Friday, June 12, 2009

A meandering conversation with Kate Clinton

It’s hard to find just one term that described all that Kate Clinton does. For nearly thirty years, she has been a stand-up comedian, touring the country and writing smart, pointed political material. She has been at the forefront of gay and lesbian comedy, although to label her a “gay comic” would be unfairly limiting the scope of her worldview. She’s also an author (her latest book is I Told You So), a columnist (for The Progressive and other publications), a blogger (see the CommuniKate section of, and an activist.

She’s also a lot of fun to engage in a meandering conversation, as I found yet again when I spoke with her earlier this week. She’s at the Comedy Connection Wilbur Theatre tonight (7:30 p.m. Tickets are $29 and $37 at 617-931-2000 or, and she’ll start her annual summer un at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown next month.

Have you decided on a term for what you do yet? Last time we spoke, it vacillated between humorist, stand-up comedian, monologist and perhaps some mix of the three.

I think we’re going to stick with “humorist.” The older I get… They last longer.

How do find time to write an act, a book, a column, and blog for roughly half of the political sites on the Web?

Well, thankfully, they’re fairly vital. Put a column out and you hear from somebody who saw it on… what? I don’t even know what that is. I did a thing on Judy Joy Jones a couple of nights ago, that is BlogTalkRadio, and people were calling in from South Africa. It was like, wild. I guess just doing it a little bit every day is what the key is, and I think really, at the end of the day, as they say, it’s all about providing content. And if I just keep writing and you look back after two or three years and you think, oh my god, I have a book.

Is that how the new book came about?

Yes, it really did. I had about, I think it was three years since my last book and I thought, oh, I’ve got enough. Especially actually doing the blog, which, of course, had to be translated from bloggerian to make essays. Because I would look at them and go, I don’t even know what that was about. But I looked back and I thought, there’s enough, and we approached Beacon who was very happy to do it. And I had about, probably about six months to put it together.

And I put it together and then handed it in at the end of July. Then we went through the primaries and the election, or the conventions. And then really, thank goodness, at the end of August, Beacon called and said, we really want another chapter to kind of finish the primary stories, finish after the Novemner election and send it in. And I was really happy, because I just finished a lot of storylines that I’d been following for three years.

How much did you have to change from “blogonese,” was that the word?

Bloggerian. I like “blogonese.” It was mostly splicing together short ones from day to day, and then there was also just making connective tissue, explaining things that we seem to forget. There was a moment where we thought a “poindexter” was a type of guy, but he was actually a guy. You have to explain that. I think we definitely live in Short Attention Span Theatre. So that was part of the work of the blog thing, and just changing tenses and making sure it had a consistent flow, mechanical.

The other thing was, Beacon asked for articles that hadn’t appeared in the Advocate or The Progressive or the Women’s Review of Books. So they asked for some original material, which turned out to be much longer. The blog and the magazine articles are like 750 words tops. I really loved the opportunity to write a longer piece. Some of them are a couple thousand words.

So it really got to develop different ideas, which they really liked, and then they said, we really want you to write a memoir. And I said, “I’m that old?” But it’s an interesting idea for a memoir. It’s like taking five huge, changing LGBT events that I’ve been at over the course of twenty-eight years. Because I’ve kept journals and I’ve been writing all those years. So it’s an interesting idea that I’d really like to do.

Is that something that you’ve already started on?

I keep notes. I’m in kind of the mind that you write what inspires you at that moment, save it, and then kind of put it together later as some kind of quilt. I really encourage people who want to write a book and they get overwhelmed, and I say, just write things that you remember. Save them and look at them later. We’ll get somebody to help you figure out how to put it together. Some books look like that, too. [laughs] sorry!

I guess that’s a matter of maybe not publishing it quite so soon in that process, not publishing as soon as you’re done with the notes.

Ooohh. Contemplation. Hmm. Yes. But everything is so speedy. The pace of things, when I think about different styles of writing for a blog, which actually has been interesting because it’s really freed me up. I’m the slowest writer in the world. You know, I a paragraph and then I go back and tinker with it and then slowly move on.

But the blog thing really freed me up, and actually doing the video blog has freed me up in performance in odd ways, because it really, they’re like two-minute blogs that I put up every Thursday. I have like three words on a page and they’re things I want to talk about. But in performance, I have a thirty, thirty-five page script that I’m happy to veer from and improvise from, but I’m very prepared. So there’s a way that the spontaneity of the blog has helped me be more spontaneous in a show.

It all goes together, everything. Because I’m doing a blog and I think, oh, that’s such a great idea for a show, or I’m doing a show and I think, ooh, that would be a great little piece.

With gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” out in the forefront right now – you’re not the only comedian who’s been addressing these things, but you’ve been addressing them for years – do you feel like it’s strange that those are such hot-button, mainstream issues at the same time right now?

