Lea DeLaria on 47 ‘Dykes,’ ‘Fags,’ and ‘Queers’

Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Lea DeLaria became the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night television, when she did a stand-up set on The Arsenio Hall Show. “It’s the Nineties and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a biiiiig dyke!” DeLaria famously declared. The set catapulted the comic to a new level of mainstream fame, and she’s used that platform to loudly stump for the LGBTQ cause ever since.

The Voice spoke to the Orange Is the New Black star about her landmark appearance, concerns about the corporate takeover of Pride, and TV’s “fake lesbian” problem.

It’s been 25 years since you became the first openly queer comic to perform on broadcast TV, on The Arsenio Hall Show. What do you remember of that experience?

I remember everything. Every second of it. It was huge!

Were you approached to perform on his show?

I was in San Francisco performing a two-week run. I was about to go to Highways, in Los Angeles, which is a performing arts venue. The L.A. Times wanted to do an interview with me because of my run at Highways. This was when people actually read the paper. The interview went incredibly well — it ended up below the fold on the cover of the weekend edition’s entertainment section. The show sold out, we had to add shows, and suddenly all these agents and managers and people were calling and calling.

I was completely out of my league — I was a fucking queer performer, you know what I mean? Luckily I had known Melissa Etheridge for a really long time, so I called her and she gave me a whole lot of really good advice. I hung up the phone and I got a phone call from the people at The Arsenio Hall Show. The reason Arsenio Hall called was because, I believe it was in the first paragraph of the article — “Lea DeLaria, you may not know her, they won’t let her do the Tonight Show.” So the bookers from Arsenio called and said, “Well, if they won’t let you do the Tonight Show, I think it’s a no-brainer that you do this.”

What was it like when you showed up to do your set?

I had never met Arsenio, and when I got onto the set, he walked out of his dressing room, grabbed me by the hand, and walked me to my dressing room and sat and talked to me for, like, ten minutes to tell me how excited he was that I was there. He was absolutely lovely. He said, “I’ve heard of you for years, but your comedy is so blue and so outrageous I didn’t think we could ever get a four-minute set from you.” Which is really funny, and true! My comedy was not the sort of thing you saw on TV.

Did you talk with him or any producers about what your set would be like? Was there anything you were told not to say?

No. When you do a late-night set, you go through it with the person who books you. So they knew everything I was gonna say. They didn’t have any objections to anything. I came out, I did my four minutes of stand-up, and I did five minutes on the couch, and I think it was the Advocate that wrote that I was on for nine and a half minutes and I said the word dyke, fag, or queer something like 47 times.

But here’s what people don’t know: After I did that set, the lawyer came down and said, “I don’t think we can air this because she says dyke, fag, and queer.” Arsenio went and fought for me. He said, “If she’s gonna call herself a dyke or a fag or queer, who are we to tell her she can’t?” He really fought for it so that it would go out in its entirety, and it did.

How do you feel about how the representation of queer people on TV has changed over the years? In some ways I feel we’ve come so far, but then you see these GLAAD reports and the numbers still aren’t great, particularly for gay women.

Lesbian representation on television generally isn’t even written by lesbians. Let’s start there. Television is without a doubt filled with fake lesbians. It happens to us all the time, especially butch lesbians.

Right, which is partly why when Orange Is the New Black first came out, I was so blown away by the diversity of women on that show — the variety of body types, sexualities, personalities, ethnicities. It was like, oh yeah, we don’t usually see this.

You have to remember, when I first encountered the script, Big Boo wasn’t in the script. They wrote that part for me. So even in that show they didn’t have butch representation. And by the way, the real Alex [Vause] — not that she’s a friend of mine, I don’t know her from Adam — but the real Alex looks like me. She’s a butch dyke, being portrayed by Laura Prepon with long hair and lipstick.

Do you argue with the writers about things like that? Do you have any input?

When they were doing Big Boo’s backstory, I had a lot of input in that because it was a butch story and I’m a butch dyke, and the person who wrote it was not a butch dyke. There were two things I talked to them about: an attire question and the strap-on. Lauren Morelli wrote this [episode], and when I was handed the script I called her and I was crying — I said, “It’s like you’ve read my diary.” It was taking place in 1997 in the Midwest in a gay bar, and there was something they wanted me to wear, and I was like, yeah, this wouldn’t happen. And the strap-on — they wanted me to wear the strap-on over the boxers. And I said, no butch in their right mind — no, no. It kills the fantasy! I will not put it on over my boxers. So the boxers were laid by the bed and I had to wear what they call a modesty patch.

I will tell you what the problem is that I see: It’s in the writer’s room. They do not hire lesbians. They do not let us write for ourselves. It’s infuriating to me. I don’t know why it’s always acceptable, especially for straight men, to write stories about lesbians. They write it, and then they don’t cast us in the roles! They cast fake lesbians. Most of the cast of Orange is fake lesbians. There’s actual lesbians out there that would love to work, and we’re good!

It’s funny, I talked to Scott Thompson a little while ago.

My buddy Scott!

He was saying, at least in the context of comedy, that he thinks things are harder for gay men because a woman who is interested in other women moves up in power, whereas for a man to be interested in men, you lose power.

Scott and I have had this argument. We’re friends, but we talk about this all the time. Scott, you’re so wrong about this. Because they’re sexualizing us — they don’t think of us as thinking human beings. And as I’ve said to him many times, “Scott, do you think I had it easy in comedy clubs? Look at me, son!” But he is correct in that in the comedy clubs it’s still OK to pick on gay men.

Or I often see a male comic pick on a woman in the audience, in a sexual way, because it’s an easy way to get a laugh.

Well, I do that [laughs]. But I do that to make a point, because first of all, I’m a lesbian. That’s still frowned upon by society. And also I’m a woman, and we’re supposed to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. So I do that as a very feminist, political statement.

You’ve written about how Pride events in the late 1970s and early 1980s were more like angry protests than parades.

They were protest marches. They were about defiance.

Do you feel Pride parades today should have more of that angry protest spirit? It’s amazing to see Pride become this global series of events, but then you’ll see a TD Bank float and it’s like, huh?

I hate the corporatefication of anything. I think the corporatefication of Broadway destroyed Broadway. Thank god for Hamilton and, before that, Fun Home. Thank god for the Public Theater, which still is trying to bring us engaging shows and not just whatever the masses want to see — yet another revival of Carousel. Who wants to see a dream ballet in 2018? We don’t need corporations to make this parade. We don’t need that money. Unless the Citibank float is doing something specifically for queer people other than just being in this parade, then fuck Citibank.

What could they do to make their presence more meaningful, in your mind?

I think if they had a big sign on their float that said, “Fuck Trump,” I’d be OK with them being in the parade.




