Standup and be counted: For McNulty and Champlin, being funny is job one.
Queer Queens Coming to Cruz
Touring queer comics pride themselves on being able to make anyone laugh
By Laura Mattingly
Hearing jokes on the in and outs of lesbian relationships and sexuality, what it's like to be a woman in football and a show-tune-style song about various types of meat would not be outside the realm of possibility at the Queer Queens of Qomedy Show coming to the Rio Theatre on March 10. This group of fiercely hilarious women residing in various locations across the country got a tip that Santa Cruz would be a welcome venue for their queer comedy. But, gay or straight, no one will leave without laughing.
"We had a show up in Tuolumne about two years ago, at the Black Oak Casino," says Dana Goldberg, a comedian from New Mexico, "and I did five minutes 'out,' of gay material, in front of a huge biker crowd, and they loved it. I honestly think that if you're funny, the fact that I'm a lesbian is secondary. They don't care. So if you're a comic and you're funny, you can get away with more. Because if I wasn't funny and I was a lesbian, then I'm in a lot of trouble in Tuolumne, Calif."
Between the four of them--Goldberg, Poppy Champlin, Jennie McNulty and Karen Williams--the Queer Queens have performed pretty much everywhere. Braving the divey-est of dives; venturing behind the "orange curtain" at the Orange County Comedy Festival; winning contests on the Joan Rivers Show; and sailing on Rosie O'Donnell's queer-friendly cruise ship, captured in an HBO documentary.
They manage to be out almost everywhere, including performances for the senior population of Florida--the notable exception being Jennie McNulty's tour to the American soldiers in Iraq.
"I do shows across the board. When I did some shows for the military, I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I did 'Don't ask and don't tell' shows," says McNulty. "They kind of requested that we not be controversial, that--and it was even printed in the contract we got--that we're there to take their minds off of where they are. And almost to a person, that's what they would come up and say to us afterwards: 'Thanks for coming out here, and taking our minds off of where we are.' So I didn't change pronouns or anything, I just removed all the relationship material. I talked about playing football, I talked about sports, I mean you can go off for 20 minutes just making fun of the military, you know, making fun of the enlisted guys, or the officers or whatever."
When outside the war theater, each of the comedians uses her medium to take liberties on political subjects, whether it be gay rights or Iraq.
"We can put things out there in a humorous way that makes it a little bit easier to digest sometimes," says McNulty, "and because we're comics, we're sort of almost allowed to cross those boundaries and push those envelopes."
Goldberg does shows within and without the queer community, and works in conjunction with charity organizations, raising money to fight HIV/AIDS, and supporting the LGBT community. She also makes it a priority to razz the Bush administration, any and all times appropriate.
"I hope this isn't a juvenile idea in the world, but if I can make someone laugh, I can get them to listen to me. And I truly believe that. If you can bring someone's guard down, bring humor into a subject, whether it's gay rights, or gay and lesbian marriage, or the homeless, or poverty, if you can bring humor to a conversation with somebody, my experience is that wall that keeps people so into their own world starts to fall, and it starts to open up, and they're more apt to listen."
But regardless of thorny forays into political thickets, none of these comedians forget what brings their audiences there in the first place.
"There's nothing worse than when you go in there for a comedy show, and you're just sitting there listening to them spout their views and they're not being particularly humorous about it," says McNulty. "Our job, first and foremost, is to be funny. If people are paying to laugh and people are paying to, as in the case with Iraq, get their minds off of their situation--they have come to a comedy show, comedy is what you should give them. And if you can do that and make a political statement, if that's how you choose to make your statement, great."
None of these comics are dependent on controversial subjects to conjure a laugh. Champlin can go on for five minutes about sitting alone in her old studio apartment, whose kitchen consisted of a hot plate, and having a beer with her plants.
"I think it's really a big combination platter, where you get your material from," says Champlin. "I write about what I live, and I just hope, well I know other people do the same thing. ... I like to paint the picture and twist it into the absurd."
After decades of doing standup, Champlin's shows are lively, charismatic and interspersed with songs, drawing from her education in theater. But she admits, she wasn't always this good. She owes a lot to Joan Rivers. "Coming up, like when I first started, I was not good for a long time, and living in Rhode Island, there's like one stage to go to, and it was only like once a week and sometimes you don't make it on," she recalls. "But once I started doing impressions, I started doing impersonations, I was valued more, because I could do good impressions. So then they wanted me to go on more, because the audience liked it. And once I hit upon this impression of Joan Rivers that I do, oh my God," says Champlin. "And then next thing you know I was in a contest to be a Joan Rivers for a day. I won, and then I went out to Los Angeles, and I was on her show, and I was like first runner-up, and I won this beautiful necklace on national TV, and I was like doin' my [voice drops, deep and gravelly] 'Oh sure, can we talk? OK, who's on the show?'"
Champlin eventually memorized a whole album's worth of Joan Rivers' material, and in the days before she knew it was a "no-no," performed the material one summer at a hotel between the band's sets, decked out in high heels and boa.
"I only did it one summer, but it taught me a lot. Just doing her taught me how to deliver a joke; it taught me timing, I learned the rhythm of writing," says Champlin. "So I think she had a big influence on me, and come to find out, years later, I was on another contest, and I won America's Funniest Real Woman on her show again. So she's been with me as a mentor, and I think Rosie has as well."
According to Champlin, being a woman in the male-dominated field of comedy has been no cakewalk, but she attributes her success to determination, and believes there's a reason why so many females in the biz are queer.
"I think you'll see the majority--maybe not the majority anymore--but it used to be the majority of women doing it were gay because it's so hard. It's so hard to get good, and it's so hard to get stage time, and it's so hard to continue to do it, to practice and be committed to doing it. Because you got to go on the road, and then you got to take crappy money, and then you've got to take crappy jobs, and you've got to be by yourself, and you've got to travel so much, and you're traveling alone, and you're sleeping in strange hotels, and you know, a lot of women just don't want to do it, you know, if they're straight and they want to focus on family and kids, you know what I mean?" muses Champlin, momentarily quiet and thoughtful. "So that's why I think so many gay women end up being comics, 'cause they're willing to do it, they're stronger, I think gay women are stronger as far as not fearing--I don't know--I think gay women are stronger sometimes in the face of fear and danger, you know? They can be the adventurer."
Queer Queens of Qomedy perform Saturday, March 10, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 in advance, available at Streetlight Records, and $25 at the door. For more information, call 408.202.5564.
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