Funny Women: An Interview With Kate Clinton
With perhaps more than a touch of irony, Kate Clinton describes herself as a “faith-based, tax-paying, family entertainer.” This description is an indicator of her wry humor, because in the traditional definition of “faith-based” and “family,” she is anything but. Ms. Clinton’s comedy is hard-hitting, political, full of word play, double entendre and sexual inuendos. She has been a professional comedian for over thirty years and has a large and loyal following. Her faith-based description may be in reference to the fact she was raised a Catholic (“based”) or that she has great faith in the power of humor. Both are true.
After working as a high-school English teacher for eight years, Ms. Clinton began her career as a stand-up comedian in 1981, using her Catholic upbringing and lesbianism as a base for most of her jokes. And while her humor touches on those subjects, her routine is broadly political and cultural, appealing to a wider audience than perhaps her early material did. Or, as she says, the improving attitudes towards the LGBT community is making her and her humor more “acceptable” to more people.
As well as performing stand-up at numerous venues and festivals around the country, Ms. Clinton is the author of three books, creator of nine CDs, three DVDs, columnist (HuffingtonPost), film and stage actress, TV commentator (MSNBC, CNN), is a blogger and vlogger and recently did a TED talk. I was fortunate to meet Clinton last fall, when she was the keynote speaker at Omega Institute. Her remarks were inspiring: hilariously funny, and I discovered that we share a passion for “serious humor.”
Liza Donnelly: Your political humor takes no prisoners, it’s great.
Kate Clinton: I used to take prisoners, but as many states are finding, it was just too expensive to keep them incarcerated. I did save out a couple orange onesies, if you’d tell me your size.
Donnelly: There is also an absurdist element and a lot of terrific rapid fire word play in your humor. How do you do it?
Clinton: Offstage my delivery is nearly bovine and I mean no insult to cows. Compared to those rapid-fire whipper-snappers on MSNBC – Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Alex Wagner – I’m valium. But I think a show has to be a good ride, so I do pick up the pace. Sometimes it’s because I am trying to jam 90 minutes into 45. And sometimes it’s the Red Bull and diet coke shooter just before the show.
Donnelly: Do you find it easier to write material when the White House is occupied by a conservative?
Clinton: About midway through W’s interminable reign it got pretty predictable and unchallenging. ‘He’s bad.’ ‘Yup he’s bad.’ ‘He’s still bad.’ Pres. Obama and all that’s been raised against him has been much more interesting material. Generally what’s bad for us is good for me. See also: Ted Cruz.
Donnelly: If Hillary becomes our next president, how will you approach teasing her?
Clinton: First of all how awesome would that be? She will not disappoint with plenty of material, I’m sure. It will be more fun to vivisect all her critics.
Donnelly: I really enjoy your vlogging, your short videos on Youtube. Is this the wave of the future?
Clinton: The wave is here now. The tide might even be going out. It is a great way to reach a lot of people without having to fly coach.
Donnelly: And how is performing for a camera vs performing for a live audience different?
Clinton: I’m always over-prepared for a show. I don’t like to waste people’s time. I feel I can improvise if I’ve got a homebase to come back to. With a live audience, things just happen, there’s a lovely alchemy. Oneliners grow into extended bits. Brilliant pieces become a throw-away line after a couple of outings. For the video blogs, I just have one or two ideas and I see what happens. It’s been a lot of fun, especially if I get to wear something on my head.
Donnelly: Do you prefer one over the other?
Clinton: I love performing. I’ve been off the road for about three weeks and my dear partner says I have SORD – Seasonal Off Road Disorder. I’m always working her or the elevator-man, the dry cleaner, the women at Fairway. She’s always relieved when I get on the road.
Donnelly: Have you always been funny? Did you make your parents laugh?
Clinton: I’m a middle child of five kids, with three brothers. It was my job to get them to laugh at hideously inappropriate places. My grandmother’s funeral, during The Miracle Worker.
Donnelly: Does your irreverent humor come from being raised Catholic?
Clinton: Please don’t ask. I’m a bit traumatized by the new pope. Talk about transitions. So far he’s a lot like Miss Manners – don’t gossip, be nice to the gays. Time will tell if there is policy to back it up. For now I’m in a holy wait and see period. A papal honeymoon.
Donnelly: You speak in some of your routines about the importance of humor—that it’s not just a fun pastime or mere entertainment. What is your philosophy of humor?
Clinton: Serious is much more valued than humor. It’s more real and truthful. I resented that valorization at first, but I like the stealth quality of humor. People are open when they laugh and more susceptible to different ideas. I also believe that activists are much more effective when they use humor to change the status quo.
Donnelly: Do you have any ideas as to why more women don’t do stand-up? Why is it such a male dominated field?
Clinton: Stand-up comedy is no different from any other field of work. Slowly we are making changes in the entertainment field, but as we know, men, especially old straight white ones, are very threatened by the changes that are happening. I think women are taking different paths in their comedy venues – the internet, improv, writing.
Donnelly: I ran across an article from 2011 in Scientific American, of all places, titled “The over-representation of lesbians in comedy.” Your thoughts, please!
Clinton: Not until lesbians are overpaid will I feel my work here is done.
Donnelly: Do you find a certain segment of the population dismisses your humor because you identify as a lesbian comedian? In other words, “it’s not for me, it’s for them” sort of attitude.
Clinton: Of course, but with the improving attitudes toward the LGBT community, that is changing. People are much more willing. I have always identified as a lesbian comic with an opinion about everything. It was a great gimmick. An un-niched niche and no one stole my material. More de-limiting sometimes is being known as a liberal or political comic.
Donnelly: Do you make fun of women? After all, many of us are complicit in the perpetuating the dreaded patriarchy.
Clinton: I’d be out of about half of humanity if I didn’t make fun of women. I think the difference is that I try to come from a place of love, not hate. That’s a gag-me-with-a-forklift line I know. But it’s the difference between, “Come on, girl, you can be better than that,” and “I’m going to have to kill you now.”
Donnelly: How can we use humor to break down stereotypes?
Clinton: Stereotypes are short-hand for identification purposes. We all want to be known by our names, but everybody’s too busy and I can’t remember anyone’s name. Humor has a way of personalizing the universal and that’s how I think we break down stereotypes.