Hannah Gadsby and Cameron Esposito Seize Comedy’s New Normal

Six years ago, at the Largo in L.A., comedian Daniel Tosh declared that jokes about rape were inherently hilarious. When a woman in the audience called out that, actually, rape isn’t funny at all, Tosh reportedly responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

Comedy fans are used to funny men (and Tosh) taking a combative stance toward their audiences, especially women; we’re used to being the punching bags, and many of us have learned to take it in good stride lest we be labeled frigid, humorless bitches. In her new stand-up special, Nanette, out on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby quips that back in the old days, a lesbian was simply any woman who didn’t laugh at a man’s joke.

But Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, adjusting the goalposts — reorienting our view of who gets to be angry and make people uncomfortable, of who gets to dish it and who has to sit there and take it. Nanette, which Gadsby is performing through June 30 at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is very funny, but it seems almost inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous yet serious treatise on comedy and how it can, intentionally or not, normalize the status quo. What do all those angry white male comics have to be so upset about, anyway? If they’re having a tough time, Gadsby jokes, the rest of us are screwed.

The relationship between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby posits, is an “abusive” one — making a crowd laugh is simply releasing them from a tension that the comic herself has created. Born in a small town in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997, Gadsby describes her sense of humor as inseparable from her identity. “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks. Because laughter in real life is also all about releasing tension and, as a child, she “was the tension.” So she became a master diffuser, learning to lighten the mood and shift the focus off her difference by cracking a joke.

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There’s sometimes a slightly didactic tenor to sets by LGBTQ comics, or at least those who use their gender identity as fodder for material. These performers aren’t just telling jokes but explaining, to often unforgiving club audiences, how the world looks from behind rainbow-tinted glasses. It’s an extra hurdle on top of the challenge of making people laugh, one that Gadsby leaps over with gusto. So does Cameron Esposito in her own new special, which she has pointedly titled Rape Jokes, and which the comedian released independently on her website last week, along with a request for donations to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

Esposito’s new set continues her public examination of the presumption of comics like Tosh. In one memorable episode of Take My Wife, the 2016 series she created for NBC’s now-defunct Seeso, Esposito and her wife, fellow comic/show co-creator Rhea Butcher, who play versions of themselves, have to follow a more famous male comedian whose set includes a rape joke. Afterward, he apologizes to Butcher, explaining that he didn’t know she was a survivor of sexual assault. “I am, too,” Esposito mentions. “I am, too,” a random woman on the street chimes in. And another, touching up her makeup in the bathroom. And a male comic in the club’s green room. And a woman sitting in bed with headphones plugged into her laptop. The scene is basically a pre-hashtag #MeToo moment.

Which is to say, this is a topic that Esposito has been marinating in for some time. Like Nanette, Rape Jokes is in part a deconstruction of comedy itself, particularly the debates in recent years over what should, or shouldn’t, be acceptable in a stand-up set. “I don’t know how familiar you are with stand-up comedy,” Esposito says early in the new special, launching into a bit about comics who complain about “P.C. culture.” “I’m pretty familiar with it.”

Just as Gadsby questions a white male comic’s onstage anger, Esposito dismisses the right of a comedian to say certain words that audiences — especially women and minorities — will likely find offensive. She doesn’t stop there: She suggests that if such a comic really needs those words to do his job, well, then, “I am a better stand-up comic than you.” And she’s careful to make the distinction between the right to say offensive things and the expectation that it’s somehow un-American to be criticized — or to lose favor, or even your job — for saying offensive things. Comics who cry “censorship” in the case of the latter, Esposito says, are using the wrong word: “Feedback. You’re getting feedback.”

In ways both implicit and explicit, Rape Jokes and Nanette lay bare the extent to which men have written the rules — of stand-up comedy, of sexism, of the behaviors we deem criminal and those we chuckle at as if it’s all in good fun. We talk about sexual assault in such an unsophisticated way, Esposito says, because the conversation has for so long been driven by men who insist that if they, say, can’t comment on their female co-worker’s appearance, “My balls will fall off.”

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Both Gadsby and Esposito want to flip this script — to create a new definition of normal that isn’t just shorthand for straight, white, and male. A man in a dress isn’t weird, Gadsby insists. “You know what’s weird? Pink headbands on bald babies.” Esposito jokes, “We talk about consent like it’s a very slippery boulder that we’re rolling up a very slippery mountain while we’re covered in butter,” recommending straight people treat sex more like gay people do. With gay sex, she says, there is no “standard sex act” and no bases to hit: “You’re just running through an open field.” Now, doesn’t that sound nice?

It does when Esposito says it, anyway, in part because of her patient, mollifying tone. Minorities in America are all too used to having to go high when others go low, and Esposito embodies the frustration and resignation of having to be the bigger person.

For Gadsby, though, that approach has its limits. Both comics end their specials with earnest pleas delivered especially to the men in the audience to get it together — to be, as Esposito puts it, a “person of consequence,” someone who gets in the way to help those who are more vulnerable. While Rape Jokes is a more standard hour of joke-telling, in Nanette, Gadsby strains against the impulse to end every joke with a punchline. To diffuse the tension as such would be a cop-out. She wants the audience to sit with it. Early on, she confesses that she’s been questioning her own commitment to comedy. She’s built her career on self-deprecating humor, but when the person speaking is already on the margins, “It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore.”

By the end of Nanette, Gadsby follows through on her threat. She’s the one with the microphone, and she wants us to hear what she has to say — even if it most certainly won’t make you laugh. In this stand-up special, there is no salvation in laughter; the early jokes are simply the grease she uses to pry open the door to her confession, and her outrage. And when she does, it’s powerful, uncomfortable, and searingly angry. It is, in other words, the appropriate response to life in America in 2018. There are too many people who are all too happy to treat the pain of marginalized people as a joke. It’s time we stopped laughing it off.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is available on Netflix on Tuesday, June 19. Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes is available on her website.


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Louie Anderson’s Next Chapter

Louie Anderson is a living legend. With a career spanning forty years, Anderson boasts a résumé that includes three Emmys, numerous film and television appearances, late-night talk show comedy sets, and comedy specials, in addition to multiple producing and writing credits.

The comedian is celebrating a new chapter in his lively career with the release of his book Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, a collection of letters to his late mother, Ora Zella Anderson, who remains one of his biggest inspirations.

Throughout the years, Anderson — whether while hosting Family Feud or on his Nineties animated series, Life With Louie — has done vocal impressions of his entire family. Most recently, Anderson channeled his mom to win an Emmy for the role of Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the FX comedy Baskets. Anderson shines while playing Mrs. Baskets, a Midwestern older woman who adores Costco, buffets, and everything conventional.

