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Does Netflix Have a Queer Comedy Problem?

Netflix has undeniably positioned itself as the new home for contemporary stand-up comedy. And while Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette has largely been the focus — a barrage of praise for the Aussie comic’s one-woman-show was then followed by contrarian think pieces — it’s perhaps the least comedic offering they’ve produced under their “Comedy” vertical. Still, Gadsby’s discussion of quitting comedy in relation to the idea of self-deprecation inspired a lot of debate over what comedy is, and as an offshoot discussion, what queer comedy is or should be.

Looking at Netflix’s Comedy originals, there’s an interesting trend: Lesbians are able to get their own shows or sets, but gay men, trans, and bisexual or otherwise queer comics are rare or altogether non-existent. Tig Notaro and Ellen DeGeneres both have their own specials (the latter’s much-anticipated return to the stand-up stage is coming this December), and openly gay Mexican stand-up Manu NNa also had his own 2017 special, but other LGB comics have been slotted into multi-episode specials featuring shorter sets in specials called The Standups and The Comedy Line-Up. On those series, lesbian comics Fortune Feimster, Gina Yashere, Sabrina Jalees, and Sam Jay have all appeared, and are, as of this past Friday,  joined by three other queer comics in the second installment of The Comedy Line-Up.

Matteo Lane is the first American gay male comic to appear, joined by lesbian comic Emma Willmann, and queer comic Kate Willett. Lane and Willman, co-hosts together on a queer-themed podcast called Inside the Closet, use their individual time to point out their gayness and poke fun at (what else?) stereotypes. (Willett, who tells INTO she has dated men and women, dedicates her time to skewering men and doesn’t mention any elements of her bisexuality on stage.) 

Lane and Willmann are the kinds of gay comics that American audiences are more used to seeing, and perhaps because of the amount of time they spend together, have similar themes in their set. Their jokes about their sexual identities have largely to do with their relationship to their parents and how Lane’s father (a Vietnam vet) and Willmann’s mother (from a tiny town of 800 in rural Maine) feel about their children’s queerness. In joking about his use of Grindr, Lane says that because of the app’s location-based services it should be called Fruit by the Foot, while Willman shares that her mother baked her a fruitcake upon coming out. While Lane is poking fun a recent drive-by gay bashing, Willmann jokes about a catcaller likening her to Ellen DeGeneres.

But perhaps they also have similar themes because these are the kinds of jokes cis-het audiences are willing to listen to and laugh at without feeling as if the material is threatening, calling them out for bad behavior, or *gasp* too gay.

These are exactly the kinds of jokes Gadsby, as one highly-visible example, points out as, well, low-hanging fruit to be consumed by the straight masses. In attempts for queer comics to get the mainstream (read: straight) audience to laugh, the joke is on women, on queers, on ourselves. Lane and Willmann aren’t too hard on themselves — instead, the target is frequently (and frustratingly) women — but they both use their homosexuality as an entry point into talking about the perceived elephant in the room. For Lane, it’s his “gay voice.” For Willmann, it’s her being “the man” in her relationship — a “blonde butch girl” who knew she wasn’t supposed to be crushing on Nala from The Lion King, but knew it wasn’t as bad as her family member falling for Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast. (Because she was chubby!!!!! LOL.)

“I think about it all the time, because it’s like you just want to be authentic to yourself and also to protect yourself, and then also there’s a real trust in what people understand in the way they’re laughing at stuff,” Willmann says of self-deprecation. She brings up her joking about being “the man” in relation to her girlfriend as “the girl” or more feminine one. Most women in same-sex relationships are very familiar with the idea that straight people ask the offensive question “Which one of you is the man?” to wrap their heads around how two women could possibly build a life together without a male entity involved. Willmann sees her joking about this as subverting this notion, but worries if the point is lost on some in the crowd.

“Recently, I’ve been trying to talk about that it’s important for me to be the man in the relationship. Now, that’s totally problematic and I think gender is socially constructed and it’s a talking point, and then at the same time, I’m always like ‘I’m the man.’ The ‘girl’ has to be the woman one and I’m into that,” Willmann says. “But in order for people to even get that, they have to understand that that’s not really and also, like deconstruct it and then reconstruct it. So when I first started talking about that, I’m like, are people going to get what the fuck I’m talking about? And sometimes no but overwhelmingly, straight people started being like ‘But I’m the man in my relationship.'”

Willmann says she often leads with what she sees as “non-threatening” to straight audiences — “like I’m from a small town and something super soft to get them comfortable” — but that it’s frustrating for her at the same time. As a visibly gay person, she is never closeted, but she does deal with internal homophobia.

“I’ll feel like ‘Is this [joke] too gay?'” she says. “Not even like something can be too gay, but more like, is this relatable to people that don’t live in this? And there’s no way for people to answer when I ask if something is too gay. It’s not a fair question. Like the morning radio show I co-host, I’ve gotten to know some of the listeners and each listener I interact with regularly happens to be straight and I’ve asked them before or after a show, today when we were talking — was it too gay? Like what the fuck are they going to say? What the hell does that mean? There’s no way I can win if I ask somebody that.”

In Nanette, Gadsby posits that a comic (specifically one who is outside of the conventional ideals of mainstream society, preferring menswear, taking up space, fucking women) utilizing self-deprecation is doing themselves a disservice because it’s only through that kind of discourse that marginalized people are allowed to perform in this way.  This is, of course, informed by an internal homophobia informed by a societal decision that homosexuality is sinful; something that much of the world still hasn’t shifted on, or will only allow themselves to laugh at instead of take seriously.

“Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, subhuman, pedophiles,” Gadsby says in Nanette. “Seventy percent! And by the time I identified as being gay, it was too late, I was already homophobic. And you do not get to just flip a switch on that.”

“You know, I’ve spent my entire life feeling shame for being gay and once I came out of the closet, I realized that I’m proud to be gay,” says Lane, who grew up in Chicago and now lives in New York. “So I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, I want to be recognized as a comedian. My sexuality shouldn’t determine what kind of comedian I am. Funny. The other part of it is I don’t mind being called gay because that’s what I am. Yes, I’m a gay comic and you know, that’s my life and that’s who I am. I would say to anybody though who has labeled me as a gay comedian — I would say would you say, before you talk about Jerry Seinfeld, would you say he’s a straight comedian? If not, then question yourself why you’re labeling me as the gay comedian. I’d love to know why.”

Lane says he believes even gay male audiences are more drawn to women performers because that’s how they’ve always had to find themselves in the staunchly homophobic past where even the gayest of performers like Paul Lynde had to remain in the closet. He says he performs “predominantly — 99.9 percent — for straight people.”

“So it was always Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Judy Gold, Tig Notaro,” Lane says. “With gay men, there’s none when I was growing up. So it’s like we would see ourselves through the lens of a strong woman, which is what we do with music, too. And so any time a gay guy gets in front of gay people, immediately they’re going to side-eye them and say ‘What does he have?’ ‘What’s this about?'”

He believes, he says, things are shifting, largely due to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which still has gay men seeing themselves, as Lane calls it, “in comedy through a lens of a woman.” But in addition, as gay men — their stories, themselves.

“We have really broken down a lot of those walls of having to be this, having to be that and just sort of accept ourselves for who we are,” Lane says. “So now when I go onstage, I find gay people are excited to see a gay person onstage because it’s just something new for them. I mean, you still get the occasional side eye, but after two minutes when I have proven that I’m funny, they come on my side — except one time I got booed at an event because I made fun of Britney Spears.”

Still, queer audiences will inevitably be more in tune with certain kinds of jokes that are more cultural and less about an individual identity that puts the queer comic on stage and asks for explanations, or less inside baseball. The most successful openly LGBTQ comics (DeGeneres, Notaro, Sykes) don’t necessarily make gay-specific jokes, but don’t shy away from material that involves their respective wives or lives as queer people. However, as Gadsby brings up in Nanette, the queer crowd can be even harder on queer comics who do not bring up their queerness “enough.” She says she was once told, by a lesbian crowd member, she didn’t have enough “lesbian content” in her set.

“Do you know what I reckon my problem is? I don’t lesbian enough,” Gadsby says. “Not in the scheme of my existence. Not a lot. I mean, I keep my hand in. Bit of lesbian content there. I’ll be sprinkling it throughout the show. Keep your feedback forms to yourselves. No, I mean, if you were to plot my week, I don’t… Not a lot. Not a lot of lesbian-ing… gets done. I cook dinner more. I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody every introduces me as ‘that chef comedian,’ do they? Not enough lesbian content.”

Sykes has made similar comments before, saying that after coming out in 2008, gay audiences hoped she’d do make more “gay” jokes.

“My act is about being married, my kid . . . so I talk about it without saying, ‘Hey, look at this, I’m a gay woman!’” Sykes says. “But it’s funny: some audiences walk away and go, ‘You know, I thought she was gonna talk more about gay rights or being gay.’ C’mon, man! I just did a whole hour about being married to a woman and my kid . . . I don’t think I could get any gayer than that.”

Still, Lane says he enjoys a room full of LGBTQs — it’s when he can do some highly-specific jokes hetero audiences might not find as funny based on their lack of understanding.

“The thing that frustrates me is when I perform for straight audiences, there are certain things I just can’t talk about or I have to explain. It’s annoying but when I get gay crowds, I get excited because, and I know this sounds so hacky, but I don’t have to explain who Liza Minnelli is, you know what I mean? I don’t have to explain that Lorna Luft is her sister and that Judy Garland is their mother, and I can do five minutes, because that’s the only impression I do head on is Liza Minnelli and I can do that impression for a gay audience and it’s understood,” he says. “I can make my Britney jokes, I can talk about Mariah, I can talk about singing, I can talk about Grindr, I can talk about hookup culture — I can talk about things that gay men talk to each other about that I don’t need to hedge it with ‘This is what gays do or not all the time’ or just generalizing. I can just go into it and it’s so freeing because it, to me, it must be what straight men feel like every night.”

In 2019, Billy Eichner will have his own Netflix special, as will queer comics Deanne Smith and Mae Martin, but in the meantime, Netflix continues to offer more and more slots to heterosexual comics, many of whom have been problematic in their homohobic and transphobic content, such as Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Michael Che, and Kat Williams. They still have Louis C.K.’s 2017 special available as well, despite his acknowledgment of sexual harassment allegations made by several women, and two from Aziz Ansari, who was also accused of sexual misconduct last year.

With Nanette serving as Netflix’s perceived biggest hit under its Comedy umbrella as of late, there’s at least some hope that LGBTQ comics will be given their due in the near future, and that they won’t feel a need to keep their comedy broad and palatable for wider (read: straighter) audiences, something that ultimately does themselves a disservice in the name of a TV credit and exposure.

“I think it’s slowly getting better but it’s all such new territory in so many ways. I’m not saying they are not gay comics that have existed — I know these people exist,” Lane says. “I’m just saying this is the first time ever that gay, queer, male comedians are sort of on the spotlight that straight comedians are being seen in. so it’s all kind of just new. It’s all new and discovered and all new territory. I think it’s exciting.”

Images via Netflix


Trish Bendix

Trish Bendix is the Managing Editor of INTO.

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