The Queer Young Comics Redefining American Humor – The New York Times

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For years, gay male performers were left out of the comedy landscape or tokenized within it. Now, a new wave of entertainers are succeeding by playing to themselves.
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WHEN DEWAYNE PERKINS was a teenager growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he would occasionally turn to Google in search of, if not himself, somebody who at least came close. What he found was a void. “I remember Googling gay comics and nothing coming up, especially gay Black comics,” says Perkins, whose blazingly funny stand-up work ranges from sweet to goofy to raunchy. “I am not a fan of being a token. I don’t think it’s fun to be ‘the first.’”
Even as a kid, Perkins could vaguely perceive that gay entertainers were, in certain other realms of pop culture, “having a moment.” It didn’t feel great. Having a moment, in the late ’90s and early aughts, meant that, suddenly, a gay performer or character would appear in a space that had been previously dominated by straight people — say, at the center of a TV sitcom like “Will & Grace” or a stand-up special, or as the voice of reason to the leading lady in a romantic comedy like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — and everyone could applaud and say, “We solved it! Representation at last!” It was a pop-cultural phenomenon that started to surface when Perkins, who’s 31, and other gay comedians of his generation were in middle school. But the problem with a moment is that it passes; a moment can become nothing more than an occasion for audiences to raise their eyebrows and notice something before the next moment, when a different breakthrough catches their attention. A fad is identified, a box is checked, a responsibility is fulfilled and the circus moves on.
Gay comedy may finally be beyond that. Or at least over it. Nobody has to worry about being the first anymore — or the second or the third. Instead, emerging gay comedians can enter a large, complicated and thriving queercom universe. It’s not a moment, it’s not a trend and it’s not a tiny room with limited seating that’s getting too crowded for comfort. Rather, it’s an ecosphere that seems to be expanding with each new arrival. “Every time I see a new queer comic,” Perkins says, “I’m like, ‘Please come here, be my friend! We’re in this together.’”
The markers of success in comedy change quickly; it’s no longer a world in which the typical career blueprint is a few years of stand-up work in clubs that eventually culminate in a TV special. These days, you can still make your name with an attention-grabbing hour on HBO or Netflix or a viral sketch on “Saturday Night Live” — but you have far more ways to get there. You can arrive on the scene via a writers’ room or a podcast; a one-man Off Broadway show or a shrewdly crafted social media presence; a showy role on a queer or queer-adjacent streaming comedy series like “Search Party” or “The Other Two”; a reality show or an indie movie; an animated show or a YouTube channel.
transcript
Hi, I’m Bowen Yang, and I’m telling you a joke. What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo? One’s really heavy, and the other’s a little lighter. (LAUGHTER) That’s good.
The list of guys populating this world is a long one — besides Perkins, a partial rundown would include Joel Kim Booster, John Early, Alex English, Michael Henry, Jay Jurden, Ryan O’Connell, Larry Owens, Matt Rogers, Benito Skinner (a.k.a. Benny Drama), Drew Tarver, Julio Torres, Bowen Yang and Jaboukie Young-White. It’s a lot of names, and one reason they can’t be subdivided into smaller groups is that most of them shuttle seamlessly from one medium to the next. Young-White is the guy who cracked up Jimmy Fallon and the very young (now former) “Daily Show With Trevor Noah” correspondent and the guy who keeps getting suspended from Twitter (once, memorably, for pretending his was the official account of the F.B.I.). Yang is the “S.N.L.” superstar and the guy on your favorite podcast and Awkwafina’s frenemy cousin on “Nora From Queens.” And so on. None of these performers occupy a niche because they don’t have to. Gay comedy isn’t niche anymore.
It’s all changed so fast that at one point, while he’s discussing a sketch about corporate sponsorship of gay pride parades that he did with Lil Nas X last May, Yang, 31, catches himself and says, laughing, “Why am I talking about this in the past tense, like it’s another era?” It can sometimes feel that way. The performers interviewed for this story are all between 27 and 35 — young enough to be rewriting most of the longstanding rules but old enough to know that they’re at the center of something that didn’t really exist as recently as five years ago.
