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Comedy: Stand-Up, Gay Male  
 
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Stand-up comedy is a form of entertainment where one performer stands in front of an audience and tries to make common cause with that audience by pointing out the ridiculous and humorous in the universal problems of everyday life. Stand-up comics balance on a fine edge between the funny and the offensive.

They can be social critics, prodding audiences to look at the unfairness and inequality in life and to rise above them with a laugh. They can also be part of that unfairness by using humor to make fun of women, gays, and ethnic groups, allowing some members of their audiences to feel superior to those who are the butts of the joke.

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The dilemma is well expressed by Henry Machtey on the Gay Comedy Links website: "Stand-up comedy. Cracking jokes. Are you going to aim those jokes at people who are less powerful? or people who are more powerful?"

Too often, gay men have been the objects of hostile humor. Queer jokes, like female jokes and ethnic jokes, have long been a staple of straight stand-up comics looking for an easy laugh from audiences eager to assert their own heterosexuality in a world where it is often dangerous to be gay.

At the same time, however, perhaps long before the all-male Greek theater of the fourth century B.C.E., audiences have also had a fascination with gender-bending. During the "pansy craze" of the 1920s and 1930s, gay performers such as Gene Malin emceed nightclub shows in Manhattan that catered to predominantly straight audiences. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, long before gay liberation, Milton Berle often wore a dress and lipstick as part of the act that earned him the name "Mr. Television." Other beloved straight comics, such as Jonathan Winters and Flip Wilson, regularly wore drag, to the great amusement of their audiences.

In the 1980s, stand-up comedy enjoyed a tremendous growth in popularity. The lean economic years that led people to fill comedy clubs looking for laughs also seemed to bring out a mean streak in both performers and audiences. Comics such as Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, and Andrew Dice Clay made reputations based on hateful jokes aimed at gays, women, and minorities, and audiences of white men enjoyed the chance to blame their troubles on someone else.

However, along with these comics, a new generation of out gay comics began to appear, both in gay comedy clubs such as Josie's Cabaret in San Francisco, and, more and more, in respected straight clubs, such as the Improv and Caroline's Comedy Club in New York City.

The Tradition

There is tradition behind the emergence of gay male stand-up comics. Theatrical productions, from Broadway musicals to drag shows, have long been an intrinsic part of gay male culture. The emcee of a drag show, in stilettos and wig, has often been of necessity the most skillful of stand-up comedians, calming a house of rowdy, drunk patrons, both straight and gay, while keeping the show running smoothly. Some famous drag performers, such as the legendary Ray Bourbon who performed in the 1940s and 1950s, included stand-up material in their acts.

Stand-up Comics since the 1980s

In the comedy clubs of the 1980s, gay comics began both to challenge and to embrace gay stereotypes. Straights in the audiences began to find themselves in the uncomfortable role of outsider, as gay comics turned the jokes around, lampooning homophobia itself, and telling "in" jokes about gay life. By the early 1990s, gayness itself had become almost fashionable and gays began to find themselves as characters in television sitcoms, notably NBC's Will and Grace, which premiered in 1997.

One of the performers enjoying the new visibility of gay comics is Jason Stuart. Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Stuart worked in the closet as a successful comic for several years. His coming out was a very public event, as he told the world he was a gay man on the Geraldo television talk show in the early 1990s.

Since then, Stuart's act has changed to reflect his identity, "Straights should know: It's the year 2000. If you let us marry each other, we will stop marrying you!" (from "Interview with Jason Stuart," in SHECKY! A Magazine About Stand-up).

Stuart's sharp wit has earned him acclaim not only from appreciative gay audiences, but also in guest spots on television shows such as CBS's Murder, She Wrote, UP's Charmed, and ABC's Drew Carey Show, and Will and Grace, and films such as Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Vegas Vacation (1997). In 2002, Stuart starred in Michael Gallant's film about relationships, 10 Attitudes. In 2004, he released his first full-length comedy CD, Gay Comedy without a Dress.

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Actor and comic Jason Stuart.
  
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