Busting Through the Lavender Ceiling



Bruce Vilanch, head-writer of the Oscar telecast since 2000, poses at a GLAAD media event. Vilanch, openly-gay, is well-known for his comedic talents even though he delivers many of his punchlines from behind the scenes. Photo: AP.

“I’m Greg Walloch. I’m disabled, I’m gay, and I’m living in Harlem.”

It’s not the opener you’d expect from a comedian; perhaps you were prepared for a joke about Herman Cain, or the Kardashian divorce. And yet, there it is: honest, concise, and — most surprisingly — serious. It’s Walloch’s way of introducing his audience to those traits which define him — and, in effect, his comedy. He lives in a gentrifying neighborhood. He has cerebral palsy. And yes, he is gay.

Walloch happens to be one of a growing number of openly gay men pursuing a career in comedy nowadays, and he’s certainly found some success: he has booked gigs across the United States as well as internationally. However, Walloch’s peers in the comedy world wouldn’t exactly consider this reason to cheer; after all, gay male comedians still face a “lavender ceiling” of sorts, having yet to achieve the staggering mainstream success won by lesbian comediennes like Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres. Many openly gay male comedians, like Alec Mapa and Bruce Vilanch, remain just outside the bubble of mainstream success, either performing for predominantly gay crowds (in the case of Mapa) or choosing to write jokes behind the scenes instead (Vilanch.)

Ann Pellegrini, director of New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, suggests that this is because gay male comedians have less material to draw from than lesbian and straight male comedians.

“Much of the [straight] male comics’ humor seems to derive from…casual misogyny and self-referential jokes about male anatomy,” said Pellegrini. “Gay men cannot use the same forms of humor. Their jokes about male anatomy would be received by straight male audiences as a threatening come-on.”

Lesbian comediennes, she says, are able to take advantage of straight mens’ “cultural eroticization” of lesbianism, thus tapping into a vein entirely out of reach of gay men.

Bob Montgomery, producer of Homo Comicus, a monthly showcase of LGBT comedians at Gotham Comedy Club, agrees that gay men usually have to shy away from sex-related material.

“Sex-related jokes might makes the straights squeamish,” he said, “but if it’s a good universal joke, even gay-related, no problem.”

Montgomery highlights a truth that many academics and gay comedians agree on: gay material is usually OK with audiences. It’s the person delivering the material that makes all the difference.

“You can take SNL as a temperature of the situation,” said Mike Albo, an openly gay comedian and author of the recent e-novella The Junket. “There is plenty of gay subject matter on the show, [but] none of it is performed by an out comedian.”

However, Albo is also sure to mention that he relishes such cultural marginalization.

“It’s sort of cool, I gotta say, to be something that still freaks the sh*t out of people,” he said.

Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States and a soon-to-be member of Out Magazine’s “Out 100,” says that more gay male comedians should adopt Albo’s attitude and embrace their power to make people squirm.

“That anxiety [about homosexuality] might be in their favor,” he said. “You see this with all the great comedians like Lenny Bruce and Sarah Silverman…they sort of gauge how far they can go to make the audience laugh without making them too uncomfortable. You could say that gay male comedians are in the same situation.”

Bronski also has a pithy, pragmatic explanation of the “lavender ceiling” situation: “It’s hard for anyone to achieve mainstream success.”

That’s why Miles Grier, a professor of race, gender, and sexuality at Duke University, feels that gay men might have to tone down the issue of their sexuality in order to burst into the mainstream.

“The first successful mainstream comedians…will be respectable, white, professional, and nondisruptive,” he said. “In other words, they will seem as if they can be a part of a white family or workplace.”

However, just because gay comedians and gay comedy troupes are trying to smash through the lavender ceiling doesn’t mean that they’re 100 percent gung-ho about straight comedians’ material.

“I don’t really find straight guy humor that funny,” said Nora Burns, a straight comedienne who performs with Mike Albo and another openly gay comedian in a group called Unitard. “I don’t really get the Jonah Hill-type stuff.”

And yet, some things remain universal. “Pretty much half of our show is fart jokes.”

Certainly, gay funnymen have come a long way since Sean Hayes sashayed, squealed, skipped, lisped, twirled, flirted, and vogued on Will & Grace — all under the guise of being “straight.” Take Walloch, for instance; he says himself that he has “no trouble booking gigs” these days. Nevertheless, gay comics still have a ways to go: it seems that for now they will have to stick to a certain comedic formula — that is, family-friendly, suburban, and only a tiny bit edgy — if they ever want to compete with Ellen. And she’s a tough one to beat.