get work and do well. I’m not trying to be an actress who gets the guy in the end of the movie. For those women, it’s still difficult and always going to be, and I don’t see that changing. Some friends of mine are trying to work in the business and are over 40; they are suffering, definitely. For me, I’m not that person — I’m not trying to be on the cast of Friends. I’m sort of fortunate that way.
What was one of your main influences to entering the entertainment industry?
I always wanted to, I truly did. My family tells those obnoxious, boring stories of me being 4 years old and doing the entire story of Cinderella and playing all the parts. I wanted to be an entertainer and never wanted to do anything else. When I realized that I was gay — and it was in college — I got very involved in activism and didn’t have a way to perform; I didn’t know that I could do stand-up. I was focused more on activism and just trying to pay my rent, you know, as a bartender. People kept telling me how funny I was and that I should do stand-up. I knew that I wasn’t going to be in the closet, and I didn’t know what the connection was going to be. I thought, Could I be openly gay in front of straight people? I tried it and I was really lucky; I won a contest my first time up, so I thought I was badass!
Wasn’t that on a dare?
It was! My customers at the restaurant I worked at told me to go do it and see what happens. They were like, you’re openly gay here, and you’re gay all the time. It was sort of like I had to put my money were my mouth was. In the beginning, I didn’t think I would do it as a living. I thought I was going to open a door or start something or make a statement; I didn’t think I would get paid or anything.