Anderson just released a comedy special, Big Underwear. He sat down to speak with the Voice in New York City while on his book tour and fresh off an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Anderson, who recently headlined a show at the Cutting Room in midtown, reflected on a life in comedy, and gave some advice based on what he’s learned during his decades in the business.

How are you feeling today?

Well, you get on these jags, and you just talk about yourself, and you try to make sense of what you’re talking about. Hopefully you’re answering the questions. And it’s 5:45 in the morning, and then it’s 6, and then it’s 6:30, and then 7:30 and then 9, and then 11, 1, and now here we are at 2:30. And you think, “Can I still say anything that I don’t know? Is there anything interesting?”

But you know, you just do your thing. And I try to pay homage to my mom, and the book, and the interview process, in which it is really important to stay present.

What made your mom laugh?

She made, like, absurdity, rather than to get mad. Let’s say you drove around for a half-hour to get a parking spot. And you couldn’t get one close. And then you’d park somewhere. And as you’re walking up to the front, there would be a parking spot that would open up. And you’d have to make the decision, do I go get the car — and you hold the spot? I think that was the kinda stuff that made her laugh.

So sorta like physical comedy?

Maybe “absurdity” is not the right word. She loved silliness. She loved a good joke.

When you were growing up with all your siblings, was there a competition for laughs? Was humor something important in your home?

My brother Roger was much funnier than everybody else. So, there was really no competition. And I really wasn’t developed as a comic then. And I didn’t really have a sense that I was gonna be a comic, or be funny. But people would laugh when I talked, and I would go, “Huh!” I’m being serious, but they would laugh.

I think I had a funny way of saying things, even as a kid.

When did you know that you were a comedian?

Not until October 10, 1978, when I first went onstage. I did it on a dare. I mean, I always thought I was funny because people would always laugh when I talked, but that was the first time I prepared some jokes and went onstage. And it was only gonna be a one-time thing. I wasn’t trying to become a comedian.

Where was that?

It was just a little club called Mickey Finn’s in northeast Minneapolis, and it was open mic night. I showed up, and I went on, and all my family and friends were there, so it felt like I did really well. It was gonna be a one-time thing, and here I am — forty years later — still doing it.

I feel like maybe you lucked out. Do you think if you bombed that night you would’ve gone back?

Good point. I dunno. It would’ve been a terrible experience. I probably wouldn’t have. But, you know, is it luck, or was this all the plan? Do you sometimes feel like you’re in a plan, and you wish you knew what the next move was?

So, I dunno. That’s a good question, though. I think I was supposed to be where I am right now.

What does it mean to be successful?

I guess what marks success is being able to produce something that you created. In this case, success for each person is different, but for me, it’s being able to accomplish a goal, like writing a book, and having the book be either well-received, or well-written — or both — and have it work! Have it be something I can be proud of.

It seems like you like to stay busy. Can you just talk a little bit about your schedule?

I do like my time off. I can just lay around, and watch TV, and play a little golf, and read a little, and write a little. When I get into a groove, I like going and working for a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I’ve had kind of a big stretch of working lately.

And then, in the middle of this whole book tour, I realized that I’m gonna be changing what I’m doing. I can feel it. What am I doing? What should I be doing? And where am I going next? And I have a glimpse of it from doing the book. ’Cause in the book, I touch on some serious, important things to me that I really want to make happen.

I think my next thing is to give back by trying to help people who need help, or need comfort, or need some sort of assistance. I think that’s my journey.

Do you feel like you’ve always been a giver?

No. I think that I was selfish, and a “taker” at some point in my life. Probably not as much as I have put on myself at times.

I think at the end of the day, I come from a family, like, if you had $3, you would give people $2 if they needed money — or maybe even the whole $3. Because you would realize the $3 would make such a difference for them.

What is something that you can only learn after years of doing comedy?

Well, first of all, you can only learn comedy by doing comedy. You can’t practice and become a good comedian. You have to go up, and have success, and failures. You learn on the fly. Stand-up is, like, the most interesting thing, because even after forty years I still work on certain jokes to make ’em better.

Because underneath every joke is a better joke.

And most people don’t ever go for the better joke. But people who are successful comedians go for the better joke. And then the better joke under that, because they want to have something significant. They want it to mean something to them.

When do you know a joke is expired?

When people don’t laugh anymore. When people go, “Unnnnhhhh.”

But do you think that sometimes it’s the audience?

Hardly ever. I think it’s always the performance. Even a bad audience will laugh at a good joke.

What do you want the audience to take away from seeing you?

All the trash that they brought in.


I want them to be walking out mumbling about their family. Or something I said that resonated with them.

When I get home from a good show — be it a movie, or live show, or stand-up, or music — I’m either singin’ the song, or sayin’ the lines from the play. Or if I’m at a stand-up thing, I’m laughing about the thing and reminiscing.

If I talk about family, I want them to be walking out thinking about their family.

When I think of you, you’re just so polite. Can you give any advice to young people in show business that they might appreciate?

The best advice I could give somebody who’s doing stand-up, or in show business at all, is, first of all, get your eye on the prize that you’re going for. I wanted to get my name on the Comedy Store marquee, I wanted to do The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and I wanted to be a host of a talk show.

I kept my eyes on those things, and I got to do all of them. I filled in for Joan Rivers for a week once. Then I knew exactly what it would be like to be a talk show host, so I could knock it off my list, ’cause I no longer wanted to do it — although I do think I would be a good talk show host. I’m not motivated anymore in that direction.

If your goal is to get a special, how will you get a special? Work it backwards. Let’s say you’re gonna get a comedy special. You work backwards. What did it take for that person to get that comedy special?

That’s what I could tell them. Work as hard on your comedy as you do at getting laid and getting drugs.

By the time this publishes, you will have performed at the Cutting Room, which is a special place because that was Joan Rivers’s room! Tell us what that means to you.

Of course Joan is always in my heart, and I love Joan, and I’m sorry she’s gone. But she’s always gonna be with me. She was a big influence on me, and a great, great, great joke writer. I’m going to be able to do my stand-up from my new special, Big Underwear, that’s out right now, if you wanna get it. I’m going to be able to talk about Baskets and how that part came to me, and also I’m gonna be able to reminisce about the week I’ve had promoting Hey Mom: Stories for My Mother, But You Can Read Them Too, my new book.

And then I’m going to talk about families like I always do. And I’m looking forward to it. I hear it’s a great room. I have never been there. And I’m looking forward to that.


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.