“There is a receptiveness to queer humor and queer subjects in comedy that wasn’t there before,” says Rogers, 32, who first got to know Yang when they were New York University students and has co-hosted the entertainment-focused podcast “Las Culturistas” with him since 2016. (The podcast format, in which gay obsessions can be discussed and deconstructed at length, or in which the hetero world can be filtered through gay sensibilities, as it is on Sam Taggart and George Civeris’s “StraightioLab,” has become fertile turf for emerging comedy stars.)
“I think that none of us ever saw mainstream success for ourselves, because where was it in front of us?” says Rogers, who, like all of his colleagues, has many concurrent projects; he spent an early month of the pandemic hosting (hilariously) a pet-grooming reality show called “Haute Dog” for HBO Max; he co-created a short-form series called “Gayme Show” (“for Quibi, rest in peace”), whose writing room was “entirely stocked with queer people”; and he will have a regular role on a new Showtime comedy called “I Love That for You,” tentatively scheduled for this spring, with the “S.N.L.” alums Vanessa Bayer and Molly Shannon. “Of course, I have the anxiety and the impostor syndrome that comes along with ‘Wait, all of a sudden you do want me?’” he says. “But it really feels watershed.”
A LONG TIME ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was the center square. Let’s start there, with Paul Lynde, caustic and grimacing, surrounded by other 1970s-era celebrities and yet unmistakably a party of one, parrying sneery, baiting questions on the game show “Hollywood Squares” in a manner that minced right up to the edge (“Paul, why do Hells Angels wear leather?” “Because chiffon wrinkles too easily”) and, on rare occasions, over it (“Paul, you’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” “Humble”). Lynde was on television at a time when the closest a celebrity in comedy could come to being out was a People magazine cover story for which he was photographed in a caftan, hoisting a highball and having his hair brushed by his handsome “chauffeur-bodyguard.” Lynde’s style of humor — bitchy, insinuating, spiked with alcohol, rancid with self-mockery — was rarely overtly queer; it was what would now be described as “queer-coded” — in other words, legibly gay to anybody, gay or straight, who knew what signifiers to look for but to the oblivious, merely droll. Lynde (who was self-protectively disparaging about gay men in interviews) and contemporaries like Charles Nelson Reilly on “Match Game” (another game show) in the 1970s were gay entertainers before that was a category; they are the first DNA strand in contemporary gay male comedy’s triple helix.
The second strand was the first generation of out male comedians — guys like the performance artist Frank Maya, who became the first out gay man to get a spot on the early ’90s MTV series “Half Hour Comedy Hour,” and Bob Smith, the first to crack “The Tonight Show” during the Jay Leno era, and Scott Thompson, the gay member of the Canadian comedy quintet the Kids in the Hall. They were pioneers who had to walk a complicated line, at once making stand-up safe for gay performers and making gay comedy palatable for straight audiences that, 30 years ago, were still far more comfortable laughing at queer people than with them. And the third strand was drag — there all along, older than pop culture itself, the subject of angry contention in the gay community between those who embraced it as an act of transgressive defiance and gender subversion and those who denounced it as minstrelsy or, worse, bad for the cause; in pop culture, it was a decades-long journey from “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway in the 1980s to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in the 2000s, at which point the naysayers finally had to admit defeat.
One thing that distinguishes the new wave of gay comedy is that it can draw from all these traditions and recombine them into something new — at once political and campy; cheerful and subversive; costumed and confessional; explicit and mainstream. In an era when sexual identities are proudly porous, every kind of gay comedian gets to be every kind of gay comedian, sometimes within a single five-minute scene. It’s an approach that connects gay comedy to a long American tradition of outsider humor — the humor of the oppressed — and an equally long tradition in which those outsiders become insiders. But for these younger comics, outsider/insider isn’t a binary so much as an outmoded structure; they’re less interested in becoming mainstream than in redefining what “mainstream” can encompass.
