Whether 'out' or not, gay comedians are finding an audience
Fresh out of graduate school, Adam Sank became a production assistant for Fox News when it first aired in 1996. Because Sank was gay, he decided to be “out” in the workplace.
“There was no question about being out,” he said. “I had always been out.” But that didn’t mean that being gay at a conservative network was an enjoyable experience.
“I felt ill coming to work there every day,” Sank said. After six years, he quit and moved to WABC-TV.
But even with the switch, he was unhappy. According to Sank, his unhappiness at the workplace was so apparent that Bill Ritter, anchor for the network, sent Sank an e-mail message about it.
“He said, ‘You’re a wonderful producer and we love you, but you’re the most miserable person I know. Life is short . . . you need to go find what you want to do and love that,'” Sank said. Within a month, Sank gave his notice.
“I didn’t want to do the news anymore,” Sank said. “I missed performing like I did in high school and college.”
So Sank hit the stage and became a comedian four years ago. His experiences at Fox News have become a major part of his comedy routine, which focuses mostly on his experiences as a gay man living in New York.
“I call [my time at Fox] my own personal Auschwitz,” he told a crowd at Comix in lower Manhattan at his monthly comedy show “Adam Sank’s Gay Bash.”
Sank has become one of the better known gay comedians in the country, having appeared on VH1’s “Best Week Ever.”
With more and more celebrities coming out of the closet, gay comedians are enjoying a move from gay venues to more mainstream ones.
But it hasn’t always been so easy. Bob Smith, 48, was the first gay comedian to perform on the "Tonight Show" and to have his own HBO half-hour special, which aired in 1994. Smith decided when he first hit the comedy scene in the late 1980s that his sexuality was going to be included in his act.
“I started comedy to be a comedian, not a gay comedian,” Smith said. “But I wanted to talk about my life, so why not talk about that?”
There was another reason Smith decided to use his sexuality as comedic material. “It was one of the few last areas that no one had done before,” he said. “Every subject in comedy was straight . . . it’s fun to find a fresh point of view.”
For the most part, Smith didn’t face too much opposition when he performed. However, a performance in Seattle, shortly before the HBO special aired, was what Smith called “the worst show in history.” Smith was talking about being gay.
“About five minutes into the show, half the audience walked out of a 300-seat comedy club,” Smith said.
But despite that performance, Smith has said his experiences with audiences have been positive. “People say really nice things about seeing stand-up or reading my book," he said. "But there is a difference between being the joke and making the joke.”
In some cases, people who have seen Smith’s comedy have opened up to him as a result.
At one benefit, an audience member came up to Smith and told him that he had found out that day that he was HIV positive.
“He told me, ‘I didn’t know if I wanted to come, but I laughed and I had a good time,” Smith said.
Despite the show in Seattle, Smith said his sexual orientation had never been used against him by an audience. “Honestly, I’ve never had anyone heckle or yell at me during a show . . . and I think honestly because when you’re really up front about it, they’d be a moron to say, ‘Hey, faggot!’”
When Sank got his start, the majority of his performances were at specifically gay venues.
“Gay-owned and operated venues tend to book gay performers," Sank said. "I got them sooner than I would have if I had just been a straight guy. But you also have to be good. It does give you a little niche. If you are good, you do move a little faster.”
But despite the acceptance of gay comedians, not all gay comedians choose to include their sexual orientation in their routines. William Mullin, 37, is one of those.
Mullin became a comedian seven years ago. During the day, he works in advertising and pursues stand-up comedy during the weekends, evenings and vacation.
“I use office experience, family issues and if being gay comes up and is funny then I insert it," he said. "Otherwise, my comedy probably has more sports references in it than gay references. Many people assume I am straight. Once a female audience member was kind of flirting with me and I said to her, ‘You are so hot. Do you have a brother?’”
Keith Price, 40, used to hide the fact he was gay in his comedy routines, which he has been doing for 17 years. At the time, Price lived in Austin, Texas, and he said he was not completely comfortable with his sexual orientation. Price got the idea to enter comedy when he saw a comedian who he thought wasn't funny performing on the "Tonight Show."
“He stunk," Price said. "I was thinking, ‘You’re not funny, and you’re on national television.' I got into comedy because I felt I could.”
After attending a comedy gym, which functions as a workshop for comedians, Price started doing stand-up while in college. But he took a break from comedy to finish his degree at the University of Texas-Austin. After his 20th birthday, he moved to New York City and vowed to be open up about his sexuality for the first time on stage.
“Before, I wasn’t comfortable with everyone knowing I was gay," he said. "Eventually, I started getting over that and embraced the whole homosexuality of me.”
Now, Price is the first openly gay black on Sirius satellite radio. He has his own show called Out Q in the morning, alongside Larry Flick and Cynthia. While doing stand-up in New York, his race and his sexuality sometimes made it difficult for him to get gigs. Price often found that he didn’t fit the mold of what a venue wanted in a comedian.
“It’s very difficult because there are venues that want to do shows, like urban genre shows, but I don’t act like some brother off the street,” Price said.
Mullin agreed, saying: “I have found that audiences react to gay-themed comedy more if the comedian fits their mold of 'gay' to them. I certainly don't fit that mold and don't try to.”