Saturday, April 9, 2011

Boston Comedy Q&A: Kate Clinton

Kate Clinton is in Boston
tonight for Fenway Health
Kate Clinton celebrated thirty years in stand-up comedy on March 21. Since then, she has established herself not only as a stand-up comedian but as an author and columnist with The Progressive magazine, and overall as a satirist and astute observer of modern politics. She was out from that first performance, and a lot has changed in the LGBT community in thirty years, something we spoke about in our conversation a couple of days after her anniversary.

Clinton is currently on her Glee Party Tour, and though there is no stop currently listed for Boston, she will be in town for fundraising events for the Fenway on April 9 and May 7. She’ll also renew her longstanding relationship with Provincetown and the Crown and Anchor when she begins another summer run there on May 28.

Clinton, a former English teacher in Syracuse, NY, is always personable and witty, a fun interview. We explored a lot in this conversation, from her stand-up origins to teachers’ unions, and she graciously indulged my tangents (some of which have been expurgated for the sake of space and sanity here).

So did you do anything to celebrate thirty years on Monday?

Yes, I was in Charleston, North Carolina and I bored friends with the long story of how I got my start. And then I took a nap… No. I can’t believe it. It seems so quick on the one hand and then if I add up all of the hours spent circling Newark, it’s really kind of a long career. But the actual performing and doing what I love to do is exciting.

It seems like you just celebrated twenty-five years, and then five years went by so quickly.

I know. I think I was recovering from the twenty-fifth anniversary tour. My people were like, are you going to do a thirtieth? And I was like, no. They were like, [gives a relieved sigh].

Do you remember your first official gig? What was March 21, 1981?

It was in Syracuse, New York. I had been talking about wanting to try stand-up comedy, and my best friend got sick of it and just booked me in a club. We hung up a poster. It was a bar called Ms. Adventure. [laughs] It had a picture of me and we cut it up to put my head on the poster. We jammed in about 180 of my closest friends. And I did probably 45 minutes.

That’s a lot for your first gig.

I know. I know.

How much of it was funny?

Oh, well… It was a very codependent crowd, laughing. And then a friend of mine actually heckled me. I said, “What are you doing?” She was from New York and she had black turtlenecks aplenty, and she said, “Well, you’re supposed to heckle in a comedy club.” And I said, “Stop it.” It was like, total high school English teacher still. And she shut right up. I was like, “Stop it.” I was like, “Rita, what are you doing?” She was like, “You’re supposed to heckle.” “Cut it out.”

You don’t often get to call your heckler by name. You don’t get to say, “Rita, what are you doing?”

I’ll call them all Rita. I don’t really get that many hecklers. I think I still kind of throw an old school, high school English teacher vibe. The next day I remember I was flat out on the couch, just flat out, and my partner at the time said, she looked at me and she said, “I don’t know if you’ve thought of this but you really have to do it more than once.” It had never occurred to me. I had said I wanted to try it. And in that moment, she became my manager. She was always ahead of me.

Are you glad you’re no longer in teaching?

I do think I’m part of the cadre, the wide cadre of teachers who have destroyed state budgets everywhere with their $24,000 salaries. The way teachers are getting roughed up makes me insane. I loved my students, but it truly was the hardest job I’ve ever done. When people say to me, “Wow, you’re doing two shows today!” I’m like, I used to do five day. So no, I’m fine. It’s the hardest job.

So what do you make of collective bargaining in Wisconsin and the teachers’ unions?

You know, I think it’s really, as Rachel Maddow has been blasting away, night after night, it’s really not budget balancing. It’s punishing unions who did not support the person who won. I just think it’s a scandal.

They’re saying that teachers’ unions al support Democrats and it becomes a feedback loop, that they do favors for each other.

Do the Republicans have to have all of those people? They’ve got their own things, can’t we have one?

So what’s the biggest change since you started, and what’s still the same?

