"Are we fucking performing, what's going on?" asks Lorelei Ramirez. It's a fair question — they're on Zoom with 20 other queer comics, and everyone is speaking at once.
"I want to come out as not understanding what we're talking about," says George Civeris a few minutes into the call, which PAPER orchestrated in a chaotic attempt to replace the photo shoot we'd originally planned for this year's digital Pride issue, featuring a portfolio of our favorite LGBTQ comedians. Cole Escola, Larry Owens, Patti Harrison, Matt Rogers, Ana Fabrega and Peter Smith have gotten into a conversation using the "toh-may-to, toh-mah-to" analogy to discuss superficial labels in comedy. "Being a comedian versus being a stand-up," Larry explains. "You know, people like to draw that little Mason-Dixon line." "And a tomato is a fruit, which is a euphemism for gay man," adds Alex English.
It's late May and the mood is bleak. We're three months into quarantine, and the first wave of protests over George Floyd's murder is about to break. As comics pop into the virtual room waving, calling out greetings and complimenting each others' pets and eyeliner, faces start to brighten. "Lorelei, your hair looks so good," says Joel Kim Booster. "Not to be a bitch, but for me, this is enough people now," suggests Pat Regan when the number of participants hits 12. Matt awards "best lighting" to George. Kiko Soiree, who's in full drag, points out that she's been robbed. Joe Castle Baker demands anyone using a ring light fess up now. "Damn, this is a lot," says Lorelei. "I just took a bit of shrooms."
The comics on the call are anywhere from Twitter mutuals to best friends. They perform on the same line-ups, guest on each others' podcasts and star in the same cult HBO shows. They, among others, have architected a newly borderless style of comedy and created their own scene to perform it in. Most of them live in New York City, though a few have been lured to LA. "I've never met you, but you're so funny online," Spike Einbinder tells Grace Kuhlenschmidt, the lone Chicago representative. "We all think you should move to New York," adds Cole. With minimal prompting, the reminiscing begins. What do they miss most?
"Instant gratification," says Jes Tom.
"Going out for drinks with a more successful person and they pay," says Alex Schmidt.
"I miss bombing in front of Black people," says Alex English. "Especially older Black people. 'Cause they look at you like, 'So this is what you be doing in front of white people when we're not around?'"
"I miss finding Spike and Lorelei and Patti backstage and commiserating over which of us are being misgendered," Jes pings to fellow trans or nonbinary comics in the chat.
"I really miss saying, 'Oh my god, I really don't want to go to this show right now'," says Sydnee Washington.
"I miss Sydnee texting me and saying she's going to be late," adds Matt.
"I miss all your laughs and picking them out in the crowd," says Spike.
Before long, the conversation turns to the general existential crisis that is comedy in a pandemic. "How are you all managing to be funny right now?" asks Sydnee. "Because I can't." (Alex English points out that Sydnee has had no trouble making people laugh on her weekly Instagram Live show, "fuckin' struggling with chicken cutlet breasts and shit"). But the consensus is that it's hard to be cooped up online with only the internet to laugh at your jokes.
Not everyone has adapted to the new world order, or wants to. "I'm not an internet comedian," says Joel. "I don't do good front-facing. I hate Twitter. It's really hard to feel funny when you just want to be funny on a stage." Julio Torres agrees. "I hate that it's so interactive," he says. "I hate that people can share and comment in real time, that there's numbers attached to it."
Everyone wants to know when they'll perform live again. "If a venue opened at 30% occupancy, would you do a show for seven people?" asks Ana. "That's called year three or four in comedy," points out Alex English. Some were already worried about where comedy was headed before the pandemic hit. "I am genuinely worried about what peoples' appetite for comedy will be after this," says Joel. "The internet already decontextualizes so much comedy. That's why meme accounts are so successful. People don't care about who we are. They only care about the content." Peter wonders how novice comedians will get their start without live performance: "People who are just starting out now, who can't perform live, what are they going to do? Funniest people in the world are at home right now with no audience."
