On a cold Thursday afternoon in Manhattan, Joy Behar is taping an interview with financial expert Suze Orman. "It's a disgrace," Behar says of the fact that Orman and longtime partner Kathy Travis can't legally marry. "I mean, what kind of bullshit is that?" she continues off-camera during a break, sipping Diet Coke through a lipstick-smudged straw. Later, while chatting with guest Joan Rivers about their mutual love of Bette Davis, Behar exclaims, "We're like a gay man's wet dream!"
It's just another day on the set of The Joy Behar Show, which debuted last September on HLN, CNN's sister network. Never one to hide from a hot gay topic -- she memorably criticized the Ukrainian government for not letting Elton John adopt an HIV-positive orphan in a post on CNN.com -- Behar devoted one of her first shows to a discussion on the National Equality March and President Obama's promises to the gay community with special guests Bryan Batt and Dan Savage. She is also nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for an episode about gays and the Mormon Church that featured ex-Mormon Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
"I see myself as an ally of the gay community for sure, but not an extraordinary ally," says the outspoken 67-year-old host and New York Times best-selling author (Joy Shtick: Or What Is the Existential Vacuum and Does It Come With Attachments?) from behind her desk in a windowless office at Time Warner Center that's as modest as she is. "It's not like I'm on some kind of a mission; it's just the way my brain works." For example, it was the former full-time comic's idea to assemble a panel of gay comedians to discuss the perks of coming out to family over the holidays. "I'm always interested in what people haven't thought about before, and the average straight person hasn't thought about the pain involved in coming out to your parents and the difficulties of being a gay kid in a straight world. My philosophy is that parents should be asking their kids, 'Are you gay?' When the boy's playing with dolls and the girl's playing with trucks, a light should go off in your head and you should ask the question when it's the appropriate time."
It's strong opinions like this that make The Joy Behar Show appointment gay television and her an atypical host. "I was impartial when I used to sit in for Larry King on his show, but HLN wants me to be myself, which is more entertaining," explains Behar, who once famously wondered aloud if Janet Napolitano was a lesbian. "That's what sets my show apart, but my show's not necessarily a news show. I don't think people really want to know how Anderson Cooper feels about a topic, and if I ever found out Wolf Blitzer was a Republican, I might be disappointed. But I'm not a political pundit. I'm an entertainer first, so my main concern is that the audience is awake. As a stand-up, I wanted the audience to laugh but also have something to take away and think about. That's how I approach this show too."
Gay viewers also have watched Behar temper her self-described "liberal progressive" views with zingers as cohost of ABC's The View since its 1997 debut, a gig that earned her a shared Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host last year. "Maybe they admire that I say whatever I want," Behar says. She describes a typical interaction with a gay fan as " 'Oh, my God, I love you!' Then they might ask about Elisabeth Hasselbeck because they don't like her right-wing politics -- but she is pro-gay." As for cohost and ex-Jehovah's Witness Sherri Shepherd, Behar simply says, "Brainwashing goes deep."
Behar's Roman Catholic upbringing in Brooklyn did little to inform her opinions about gay issues. Though she remembers "tomboyish" girls and "delicate" boys in the neighborhood -- "I was sexually stupid, but I knew something was up," she says -- her education on the subject didn't come from her Italian-American family: "One time I said to my father, 'So-and-so is gay,' and he said, 'Don't say that!' I said, 'Why not?' He didn't answer me, but he ignored me most of the time. But I mainly grew up in a matriarchy, and the women in my family didn't have those thoughts. That just wasn't on their radar."
Though she's been hovering on the edge of the gay world for years (she calls Joy Behar Show staff writer Larry Amoros her "most special gay friend for 25 years" and asks me to jot down that style guru Robert Verdi decorated her new apartment), gay people weren't really on Behar's radar either until after her first marriage ended in 1981 (both the best man and maid of honor at her wedding eventually came out as gay) and she felt the gay audience's warm support as a fledgling stand-up comic in downtown New York City clubs. "Five Oaks in the West Village was the most fabulous place with a very mixed crowd, and the audience just got it," Behar recalls with an earnest smile. "I was like, 'Wow, I can do this!' But if you wanted to make a living at stand-up, you had to go to the clubs uptown. That was a traumatic experience because you had all these macho hetero guys coming in there, and it was much harder to get them to laugh. The same material that would work downtown would die like a dog uptown."
Now beaming, she tries out some of her "obviously respectful" gay jokes on me. "In my act I'll say something like, 'I like having gay friends -- it's like having a sister who can do the heavy lifting.' I have another joke about gays in the military: 'If I'm in a foxhole, what is it to me if the guy next to me likes Judy Garland? Just cover my ass and we'll sing "The Trolley Song" later.' And I can change it to Liza, Barbra, or Madonna -- you know, to keep it fresh."
After the AIDS crisis hit close to home -- "I was petrified that someone could die like that so young, and I cowardly resisted visiting sick friends because it was so hard for me," she admits -- Behar did her part by discussing the epidemic on the WABC radio show she hosted for three years. "In 1991, I had on Larry Kramer, who blasted my other guest, Barney Frank. I remember asking Larry, 'Why don't you go after homophobes?' He said, 'They're a waste of time. You have to push the people who are on your side to do more.' "
Behar, however, won't be pushed to make a statement that her reluctance to marry "spousal equivalent" Steve Janowitz has something to do with her stance on marriage equality: "That's fine for Brangelina, but I just don't want to get married." Nor will she budge on her position regarding a permanent gay male cohost of The View, which seemed possible in 2007 when Mario Cantone (Sex and the City) and Ross "The Intern" Mathews were rumored as potential replacements for Rosie O'Donnell. "I was not and am not a fan of any man sitting there, gay or straight," she says firmly. "I did like having a lesbian on the panel, so maybe I'll just say I'm a lesbian if the ratings go down."
But if you're waiting for Behar to join a cadre of female comedians like O'Donnell who came out later in their careers, don't hold your breath -- or your breasts. "I've never really been interested in women that way," she says, "but I did examine a girl when I was playing doctor in elementary school. This girl had extremely big boobs, so I was interested in examining that. Whenever we played doctor, I was always the doctor."