During my first ever standup set in a Chicago comedy club I told a joke about how, as a Floridian, my Mom got more upset when I stopped going to the tanning bed than she did when I told her I'm gay.
Instead of throwing tomatoes and yelling "homo" (which I half expected them to do) the open mic crowd chuckled into their cheap beers and bottom shelf vodkas. For the rest of my five minute set I talked about bath salts and told a story about the time I used self-tanner without wearing gloves, causing the most popular guy in middle school to tell me that it looked like I had "crapped on my hands." I'm a perpetually pale Floridian with a tanning-complex that I'm trying to get over by making jokes about it.
After the open mic ended one of the other comics -- sadly not Greg Hollimon AKA Greg Onyx Blackman on Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy, who happened to be in the crowd -- came up to me and told me he liked my set.
"You were really funny," he said.
"Thanks, I was nervous, but I thought it went well," I said.
"You reminded me of that other gay comic who performed," he said.
The standup comedy scene is still a (straight) boys club. My whole set only had the one gay joke in it, which I specifically made to acknowledge my sexuality. As a gay comedian, I feel obligated to make a gay joke. My obligation is part LGBT visibility in comedy clubs and part 8 Mile mentality -- if I tell you I'm gay, you can't make fun of me for it (Eminem's invectives may have been different but the sentiment was similar). This may seem playground-esque but as a comedy writer and reviewer, I've been to enough shows to know it's a breeding ground for bullies in the form of hecklers.
The other comic who told jokes about his sexuality -- I won't say only "gay comic" because I don't know about the sexuality of the other guys -- had made his whole set about sex. His biggest laugh was a joke about how the gap in his teeth got caught on a guy's foreskin while giving a blowjob. Although we both talked about gay stuff (to varying degrees), our styles were polar-opposites. Basically, I was the Ellen to his Kathy Griffin. But to the presumably straight comic who came up to me we were bot the same person -- the gay hyphen comic. For him, this was easier to understand and evaluate.
The problem is that the hyphenated comic -- gay-comic, female-comic, Black-comic -- is limited because they are expected to only make certain jokes. There are a number of comics who fulfill the culturally "gay-comic" quota -- making jokes about bad boyfriends, the Real Housewives, and Cher, among other things. Don't get me wrong, I love and respect them for what they do -- having the balls to put it out there -- but there style isn't the only thing can comedy can look like. (I also understand that a lot of gay men want to see this kind of comedy -- I do too -- but I'm specifically referring to venues that have a more general or "commercial" audience.
There are a lot of funny gay guys -- self-loathing can really help form a sense of humor -- but we don't have a variety of gay men as comedy role models. I'm not sure if this is because of the community's feeling toward comedy clubs or that being a standup, no matter who you are, is really hard and hardly ever pays. A reluctance to perform might also have to do with what I'll call the "pink box."
Gay comedians can get put into a pink box by straight audience -- fulfilling a role that doesn't make them comfortable. Oh look, the oversexed gay guy is making jokes about sex -- that's what I thought he would do! He's flamboyant and over the top, LOL. Audiences can understand this type of humor because it's what they are used to. Playing a caricature can be easier than being a real person.
Comedy shouldn't be so complicated, right? Just laugh. Well, I tend to agree, but the best comedy is often a form of autobiography and life is anything but simple. Pink box or not -- the more voices that grab the open mic and put it out there the better chance we will have to transform what it means to be a gay hyphen comic.
Follow Tyler Gillespie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ty_e_