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Comedy: Stand-Up, Lesbian  
 
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Historically, one of the functions of comedy has been to serve as the rebellious voice of oppressed people. Joking about serious and even painful issues can be a palatable way to critique the social and political norm. Sometimes pushing the limits of taste and acceptability to find humor in unlikely sources, the comedian is often the misfit who points out society's foibles from the perspective of the outsider.

Minority comedians performing for minority audiences frequently use inside jokes to create solidarity among those outside the mainstream. Even when they perform for mainstream audiences, however, minority comedians can be agents of social change, because part of the magic of comedy is that a good joke forces the audience to identify with the joker. As comedian Lea Delaria remarked, "I'm here to educate those heterosexuals who are lesbian-impaired."

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Not requiring a playscript or supporting cast, stand-up comedy is based on the relationship of one individual to the audience. Using her viewpoints and vulnerabilities as material, the stand-up comedian can be both an educator and a gadfly--and sometimes the butt of her own jokes. Lesbian stand-up comedy provides an excellent example of how comedy can foster social and political awareness in both minority and mainstream communities.

Although stand-up comedy has long been a staple of nightclubs and variety shows, in the 1980s a new comedy explosion began. Perhaps driven by hard economic times or a mean-spirited political climate, audiences were searching for laughter and more and more people wanted to stand up on stage and try to make them laugh. While in 1978, there had been twelve comedy clubs across the United States, by 1988 there were 320, featuring over 2,000 performers.

San Francisco became one of the major comedy meccas and, naturally, gay and lesbian comics were a major part of the Bay Area stand-up scene. Perhaps lesbian comics felt they had something to prove, since the feminist movement had been accused of having no sense of humor. "Wrong," the new lesbian comics seemed to say, but added, "you may not like what we're laughing at."

Early Lesbian Stand-up Comics

There had, of course, been lesbian stand-up comics before the 1980s comedy scene. African-American comic Jackie "Moms" Mabley began doing stand-up comedy during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. By the late 1930s she had developed her trademark character, a salty old lady with a rubbery face who told broadly off-color jokes in a gravelly voice and did not hesitate to lambast sexist men and white racists.

When she achieved national prominence in the 1960s, Mabley's comic persona was not an out lesbian, but her outrageous character made fun of society in a way typical of lesbian humor.

Robin Tyler

Another of the most notable early lesbian stand-up comics is Robin Tyler, who started her act impersonating Judy Garland in gay bars in pre-Stonewall New York City. There were few women in stand-up comedy in the 1960s, and although she was always out as a lesbian in her act, much of Tyler's early identification was with the straight female comics of the period, such as Totie Fields and Joan Rivers.

Having come of age at a time when there was little support for women, let alone lesbians, in the stand-up field, Tyler created a persona who is more defensive and hostile than most of the later lesbian funnywomen. ("You can be replaced by a tampon," she snarled to male hecklers in the 1970s.)

Still, Tyler's wise-cracking New York acidity paved the way for dozens of successful lesbian comics who followed her. In 1978, Tyler became the first out lesbian to appear on national television when she performed in a Showtime comedy special hosted by sister comedy pioneer Phyllis Diller.

Criticized by many lesbians for her abrasive manner and non-cooperative approach to politics, Tyler left the stand-up stage to devote her energy to organizing women's music festivals and other events, including the Millennium March on Washington, D.C. in May, 2000.

Stand-up Comics since the 1980s

The enormous popularity of stand-up comedy since the 1980s has encouraged hundreds of lesbian comics to try out routines on dozens of stages around the country. The following profiles of a few of the most successful will give an indication of the diversity of the lesbian community as well as of their comics.

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