“The Little Hours” Is a Foul-Mouthed, Philosophical Nun Comedy

Dueling images of Catholic nuns portray either holier-than-thou punishers in habits or hippie types with acoustic guitars, like the postulant Maria in The Sound of Music. Both stereotypes obscure the fact that, in real life, a lot of nuns are just…kind of weird. At one of the many Catholic camp-outs I was once required to attend, I first had the epiphany that some nuns may have started out as social outcasts looking for a hideaway from judgment by the culture at large; there, one of the sisters went around every morning sweeping up all the socks and underwear we’d left on the floor of our cabin, so she could boil them and sell them at rummage sales. “They’re mine now!” she cackled. But when a brave girl questioned her, the nun shyly backed away and never made eye contact with us again.

Writer-director Jeff Baena (I Heart Huckabees, Life After Beth), in his lighthearted Medieval nun-sploitation comedy, The Little Hours, depicts these socially rejected sisters as they may really have been, using modern-day language but also Boccaccio’s The Decameron as source text. The film follows three young women — Alesandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) — as they try to fill up hour after boring hour with anything, leading to much gossip, bickering, and a dabbling-in of witchcraft. What’s that the Bible says about idle hands?

Throughout the film, crystal-blue skies frame a picturesque landscape of rolling green hills and the clean beige stucco of the abbey where the nuns reside — immensely peaceful scenes Baena creates just so he can muck them up. When the convent’s handyman dares to smile at them, one of the women screeches, “Fuck you, don’t look at us!” These nuns are aggro, none more than Fernanda, who takes great joy in physically intimidating men. When the convent’s humdrum day is interrupted by an alluring manservant (Dave Franco) escaping the wrath of a jealous husband (Nick Offerman), Fernanda puts an ax to the manservant’s throat, her face millimeters away from his as she bellows into his ear, “Who the fuck are youuuuuuuuuu?”

Though the F-bombs wear a little thin, laughs do come at the expense of Offerman’s Lord Bruno and Lauren Weedman, who plays his wife. Bruno sports a voluminous, frizzy bowl cut and yacks on and on about how the Guelfs killed his family, always overenunciating “Guelf” — god, it’s a funny word. The comedy here isn’t what you’d call highbrow. When the bumbling Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) attempts to define “sodomy,” sussing out whether it’s anal sex or oral sex, he’s a little stumped: “Sodomy is lots of different things,” he says, unsure (and piss-drunk).

The Little Hours shares more than a small helping of sincerity with I Heart Huckabees, which Baena co-wrote with David O. Russell. The film follows up its punchlines with philosophical discussions untangling why people behave so absurdly. The developing friendship among the sparring nuns is actually sweet to watch unfold, as is the romantic relationship between Tommasso and the Mother Superior (Molly Shannon). This isn’t a laugh-a-minute movie; it’s more a succession of snickers, punctuated by genuine emotion. We’re watching some serious weirdos try to connect — in a Medieval nunnery.

The Little Hours
Directed by Jeff Baena
Gunpowder & Sky
Opens June 30, Landmark Sunshine Cinema


“Don’t Make Me Seem Too Nice”: Remembering the Late Don Rickles

Don Rickles died on Thursday, April 6. It was the thirtieth anniversary, to the day, of the Sugar Ray Leonard–Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight, the most hyped boxing match since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila” twelve years earlier.

Just the announcement that Leonard and Hagler would fight set off a buzz, and the contest was immediately dubbed the “Superfight.” Sugar Ray was returning to boxing after a self-imposed three-year layoff, trying to do what everyone said was impossible: take the middleweight title against the seemingly invincible Marvelous (that was his legal name) Hagler, who was 63-2-2. The odds, depending where you put down your bet, were 3½ to 1 to 4½ to 1, in favor of Hagler.

These days, with attention divided between boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s impossible for most younger fans to appreciate the excitement these big fights stirred up in the general populace. In the Eighties and early Nineties, though, big fights drew attention not just from the sports media but from the mainstream news outlets, attracting movie idols, rock stars, and politicians to ringside.

At the Hagler-Leonard fight, my Voice credentials got me into the V.I.P. section of the outside arena at Caesars Palace, which was packed with celebrities. I sat next to someone I assumed was a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him until the fourth round.

The bout moved with what seemed to me the pace of a Beckett play. Perhaps this was because every time Hagler seemed close to nailing Leonard against the ropes, I held my breath. After the third round, I said out loud, to no one in particular, “Well, damn, I don’t know how to score that one.” The gentleman to my left replied, “The flurry Leonard threw in the last ten seconds impressed the judges. Watch, he’ll do it again this round.”

And, by God, he did. Later on, when Leonard heard the ten-second buzzer, he unleashed an eight-punch combination that had the crowd in a frenzy. I began to feel a little better about my bet.

I also realized that my savvy neighbor sounded familiar. Up to that point I had been too absorbed to look at his face; during a lull in the action I turned to him and said, “You’re Don Rickles.”

He flashed that lopsided grin. “Yes, I am.”

“Boy,” I said, “you really know your boxing.”

“I’ve been picking winners for forty years, but I’ve never had the guts to put money down. I’m guessing, though, that you have a sizable bet on this one.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if Leonard doesn’t win this. I’ll have to call my wife back in Brooklyn and get her to wire me car fare to the airport.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured me with a pat on my arm. “Sugar Ray is tying Hagler up in knots.”

This fight, he told me, reminded him of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta: The stronger fighter kept plodding forward trying to corner the faster one. The faster fighter kept moving in and out and counterpunching.

“Watch,” he said, “Sugar Ray’s moving counterclockwise. Not many fighters can do that. Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, but not many others. That way, when Hagler throws a right hook” — Hagler was ambidextrous but fought left-handed most of the time — “Leonard is already moving away from the punch.”

This guy, I thought, knows more about boxing than I do.

As it turned out, Mr. Rickles — that’s what I called him even after he told me to call him Don — knew not only more than I knew, but at least as much as the officials did. After twelve fast rounds, I waited for the decision with my heart pounding as never before or since.

“Don’t worry,” he told me, shaking his head. “Ray will get a split decision.”

“Did you score it for Leonard?”

“Eh,” he shrugged. “I don’t know who really won. A draw would be fair. But this is Vegas, and people expect a show. And Ray put on a show — those big flurries at the end of the rounds got him a lot of points. He looked like he won, and that’s what matters.”

Mr. Rickles was indeed correct — a split decision for Sugar Ray — and after the fight I bought him a drink.

“All the notes you took,” he asked, “are you writing this up for someone?”

“Yeah, the Village Voice. It’s a weekly paper in New York.”

“Oh, yeah, I know the Voice. I started reading it when Norman Mailer was there” — Mailer was one of the founders, in 1955. “You’re writing about boxing for the Voice, huh?

“To the Village Voice,” he said, raising his JD in a toast, “where boxing is the sport of queens.” Then he stopped. “If you write about this, don’t use that. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

“Don Rickles doesn’t want to offend anybody?”