How did it happen? If one were to choose a single, arbitrary Big Bang origin story for this new era, it would begin on the evening of Nov. 16, 2019. Location: Studio 8H, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City. On that night, the “Saturday Night Live” guest host Harry Styles starred in “Sara Lee,” a sketch co-written by Yang (who co-stars in it) and his friend Julio Torres (who makes a cameo). In the scene, Styles plays a distracted, gay, sexually (hyper)active social media brand manager who’s caught inadvertently posting his own horny Instagram messages under the company account — including one to Shawn Mendes, to whom he sends what he sheepishly admits to his bosses (in a line that drew screams of delighted shock from the studio audience) was “a picture of my open throat.”
The sketch was an instant hit, which was surprising not just because Styles gamely threw himself into the role but because the language it used — “still on a poppers high,” “feeling really depressed after threesome,” “wreck me, daddy” — was for-us, by-us gay talk of a kind that was unprecedented on “S.N.L.,” which had only in the last decade, with the rise of Kate McKinnon and the installation of the gay co-head writer Chris Kelly, started to journey out of a long, vexed history of homophobia. Since Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, lesbians and gay men have had, and continue to have, separate and complicated trajectories through comedy, and one major and persistent difference is that the idea of sex between men still triggers a more vocal, openly disgusted type of homophobia from some audiences than does the idea of sex between women. “Sara Lee” didn’t seem in the least alarmed by that; it wasn’t a sketch aimed at heterosexual drive-by gawkers but one unmistakably written in straight-outta-Grindr language by gay men who weren’t especially interested in translating their work for a wider audience. If you got it, you got it.
In one way, that sensibility was consistent with Yang and Rogers’s unforced gay-besties vibe on “Las Culturistas,” which is not gay as in “We’re here, we’re queer,” but gay as in “We’re two adult men having an extremely long and impassioned discussion about Glenn Close — don’t expect us to make it comfortable for you.” Nevertheless, this wasn’t a podcast — it was “S.N.L.,” which, after 47 years, is as close to a definition of establishment comedy as currently exists. It’s fair to say that the majority of the show’s audience may not be familiar with (to cite one example from “Sara Lee”) harness parties. But it didn’t matter. In that moment, several longstanding assumptions about who “S.N.L.” is for — and, just as important, who it’s from — began to crumble. (If you watch the sketch on YouTube, you can hear a burst of laughter from an audience member when Cecily Strong, playing Styles and Yang’s boss, dismissively describes an Insta photo of Torres as “some random fashion twink”; the laughter was from the “Slave Play” author Jeremy O. Harris, who posted on Twitter after the show that Torres and Yang “know how to make me rock hard for comedy.”)
Nobody was more incredulous than Yang, who recalls that “just before the cameras rolled, I turned to Cecily Strong and said, ‘I can’t believe this is making it onto TV.’” Yang was new to the “S.N.L.” writers’ room and not yet a featured player during the previous season, when he and Torres, now 35, had written the sketch; it had already been cut from an earlier show. When Torres left “S.N.L.” in 2019 to shoot the HBO series “Los Espookys,” which he created with Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, Yang was left to “learn the ropes in this very terrifying, overwhelming way. I spent the first half of that season thinking, ‘I need to play by “S.N.L.” ’s rules. I can’t rock the boat too much in terms of my sensibility. I should try to learn how to write a game show sketch and a commercial parody.’”
Yang has since become one of “S.N.L.” ’s most popular stars; he received an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor in a comedy series last year, largely on the strength of sketches like the one in which he played the narcissistic, emotionally needy iceberg that sank the Titanic (“First of all, you came to where I live, and you hit me!”). The character, making a tense and haughty appearance on “Weekend Update,” exemplifies the ways in which gay comedy is now, so to speak, genre-fluid: It’s performed and co-written by an out gay man; it’s not overtly gay but it is, in Yang’s words, “very much queer-coded”; and it’s also drag. A kind of drag that seems steeped less in the world of RuPaul than in the camp zaniness of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” (a subversive, intangibly queerish show that’s still making its influence felt decades after it debuted in 1986), but drag nonetheless — apparently, we all know a gay iceberg when we see one. Best of all, nothing is done for the purpose of concealment: All the coding displays a fluency in the various ways that celebrity gayness can intersect with pride, vanity, narcissism, tension, injury, entitlement, persistence, weepiness and determination. And it turns out that, when you don’t have to do it, coding is fun. This being “S.N.L.,” some jokes still require explanation — for the sketch about corporate sponsorship of pride events, they had to add the line “SantaCon, but for queers.” But mostly, Yang says, he’s free to follow producer Lorne Michaels’s directive “Just do whatever you think is funny” — which, for him, often means “media-obsessed types … who are confident but have many reasons why they shouldn’t be.”
