By Jeffrey Hartinger
Originally published on Advocate.com August 15 2011 5:00 AM ET
Kate Clinton began her career as a stand-up comic in 1981. But she's also become a challenging advocate and activist for LGBT people, commenting on the issues that have paved the way for LGBT rights.
The Advocate: This year marks your 30th anniversary in the business. Congratulations! What is your inspiration behind the Glee Party comedy tour?
Kate Clinton:Glee is such a great show and everyone is watching it, so it’s great to have some common language when you’re doing a show. Also, the Tea Party is just everywhere and I think that in a way, they are both alike. The problems on the show are solved in 42 minutes or less and everyone breaks into song and dance for no reason and we like that. And it’s like the Tea Party people; after 30 years of antigovernment, they want problems solved in two years or less. When you ask them a question, they break into a song and dance too. I think one of the most radical things we can do is to be optimistic and keep going on, so there’s a little bit of that in the show.
Over the years, a majority of your comedy has been centered on politics, religion, and sexuality. Do you try to go for hot-button issues or what you think is current?
I pay close attention to what’s happening and I love to talk about it. I do a lot of political material and sometimes it kills them; at times, I feel like it’s a news show more than a comedy show, but that’s OK. Actually, I found that LGBT audiences are very clued in and political. Certainly, following the marriage discussion and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I think the longer the LGBT movement has gone on, we really see the issues of poverty and questions like, "What we are going to do with our seniors?" We see these as our issues as well.
In addition to writing a few books, you have penned some very serious articles for magazines. Do you think it’s hard for comedians to be taken seriously due to the nature of their work?
It’s hard for a comedian who is trying to be serious to not try too hard. An example is Robin Williams. Sometimes he is just oozing, like, “Doesn’t anybody care about this?” It’s a delicate balance, but I do think that comedy can hold the weight of serious, much easier than serious can do comedy. At times, in a serious discussion, a political discussion or a speech, if someone throws in a funny line, people get completely thrown off. The audience may think he or she may not be serious about the topic. But in comedy, I love it when people laugh their head off but then realize that they are actually laughing about very serious things.
You are involved in a lot of LGBT organizations. Which one is the closest to your heart?
I recently did a fund-raiser for in Provincetown for Gays and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. When you look at some of the really important things — like marriage in Massachusetts and domestic partnership debates, adoption, and immigration issues — they are right in the beginning of it. I really love what they do.
You’re a native of Buffalo, NY.; how does it feel to have gay marriage passed in your home state?
I’m very proud of New York. It’s really incredible and it's certainly a lot of work behind the scenes. Also, we have to support those four or five individuals that really stuck their neck out — we need to make sure they get reelected. But it’s very exciting, and our governor, Andrew Cuomo, was completely committed to it and he wasn’t looking back. It’s that kind of leadership at the state level that’s so critical to get something done.
Did your career as a teacher help you prepare for a career in comedy?
Absolutely! I taught 11th and 12th graders. They are such a tough crowd and they come back every day. If you can keep a class interested in a late spring day in upstate New York — when it’s green and the lawn mower guy is going by — you’re good. When I first started out in comedy, people would say to me, “Where did you get started?” I would tell them that I taught high school English and people would just say, “Oh, OK.” They understood. I think it really prepares you. In those moments where you think that nobody is listening, nobody is getting this, that is just like high school teaching. You just have to think that something is going in and you know not to leave in a blind, murderous panic.
Your partner, Urvashi Vaid, is also very political and involved in the LGBT movement. Do you two ever butt heads on issues?
She had the best line the other day. She said, “We are Marxist Lennons. You are Karl Marx and I am John Lennon.” You know, we have different styles, but we both share the same principles of social justice, which is a great thing. We say we are the marriage of comedy and tragedy, but I’m never saying which one is which.