Performing exclusively online exaggerates an inherent question of being a queer comic. Who is queer comedy for? "It forces your work in front of people's eyes who it was never meant for. So they don't get it. But it's like, 'Well you were never supposed to,'" says Joel. The problem extends to some queer audiences: "People are telling you you're supposed to like this because we're both gay."
Larry points to a certain Comedy Central series which can be found on many an alt-comic's pinned Tweet: "A Comedy Central digital special is $200 to give them eight minutes of material to be fed to white supremacists." Benito Skinner AKA Bennydrama confirms. "Every single comment is like 'Is gay your personality? Do you think you're funny just because you're gay?'"
"I feel like I'm having this experience where I have really learned to hone my voice for my specific audience of queer perverts," says Jes. "When I finally enter the mainstream world, I'm going to have a half an hour of puppy play and people are going to be like, 'This is not relevant to my life.'"
A number of comics nod to a tension between the desire to make uncompromising comedy and access to big career opportunities. But while for years queer comics had to assimilate and submit to tokenization if they wanted to move up in the industry, this scene has its own definition of success. Many of the people in this portfolio have made appearances on late night TV, in blockbuster films and opened for A-list names. But they built their fan bases through podcasts, Tweets, Instagram videos, web series, short films and grueling performance schedules.
"We've moved away from like, your uncle at Christmas asking if you're on Saturday Night Live yet, and that being the only gauge of success," says Benny, whose one million followers, accrued with a viral series of drag astrology character videos, are a topic of frequent mockery. ("Who does everyone think is more successful, Joel or Ben?" queries George). Matt, co-host of the podcast Las Culturistas with SNL rookie Bowen Yang, adds, "I just want to note that everyone who's gotten SNL in the last couple years has actually become a worse person. They actually get dumber and uglier!"
"I want the institutions of comedy to be burnt down," says Spike, who recently co-starred on HBO's Los Espookys with Julio and Ana. "The one that people look up to like SNL, Netflix. I want us to create our own thing that isn't those things so we can do whatever we want."
"We all know each other's experiences here," says Sydnee. "But in mainstream rooms where we're the only one, it's not as simple."
"We've bred our voices in live comedy, but once you get into the industry you realize, 'Oh all that specific stuff about you? The industry still doesn't want that,'" says Matt. "They want access to you and for you to answer for certain experiences, but you go audition for pilot season and I still get 'the assistant named Carson.' They want me to do a sitcom gay. Anyway, my dream role is a Bond girl."
"They want you to make it digestible for the mainstream. Carson the assistant is the gay they understand," says Spike. Benny adds, "And the role ends up going to a straight actor, because then it's even more digestible since people watching can be like, 'Oh well he doesn't actually bottom.'"
The non-white, male and cis comics on the call point out that Hollywood doesn't even know how to stereotype them correctly. "At least they know what a gay male actor is supposed to be," says Sydnee. "For somebody like me, they're like, 'Gay isn't believable, you have rhinestones on.'"
"I'll never get cast as a lesbian because I look like a dyke," says Jes. "They only want femmes. They want a beautiful woman to kiss another beautiful woman." Grace adds, "My space in Hollywood is like, 'chubby girl fumbling trying to get the dude.' Why can't I just be a cool lesbian who maybe doesn't get that much pussy?" Lily Marotta agrees: "I'd love to get stereotypically cast in anything. You know, like a bus driver." "Right, I say that," adds Benny. "But also like, would love to book... anything."
Although Patti makes gloriously lewd and surreal comedy, she still feels pressure to offer palatable trans content. "I wish I had the full luxury to be random," she says. "And not feel like I should make something about, like, 'Uh-oh, my estrogen needle flew down the stairs and I'm chasing it with my pants down!' Okay... writing that down for my set."
"If everyone in this Zoom seizes the means of production in comedy, we can start making things like that happen," says Spike. "Our goal should be to overthrow the establishment so Matt can play a Bond girl." George jabs, "And we're gonna do it through Instagram Live."