Queer coding of a different, quieter kind is also baked into Torres’s “My Favorite Shapes,” which The Times’s Jason Zinoman wrote “makes the case for radically empathetic comedy” when it aired on HBO in 2019. This is not old-fashioned prowl-the-stage stand-up; Torres spends almost the entire hour seated at a table, feigning a degree of indifference to the presence of his live audience while discussing, in a tranquil, thoughtful tone, the various small objects that appear before him on a conveyor belt that he controls with a foot pedal. He gives them feelings, grudges, sensitivities, issues and, naturally, drama — and the show’s implicit gayness serves as an embodiment of Torres’s belief that translation is unnecessary. In the special, “who I am is sort of abstracted and refracted in ways that operate at a frequency that’s recognizable to like-minded people,” Torres says. “I don’t think I’m doing anything unique in how I present my queerness. I just think that it is distinct from packaged queerness” — in other words, from the explicitly identity-based comedy that might lead a performer to be labeled “the gay comic.”
Torres’s comedy upends several traditions, including the degree to which gay men have so often been asked to contextualize themselves within the straight world — as comic relief, as sidekicks, as the best friend. The flamboyance, bitchiness and horniness of Jack on “Will & Grace” were inarguably groundbreaking qualities for a network-TV character, but they also served a purpose: They made Will seem straighter and reinforced the notion that overt queeniness was best suited to the margins. (That class distinction — placing femmey or campy gay men a tier below gay men who can, if not pass as heterosexual, at least code-switch — is entangled with real-world hierarchies and prejudices within and outside of gay communities that pop culture over the decades has both reflected and reinforced.) One of the striking things about this moment is that effeminacy — or, more accurately, intonations or gestures that we read as gay — is no longer a joke for the benefit of straight audiences; it’s just part of who the performers are (or, in some cases, aren’t). In “My Favorite Shapes,” there is no such foil, nor is there a need for one: Torres is the center of his own universe, designing it to his own gauzily costumed, glittery specifications. Watching him is like spying on a wildly bright and imaginative gay kid while he’s creating a fantasy world alone in his room — where, after all, many bright gay kids spend a lot of their time.
TODAY’S GAY COMICS often connect deeply to their own childhoods, but that shouldn’t be misread as a form of timidity or trepidation: These guys also talk about sex. A lot. Young-White, now 27, was just 24 when he made his second appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and told a joke about how he went to a mixed martial arts class and, after being advised to use whatever means necessary to get out of a chokehold, waited until his assailant put his hands around his neck and then moaned, “Oh, daddy. …” The routine and punch line — “And he let go! Sometimes love wins!” — got him a standing ovation. When I tell him I can’t believe he was allowed to tell the joke on network TV, he laughs and says, “Honestly? Same. I did not think I was going to squeeze that one in there. I love innuendo. There was nothing explicitly vulgar about it. It was just suggestive.”
The actor-writer-comedian Joel Kim Booster, 34, who says that he learned about sex at 9 “from B.D.S.M. Pokémon fan fiction,” also makes his sex life — or a version of it — a frequent subject of the incisive stand-up work that has won him a reputation as an exceptionally frank adults-only comic. “When I was starting out doing comedy, I was cautioned at every turn not to talk about sex,” says Booster, “because talking about sex would remind them how we have sex, and that would intrinsically gross everyone out. But sex has always been a huge part of my life, and sex also happens to be very funny.”
