Students of sociology, film, and, of course, gender and sexuality studies should be familiar with the tradition of queer humor that dates back to the heyday of dandyism in the nineteenth century. Simultaneously receiving success and notoriety for obscenity and satire, pioneers like John Waters made it clear that he was queer, in all definitions of the word. All the while, this brazen queer sensibility was hidden in terms like “camp,” “raunchy,” and “interesting.” In subsequent years, gay and lesbian characters in film and television were allowed to declare their sexuality, but only in the most stereotypical of ways. Though the sassy rapport of Will & Grace and the whimsical flamboyancy of Modern Family‘s Mitchell and Cameron introduced gay characters into the public eye, they were a far cry from realistic in their representations of the queer community. Perhaps that underscores the importance of a comedy festival like The Peoples Improv Theater‘s QueerCom, a weekend of sketch, improv, and other staged performances showcasing and discussing LGBTQIA comics, and the state of diversity in comedy that all goes down this weekend June 26-28. I spoke with Lucas Hazlett and Alison Levering, two New York comics who are performing in QueerCom, about the importance of the festival.
Hazlett is quick to argue that the festival is well-deserved: “There hasn’t really been, in the major improv theaters in the city, a festival that caters specifically to this one large group of people that identify as gay, lesbian, transgendered, whatnot. Because there’s such a huge number of performers that identify as that.” Hazlett is one of the many queer comics who wants to feel free to express his sexuality and identity onstage, without being told to tone it down. Hazlett’s one-man show, which is part of QueerCom, in fact came out of his many attempts to grapple with his identity through his comedy. “I’ve participated in three network showcases that specifically are geared towards diversity, so all of these bits are things that I’ve done in the course of these auditions. They’ve kind of just been ways to express, ‘I’m gay, I’m black.'”
In addition to playing to a queer audience—one with, “a built-in set of assumptions and a built-in sense of shared experiences,” as Hazlett puts it—it is also a chance for people outside of the LGBTQIA community to observe how gender identity and sexual expression can relate to their senses of humor as well. Alison Levering, who performs on a house team at the PIT, recognizes the place that comedy has in the spectrum of fighting for LGBTQIA rights. “It’s not that any show is going to change the world, it’s that this comedy show is going to make you laugh, and you’re going to look at things that you wouldn’t have seen before and realize you can relate to them.”
This comedy show is going to make you laugh, and you’re going to look at things that you wouldn’t have seen before and realize you can relate to them.
Levering has worked to increase representation of lesbians in comedy. Her webseries, called “Straight Up Gay” is an attempt to increase awareness of the lesbian community within the medium. “As a lesbian, when I looked at webseries, I couldn’t find a lot of things I could identify with—I found there was a hole in the crossover in the things that are funny to everybody but also featuring distinct representations of queer identity. When I created [“Straight Up Gay”], I wanted to present the opposite of the Will & Grace relationship. What Will & Grace did for gay men ten years ago, let’s do for lesbians—we’re funny too.”
Running simultaneously as the Del Close Marathon, an improv festival at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the hope is to bring an audience from all walks of life, including a large, untapped gay community, into the shows this weekend.
“I think that’s one of the things that I specifically am attracted to about it. It gives me an opportunity to use the theater that I’m comfortable in to perform for audiences that I don’t normally get a chance to perform my material for,” Hazlett explained.
With panels on “Straight People and Comedy,” improv based on current events, and many other unique events, QueerCom looks to celebrate not only the queer voices performing that weekend, but also the many actors, comedians, and writers who previously could only express their sense of humor behind closed doors, or in coded ways that were acceptable to the general public. And of course, the festival welcomes people of all sexual and gender identities to its shows. As Levering eloquently put it, “I think what is most effective in moving things forward is realizing that we’re all on the same page, whether it looks like the same page or not.”
QueerCom 2015 runs from June 26-28 on both stages at The PIT. You can see a full schedule of performances over at their website.