For my thirtieth anniversary, I am going to put out at the end of the year like a “best of,” a highlights reel. I have nine other CDs, so I’ve been listening to all my CDs. The three early albums, the tape, and then the CD. In 1981, or ’82 when I did the first album, I was not talking about gay marriage. It wasn’t even on the horizon. There’s that. There’s the whole issue of gays serving openly in the military, was not even on the horizon and we have it now. We had Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and then we had it repealed.

So I just think one of the biggest changes that I can see is, a couple of things. First of all, I came up through a very lesbian circuit, but now, it’s definitely a very LGBT circuit. I think that during the Clinton, because he was able to say “gay and lesbian” without spitting up, a lot of people came out. So I think there’s been there’s been much more visibility and people coming out at an earlier and earlier age. I just read this study that debunked the whole thing about women in college having same-sex experiences, and they’re really not doing it much. Well, because they’re all doing it in middle school. It’s astounding.

I was at a conference in January called the Creating Change Conference, and I think there were 2,700 activists from all over the country and different countries. And probably fifty percent of them were under thirty-five. And have jobs in the gay movement. That’s astounding. I hear young people talking about career moves, like, I’m leaving my job with my national organization for my statewide organization, but I hope to go with a national organization. Wow. We used to just do this at night. They have real jobs. So that’s amazing.

When you first started, were you out onstage?

Oh, god, yes. A lot of my friends just thought it was a sophisticated career death wish. And I called myself a “feminist humorist.” Isn’t that adorable? And it ran together, it was a typo, so I called myself a “fumorist.” Then those morning drive time shock jocks had to talk to me. Like, “Hey, little lady, ‘feminist humorist?’ Isn’t that an oxymoron?” They all said that. And I was like, “Yes, you’re half right.”

Do you think LGBT comedy is its own genre?

You know, I think it probably certainly was in the first twenty years. But I do think it’s a genre in the mainstream now. Before you had to do so much explaining to get to the jokes, with like footnotes. But now people know gay people, they know gay issues. It’s not like they were ignorant, definitely I don’t think homophobic, just homo-ignorant. So I think it can be part of the mainstream. It’s on LOGO, it’s on Sirius Radio. There are venues for it. And I do think that it’s certainly more a part of the mainstream than when I started.

When I started, I remember I was out of the closet in L.A. and I did a lot of lesbian material, and club owners said to my afterwards, “You can’t be doing that gay stuff.” And then I went back to the same club probably ten years later and the guy said to me, “I think I’m going to do more gay stuff.”

Well, were they talking about comedy?



Or they wanted to watch. I’m not sure.

That could be an even bigger change. So when did you first start playing Provincetown? I know it’s been eight years or it will be eight years at the Crown and Anchor.

I think I started in maybe the late 80s, in ’86, ’87. I did a couple of years at the Pilgrim House. Then a number of years at the Post Office Cabaret. Then back to the Pilgrim House, which had been rebuilt after a fire, I did a number of years there. And then the last have been at the Crown and Anchor.

So you were there pretty early in your career.

Oh, yes. And I was there for longer and longer periods of time. I think the first time I performed there it was a weekend, then let’s do two weeks, and then let’s do a month, and then one summer I was moving back to Upstate New York and I thought, why? So I found an apartment to rent. Now I’m so blessed I have a house that I think I bought in 1990. I feel bad for friends who come and perform in Provincetown for the summer and it’s completely away from their home. I’m very lucky.

How important has Provincetown been in your career? It’s something you’ve been doing for so long.

Well, you know it’s just an opportunity for me to write every day and try it out at night. So by the end of a summer there, I have a lot of material. It’s good for a workshop, creating stuff. The danger is that there’s just so much to talk about, just about Provincetown, you can write great material about Provincetown that is nearly useless in, you know, Northern California.

I would think also for someone like you who writes about current events and the news so much, being in one place to digest that would be a big help as well.

Right. Right. I was on a cross-country flight to a show, and that night a woman said, “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything about Terry Schiavo. Well, it had happened while I was flying. I think the challenge also is, when I listen to my CD, to have universal enough material, that stands the test of time.

