Comedienne Suzanne Westenhoefer on Olivia Cruises, the religious right and the intricacies of telling jokes to straight people
“I’m eating nuts,” Suzanne Westenhoefer confessed immediately. “Don’t hate me. I’m starving to death, so I’m eating nuts.” If it seems like an odd way to start a conversation—let alone a phone interview—so be it.
A small blonde with a big attitude, Westenhoefer has been making a living at stand-up comedy for the last 13 years, with a list of accomplishments that includes being the first out lesbian to have an HBO comedy special. The interview, conducted by phone from her home in Los Angeles while she waited for her German shorthaired pointer’s “play date” to arrive, included frequent breaks so that the self-proclaimed news addict could check what was happening on the cable news channels. Westenhoefer talks in a rush, stressing the words she wants her listener to pay attention to; it’s a lot like dishing with your funniest girlfriend—if she’s over-caffeinated, has a short attention span and is really funny.
That’s what her stand-up act is like, too: an evening with a good pal who knows how to point out the absurdity of everyday life—and extra absurdities that come with living as an out lesbian. She’s done riffs on trying to live with a girlfriend who’s in the closet (don’t) and on having sex at your parents’ house (make sure the noises can be mistaken for creaking stairs), and she has advised straight hecklers to knock it off or they’d be cursed with gay kids.
Westenhoefer’s scheduled appearance at the Crest Theatre last November was postponed for her unexpected back surgery, but she’s back in town to make up that date this Saturday.
Kel Munger: Do you mostly perform for gay audiences?
Suzanne Westenhoefer: That’s a high percentage, anymore, but it sort of depends on the city and the advertising. If the producer really promotes it as a gay event, then you have pretty much gay audiences. If it’s a club, and it’s just promoted as me doing stand-up and I’m a lesbian, it could be real mixed.
When I was first starting out, I was doing gay comedy in front of straight people. And I was the only one doing that, and there was a reason. It was really hard. I had to teach ’em. You couldn’t just say, “P-town.” You had to say, “Provincetown. It’s up in Massachusetts. It’s where all the gay people go on vacation, blah, blah, blah,” and then you could tell the joke.
You perform on some of the Olivia Cruises.
I do the Olivia Cruises, which I love. It’s really wonderful. Everybody gets really jazzed, because they’re all like, “We’re lesbians!” Instead of just a bunch of people who happen to be on vacation together, we’re all like “Wheeeeee!” People who aren’t out at home are all of a sudden like totally out, and holding hands with their girlfriend, and everybody on the ship is a lesbian—except the handful of people who work the ship. Like the guy that drives; he’s straight. All the entertainers, all the activities people—all gay, and it’s fun.
So, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, who recently signed on to promote Olivia Cruises, can look forward to a good time?
[Laughing] Yeah, she’ll have a great time. I feel so bad about that whole Sheryl Swoopes thing. My girlfriend wouldn’t even talk to me [after Swoopes came out]. The day before the news broke, I went out to lunch with a woman who’s involved in business, and she had heard already about the Sheryl Swoopes thing. So, she says to me over lunch, “So, the big news is somebody famous is going to come out tomorrow morning.”
And I’m like, “Wow. Who?”
She says, “Sheryl Swoopes.”
And I go, “Who? Is that a basketball player? I think I remember her name. Who’s going to care about that?”
My girlfriend went insane. She goes, “You’re an idiot!” I had no idea. I’ve only been to, like, one of those games. I’m not very sporty.
With the WNBA, what I’ve seen has been pretty homophobic. If you watch it on television, they always show the two straight people in the audience. Years ago, I had a discussion with Martina about it. …
You used to do a lot of jokes about her.
I still do. I love her. I worship Martina. She’s the best. But right now, I’m mocking her because it’s fun.
We’ve talked about the homophobia in sports, but the homophobia in women’s sports is off the charts. What’s so funny about it, really … it’s like if there were homophobia in ballet, with gay men, wouldn’t you just want to go, “Hel-lo!”
It doesn’t mean every woman who plays sports is gay; it doesn’t mean every guy who dances ballet is gay—Baryshnikov, anybody?
It’s always so weird when the place where you’ve got the most of us—like in women’s sports—is the most homophobic. I guess it’s because you’ve got the most to lose, or whatever. Boring. I hate it.
I mean, gay people are the gravy on the mashed potatoes of life. They need us. Sure, you can have mashed potatoes without gravy, but it’s a big, huge yawner.
So, who do you think is funny?
I like ’em all. When it’s good, it’s good. I really like stand-up, so I don’t care if it’s the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Chris Rock, George Carlin—who is, you know, very nearly brilliant—when it’s good. When it’s bad, I don’t care who it is; I can’t stand it. When you don’t laugh, baby, it’s bad.
Is it OK to be offensive as long as people laugh?
Offensive, to me, is if a comedian takes potshots at people who can’t really fight back. I don’t want to hear the incest joke. It’s fucking ignorant. You’re never going to tell me a rape joke that I’m going to laugh at. But other than that, go for it.
I don’t care if they’re mocking out queers; you know what? I mock out queers.
What’s that Gallagher guy? I hate him. He did that joke about spraying the audience with smashed stuff, and he said, “It’s the AIDS virus!” And they were all cringing, so then he said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re not fags; you won’t die.” That’s not funny. Hello, he’s gross.
I don’t like jokes that depend on you mocking out someone who’s weak. Like, if I’m fucking taking on the Republican Party, good God, they own everything. They can stand it.
I like to make jokes about things in the gay community that are sacred cows, because we need to. We make some of these things such a big deal. You know, like, “Oh, Jodie Foster,” and you’ve got to mock how we are about it.
What’s your favorite target these days?
I don’t know if I’ll get into it [in Sacramento], but religion. There is a tremendous amount of religious stuff in the news, because of who is president, and people freaking out because it looks like there is no separation between church and state, and other people going, “Thank God there’s no separation between church and state!” That’s kind of horrifying. You gotta watch that shit. You ever watch Fox News?
Not if I can help it.
Oh, my God, I so just watch it to be aware of what they’re saying. It blows my mind. We could not have gotten away with this 50 years ago. If somebody had spoken like this, people would have lost their minds. Separation of church and state? I sometimes have to stop watching it because my mouth dries out, because I’m slack-jawed from the whole fucking thing.
They live to find those conservative, Republican good-looking women with the long blond hair. They’ve got, like, three of them on Fox, including the evil Ann Coulter. She should be beaten, just on a regular basis. I totally want some big dyke to get a hold of her and, like, wine and dine her, and make her fall in love with them, because that’s what she needs. She needs to be lesbianated.
Do you think that would fix her?
No. I don’t think that. She’s a nut. She’s just hateful.
What is it about the Republicans wanting women to do their dirty work?
The Republican Party is nothing if not great marketers. It’s really amazing. You’ve got some fat old white guy, which is what a lot of Republicans seem to be, that wealthy old guy sitting there spouting. OK, now that’s a turnoff. You get some hot little girly-girl in there, and all of a sudden people are taking more notice. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re getting the right people to send their message instead of what’s really behind it, which is white and money.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing in Sacramento?
For starters, I love that theater, the Crest. It’s always such a great show there. And I remember going to some great restaurant to eat. I like Sacramento a lot. I like Sacramento better than San Francisco. I’m probably bad that way. I’m not this giant “Oh, I love San Francisco!” person. Isn’t that weird?
That’s not what we’d expect to hear. Isn’t San Francisco the gay Mecca?
Eh. They can keep it. I like L.A. I like it waaaay better. And I like Sacramento better.