“Only when I do my act. And don’t make me seem too nice — you’ll ruin my image.”

I don’t want to hurt his image, but Don Rickles was a heck of a guy to sit next to at a fight.


Artie Lange Talks Crashing, Comedy and Sex with Wild Boars

On HBO’s Crashing, star and creator Pete Holmes plays a fictionalized version of himself: A straight-laced rookie comedian who ends up both heartbroken and homeless when his wife leaves him for another man. Pete finds himself relying on the kindness of a succession of real-life stand-ups, particularly Artie Lange. Like a potty-mouthed Yoda, the one-time Howard Stern Show fixture and original MADtv cast member becomes an unlikely mentor to the former aspiring youth pastor. It’s a perfect role for larger-than-life Lange, who’s as well acquainted with the highs of comedy stardom as he is with the lows—he’s survived drug addiction, alcoholism, and two suicide attempts.

We caught up with the legendary comic about the wisdom of executive producer Judd Apatow, the unparalleled humiliation of barking for stage time, and the types of people you least expect to have sex with wild boars. (You never can be sure.)

What’s the hardest thing about playing yourself?

It’s me. Unfortunately. [Laughs.] Playing myself is like a therapy session, going back over all that. The second episode is very, very much based on something that happened to me. Pete’s character is based on an assistant I had that I told he could open for me if he keeps me away from drugs. The girl who was really involved, trying to give me drugs, is the girl Gina Gershon plays. And she was unbelievably great. I think if that girl from Albany ever sees the episode, she’s going to really like the casting. She’s actually nice, but god, what a crazy night.

That’s great. So, specifically because they know your story, they thought, “Oh, let’s use this real thing that happened to Artie?”

Yeah. You know, it was interesting, the audition was for a totally different character. It was for a fictitious character. And it just had two lines, it was going to be in the pilot. And out of respect for HBO and Pete Holmes, that was great, but the thing that pushed it over the line was that it was Judd. So I said out of respect for Judd, I’ll go over there and audition. The first audition was just Pete, and it went very well, and the next audition was with Judd and Pete. I had looked at the script, and Judd encourages improvising, so I just kind of got an outline in my head of what they wanted to do. Then the greatest thing in the world happened that gave me a leg up on the competition.

In the beginning, Judd said, “Forget the script. I’ll throw out some stories from your book [Too Fat to Fish, Lange’s 2008 memoir].” So I’m improvising about me. It was just the easiest experience, and then Pete is such a good improvisational actor, and comic. And me and him are so different. Me and him look at each other like we’re zoo animals. [Laughs.]

And it worked. By the end of the first week, going back and forth, the character had become Artie Lange. I was a regular on the show and the name of the first episode was “Artie Lange.” That’s called winning the comedy lottery.

I really love the scene in the pizza place where you give it to Pete straight about pursuing a career in comedy. Can you tell me about what shooting that was like?

I’ve got to tell you, this is where Judd just sort of had great instincts with what I could do. He knew I could do things I didn’t even think I could do.

Just as we sat down and we had the script in front of us—you know, you want to respect these guys, they wrote the script. We had four cameras going, and out of the blue, Judd said, “Art, listen, just forget the script. Just look at Pete. Here’s a young comic, just starting out—just tell him what he’s going to face, maybe, if he’s going to be a comedian. Tell him about the life offstage, onstage, tell him about your demons and everything.” Whoa. And the people on the crew who kind of knew my life started giggling. [Laughs.] I’m the Babe Ruth of demons.

And there’s something about Pete. Like, his face. It’s almost like Opie. You want to help him. And you want to say, “Look, pal, if you stay here, this could happen to you. Maybe you should go home and work at a gift shop or something.” I’ve done that for some comics, I’ve done similar things. Maybe not as negative, but I’ve let it loose on people.

I know what you mean about his face.

Yeah. Like, I want to help you, but Jesus. You look like you’re eight years old.

Pete’s character is not what we usually expect from a comedian—somebody from a very religious background, a spiritual guy. Have you met many comics like that?

Well, comics, if they’re religious, it’s usually the Satanic bible. [Laughs.] Look, there’s some that look like that, like they might be that clean-cut guy. Oh, they don’t drink. Oh, they don’t do drugs. Oh, they don’t, like, womanize. And all of a sudden [they’ll say,] “Sometimes I like to fly to Brazil and I have sex with wild boars.” There’s always some crazy thing about them, like, whoa, what are you doing? “Before I have sex I dress up like a chicken.” You learn something crazy.

When I think of shows about comedians, I think of Seinfeld or Louie, where they’re already successful. I love that Crashing is like, “This is such a shitty life for so long.” I was curious, especially as someone who came up in New York and in New Jersey, what do you think they got right about the life of an early comic?

Well, you know, you say “the road” and sometimes you can even make that sound romantic and glamorous, but it’s not that way. You’re bringing the audience sometimes. You’re told to bring people. This club owner on the Upper West Side, I told him that my really close uncle had died, just making conversation. And he goes, trying to be supportive, “Maybe I’ll stop by the funeral.” And I said, “Well, you’ve got to bring three people.”

That was so embarrassing. You realize they’re just using you as a pawn. And I don’t think there’s ever really been a show that’s shown that aspect of it. And then of course, a lot of times they make you go out and they call it “barking.” They literally call it something as obnoxious as “barking.” Come see comedy. Come see comedy. Now in my life, when I see somebody at that stage and they bark at me and they recognize me, they get so embarrassed. And I actually say to the guy, “Dude, dude, dude. Don’t be embarrassed, man. You’re doing what you got to do. I got lucky.”

The biggest thing is, you start to see in the show, the low percentage of people that make it to be even a shitty road comic. There’s so many people who try to do [stand-up] now. The Comedy Cellar’s become this iconic place to go. When me and Dave Attell are out there smoking a cigarette, kids in their early twenties come from all over the world, it seems, to be in front of the Comedy Cellar. And I think that this show shows that to get to even that level—forget sitcoms and Seinfeld and a billion dollars, to get to even that level, where you’re a regular at a club, is hard to do.

Speaking of those kids in their early twenties, on the show, comedians will really shit on each other, but then let Pete into their homes. You’re a mentor to him. In real life, what’s that balance like, between ragging on young comics and trying to support them?

Unfortunately, the more common thing is just ragging on comics. But that was my generation. It’s become a lot nicer now. Everything is less mean these days. Everything’s more—and I’m giving women props here—everyone’s more like women. Nicer. [Laughs.] It’s really changed. The table at the Comedy Cellar, where all the comedians gather before they do a set of stand-up, is on a different floor than the actual show. It’s a big “on next” circle of comedy. And we all used to just really viciously rag on each other. Everything went and everybody had a sense of humor. I said, “If the world were like the table at the Comedy Cellar, we’d have no trouble.” No subject was taboo, from race to sex to whatever. You just goofed on each other. And sometimes, I got to the point where, if I bombed on stage but killed at the table, I was happy.