I think people may think political humor is just so reactive that you naturally hae a chunk on something that happened that day, just because of your reaction. I’m assuming in some cases that’s true, but this is hard stuff to make light of a lot of time.

I know. I went to Charleston and did a show last weekend and I looked at my show and thought, well, they should be crying. It really is the challenge of what comedians do, is to transform that thing. And that’s exhausting sometimes. And I also think it’s great to be known for doing really topical stuff, but I like a comedian who can sort of contextualize things or try to make it into a bigger picture. Like there’s this part and parcel, some of these people who cannot accept having a black president. You can say it all you want, but the old white guy is really nervous. That’s what’s happening. So to be able to take that information and put it into a bigger picture, is less a daily and perhaps more like a monthly thing.

How long does it take you to digest something? Say something happened today, how long is it before you have a good couple of minutes on it that you’re comfortable with?

That’s a great question. My career has changed a bit in that I’m doing a lot more conferences and dinners and different types of shows. A lot of times I’m slicing up a routine to be the emcee. That’d change things a little bit. I would say after maybe two or three times I can place it. Like maybe something at the front of the show will be very topical and maybe of that day, but maybe after two or three performances, it will be in the scabrously irreligious part of the show. [laughs]

Does something ever happen in the news, and you see that it’s incredibly sad, and you know you have to write about it because you feel some obligation to find some way to make this funny?

Well, like Japan. I have found if you take that to… You can’t do Gilbert Gottfrief type of thing where you lose your job in the Afflac commercial. I think it really is more about if you can personalize it. For example, in Charleston, I was whining about the weather, and then, it’s not a hilarious joke, but I can mention, I just don’t feel I can complain anymore after Japan.

Lady HAHA Clip 1 from Kate Clinton on Vimeo.

The Gilbert Gottfried question, I think that brings up the fact that a lot of the best comedy is uncomfortable. And I think some comedians use that as their rule of thumb, if they feel uncomfortable about something they need to react to it and say something. And I think sometimes that’s the context for something like what Gottfried said. But not everything that’s uncomfortable is edgy or worthwhile saying.

Right. And I do think if you come from a baseline of compassion, you can do it. But if you’re really mocking, you just pounding on somebody, I think you’re in dangerous territory.

But there are a lot of comics who border on nihilistic that I enjoy.

I bet you do. [laughs] “Who’s that one guy laughing?” “It’s Nick!” I’ve been talking about race and racism much more in my show. It’s time for white people to talk about racism. It’s past time, actually. It’s not black people’s job. It’s our job.

So I do this whole thing, and then at the end, I say, sometimes I like to go up to old white guys in mesh caps, maybe they’re looking out at something, and I look out with them for a while, then I just kind of say, “Embrace your extinction.”


In the high school teacher way that I can do. And people gasp.

What are the Fenway Health dates you’re doing? Are those open to the public?

They’re fundraising dinners for the Fenway. They’re open to the public. The first one is the Men’s Dinner, and then a month later there’s the Women’s Dinner and I do both. I used to just do the women’s dinner, but now, apparently, I’ve amused men as well. I guess I do a little [material] but it’s mostly just introducing people and fundraising.

It turns out I’m a great auctioneer because I’m so horrible at it. I can say, “This is worth six thousand dollars, give it to me right now and we won’t have to go through this.” And I never can remember the last bid. They know now they have to have someone next to me, because I’ll go, “It’s forty thousand,” and somebody will look stricken and have a heart attack because they bid four thousand. So it’s not a full on show, it’s more like fundraising and chastising.

How does the writing versus the performance aspect of what you do split up these days? Has one become any more important than the other?

When I’m circling Newark, I go, I wish I were at my desk. Then when I’m at my desk I think, “Oh, god,” trying to write. But I think one thing feed the other. Sometimes an idea in a Tweet or a little blog becomes part of the show.

What do the next thirty years look like?

Two words. George Burns. I’ll just keep going. See how long I can ride this thing.

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