It wasn’t always so easy to discuss. Booster, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, is the adopted son of a white evangelical couple who freaked out when they learned he was gay. And Young-White, who also grew up outside of Chicago, says that he didn’t fully come out to his parents until his first “Tonight Show” appearance, when they turned on the TV and heard him preface a joke about trying to hook up with Uber drivers by saying, “I can have a hard time flirting, just because people don’t always read me as queer when they first meet me. Because I’ve been told that I can come across as ‘masc.’ … That’s basically just gay for ‘I’m not like other girls.’”
“My brother actually had a video of it,” recalls Young-White. “And it’s so chilling because you can’t see my parents’ faces. He’s behind them while they’re watching TV. You can see my mom’s shoulders just drop after the joke.” (They weren’t thrilled, but the comedian says things between him and his family are now “civil.”)
This all happened in what was supposed to be the post-acceptance era, when the age of enlightenment depicted on numerous TV shows didn’t match the on-the-ground reality for a lot of gay kids. Even the shows that felt to older viewers like representational breakthroughs — with their Ellens, Wills and Jacks — left this generation of performers no closer to imagining a place for themselves in the comedy world (or the world, full stop). So perhaps it’s not surprising that most of them came to comedy late. Perkins was “very much a math and science kid” who ended up in acting school and turned to comedy because his college theater program “just kept wanting me to play older, angry Black men, and I was like, ‘I’m young and funny!’” Torres, who grew up in El Salvador, thought of becoming an architect, like his mother; Yang was a chemistry major at N.Y.U. And Booster started doing stand-up in 2011 “because I was an extremely frustrated actor” and wanted to create material that expressed who he was rather than act out somebody else’s racist notion of who he looked like. “I think I got called in to be a Chinese food delivery boy” — he’s Korean American — “five different times,” he says; comedy became a place where he finally felt he “was being authentic as a performer and a writer.”
When Perkins searched for an opening for himself in comedy, he initially saw nothing, partly because his early experience of male stand-ups was, he says, “either a bunch of white people that I didn’t relate to or a bunch of Black men who were pretty homophobic.” For him, things started to turn after he discovered Jamie Foxx and Marlon Wayans. Asked about their own comedy influences, many of his contemporaries say they looked instead to women. Amy Sedaris — whose short-lived but highly influential series “Strangers With Candy,” about a 46-year-old high school freshman, ran from 1999 to 2000 and espoused an arch, knowing drag sensibility — comes up again and again among this cohort. So does Margaret Cho, whose journey from the sanitized, compromised 1994-95 network sitcom “All-American Girl” to a rawer, more outspoken, utterly fearless set of comedy specials and shows in the aughts felt like an early road map for young gay comedy fans, not to mention an alternative to the bro culture that seemed to be comedy’s dominant strain. “It was before I really knew of myself as queer,” Rogers says. “But the sort of queer nature of her stand-up really spoke to me.” Booster, who also mentions Cho, cites the actress Madeline Kahn as another inspiration. For a while, he says, “I had a big complex of, ‘Oh, I’m not a real stand-up because I didn’t consume [George] Carlin growing up.’ I didn’t grow up thinking I could do this because I didn’t see anybody who looked or sounded like me.”
The same was true for Cole Escola, the 35-year-old writer-performer who first earned a cult following for a series of YouTube videos with the actor-comedian Jeffery Self called “VGL [Very Good Looking] Gay Boys” that evolved into the sketch series “Jeffery & Cole Casserole” in 2009. Escola, who is nonbinary, is revered among peers as the exemplification of a singular D.I.Y. talent, someone who started with little more than a video camera and a wig collection and, finding most doors closed, has still managed to break through in formats that range from scripted sitcoms to odd video one-offs and Instagram posts. “At the beginning, a good amount of spite fueled that,” Escola says. “The worst part of doing this work is waiting for permission, begging for permission, trying to prove that you are worthy of permission to make something or do something. And the D.I.Y. stuff was a way around that.”
