During his act, comedian James Adomian sometimes breaks from his deep voice while delivering his jokes. Slipping into an effeminate affectation, he shouts, “Where’s my gays at?!” Coming from Adomian, whose fratboy appearance complements his aggressive brand of comedy—it includes political impressions ranging from George W. Bush to Jesse “The Body” Ventura—the transition is off-putting. That is, until he reveals he’s gay. “I fuck men,” he says later in the act, “and sometimes they fuck me.”
“There certainly is what you would call, ‘gay comedy,’ but I don’t know if that’s what I do,” Adomian later explains. “If I’m doing stand-up as myself, which is my main focus at a show, I generally try to say something about being a man who dates men. There certainly are people who hide who they are, but I don’t have to hide who I am, and I don’t think most people do. [The comedic world] is certainly getting better in that sense.”
While Adomian is one of a handful of gay comics making names for themselves, he still represents a niche group within the comedy world that hasn’t yet broken through to a mainstream audience. While Todd Glass had a successful career before he came out of the closet on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in January, and Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street is a hilarious example of agenda-free humor, there are still very few successful gay men in comedy who are challenging the typical ideas of gay identity.
Most gay comics either play stand-up shows to tiny audiences or mince about as caricatures in mainstream movies, doing more harm than good. In a 2007 Vanity Fair piece, the provocateur Christopher Hitchens infamously claimed that women aren’t funny (although he did give a pass to Jewish women and “dykes,”), a theory that was quickly debunked not only in rebuttals in Vanity Fair but by the success of films like Bridesmaids. So where is the Bridesmaids for gay men?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Gay men in film have historically fit into two roles: the best friends of the female protagonist (The Devil Wears Prada, My Best Friend’s Wedding), or the victims of an untimely death, usually from an AIDS-related illness (Philadelphia) or a hate crime (Brokeback Mountain). If they are kept alive for two hours or manage to evade certain doom for a few seasons, gay men frequently appear as flaming queens—sassy, fashionable, and slightly sociopathic.
“I think Hollywood script writers have just recently discovered the phenomenon of the masculine gay man,” says Adomian, who was a finalist on Last Comic Standing in 2010. “There are a lot of people who are beginning to feel comfortable being themselves and not fitting into the straight narrative, but they may not follow the standard gay pattern of going to the White Party, dancing with their fabulous asses, and having a witty repartee about Judy Garland. I mean, I love Judy Garland, but I also like Johnny Cash. There are a lot of people that don’t really fit into boxes that have been established for them.”
Gabe Liedman co-hosts with Max Silvestri and Jenny Slate, formerly of SNL, a comedy show called Big Terrific in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While he does sometimes out himself on stage, he quickly follows it up with, “Not that I needed to tell you that. You can hear my voice.” While Liedman’s voice might be a tip-off, his material is more focused on the neuroses of everyday life—the wheelhouse of comics for years. “Straight comics talk about their sex lives and dating; it’s a go-to in comedy,” he explains, “I don’t want to avoid that huge wealth of material.”
Liedman is unapologetic when it comes to dating and sex, which he touches on in a surprisingly brash manner that is incongruous with his polite demeanor. In one bit, he complains about being the one to whom his female friends complain about the complicated nature of their genitals. “Oh yeah?” he responds. “Does your pussy fill up with shit every day?” Though the concept of anal sex might be threatening, even straight men can laugh at the gross-out humor. “When I’m on stage, I try to identify who seems like the straightest guy in the audience,” he says. “I let my eyes go back to him [during that joke], and so far, he’s always been laughing.”
There may be legions of gay comics, but few have found major success even amongst gay audiences, yet some of the most popular comedians able to sell-out large venues—such as Kathy Griffin—cater mostly to gay men. Griffin is catty and bitchy, and her bits sound more like a recitation of a guest list at a Los Angeles hotspot than a crafted joke (although she will occasionally touch on pressing topics such as Paris Hilton’s vagina). Gay men have largely been consumers of comedy but rarely creators—at least not on the big stage.
Part of this is because of the constraints of gay comedy. “There’s a condescending attitude that gay entertainment has to involve drag shows or men being effeminate,” says Brent Sullivan, a New York-based comedian. “I did a show in Chelsea the other day where there was this screaming queen who did a lot better than I did. Even homophobes could enjoy that because you are putting yourself into this box that they’ve created for you. But I think we haven’t challenged the gay-friendly straight men of this world to actually enjoy a gay character or enjoy gay entertainment because we haven’t given them anything to enjoy.”
Sullivan, who has been performing stand-up for nearly a decade, admitted that, while he has been out since college, he wasn’t always necessarily open with his audience. “I used to try to assimilate. I’d get on stage and say, ‘So, I was with my wife…’ I was, like, 19 and talking about my wife! I stopped doing that when I moved to New York. But what should I say? Should I refer to my ‘partner’? I don’t have partners; I have guys that I blow.”
While many “straight” comedies skewer the social ineptitude of straight men within society (see: Curb Your Enthusiasm), there’s a lack of storylines for the awkward gay man. That’s why Sullivan co-created the webseries It Gets Betterish last year with best friend and fellow comic Eliot Glazer. “After years of going out together and being depressed and baffled by the guys we met at bars, we thought, ‘We should channel this into something productive,’” Glazer explains. The series, comprising of nine episodes so far, follows “Eliot” and “Brent,” two gay New Yorkers struggling to fit in within the gay lifestyle. In one episode, Eliot and Brent spar with a drunk straight woman who is eager to become their fag hag. In another, the duo are invited to a sex party, but their anxieties overwhelm their desires to participate in an orgy. “Is there an air conditioner or a window fan nearby? Eliot sweats like a hog,” Brent says. “I have this thing where I don’t take my shirt off, so is it cool if I wear a red mesh tank-top and no bottoms?”
It’s a brilliant and refreshing look at a character that has long been ignored. It’s also indicative of the problem with the highly sexualized gay culture. Those who don’t fit into the svelte, muscular, tank-top wearing image of the American gay man are typically overlooked. “I was out from the beginning,” says Dave Holmes, who got his start as the runner-up on MTV’s Wanna Be a VJ contest, which later led to hosting gigs on MTV and FX. While he’s played gay in a guest spot on Reno 911!, Holmes has generally avoided gay themes when performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles. “It’s never been a big deal for anyone,” Holmes says. “When you look like me, nobody cares about who you fuck.”
Glazer says that the reaction to It Gets Betterish has been positive, although he wishes it had gotten more traction among gay audiences. “Comedy blogs and comedy people seemed to really like it,” he explains. “It’s pointedly extremist because we tried to write the best comedy we can but with an underlying subtle message that changes what it means to be gay—that we’re not all what’s painted on the local news or on Bravo. We were hoping places like Out or The Advocate would look to us as two guys who were doing something different.” Such magazines, however, still point to Kathy Griffin as a leading gay entertainer. “Yes, she’s a gay-friendly comic,” Glazer says, “but she’s not a gay comedian.”
This generation of comics did not grow up with gay role models within their industry; Glazer and Liedman pointed to women from the ’80s and ’90s like Paula Poundstone and Rita Rudner rather than comics like Rip Taylor or ’70s game show personalities Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde. But they’re attempting to forge alternative narratives of what it means to be gay, and are essentially becoming role models themselves. “How many gay people feel uncomfortable at one point or another and then turn on [Logo reality show] The A-List to see this terrifying depiction of soulless imbeciles roaming through the streets of the city with nothing to do but fight about someone’s hot-air balloon ride?” Glazer asks. “We want to provide an alternative.”