Being a lesbian was no laughing matter until Suzanne Westenhoefer came along.
Suddenly, out was very in.
A former bartender at Houlihan's restaurant in Seacaucus, Westenhoefer has been comedy's first openly gay performer since 1990, when some of her regular customers, who thought she was funny, challenged her to try stand-up.
"I was terrible," Westenhoefer recalls of her debut at an open-mike contest in a Greenwich Village club. "I was doing jokes about [the late] Leona Helmsley and calling myself a lesbian Barbie. I was so bad."
But she won the contest, probably because her act -- or lack thereof -- was unique. Her gay jokes didn't seem to offend the audience. To the contrary, it separated her from the other comedy wanna-bes that night and made her stand out.
When Westenhoefer, 47, decided to take the plunge into comedy full time and incorporate her lesbian lifestyle into her material, friends and fellow performers advised against it.
"They said it would be career suicide," she says with a wry laugh during a phone call from her California home. "It's been anything but."
Before trying comedy, Westenhoefer was -- and still is -- a gay rights activist. She saw no reason to retreat from her outspoken ways just because she was entering the comedy world.
|Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell at Boogie Nights last weekend with the club's Dave Peña.|
"I knew I wasn't going to be able to do stand-up and pretend there was a boyfriend or a husband in the picture," she explains. "I think I also did [the gay material] just to see how far I could go with it, so I went out there and I gave it a whirl and it worked."
While other comedians have since come out of the closet -- most notably Ellen DeGeneres -- Westenhoefer has been out there from the start. Her material, which ranges from jokes about her quirky family to stories about gay cruises and other wildly extemporaneous observational pieces, appeals to both gay and straight audiences.
To be sure, her humor is over the top, but it's not so off-putting it offends a straight crowd.
"My mom can come to my show and not see anything wrong with what I'm doing," she says.
But her decision to work "gay" has likely cost her plenty of jobs over the years at the hands of promoters and booking agents who don't understand the nature of her comedy. It's probably the one reason she's never performed in Las Vegas.
Had the South Jersey AIDS Alliance not booked her to perform at a fundraiser Saturday (Nov. 15) at Harrah's Resort, she might still be waiting to make her Atlantic City debut.
We can easily become the gay honeymoon capital of the world if we act positively and quickly. And, if that happens, there will be a lot more things to do, and a lot more creativity centered in the town.
ATLANTIC CITY — Caesars Entertainment has again assembled a weekend full of fun events focused on Atlantic City’s gay community. It starts Friday night, Sept. 23, with a four-course dinner party at House of Blues’ Foundation Room featuring the Hearty Boys — a gay couple who host a cooking show on the Food Network — and several other segments served up in a festive atmosphere and hosted by famed Las Vegas drag queen Frank Marino. This is the third annual OUT In AC event put on by Caesars Entertainment (an organization that regularly receives high commendation from the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index), and one of many GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) events to materialize on the Atlantic...
The openly gay comic takes the reigns of the city's newest tradition, Miss'd America, which takes place at Boardwalk Hall Sunday, Jan. 16.
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