Though Escola has since co-starred in “Difficult People,” “At Home With Amy Sedaris” and “Search Party,” those early experiences bred a wariness of being co-opted that most of these performers share; it’s hard to transition from embracing one’s status as an outsider to becoming a corporation’s latest business opportunity or, worse, a convenient way for it to signal its progressivism. “As more queer people find more mainstream success, I’m uneasy about it,” Escola says. “I’m hesitant to celebrate, because I guess I’m cynical, because it seems like all it really means is that people with power think they can make money off of us or we can make them look good. … But I know that purity isn’t possible.”
Booster also expresses a degree of guarded optimism. When he started performing stand-up, he says, “I was really cautioned not to make my identity the forefront — more so about being gay than about being Asian.” When a shift started to happen, “suddenly, everything that made me different became the thing that was most interesting to the industry.” In a way, it also made it harder, he says, “because people have this expectation that I am speaking for or representing these different identities.” Only now has a point been reached at which “I actually do think there are enough of us so that people can just see me and say, ‘Oh, that’s not for me,’ and move on.”
It’s a complicated, very 2022 progressive left paradox, one not faced by previous generations of gay men in comedy: How do you make clear that you own your identity while also making clear that you view the whole question of identity as permeable and have no interest in becoming the tool of a capitalistic system that wants to turn that identity into a brand? These discussions can admittedly get very haute Brooklyn, but gay performers, so adept at working the margins to which they have historically been consigned, have ample reason for skepticism.
“It’s not that people don’t want to hear any gay [stuff],” says Young-White. “They just want to hear it in a way that either reinforces their worldview, makes them feel more comfortable or reduces you into something that’s easily digestible, which is the antithesis of queerness. What they want to know is, ‘What’s the kernel … what’s the elevator pitch of you?’” He prefers to keep that elusive; in his recently concluded three-year run as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” he was sometimes the gay guy, sometimes the Gen Y kid and sometimes the socialist. “Yeah, and there’s a couple more [identities] that I’m holding back,” he says. “When I started in comedy, I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to just touch on the gay thing, so I’m going to lean into it.’” From his perspective, the last five years have changed even that. “The closer we get to eye-rolling when it comes to gay [identity] … when it becomes blasé, that’s so exciting to me.”
But we’re not there yet, and Yang feels that has its advantages. “I’m maybe pulling my Asianness into this,” he says, “but there is power in unassimilability, which I know is kind of an unwieldy word.” Over Thanksgiving, Yang took his parents, who are Chinese émigrés, on a hike; when he posted pictures from the trail of his dad in loafers and his mom “in a bedazzled sweater,” some followers made fun of their clothes. “I was like, ‘It’s because they’re immigrants, and they aren’t terribly interested in dressing the way that you think they should dress on a hike.’ It made me think about a larger point,” he says. “There’s some power in not being a full insider, especially among queer people. … I would be uncomfortable if I were too close to the center.”
ONE SOLUTION HAS been for gay comedians to create their own center, one that doesn’t equate mainstream success with heterosexual approval. Most of these performers are, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances whose lives intersect both personally and professionally, and collaborations have begun emerging organically out of some of those relationships. In the summer of 2016, Booster and Yang, who had become friends a couple of years earlier when they were introduced on a Facebook group message, went to the gay enclave of Fire Island together; Booster brought along some atypical beach reading — Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” published in 1813. “I remember turning to Bowen and saying, ‘This book is so funny, and her observations about the way we interact really do scan very neatly onto our experience on this island. When we’re the only population in this very specific place, suddenly it’s like, “Well, how do we discriminate against each other within this group?” ’” After several more summer vacations together, Booster eventually turned his experience with Yang into an indie screenplay, an Austen update called “Fire Island.” Last August and September, the director Andrew Ahn shot the film, in which Booster, Yang and Rogers (not to mention Cho) all appear; it will be released on Hulu this summer. Like the Universal Pictures comedy “Bros,” starring Billy Eichner with an all-L.G.B.T.Q.+ cast (which opens in September and in which Yang also appears briefly), “Fire Island” represents less a marriage of corporate money with unassimilated gay sensibility than a kind of first date to see if there are any sparks.
