Out On The Edge - America’s Rebel Comics

by Ellen Wernecke

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 20, 2009

Out On The Edge - America’s Rebel Comics

As the song in "Gypsy" goes, "You gotta have a gimmick/ If you wanna get ahead." The backstage advice to plain Louise (soon to be Gypsy Rose Lee) can easily be applied to aspiring comedians facing their first open mike night or five-minute featured appearance. For gay and lesbian comedians, their sexuality and material based on it can be a gimmick or a drawback -- perhaps a little bit of both. The interviewees and essayists in Mike Player's anthology Out on the Edge: America's Rebel Comics come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have found different ways to address their sexuality onstage, but they open up to Player honestly about the joys and trials of comedy life.

"The truth is I didn't worry about not being accepted because I was gay," writes Mexican-American comedian Bill Cruz of getting his start in the crowded field of Chicago. "My worries were focused on just being funny." Player gets his crowd, whether gay, straight, transgendered or allied, to open up about their roots in comedy and how their careers shaped their acts. Oscar Nunez isn't gay, but he describes how having a gay father informed two gay characters he has played on TV, a flamboyant male prostitute on the ribald comedy "Halfway Home" and a buttoned-up accountant on "The Office."

One of the most interesting questions addressed by comedians in "Out on the Edge" is how, or whether, they adjust their material depending on the crowd. For Scott Kennedy, choosing to leave out his "out" material on USO tours is a matter of policy, but that doesn't stop him from ministering to the troops who find a kindred spirit in him beyond "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Sabrina Matthews says she chooses to come out not only because of how she looks, but also as a method of gaining the audience's sympathy right out of the gate. And Andre Kelley describes how his no-shit-taking stage persona, developed while he was hosting a comedy night where performers would heckle him, resonates with straight male fans that don't mind being called out. Player's point is clear: There is no singular gay experience in comedy; instead, the multiplicity of voices enriches all.

Alyson Books, $15.95, 288 pp.

Ellen Wernecke's work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and The Onion A.V. Club, and she comments on books regularly for WEBR's "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine." A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City.