23rd Annual Michigan LGBTQ Comedy Fest
Saturday, March 2
Dearborn’s Ford Community & Performing Arts Center
15801 Michigan Ave. at Greenfield in Dearborn.
Advance tickets $30, $35 at the door.
Since 1995 the Michigan LGBTQ Comedy Fest has brought some of the best names in LGBTQ entertainment to Detroit. This 23-year tradition remains unbroken in 2019 with four comedians — Karen Williams, Peter Smith, Sandra Valls and Mimi Gonzalez — slated to perform on Saturday, March 2, at the Courtyard Detroit-Dearborn at 8 p.m. The proceeds from the evening’s event serve to benefit the local LGBTQ community, too, as they will fund this year’s 2019 Motor City Pride.
In advance of the show, BTL caught up with each comedian to get a feel for their comedic style, comedic beginnings and any plans specific to the Detroit show.
When did you start doing stand-up comedy?
I was living in the bay area in 1980, I moved there from Los Angeles and, oh gosh, I have to even remember now. I’ve been doing comedy for 35 years (laughs). So, it was more or less with some friends and we were at the Hyatt hotel in Oakland, hanging out. A mutual friend walks by and was telling us about his show that he was doing at a little club in Oakland out by the airport and I said, “Oh, I do comedy too.” My friends were like, “What?” Anyway, I ended up doing six minutes in this guy’s act and went around with him to the local clubs in the Oakland area and debuted in the LGBT world at the San Francisco Pride somewhere around ’83.
Were you always out in your career?
No, in the first couple of years when I was out with the young guy, I was doing the black comedy scene around Oakland and I was a party girl so people knew. That’s why doing that San Francisco Pride was so important because Marga Gomez said to me, “Well, you know it’s going to be in the newspapers,” and it was my way of coming out that way through the actual pride circuit.
In one of your bits you have a piece about lesbians always wearing a backpack. I just wanted to let you know that I was wearing a backpack right before I did this interview.
(Laughs) Well I think one of the most valuable things that I’ve really learned through this whole experience is that lesbians, in particular, have a culture. We have a culture and I think that, as time goes on, there’s some kind of denial about the importance of having space for lesbians and the fact that we have a culture. And I think that it’s very, very important to me to acknowledge that and it continues to be important for me to acknowledge that along the spectrum of the evolution of the LGBTQ movement, you know? Lesbian comedy didn’t exist before people like Marga Gomez and Kate Clinton and Lea DeLaria and I learned a lot about humor and healing from a comic Linda Moakes who was on the circuit at that time.
Speaking of humor and healing, you also founded the HaHa Institute dedicated to both those causes. Why do you take that approach to comedy?
Some of it comes out of being a longtime Buddhist. I’ve been a Buddhist for 46 years and in that spiritual practice joy and compassion and courage are seen as [connected]. For people lacking in compassion, you manifest courage and to even be compassionate takes courage and that, for me, is where that wellspring of joy comes from. It’s when we are compassionate, when we are courageous because it’s that interconnectedness that we’re striving for.
Do you have any specific content for the Detroit show?
No, I really don’t. I haven’t gotten there yet and I have so much to do before there, but I’m absolutely sure I will feel comfortable in Detroit. It’s one of my favorite places to be and I know that I’m going to be seeing some friends there. I love performing with Sandra Valls and Mimi Gonzalez — Mimi is my road dog — so it’s going to be a fun night for all of us and I know we’ll have a great show
You not only have done stand-up in your career but have done improv with groups like Upright Citizens Brigade. What performance style introduced you to the comedy scene?
The Second City in Chicago had a pre-teen, I don’t even know, it was basically babysitting, but they had a youth program and I knew about that and I knew about all the comedians that came out of there and I loved all of them. So, I went to that when I was 11 and I took comedy classes there. It was always something I wanted to do.
Improv requires you to be quick on your feet and bounce back from almost any situation, do you think that set you up well for stand-up comedy?
I think I learned more from doing theater and plays just because when something terrible happens and you’re not expecting it and you have to go on with the show, you have to problem solve while not letting anyone know that you’re doing that. The stakes are higher when you have like a full hour left and the girl playing Alice in Wonderland has a bloody nose and she can’t come on stage for 20 minutes.
It’s amazing how actors can do that. I once saw a production of “The Wizard of Oz” where the curtain ripped and blocked a really important door in the set, but they were able to get through it somehow.
Oh god! That’s like my favorite thing.
Have you ever performed in Detroit before?
I think I’ve driven through but never spent time as a human being with a functioning brain. You know, I was born in Chicago and we moved to Montana and the Midwest and the Great Plains that’s my home and that’s very much the core of my heart and I would say I identify as a Midwesterner before I identify with any queer identity.
Does identity help out in generating material when you’re approaching a stand-up set?
In terms of my identity, I don’t have a gender so that automatically puts me in a position of other to like watch most things that include a binary. If you’re other you’re kind of already put in the observer position. It gives you literal perspective, it’s good.
Do you find you can approach comedy differently in the Midwest than in other parts of the country?
Oh, for sure! When I’m Chicago I can make jokes about hot dogs and meat products and beer, but I always am excited to do those kinds of jokes that don’t work in New York.