It’s a gamble worth taking, but if it doesn’t pan out, these performers have plenty of other options — some that they’ve created for themselves and some that exist because, as Escola puts it, “friends know how to write for you.” When Escola was cast as a kidnapper in a season-long arc of “Search Party,” the dark comedy about sociopathically self-absorbed, sexually fluid millennials that recently released its fifth and final season on HBO Max, the show’s creators, Charles Rogers, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Michael Showalter, consulted them on everything from the look of the character to who should play his wealthy aunt (those two subjects were closely related; Escola’s character, Chip Wreck, spends a good deal of time impersonating his aunt before the real thing shows up). The result: Escola killed in a role custom-tailored to their unique talents and wig propensities. These comedians are also largely generating their own work; Perkins just finished starring in “The Blackening,” a horror-comedy about seven Black friends trapped in a cabin with a killer that he and Tracy Oliver adapted from his own 2018 short; Escola recently finished writing a play about Mary Todd Lincoln in which they plan to star and is now developing a TV series with Jeffery Self. (“I think I’ve taken D.I.Y. about as far as I can; I need resources for this,” Escola says.)
This isn’t the finish line. For gay men in entertainment, there has never been a finish line, never a moment when you couldn’t take the yardstick used to measure how far they’ve come and turn it around to see how short of parity they still are. Gay men may connect to Booster’s lay-it-all-on-the-table stand-up act to such a degree that when they meet him, some of the more boundary-less ones will enthusiastically grope him (it makes him acutely uncomfortable; please don’t do it). But other audiences have a long way to go, he says. “I see a lot of stand-up all over the country when I’m traveling, and it is wild how our existence is still used as a punch line. The idea of homosexuality is still really funny for a lot of people.”
Nor have large parts of the industry moved past casting decisions that may have felt fresh 20 years ago but don’t now. “I’m still out here auditioning for stuff,” says Matt Rogers, who lives in Los Angeles, and “it’s still mostly assistants or [the heroine’s] best friend being like, ‘Girl, you’re wearing that?’” In his forthcoming show, Rogers will play “the senior associate — he’s very clear that he’s not the assistant. … It’s a great take to have him be aware of the stereotype and watch him navigate that.”
For all the progress that’s been made, the era when discussions like this would have been unimaginable is still recent enough to remember, and grim. “I think about Terry Sweeney a lot,” says Yang. Sweeney, now in his early 70s, was a trailblazer who made his mark before the people in this story were born — in 1985, when he became the first out gay man who was hired as a regular cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Sweeney was “the gay one”; he “had a moment”; and his go-big impersonations of Joan Rivers, Nancy Reagan and (it was a different time) Diana Ross might have made him a star in a newer era of “S.N.L.,” or of America. But Sweeney arrived in the spotlight during the AIDS crisis, at a time when the demonization of gay men was on the rise, and the show essentially quarantined him, treating him as a drag oddity. He lasted one season.
“I’m sure I would not have survived one week,” says Yang. It seemed “so shocking that there was a gay man on ‘S.N.L.,’ but it always felt that the writing staff thought it was shocking, too. … Sometimes I get into this dark place where I think, ‘Have we [moved beyond that]? Do people see me as this novelty on the show — that I come in, do my little queer song and dance and then leave? I don’t think that’s true. I’m obviously in a much better circumstance than he was. But I think about him very often.”
We’re not there anymore. We’re not even in the place we were a decade ago, when Torres, still trying to find his voice as a performer, started doing open-mic nights without having any idea whether he would face a hostile audience or not. “Then, years later,” he says, “I get asked to do a queer-only open mic. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, there are enough aspiring queer comedians to have their own open mic?’”
“Not to be like, ‘I knew them when,’ but these are all people that I’ve seen grow and develop,” says Yang. “I hope that what’s gleaned from all this is that we’ve all charted our paths to some version of fulfillment or success or finding our own voices. I know I’m just spitting out all of these earnest little phrases, but I guess I’m just saying that there is such a thing as this community of people who are all looking out for each other. And I hope it keeps happening.”
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