I think it’s more rare that you’ll actually take a guy in for longer than a night on your couch, but a lot of guys drive in from Jersey, Long Island and stuff. For me, it was like karma almost. If somebody in the same boat as you needs to crash, and you got a way to help, you put that karma out there. Because you like to feel like you’re not alone. You like to feel like you have some blood brothers in this business. You usually get treated like shit, lowest rung on the totem pole, that’s for sure.

There’s been several guys over the years that put me up and I put them up. You remember that, you know? And also, it makes you know stuff about them. If you ever go to a roast and roast them, it helps. [Laughs.]


Dealing With Celebrity in the Social-Media Age

These days, it’s hard to know where I end and the internet begins. And somehow, this was even before the 24-hour news cycle became the government’s rendition of the Saw movie franchise. Granted, if I found myself waking up in one of the pile of puppy videos I’ve taken to as of late, there would definitely be worse fates. The truth is, recently I’ve caught myself in such a mindless cycle of “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, repeat” that I think the concept of “free will” flew out the window about fifteen browser tabs ago. Best-case scenario, I then see a post has been “liked” or “shared” by the right user, and I’m back on track, justifying my time through meaningless statistics and gif benders. That old philosophical puzzle, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is now more like “If you post something on Snapchat and no one sees it, will your day be ruined?” with the follow-up question of “And how quickly will you take it down?”

One question I’m often asked as a professional comedian (and I use this term with one eyebrow permanently arched) is “How important is social media to building a career these days?” I would say it’s been a real alphabet block with me — setting the foundation — as much as putting in time at open mics. The flip side of this is that digital technology evolves as fast as we embrace it. I’ve barely gotten a grip on how accessible my words are once I post them, but — given the number of social-media gaffes we’re knee-deep in on a regular basis — neither have corporations or celebrities.

On the dark end of the spectrum, you post an off-color remark or an insensitive joke, and the peanut gallery makes quick work of tarring and feathering you, as detailed in journalist Jon Ronson’s fascinating book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In addition to a book, however, you also then go on to inspire a Black Mirror season finale. Not too shabby for a Wednesday afternoon’s thought-vomit.

Way on the other side of the Web Kingdom, a movie star reposts something you wrote, and you are elevated, through no real achievement of your own, but simply because the power of mega-celebrity wafted down from on high to briefly smile upon you. This happened to me recently with Tom Hanks and a guest food blog I wrote for New York magazine. Weeks later, I still look at that sentence with disbelief. Not only did I doubt many people would read this extracurricular column, but at first the very idea that Tom Hanks read it led me to extreme embarrassment. As silly as it all is, there exists a distinct hierarchy with celebrity in our culture, and if you were told one of “them” might have a minute with you, you would definitely want a second to powder your nose. Learn too late that those on Mount Olympus are always watching, and you may find yourself with your T-zone unaccounted for.

To me, the funniest part of all this was my own reaction, closely followed by other people’s. For days, I walked around feeling as if I had experienced a spiritual encounter and it was not mine to question. I didn’t know what it meant but I had to accept it, humbly yet fully. It really threw my mental demons a curveball, that’s for sure. Internet trolls are on-brand for them, but this? This was new territory. I generally don’t like talking about such frivolity with friends, but this time I kept bringing it up, simply because I myself couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe it was real. And then my peers! I’ve been in comedy for over ten years now and I’ve been lucky enough to get to perform on TV and with a good number of my heroes, but never have I received the amount of widespread congrats that I did for this recognition. People were shaking my hand as if the mayor had given me the key to the city AND his apartment. I was Hanks-approved. I got that Gump bump. That was why, when I walked into my local coffee shop and the barista (who knows me) squealed and said, “Oh my God! You’re famous!” I prepared to sheepishly accept another set of kind words, but much to my delight, she said, “I couldn’t believe it! You’re person of the week on my period tracker app!” Somehow the idea that my words or persona were guiding women through their bodily schedules felt truly like the accomplishment I never sought but now couldn’t imagine living without.

Don’t worry. In the following days, I’ve received enough mean comments to balance the universe out again. But the idea that you just never know who might find you all the way on the other side of a satellite connection, well, it’s enough to keep me posting. I’ve got cycles to regulate, dammit.


Muslim Comedy in the Age of Trump Is Making ‘Amreeka’ Great Again

“I had sex this morning,” confessed Palestinian-American comedian Suzie Afridi at the start of her new monthly comedy show, “Amreeka.” “But I can’t tell you about it. It’s not allowed in my culture.”  

She went on to tell the audience that her husband is Pakistani and that the two of them are “very different kinds of terrorists. My people were on the first season of Homeland, his people were on the fourth.” Then, in case we had any doubts, she affirmed her patriotism: “Listen, anyone who tells you America is not great has not traveled overseas and tried another country’s paper towels.” 

A minute into her set, and she’d already covered sex, consumerism, and global politics. Afridi is as American as it gets. 

“Amreeka,” curated by Afridi and produced by her husband, Saks, and Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, gets its name from the Arabic word for America and is billed as “Everything you want to know about America, but are afraid to laugh at.” Its mission is to give comedians of all backgrounds a platform from which to take on taboos and interrogate the dangerous stereotypes of our current political era.

And despite the onslaught of bad news from Washington, Afridi feels emboldened by the new administration. 

“Trump’s election is the 9-11 for Muslims,”she says. “It’s generating a lot of goodwill, and we have to take advantage of this chance to rewrite our narrative. America never took advantage of the post–9-11 global goodwill it had received. Instead, Bush set the Middle East on fire, giving us ISIS, a refugee crisis, and Donald Trump.”

Now Muslim comedians are seizing the opportunity, with some taking the message to the screen. Aziz Ansari, best known for his roles on Parks and Recreation and his Netflix series, Master of None, hosted the first SNL episode of the Trump administration, declaring, “[It’s] pretty cool to know, though, he’s probably at home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him.” He then referenced the Women’s March: “Yesterday, Trump was inaugurated; today, an entire gender protested against him.” The crowd erupted. 

“The media’s not telling the truth, politicians aren’t telling the truth,” Afridi says. “The only people telling the truth are comedians.” 

And there are plenty of them, with the mainstream finally paying attention. Inauguration weekend also saw the premiere of Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, a film based on the comic’s marriage to a non-Muslim woman. Nanjiani has acted in more than twenty movies and on more than thirty shows (including Silicon Valley, Portlandia, and Broad City) and co-hosts the Comedy Central series The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. Aasif Mandvi, a correspondent on The Daily Show, recently won the Peabody-Facebook Futures of Media Award for starring in the web series Halal in the Family. Nasim Pedrad, a veteran of SNL, now stars on Scream Queens. Most of these comedians got their start in New York City’s stand-up scene. It’s only in recent years, though, that they’ve become more open and vocal about their Muslim identity. 