You know, I always feel like Madame DuFarge in Tale of Two Cities where you’ve knitted everything up and then the revolution comes and you’re unraveling and you’ve remembered everybody. But I think watching, and certainly participating in, marriage equality and gays in the military, it just seems like it’s at a tipping point. I don’t think it’s any mistake that we no longer have so much rank homophobia on high. Have you seen the movie Outrage?

No. Not yet.

It’s a wonderful movie. And just to see George Bush making that announcement that there was going to be an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution, it’s like, what? To not have that anymore from on high, I think it’s just perfect that it’s just blossoming now. There have been very many different strands happening, organizing in the gay movement, and I think that now they’re really coming out and being able to really garner the attention of the remaining newspapers.

It’s really quite amazing, and I’m not – people are really mad at Obama for not being more involved in it. I’m sure he’s got a plan, just like he had a very long and extended plan to win the election. I’m sure he’s got a plan on this. But it’s just, he could do much more in terms of leadership. They seem to forget that they won and that they have a majority. Perhaps they should lead. He could sign an executive order, he could do a stop/loss pronouncement that would at least freeze throwing gay people out of the military right now.

It’s amazing to see that sixty-eight percent of the country believes that gays should serve in the military. I don’t know if that’s because we actually are in so many wars and will take anybody… “Oh, yeah, let the gays get in. Get in the front. You guys are great.”

And then, of course, here in New York stage, we’ve had this coup where two Democratic legislators have gone to the Republican side. One is under indictment for miuse of campaign funds, the other one, oh, assaulted his girlfriend with a bottle. They’re Republicans now, which is perfect. So I don’t know what the status of marriage equality here is. People who are really in know and behind the scenes say no, it is going to progress. But the chambers are locked. Nobody’s giving up the keys.

I think we need to seat Al Franken. It would be a proud day for comedians everywhere, to have an openly comic American in the Senate. I’m looking forward to it. They have to seat him.

There have been many closeted comic Americans in Congress.


They don’t hide it very well, there are the telltale signs.

They’re the classic “openly closeted.” But this, proud to identify his heritage. He is an openly comic American. And it will be a proud day for all of us.

Do feel the debate is in a healthier place now than it has been?

I do. It’s more vitriolic now, which is a great sign that we’re making progress. I’ve always viewed our progress by the opposition against us. And we’re in the last gasp stages of the old white guys. “Oh, they’re not going to be in the military! No, they can’t get married!”

I do think it’s a very vigorous national debate. It’s popping up in Iowa The thirteen colonies that wrote the Constitution are coming around to it. And states, there are very active gay equality organizations in lots and lots of states that weren’t there before.

What’s your report card on Obama at this point?

I think for deportment, he would get an “A.” I don’t know what he’s on, but he’s so calm. I’d like some. Communications skills, “A.” finishing tasks, “B.” He’s getting there. Plays well with others – “tries to play well with others,” that would be the new category – a “B.”

I just think he’s got an amazing, calm team around him. I’m amused by all the old guys who are going, “He’s trying to do too much.” And I just think you’re jealous. Apparently, I don’t know how long his days are, but he’s got time to go on dates, doing all those things. I guess he doesn’t work out as long. Bush, they totaled it up, he took 470 days off in his eight years. So I think he’s got eight years to unravel. He’s got major cleanup on aisle five. That hundred day thing, that was just annoying. It was so fake and crazy. Still trying to assess the damage. The option was John McCain, or as we called him “God Forbid.” So I’m hopeful. That’s about all that’s left.

Last time we spoke, you said that you had really gotten bored at the end of the Clinton years with everything being about sex. Did you have a similar feeling retreading the issues at the end of George W. Bush’s term?

I did have Bush fatigue. And I mean that in the worst way. I really did. I don’t know if it was the result of eight years of anybody. But I think the categories had been pretty hardened and it would just be more of the same. It got pretty tiresome. But then it was overlapped for the last two years by the campaign. I don’t know how they do it in England. A six-week campaign and then you’re done.

How long have you been doing your annual run in Provincetown?

I think 94 years? I think. Actually, I started when the Cape was still connected to the mainland. I think this might be like my eighteenth or nineteenth season.

What keeps you coming back?

Well, in 1990, somehow, I bought a house in Provincetown. I feel sorry for performers who are performing there for the summer and they have to live in something less than their own home. But I get to go and be in my own house and have my own garden and ride my bike to work. It’s just wonderful. And really work on stuff for the fall. So it’s just perfect in many ways, except I am away from my partner who is plagued by shuttles and Cape Air and “Aaah! It’s foggy! I can’t get there!” From New York. But she allows me the simple pleasures.

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