Kate Clinton has been called the lesbian Jon Stewart. Her fans, however, prefer to think of Stewart as the straight Kate Clinton. Her career as a political humorist spans several White House administrations, but the current regime has offered her, like most liberal comedians, endless material for both her onstage comic monologues and her monthly columns for the Progressive and the Advocate. A self-described “fumorist,” Clinton focuses her piercing wit on politics and culture that oppress women and, in her writings, recordings, and performances, hurls humor at politicians and pop stars alike. With an arch of her brow or a questioning glance, she can throw into funny-yet-scary relief the logic of a policy, a war, or even a whole decade.
In Clinton’s latest collection of essays, What the L?, she explores what has happened to a variety of L words—liberal, lesbian, liar, lover, and more—during the course of the Bush administration. She riffs on everything from what it’s like to be Mary Cheney at the Cheney family Thanksgiving dinner to the plight of a left-wing funnywoman who’s trying to hold on to sponsorships without compromising her political stance.
Between speaking engagements, Clinton chatted with Bitch from her home in New York City and shared her ideas about humor, activism, humor activism, and why now might not be the best time for a female president.
In your stand-up and essays, you mention your work as a teacher. Tell me about that part of your past.
My mother was a teacher, and when I was growing up, the only thing girls could do was be a nurse or a teacher. I don’t do blood, and we can all be thankful for that, so I taught Advanced Placement English. It must have been ‘75 to ‘78. I had really good kids, and I had the kids who were never going to go past high school, who were in the trades and already making more money than me. People say to me now, “Wow, you do two shows a day!” and I say, “Well, I used to do five a day.”
Are there any similarities between teaching and stand-up?
Being able to control a room is important. I would have left the stage if I hadn’t known that even though there’s no reaction, something could be happening. If you were to look at a typed-up routine, you’d see a lesson plan, and I can improvise from there.
How did you make the leap to comedian, activist, and essayist?
I loved teaching, but it was the hardest work I had ever done, and it was all I did. If you’re a teacher, you’re teaching, you’re getting ready to teach, or you’re correcting papers. Secretly I wanted to be a writer, and I think I was trying not to come out as well. Finally, fabulously, I met this great woman, and we slept together, and I remember going to school the next week, and people were like, “Why is she smiling?” I wanted to have more fun. I went to a place called the Women’s Writers Center outside of Syracuse, New York, and the first week I was there, Rita Mae Brown was there, and I had no idea who she was. And Marge Piercy, Olga Broumas, and Susan Sherman, who used to run a feminist arts magazine in New York City, were there. The last person who came in was Adrienne Rich, and she was so stunning.
You wrote in What the L? that Adrienne Rich once responded to your question about the dearth of feminist humor by asking, “Why don’t you write it?”
Yes, and I think that writing about humor gave me peace with humor. I think we’ve all been the butt of jokes, and we’ve all known it can be really cruel, and writing about humor helped me to know where I stood on it. I showed an essay I wrote to a friend of mine, and she turned to me and said, “Where are the jokes?” After that, I went more directly for the jokes, writing more directly to get a laugh. I started talking about wanting to try stand-up, and that was when one of my best friends booked me in a club, and she said, “I don’t want to hear about it anymore, stop whining, you’re on in a month.”
You’ve written for the Progressive and the Advocate for years. How do your writing and stand-up influence each other?
The lovely thing is that one feeds the other. Sometimes, I’m doing my routine, and I say to myself, This might be the topic of an essay, and a lot of times the nugget of an essay becomes a routine. I’ve always felt that a really good joke, a really good one-liner, is a really good line of poetry. It’s imagistic, it’s compact, there is a rhythm to it.
You’ve said, “Laughter takes the tyranny of the lies we are told and told and told and it blows them apart.”
I really believe that when people can laugh about something, they are allowing themselves to open up to the unfamiliar. In this political climate, people are so shut down to other ideas—I call it a hardening of the categories—that if you can get them to open up and laugh, there is a possibility of improvement, and a possibility of change. I think humor sneaks up on people, and before you know it, you’re laughing at something you might not agree with.
Do you find that your audiences are politically polarized?