“The [identity] profile matters because it challenges myths and stereotypes,” says Maysoon Zayid, co-producer of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which began in response to rising Islamophobia in the wake of 9-11 and finished its fourteenth go-round in October. “But we’ve always had Arabs of all different faiths and no faiths,” she adds, as part of the festival. 

Three years ago Zayid and partner Dean Obeidallah started a second show, the Muslim Funny Fest, to attract and include non-Arab Muslims. Zayid expects both festivals to get bigger, adding that the only thing they need more of in the age of Trump is security. “I wish I were joking, but the spike in hate I receive online since the rise of Trump began is quite terrifying. The Muslim Funny Fest is more necessary than ever. Luckily, we are funnier than ever, too.”

Zayid, who has cerebral palsy and works as a disability rights advocate, gained notoriety when she appeared on 60 Minutes in the spring of 2016 to talk about her wildly popular TED Talk, “I Got 99 Problems…Palsy Is Just One.” She’s currently developing a comedy series that will feature a mainstream American Muslim character who “won’t be a terrorist or an FBI informant. She is a Jersey girl just like me.”

Meanwhile, what distinguishes “Amreeka” from its predecessors is the wide platform it offers to other marginalized groups. Opening night featured a lineup of comedians who embrace their outsider status, with Alex Barnett taking on the stigma associated with interracial marriage: “A guy came up to us and said, ‘You guys are together because you find each other exotic.’ Dude, my wife is from Detroit, not Narnia. And I’m a neurotic Jewish New Yorker. I’m only exotic if you’ve never seen Seinfeld. Another one said, ‘Oh, you guys just have jungle fever,’ which I resent….Dude, we’re married. There’s nothing sexual about that. We have a five-year-old now. I don’t even have sex in my dreams anymore. My sex dreams are about taking a nap.”

Nigerian-born Ndidi Oriji, co-host of the Brooklyn show “Comedy Diaspora,” started her set by raising the bar on catcalling: “They’re always calling me things I can never become. ‘Girl, you look like a princess!’ ‘Yo, queen! Queeeen!’ How about calling me something I aspire to be? How cool would it be to walk down the street and have someone say, ‘Hey, Speaker of the House! You’re looking good in that suit. Prime Minister! Girl, you look like the prime minister of a small Caribbean nation!’ Yeah, sure, I’ll go on a date with you.” 

The headliner, Chloe Hilliard, a  journalist-turned-comedian, took on the socioeconomic realities of food politics, closing with an anecdote about gluten-free diets: “In New York City, they sell a ten-dollar cupcake and we all stand in line thinking, ‘This is the new wave, we gotta get this.’ Then they put the old-fashioned full-of-gluten one next to the new one. You can’t tell the difference, but now you have to make a life decision: ‘How long do I want to live?’ And that old-fashioned cupcake full of gluten and diabetes is staring back at you like, ‘Bitch, you want to die today, let’s do this, you don’t need them feet!’ The gluten-free one is staring back at you, [with a British accent] ‘Do you want to talk about foreign policy?’ ”

At some point in the evening, the conversation turned to coffee and Saks’s pour-overs. I joked and called him a Muslim hipster. Afridi corrected me: “Metro Muslims. I added it to Urban Dictionary. It’s part metrosexual and part Muslim.” 

Another so-called Metro Muslim is their imam, who runs Cordoba House, a “cool” Islamic Sunday school housed in a synagogue. 

“Imam Feisal is so chic; his socks probably match his prayer rug,” Afridi said.

“We send our son to Islamic Sunday school because we want him to have an identity and want him to feel like he’s part of a community of like-minded Muslims,” said Afridi, whose own sense of alienation inspired her to work with new immigrants at the inner-city nonprofit organization Behind the Book. “To be honest, I don’t pray. I was raised Christian, and I converted, but I don’t practice. I joke that I downloaded the app but I haven’t played with it. And I admit I enjoy a glass of wine occasionally.

“There are a lot of Muslims like me, and instead of being conflicted, we should embrace the elasticity that Islam has to offer. It’s fluid, not as rigid as some people interpret. I’m not saying Muslims should drink, but Muslims should start being more accepting of those of us who do. Metro Muslims need a brand. ISIS has a brand, so should we.”


See Comedy, Support the ACLU on Trump’s First Weekend as President

When President-elect Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, many of us will feel like crying. And vomiting. And maybe cry-vomiting, which will no doubt prove messy. But Emily Winter and Jenn Welch would prefer to have us laughing — and, more importantly, giving our money to a very Trump-unfriendly cause. That’s why these two Brooklyn-based comedians have founded the What a Joke comedy festival.

Throughout inauguration weekend, more than 500 comics will perform more than 80 shows in 33 cities around the country, including New York City, Albuquerque, Boston, Chicago, Des Moines, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, San Francisco, Tucson, and Washington, D.C., not to mention Oxford, England. You can even buy “What a Joke” hats, with white text embroidered on red baseball caps, naturally. All proceeds from the festival will benefit the ACLU.

Welch performs and teaches at The People’s Improv Theater, where she also co-hosts The Stand-Up Showdown. Winter writes for TV Land and previously wrote for Fusion’s Come Here and Say That. In addition to coordinating the festival’s hard-working network of local producers and comedians, the duo is planning What a Joke’s three NYC shows, at which they’ll also perform: The Stand on Thursday the 19th ($40, with Janeane Garofalo headlining), The Annoyance on Friday the 20th ($15), and Rough Trade on Saturday the 21st ($20).

The Voice caught up with Welch and Winter about What a Joke and comedy in the age of Trump.

Where were you on election night?

Emily Winter: I was on a show where women and gay men dress up as straight men and make fun of them [Dudes Being Dudes Being Dudes]. I have a character called Feminist Bro: He supports Hillary, but for all the wrong reasons. He wants you to burn your bra so he can see your tits.

I was feeling very confident with all these other women at this show that everything was going to work out that night, but then we came out of the show space and there was a TV in the bar. It was very gloomy and it was very strange. I just got in an Uber and got home as fast as possible, then ate myself into a food coma.

Jenn Welch: I was doing social media for a women-run sketch show [The Box] at The PIT. We had taken over the entire theater for election night. There was a sketch performance downstairs and then upstairs was going to be live election results rolling in with a female comic giving commentary. But everybody was so stunned, the commentary didn’t happen. There was nothing to joke about.

