IN Los Angeles
July 12-15, 2005

Homo Hilarity
The Outlaugh 2005 Comedy Festival
Debuts in Los Angeles
By Richard Andreoli

Gays are funny. Not just funny as in queer, but humorous, witty, and clever. We make people laugh, which is probably one of the reasons why we're so often invited to parties hosted by straight people; we pretty much guarantee a good time at any event. So what would happen if you gathered a gaggle of gays -- the funniest fems, the most amusing mens -- and mixed them together in a bacchanalia of badinage? You'd have Outlaugh 2005, the first ever multi-day gay and lesbian comedy festival in the United States.

"There is a demand out there for gay comedy shows," says Mike Player, co-producer for Outlaugh, as well as the founder and artistic director of the improv/comedy group, The Gay Mafia. Player explains that even in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles, it's rare for comedy clubs to book openly queer comics as the main event, but rather mix them in with straight talent for fear that the venue won't receive a large enough audience. Likewise, the few homocentric shows that do exist are frequently performed during Gay Pride festivals and surrounding a drag act. "They're perfectly fabulous, but there seems to be a hunger out there for seeing gay comics perform at the next level," Player explains. "Audiences want to see a show where gay people aren't the punch line to a joke but are the ones making people laugh."

Thus, Outlaugh 2005 was born, and beginning Thursday, July 28, five shows will be presented in four days by some of the top names in homo hilarity. This isn't Rosie O'Donnell or Ellen DeGeneres, but rather the talented women and men who are out onstage (both physically and sexually) performing in comedy clubs across the country every week. From classic groups like The Nellie Olesons and The Gay Mafia, and stand-up comics like Jason Dudey, Jen Slusser, Stephanie Howard, Roy Cruz, and Ant, to alternative comedy acts such as drag magician Cashetta, Outlaugh 2005 becomes a wholly unique experience.

"What was attractive to us as producers and performers was showing the diversity of gay comedy [in this country], because it's big," says stand-up comic Jerry Calumn, who is co-producing the event with Player. "We have improv, and sketch, stand up. I do very Ôold style' stand up with a lot of news and politics, while others talk about relationships," he continues. "And the performers are very excited about this. They will really stretch out because [they'll] be in front of a very fun, loving, audience at a historical event." Historic indeed, and not simply because this is the first festival of its kind.

Queer comedy has long been a disguised affair, with acts like Madame, the sharp-tongued puppet that looked like an old dame and was given life by Wayland Flowers. Those in the know saw Madame's fabulous gowns and boas alongside her bawdy observations of men and clearly understood that Flowers was a gay man and Madame his drag persona -- albeit one in puppet form. Mainstream America just thought this and all the other over-the-top comic/variety acts (read: queer) were just outrageous fun; after all, homosexuality wasn't polite dinner conversation.

But, as with everything else in the gay community, attitudes changed. Comics felt less and less comfortable with keeping their identities secret, and the first two comics to rock America by coming out on national television were Bob Smith and Lea DeLaria.

"Bob Smith was the first gay comic on The Tonight Show," says Player, explaining how he and Calumn were thrilled to have Smith performing at Outlaugh 2005. Adding to their excitement was DeLaria, whose mainstream success alongside her notoriety as the first lesbian stand-up on network television made her the perfect choice for Outlaugh's headlining comic. "She [came out] on The Arsenio Hall show and watched him flinch when she said the word Ôqueer,'" laughs Player. "Lea has attitude, she's a strong presence, and people recognize her for those attributes. By being in the show she creates an anchor [for] the history and emergence of gay comedy."

With programs like Will & Grace or Carson Kressley's rapid-fire jokes on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, it would seem as though times have changed for gay comics. To be fair, they have changed since Smith and DeLaria started out. Society is much more accepting of an openly gay man or woman standing onstage and cracking wise about the trials and tribulations of dating the same sex. Ironically, though, these same performers sometimes experience difficulty finding their audiences and crossing over into the mainstream as headliners all their own.

"We're just like female comics on the 1970s," says Calumn. "It was very, very tough for them at that time to find their audience, but the way they did it was by coming together and building it. That's what we need to do, so [with Outlaugh] we also hope to create a market for gay and lesbian comedy by working together in a cohesive unit so that we can all promote ourselves together."

It's a tall order, especially when you consider that the "gay community" is seldom a community at all, with its own generous share of infighting. But both Player and Calumn are optimistic, because comedy has a way of making people lower their guard, take things with a slightly lighter outlook, and those two elements are vital when creating social change. As Player observes, "One of the things people like about our shows is that we bring gays and lesbians together to one event, and when everybody's laughing the animosity disappears."

Outlaugh 2005 is being held at Highways Performance Space (1651 18th St., Santa Monica). The festival begins Thursday, July 28, with a fund-raiser for L.A. Shanti. It continues with one show on Friday, July 29, two on Saturday July 30, and a show with a closing reception and party on Sunday, July 31. Tickets are $20 per evening and are available by calling (800) 595-4849 or visiting www.tix.com. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit www.outlaughfestival.com.