When Leslie Thompson retired as CEO of Affirmations in late 2010, her life took a hilarious turn. The 54-year-old lesbian has found new success doing stand-up comedy, and she is on her way to Las Vegas to compete in the finals at the Improv Up Yours contest, which takes place in Harrah’s in Los Vegas on April 1.
Thompson spent four long months in an online competition where comedians needed votes to stay in the top three slots. With intense voting competition, Thompson worked hard to get votes. “It was like a bloodletting. I posted on Facebook several times a day. I also asked my FB friends to “share” on their site. I tweeted once or twice a day. I emailed once a week unless it was getting too close then I would email twice a week. I send something out to my Linked-in contacts once a week. I also handed out business cards with voting instructions after each show I did. I went door-to-door (in the rain) in my neighborhood handing out flyers on how to vote. I asked everyone in bowling league to vote. I knew I needed help when I handed out business cards at the funeral home when my friend’s father died. I basically turned into a voting whore,” she said.
“It became extremely stressful the last few weeks when the person in 4th (place) started getting very erratic vote counts and at one point knocked me out of third place. I am incredibly blessed that Team LesbieAnn, which is what I nicknamed my voting block, was very dedicated and in the last week became totally engaged in getting their friends, family and co-workers to vote. We squeaked out a 3rd place guaranteed spot in Vegas by 200 votes. I owe my friends and family a debt of gratitude.”
We interviewed Thompson to find out what it is that makes her so darn funny:
1. When did you know that you were a comedian?
I grew up in a house full of jokesters, nothing was ever taken seriously. It was kind of a survival plan actually. Then I did a lot of public speaking and to make others comfortable I would try to be funny. Eventually some friends talked me into trying stand-up. That was around 1995 and at the Detroit Women’s Coffee House.
2. What comedians have inspired you in the course of your life?
I liked Stiller & Meara when I was a kid. For those MUCH younger than me…they spawned Ben Stiller. Now I really like Kate Clinton and Paula Poundstone. And I just got to see Lewis Black live, seven nights in a row – what a hoot. Kate Clinton inspires me to write more, as she is a prolific writer. Paula inspires me to be more comfortable chatting with the audience and to be funny on the spot. And Lewis Black just scares me. No, he tells it like it is which is really important for a comic. You can’t censor what you think is funny or you will crush your creative juices.
3. What was your first stand up gig like?
As I mentioned it was in July of 1995 I think and it was at the Detroit Women’s Coffee House. There was a sold out crowd of 300 lesbians and my partner at the time had her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law there as well. I did 15 minutes of lesbian humor. I said the word “pussy” in front of our future son-in-law and was somewhat mortified. LOL I had a great response and truly wanted to quit my day job the next day. My partner at the time put the kibosh on that … something about a mortgage and car payment and health insurance.
4. Do you have themes to your comedy? If so what?
I always do openly gay comedy and actually prefer an audience chock full of straight folks. My comedy always takes a story format – I don’t tell jokes, per se. The minute I come “out” on stage I am political and I do a bit on gay marriage, too. I like to think I am educating people on LGBT issues when I am performing.
5. How grown up is it?
Well, it would be considered somewhat adult … I don’t like nasty comedy, but there is the occasional “f” bomb and references to lesbian sex so maybe not appropriate for the kiddie-winkies.
6. Do you get nervous before a gig? What do you do to prepare?
I always get nervous, especially when I am doing new material. Or when I am doing a 45 minute show, that’s a lot to memorize. I type out my entire set the day I am performing – it helps me remember better. Then I prepare a 3 x 5 card with a “premise list” that I have in my back pocket in case I freeze. That has never happened but I like the confidence of knowing it’s there.
7. Is there a topic that is a good safe one – like if all else fails, make fun of….?
I really only like to make fun of things I can personally relate to…gay stuff, fat jokes, tall jokes, things I can relate back to me. Don’t get me wrong – I love humor that is politically incorrect as long as it isn’t mean and the source is appropriate. I have heard some straight people do some really funny gay jokes…I have also heard some really mean and ugly jokes. I don’t ever want anyone to think I am mean or ugly in my humor.
8. What sets you apart from other comedians?
There aren’t a lot of openly gay or lesbian comics who do openly gay or lesbian material in front of predominantly straight audiences. Dick Purtain’s producer caught my set once and said he liked me because I wasn’t an ANGRY lesbian comic. That was some great feedback, especially coming from him. I once was asked if I wanted to be known as a funny comic or a lesbian comic…I decided I could be both.
9. As a comedian, are there things that you would never do?
There are some words I wouldn’t use. I am not a fan of potty humor. I like smart comics, which is another reason I like Kate Clinton and Paula Poundstone, oh, and Greg Proops. But I can’t say there isn’t a topic I wouldn’t approach. I would just have to tie it into life in general and hopefully my life in particular.
10. How did you meet Lewis Black and what did you think of him?
I was at a Kathleen Madigan show at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle along with my partner and two friends. Kathleen mentioned that Lew did this cruise called Lew’s Cruise and there were a bunch of comics on it and it was crazy fun. Within a week the four of us were booked on the cruise. Out of a cruise ship with 4500 people there were 450 of us as part of Lew’s Cruise. We saw three comics every night and every show was emceed by Lewis Black. Then they did a night of comedy by the cruisers themselves. I auditioned and Lewis Black, Mark Lonow and Vic Henley were there for the auditions. I had great feedback from all three and made it through the auditions and got to perform in front of the rest of the cruisers and all the comics. It was an amazing experience. Oh, and it was warm and sunny for a week.
11. How is retirement?
My partner, Cindy Norlin, and friends jokingly refer to me as the Estate Manager. I get up every morning at 6 a.m. to make breakfast for Cindy and pack her lunch. I take care of our two dogs, Beau & Jack, pay the bills, take care of the yard, sell stuff on Craigslist, make travel arrangements (we are on the go A LOT!), organize our social calendar, grocery shopping, dry cleaners, etc. And of course I spend a lot of time taking care of my back. I go to Pilates two or three times a week and swim as well. I walk for about 30 minutes every day. Preventing any further deterioration of my back is one of my top priorities.
12. Prior to retirement how much were you able to pursue your comedy?
I worked SO many nights in my career (28 years of running a non-profit sucks your free-time right out of you,) that it was hard to focus on writing, booking and performing. Plus, I was always the CEO of an organization first and a comic second. That would cause some censorship and as I mentioned before you can’t be a full-time comic and censor your material.
13. Three favorite comedians and why?
As I said earlier, I like comics who make me laugh and who are smart about it. Kate Clinton – prolific writer and totally on top of what is happening politically. Paula Poundstone because she can ask an audience member what they do for a living and then improv ten minutes based on the answer. That is a brilliant woman. And Greg Proops who I got to see tape a live podcast on the cruise. Also a prolific writer and a comedic Wikipedia, he claims he is the smartest man on earth, and he may be right. Then he says something funny and snorts. Too funny.
14. Three worst comedians ever and why?
Andrew Dice Clay was always a total turn-off, vulgarity is not funny to me. Ru Paul made a horrible “joke” at the expense of Milton Berle, in front of Milton Berle and in front of a live audience. He was just awful. Mean is not funny to me. I don’t really have a third comic but I am not amused by male comics who build an entire routine out of picking on their wife or girlfriend. Misogyny is not funny to me.