What’s your approach in New York?
In New York, everyone has come to the show via the same streets, basically, and we all had to deal with the same frustrations before a show begins so everyone’s kind of coming in with the same level of needing to laugh a little bit. It’s this level of tension that New York has that can be cut with a joke, whereas in the Midwest it’s trickier to know where people are coming from and there are a lot more energies coming in. The thing I’m most excited for the Detroit show is being able to make jokes about my Midwestern experience that I can’t talk about New York and I’m excited to be more myself in the middle of America.
In one of your bits you talk about how it would’ve been helpful to you as a kid to have had a “Sesame Street” song about lesbians you might find in your neighborhood. Me too!
(Laughs) It would have helped me out a lot if there were shows representing us!
In that same bit you talk about a lesbian starter kit being handed out. What would you put in your kit?
Well firstly “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.” I love that movie. It has as the star Laurel Holloman. It’s such a beautiful innocent love story about these two girls who just love each other. I would put that and a total safe-sex manual because things aren’t out there and people don’t talk about all the things out there and the things you can avoid and shouldn’t be doing. And then, of course, I would emphasize that it doesn’t matter even in our community what you label yourself. It’s OK to just be yourself and be more fluid.
I think I’d add all that and maybe some combat boots and flannel for good measure.
I would add a “How to Survive in the Wilderness” [guide] because sooner or later you’re going to be camping (laughs). And someone like me I’m like, ‘What?’ And how to use a pStyle correctly, because I don’t know. That is a major must-have for every music festival you are in. My friend Mimi Gonzalez, who I do Lezbarados with, is a pro.
When did you get your start in comedy?
I’ve always been a funny kid and in high school, I got the funniest [superlative] and I mean I went to school for musical theater and I had bands. I was the lead singer in a band since I was 15 and had my own eight-piece horn band in Boston, the whole works. But a girlfriend of mine in Boston said, ‘You’re so funny, I want to give you these adult education classes for stand-up comedy.’ We had been having issues in our relationship and, long story short, we broke up but I still went to the comedy class to make friends. And it actually healed me and I got a whole career out of it!
Do you have any specific material planned for the upcoming Detroit show?
I don’t have special material planned, no. I just think that it’s important to remind people that love always wins no matter what and that there is strength in numbers. And it’s so important to keep it together and have each other’s back. I think that’s something that I would hit on more, especially in today’s climate and reinforce and validate that there’s still good people in the world.
Were you always drawn to humor? What made you want to be a comedian?
I was the class clown, the kid in trouble. I went to St. Francis Cabrini in Allen Park, that’s where I’m from. And don’t think that because it was a religious organization that they were free of violence, so I had to learn to laugh at the madness of Catholic school. And when my mother and stepfather pulled me unceremoniously out of St. Francis Cabrini and Allen Park to move three hours north and go to a public school and ride a bus an hour and a half before that school started out in rural Michigan, I didn’t think it was so funny! However, I still maintained my coping mechanism of comedy and managed to become the class clown after a year-and-a-half in being in that graduating class in Chippewa Hills High School in Remus, Michigan.
Did that drastic change in location impact some of what you saw as funny?
No, it more developed my sense of capacity to talk to anybody about almost anything. I never met any of my grandparents and was raised for a long time by my mother as a single parent and she told me I’m like my grandmother who never met a stranger. And that is a really beautiful spin (laughs) on the old big mouth. I really do like to talk to people and I can find something to talk about with almost anybody. And I do believe that we are all somehow connected to each other as a human family and I think it really comes from not minding myself so much. Now, that’s what took a lot of years to get to and probably comedy helped me get to that.
Do you think your stand-up has gotten better now that you’re at that place of self-acceptance and sureness?
Yeah. I think one of the tricks of comedy is if I’m having a good time, the audience is having a good time. When a comic is nervous or unsure, the audience is nervous or unsure. Everybody came to laugh and the audience really is there to say yes to you and for you, as the comic, as the entertainer, to say yes to them. And so that starts with how much “yes” are you giving to yourself.
Are you excited to be doing a show in your home state?
Absolutely. I’ll talk to my people and as a national queer comic everybody’s my people but my favorite people are my home fries and that’s the Motor City and people from the land of the hand. You know what Michigan does? We high-five the nation.
Incidentally, Sandra Valls is performing a Comedy Fest too, and when I interviewed her I asked what she’d put in her lesbian starter kit and she answered the pStyle. She said that you’re a pro at it.
Good answer! Did she tell you that I sell them? So, the pStyle is the next step in female liberation and I can thank a woman named Krista Eickmann, who of course I call dykeman, for bringing it to the country. She is the woman who brought pStyle to this country and she is a distributor of Diva Cups. I asked and she allowed me to be a distributor and I sell them from the stage and the pStyle, it’s not just a pStyle, it’s a lifestyle. Stand with me if you want to pee. The pStyle, I love it. And you know what? Anybody who buys a pStyle, I’ll autograph it at the show (laughs).
To find out more about the show go online to http://motorcitypride.org/comedyfest18/. Tickets start at $30.