Courtesy of Branum. Charles Sykes/Invision/AP(Cantone); Phil Provencio (Lane).
A 2012 New York Times article by Jason Zinoman assessing the state of gay men within stand-up comedy declared that “mainstream comic actors and writers, like Neil Patrick Harris and David Sedaris, have found success. Yet there has never been that one transformative gay male comic.” While glass-ceiling-shatterers Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, and Ellen DeGeneres helped diversify stand-up’s superstars, an out gay man among them remains relatively elusive. But why?
Gay humor is predicated on a life spent, for many, on the outside looking in. This gay sensibility has Wildean roots, characterized by a wry wit, peppered with a level of inaccessibility that acknowledges — and celebrates — our otherness.
“To be gay is to understand that there is a disjuncture between what is being said and done and what actual meaning is,” explains out comedian Guy Branum, 40, who has been doing stand-up since 2002. “Culture isn’t built to work for us, so there’s always this smirking awareness of the bullshit that’s going on. What gay culture we have has to be doing so much work to exist. Straight people get the benefit of ‘our lives matter — we will make children, we will be in the world.’ Gay people are always, on some level, having to remind ourselves of what the whole point of it all is.”
Until recently, gay men in comedy have been rare. The first recurring gay character on television popped up in 1972, on a short-lived ABC series, The Corner Bar, played by Vincent Schiavelli. “It did not make much of a dent at the time,” recalls television historian Tim Brooks. The following year, Valerie Harper became the first person ever to say the word “gay” on network television on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Until then, popular shows like All in the Family had openly referred to gay men disparagingly as “fags.”
And most of the gay men on TV during the ’70s and ’80s were portrayed by heterosexual actors, most famously by Billy Crystal on Soap. The series was in fact so controversial leading up to its premiere in 1977 that ABC received more than 32,000 letters, all but nine of them protesting the show. Some affiliates even refused to carry it, and advertisers dropped out.
Despite growing representation of gay men on TV and in film, progress — and acceptance — was slow. In the ’80s and ’90s, stand-up comedians like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison relentlessly attacked gay men, no one more so than Eddie Murphy, who, in his 1983 HBO comedy special, Delirious, said, “Faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m onstage.” And Murphy was met with uproarious applause when he worried that women were “go[ing] home with their AIDS on their lips” after a night out with their gay friends.
Still, quiet milestones were achieved. Terry Sweeney became Saturday Night Live’s first (and to this day only) out gay male cast member in 1986; Bob Smith became the first out gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show in 1994. But the victories felt small, especially in the shadow of the AIDS panic, which cast gay men as afflicted, not funny.
Even into the millennium, if there was a seat at the table for a gay comedian, it was a wobbly stool at best, and since mainstream comedy clubs have traditionally been considered straight male places, it’s easy to see that any help wanted signs were not intended for our application.
There have been some notable exceptions. In the early 1980s, Mario Cantone, now 56, emerged as a fast-paced Italian-American comic from Stoneham, Mass. In 1983 Cantone made his debut at the Improv, and soon after was packing the room at Carolines on Broadway. “I didn’t really talk about my sexuality,” he says. “I didn’t lie and talk about blind dates with women, but I was doing Bette Davis and Julia Child impressions, so if you didn’t know, you were a fucking idiot.”
Though he found great success as an out gay comedian, it didn’t come without a cost. “There was that fear of going up at one in the morning and getting called ‘faggot’ from the back of the room,” Cantone says. Luckily, he discovered television. “I got a lot of TV for a homosexual. I may not be the best one, but I’m think I’m the most famous gay male comedian.”
Whereas out lesbian or bisexual comedians have long had a quasi-membership in the proverbial boys’ club of stand-up comedy — think Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Kate McKinnon, Tig Notaro — gay men have yet to carve out a significant space all their own.
One would think the same community that rose up at Stonewall, helped win Harvey Milk a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and marched on Washington demanding that President Ronald Reagan address the AIDS crisis would, at the very least, be supportive of out gay stand-up acts. But surprisingly — or, worse maybe, unsurprisingly — that has not been the case.
“Who are the gay men that get to be on a raised platform at the gay bar? They are drag queens and go-go boys,” says Branum. “You only get to be important at a gay bar if you are super hot or you have tucked your genitals inside of a cavity in your body to say ‘I am a referee in this game; I am no longer a player.’”
“You can be openly gay and have it be no big deal,” says comedian James Adomian, 36, who found mainstream success appearing on Last Comic Standing, Comedy Bang! Bang! and, most recently, as Bernie Sanders on Comedy Central’s @midnight. “I try to downplay the difficulties that I’ve faced,” Adomian says. “I prefer to show that yes, there are problems and obstacles, but that you can flip that story and celebrate all that is awesome and great and fun about being gay. It’s a valuable, beautiful way of being alive, even in terrible times.”
Still, there’s industry-wide homophobia that, as head-scratching as it seems, pervades.
Matteo Lane, 29, an out comedian who’s been featured on MTV’s Girl Code and Guy Code, was at first hesitant to discuss a recent experience, worrying that speaking out might hinder future opportunities. “I was asked to be on a show to do stand-up,” Lane recalls. “I worked out my set with a booker. They flew me out. I did the show, and a week later I got a call saying that the host wanted me to retape it because he felt it was too gay and that he would like me to talk about being gay once, and for the rest of my five minutes, not mention it again. I’m not going to win,” he says, exasperation still in his voice. “They don’t want me.”
Five other comedians preferring to remain anonymous shared similar stories.
In response to this dismissive attitude, many out gay male comedians have created their own opportunities, occupying space adjacent to conventional stand-up through sold-out one-man shows at cabaret theaters or through viral YouTube clips. These performers are slapping back at an industry that has historically relegated them to a punch line. Take Billy on the Street’s Daytime Emmy Award–nominated Billy Eichner, or stand-up comedians like John Early, Joel Kim Booster, and Cole Escola, whose three-minute “Mom Commercial” has garnered nearly half a million views on YouTube since it first appeared in October 2015. These are distinct and wide-ranging examples of ways around the seemingly unending dodgeball game that is finding a mainstream gay stand-up comic.
The comedy industry’s once glacial-paced progress is beginning to show signs of shifting. The Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Ore., has featured gay showcases the last three years, and CBS and NBC are now offering diversity initiatives to help extend the reach of LGBTQ writers’ voices. And these voices are starting to be heard. Guy Branum is writing for Comedy Central’s Another Period. Gabe Liedman is writing for Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Louis Virtel — a former Advocate intern — wrote for Billy on the Street. Solomon Georgio performed stand-up on Last Call with Carson Daly and on Conan. John Early appeared on three Netflix series (Wet Hot American Summer, Love, and The Characters) and had a small part in this summer’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. It may not yet be a golden era, but there’s a podium in sight.
“So long as gays are uninterested in gay comedy, we’ll have careers as garnishes to straight people’s real entertainments,” says Branum. “When we become like Kevin Hart, comics who can speak to a community and make money from it, the industry will have to pay attention.”