There's reason to be hopeful. What separates this generation of queer comics from the one that came before? "You're looking at the difference right now," says Joel. "The fact that most of us here are close and have known each other for a long time."
"When I first started out, you wouldn't see two gay comics on the same line-up," he continues. "You'd barely speak to another gay comic. There was still this idea of pulling up the ladder after you, because we all knew there was only one spot. We've seen that change and it'll continue to change."
Alex English recalls being shocked recently when he performed on an all-queer line-up, but didn't know a single other comic on the bill. "It felt like a turning point," he says. "We're reaching a threshold. Like Joel said, it used to be one spot on the line-up, but there's so many of us we're already outdated. Like, I'm the old bitch now."
They might not have burned SNL to the ground yet, but the scene these comics have built is a blow to the system in itself. They look to each other for the approval, validation and inspiration that queer comics used to have to beg for from the straight mainstream. "You guys are my favorite comedians," says Joe. "Like when I'm asked who my influences are, it's the people I'm performing with. Those are the best comics."
"We're always going to be up against the establishment. That's part of what comes with being queer and queering spaces," says Kiko. "But we're here and making new spaces. It's not like one thing happens, and then the other. It happens simultaneously as we're just living and honing our crafts."
"It's really cool to see something like this," says Lorelei. "I feel like we've all made each other more visible. We've all paved the way for each other."
Who are you?
Alex English, or as known by some, "this bitch..."
What do you do?
I'm a stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and in my spare time I'm an ex-boyfriend.
Where do you do it?
I've performed in comedy clubs and on independent comedy shows practically everywhere I've been asked. True story, I once did a set in a strip club. I was bombing horrifically with the men in the audience so bad that I wanted to go back in the closet, but then I noticed the dancers guffawing over at the bar so I kept it moving. I regularly perform in New York City, where I live.
In five words, why are you a comic?
Because I am terrible at math, and following orders.
What's the secret to being funny?
I don't think there is one. If there were one singular secret to being funny, we would all be able to laugh at the same exact jokes, and that is clearly not the case. I think every (great) comedian has a personal secret to their humor. Some discover theirs faster than others, and those who don't go on to live extravagantly happy lives!
What's your favorite thing you've ever made?
National Lampoon Radio Hour: The Podcast is my most recent contribution to comedy, and I had a fantastic time rebooting a show that launched the careers of so many icons.
If you Google search "The Rundown with Robin Thede" on YouTube, I wrote a handful of those as well.
Biggest influence on your comedy?
I have a list of comedians, but Dave Chappelle is one of the greatest living humans to ever breathe into a microphone. Coming to America is a masterpiece. I watch episodes of Living Single and Frasier like they're new. Lately, I've also grown obsessed with reading everything Fran Leibowitz has ever written.
Who is your favorite queer comedian?
I've loved Wanda Sykes ever since she was straight. Also, Sam Jay. One of the rawest comedians out here. She has a special coming out soon and I can't wait for people to see it.
Who is your favorite straight white male comedian?
William Fredrick Burr!
What do you want to see more of in comedy?
"Written & Performed by: Alex English"
What do you want to see less of in comedy?
Groaning after jokes! There is nothing more annoying than hearing moaning while you're performing but see no one cumming.
Give us a preview of your Emmy acceptance speech.
Benjamin Franklin once said, "If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail," so with that said…
(I open a small piece of paper and clear my throat)
(I walk away)
What are the best and worst parts of being professionally funny?
The best part is getting so funny that it takes you to different cities/states/countries. A true test of your material is if it works the same (if not more) in communities you don't necessarily belong to.
What would you do if you weren't funny?
Some of my family have always suggested that I would become an attorney since I'm "incredibly argumentative." BUT WHAT DO THEY KNOW???
Advice for aspiring queer comics?
Girl, don't listen to me. I don't know a damn thing.
Is everything going to be okay?
Realistically, I believe everything will be okay for many and everything will not be okay for many others. I just hope my comedy can help make the latter feel better.
Illustrations by Austin Call (@Duhrivative)
Curated by Jael Goldfine and Katherine Gillespie