When I was talking about the war [in Iraq], people would get up and leave, and I would just pretend they were going to the bathroom, and sometimes they were, but I think that audiences are more conservative than I think. In December 2000, when they hadn’t really decided the Bush-Gore election yet, I was doing a show in West Palm Beach, Florida. People were so nervous during all of the political stuff, and they were so relieved when I did gay stuff. And I thought people [would be] really afraid of the politics we’re in right now. But I also [think] that we really have done a lot of work and that people are not as homophobic or homo-ignorant as they used to be.
It’s interesting that gay jokes are more comforting than political jokes. It’s a little scary, but it’s also wonderful that people are ready for gay humor as a way to feel more comfortable.
I think you can gauge the success of their comfort by the forces raised against us. I mean, look at the virulence of anti-gay initiatives. It’s totally political, and it’s totally being used to activate the nutbucket base, and it can get really daunting. Then I think we must be doing something right if they’re getting this freaked out.
But your audiences are laughing?
I’ve had people come out a little chagrined, saying, “I’m a Republican, but I laughed.”
Your partner, Urvashi Vaid (lawyer, writer, activist, and former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), is a serious commentator on gay rights, and you’re a comedian. What are your conversations like?
She has a fabulous laugh, so I would do almost anything to hear it. Actually, the other night, she couldn’t get to my show until some point during the night. So I’m going on and all of a sudden, I heard a laugh in the audience, and it was hers.
She really helps me clarify things; sometimes, I’ll have a general idea about something, and she’ll help me finish it. She says we’re the marriage of tragedy and comedy, but I don’t know which one is which.
So, you share a name with a famous former president…
I met Bill Clinton once, and I said my last name is Clinton, and he said, “Oh, family!” I told him that I have a brother named Bill, but I didn’t tell him I have a sister named Monica. I do.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Hillary. I think she’s going to run [for president]. I think we’re moving from the archetypal, father-son Bush drama to a revenge cycle, and it’s going to be the Clintons. I’ve written and talked about how I really don’t agree with her politics, but I will work for her. She is absolutely, phenomenally smart. When I was emceeing the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, and they told me to bring on Senator Clinton, I said, “Please welcome my sister-in-law,” and she walked up, not a note in her hand, and just gave it up.
Black men have traditionally achieved rights before women in the U.S., and I’ve thought that we would have a black male president before a female one. The next few elections may change that, but I think an African-American man or a woman of any color would be a welcome change.
Yes, but I do resent that government is being driven into the ground, and we used to have surpluses and now we have huge deficits, and suddenly the entire world hates us, and now it’s like, “Hey, let’s let a woman be president.” It’s sort of woman as cleanup again. You know: “You do it, and get back to me.”
You have a cameo in the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists. How did you end up on the big screen?
It was a play by my friend Craig Lucas, and I had said to him, “If you ever have a small part in a movie, I would love to do it.” My manager called me and said, “Did you audition for a movie?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” And he said, “Well, they want you in this movie.” And I said, “That’s my idea of an audition.”
Will you be doing any more acting?
I have a small part on The L Word in the third season. My part is a secret, but you have to remember that I went to the Ali McGraw school of acting, so it’s basically all about nostril-flaring.
Given your credentials as the female Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, why don’t you have a talk show?
We certainly pitched talk show ideas in the beginning of my career. Then, there was that darn homophobia, and now there’s that danged ageism.
You’re off on an Olivia cruise, which hosts cruises for lesbian travelers. What do you think of gay tourism?
It’s a huge industry. If there is an expendable dollar in the gay community, people will find it. It’s like that moment when we went from being a gay movement to being a gay market. The cruise is a great opportunity for people to be together and get charged up and have fun together. I also want them to take that back to their communities. We’ve made these very comfortable spaces, but I think that we’re in a particular historical moment when we need to come out again. It’s a second outing. We need to come out and challenge people around us, or at least identify ourselves as gay in a world that is larger than a gay world. I do think a lot of these places and spaces give people that strength.
So you’ll be spending the next couple of weeks hanging in the Mediterranean with the Indigo Girls?
I’ll be on the bridge most of the time, watching for homophobic torpedoes. A great segment of lesbian culture could wind up at the bottom of the sea if I’m not on watch at all times.