I feel like every woman has been in a situation where That Guy has beaten us out for an opportunity. Trump is That Guy, just heightened and more awful. We live in a country that would rather take a chance on That Guy based on his potential than reward a woman for working her ass off. Our society doesn’t value Hillarys. Our society values Melanias.

How did the What a Joke Festival come about from there?

EW: As the results were coming in and it was looking grim, it wasn’t even a conscious decision. I immediately thought of Jenn Welch and Facebook messaged her, “We need to do something,” because I know Jenn is very funny and Jenn gets shit done. It was Jenn’s idea to do a national festival, or at least to reach out to other cities and see if they were interested. That just sounded so special and so important to me.

JW: By that point we were already seeing across our social media networks the same sort of despair coming from friends in different cities, and this “what do we do?” mentality. What do we do, as comedians, what do we do right now? How do we have as big of an impact as possible?

When we first sat down, we made a list of cities that we’d love to have involved. Then it grew exponentially as word started spreading.

What do you think when people say a Trump presidency will be good for comedy, or good for art in general? Do you agree?

JW: Ugh! Ugh! That’s what I think about that. Just write, “Jen just made horror noises. Jen recoiled.” I feel like our livelihood and our civil liberties and our access to reproductive healthcare and our ability to not have a wall between us and our neighboring countries and our ability to practice whatever religion or no religion at all — all of this is more important than comedy. I would rather be able to go to see a doctor than get a good joke about a man peeing on Russian prostitutes.

EW: I totally agree, but at the same time, it occurs to me that the comedy shows can’t be that good in Utopia. The comedy shows are probably not that good in heaven. And this is really fucking absurd, the fact that this man has the presidency. There’s a lot of material that needs to be mined, because people need to make sense of all of this.

A number of the cities participating in What a Joke are smack in the middle of red states. Was that a priority for you?

JW: If anything, I thought we wouldn’t have a shot there. I feel like a lot of the red-state cities came to us, and I think that’s really telling. [Knoxville producer and comedian] Shane Ryne caught wind of it and reached out to us. He’s built his own mini two-day festival there. He has 14 shows going up in two days; he has comedians from six different states involved. Shane was saying that, being a little blue enclave in a red state, you feel really isolated, and it means a lot that they can be part of this and feel part of something bigger.

Should ticketholders expect a lineup of explicitly political comedy?

JW: We are all inundated with politics right now—I don’t want this to come across as, now come listen to a bunch of comedians do the same take! We just want the best comedy show.

EW: What all the comedians decide to talk about is totally up to them. You wouldn’t go to a fundraiser for a dog shelter and expect to hear two hours of dog jokes, you know what I mean?

JW: The point of this is not political humor; the point is to raise money for the ACLU. And to come together, and laugh, and commiserate. Timing-wise, we’re hoping it will feel like a very mild “fuck you” — but not mild — to what’s going on. This is what we’re doing this weekend.

And why the ACLU?

EW: You expect that your president would protect your civil liberties, but when you look at the list of civil liberties, it’s just a list of things that Donald Trump has attacked — from how sexist and misogynistic he’s been, to how racist he’s been, to how he’s been to the press. And the ACLU has been so aggressive in saying, “We are going to hold you accountable. When you do illegal things, we’re going to sue you.”

Do you have any intention of watching the swearing-in ceremony on Friday?

JW: I teach tap dance classes, so I scheduled a class for that time, because I was like, screw it. While that shit-fuck is getting sworn in as president, I’m going to be teaching women how to tap dance.

EW: I’ve been doing a lot of social media for [the festival], so I will probably have it on in the background to fuel my hate and anger while I work.

Do you imagine that any Trump voters will come out to What a Joke? What would you say to any of them who might be considering it?

JW: I would love to have your money so that we can donate it to the ACLU.

EW: You know what, somewhere out there is a Trump voter who likes the ACLU and just wants to go to a comedy show. And that’s fine, they can come, great. I don’t understand their logic, but sure. Have a seat. Have a good time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Marga Gomez On Family, Resistance, And Last-Ever Solo Show

In Marga Gomez’s twelfth — and, she says, final — solo show, the comedian reveals that both her prolific drive and her entertainment savvy are indebted to her father, Willy Chevalier, a Cuban immigrant polymath famous in the mid-century heydey of New York’s Latino variety shows. Staged as a “farewell concert,” Latin Standards uses Chevalier’s radio hits as a frame for Gomez to interweave her childhood memories with scenes from a comedy night she produced at the now-shuttered San Francisco Latino drag club Esta Noche.  The Voice spoke to Gomez about the show in anticipation of its run at the Public’s Under The Radar festival from January 11-15.

Village Voice: Latin Standards sounds like a Republican’s nightmare: a show about a Latino immigrant variety performer and his lesbian daughter, who does stand-up in a drag club.

Marga Gomez: My whole career, I’ve done performance for the underrepresented — women, queer folks, people of color. When I started this show we didn’t think Trump would win. I thought it’d just be a story about queer people and drag queens, and Latinos in 1960s New York. Now, the overtones are pretty hard to miss; it’s a voice of resistance. Still, it’s not overtly political. It’s gentle family comedy about the greatest day in my father’s life, when he got a gig to be a spokesperson for a Latino coffee company.

Your father, Willy Chevalier, was a mainstay of the golden era of Latino variety shows in NYC. How does Latin Standards wrestle with that time and place, and with gentrification and the shifting flavor of New York?

In the 1950s and ‘60s my father played huge theaters for 500 to 1,000 people. Between gentrification, factories closing, and the advent of Spanish TV, we lost those teatros — Tri-Borough Theater in Harlem, Jefferson on 14th and 3rd, San Juan Theater in Washington Heights, Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx— his beautiful variety shows went out of business. There are parallels to my comedy night at a San Francisco drag club, Esta Noche. In NYC, Escuelita was the Latino drag club for decades; it closed about a year ago. Marginalized performers have to adapt. As our communities are pushed out, we have to find our audience. We need to create spaces for our joy.

What does the conversation look like between you and your father in the show?

The conceit of the show is that this is my “farewell concert” after 30 years as a performer. I do these elaborate introductions to songs my father wrote that hit the Latino charts. You hear them in the background with archival imagery from my father’s life and from Esta Noche, but I don’t sing. Each introduction leads into scenes from my childhood with my dad, or my adult life producing comedy in drag clubs.

It’s not a real farewell, though, you still plan to perform?

People don’t believe me, but this is my last solo show! That part is true. I’ve done twelve, and I’m superstitious, I don’t want to do a thirteenth. Nothing else happened to me, I’ve written everything! But I do stand-up; I might write a two-person show. Cast parties are lonely for a solo performer. I want a copilot when I perform. I’m not in a relationship so I can make one happen by writing for more performers. I’m a lesbian. Closure takes a while.