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Gay American comic would steal babies

Mike Player: the shock of the funny gays revealed in the US

(This was also published on the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

The 5th annual Outlaugh Comedy Festival – America’s first gay and lesbian comedy festival – is currently being held in Los Angeles and lasts for another two weeks.

Mike Player wrote the book Out on the Edge: America’s Rebel Comics. He created and organises the Outlaugh Festival.

I asked him how and why it started.

“I lost my mind,” he told me, “which is the only way to get anything done in the U.S. At the time, America had no national queer comedy festival and we (the comedians) were all tired of things like Gay Tuesday Night at Mongo’s Steakhouse. We wanted something that actually meant something.”

I have been to Los Angeles but not San Francisco. I think of the West Coast as being fairly laissez-faire and (in the British use of the word) liberal, but Mike tells me is was not easy for gay comedians even eight years ago:

“In 2004, my comedy group, The Gay Mafia, got kicked out of a club in Hollywood. We were doing a sketch where two retired Navy SEALs were getting married. The straight club owner had a brother who had died in Iraq and he said that portraying Navy SEALs as gay was deeply offensive to him and that he would pull the light cords out if we did the sketch. So, naturally, we did the sketch. We sold out the house and he was too busy helping sell drinks at his bar to pull the plug. But he kicked us out afterwards.”

So gay comedy was not totally accepted even eight years ago?

“I can tell you,” Mike says, “that The Gay Mafia, was reviewed by the LA Weekly without them mentioning that anything we did in the show had any gay content or that the show was gay at all. I heard the reviewer only showed up for the free meal.

“But,” Mike admits, “there was no real resistance to the idea of starting a gay comedy festival. No-one resisted except, oddly, the queer TV and film companies, though we conquered them in the end. The place you find the haters hating Outlaugh is on Netflix where they write homophobic reviews of our movie and TV show.”

Because the even more admirable thing – to me – is that Mike managed to get a movie made about the first Outlaugh and then an 8-part TV series The Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack. I asked him How come?

“I financed the movie with my own money,” he told me, “which is amazing because I didn’t have any money! But it made all its investment back. With the TV show, for once, I was in the right place at the right time. We had Margaret Cho hanging out with The Gay Mafia and everyone in America worships celebrity more than Jesus. All you have to do is spoon cat food onto a dish in a commercial and people will treat you like you captain a spaceship.

“I was on a conference call with the folks at MTV’s LOGO network and Margaret Cho and my production company associates and we all listened in sad horror while a network executive sniveled and begged Margaret to do anything and be on any shows in addition to Outlaugh.”

“During the production of our TV series Outlaugh Festival on Wisecrack, conference calls happened every day with the production company I worked with, myself as the artistic director, the network and what they call ‘listeners’ who are opportunistic network assistants who actually spy on conversations for some network reason – probably to take over the country. LOGO and other networks have to hear a celebrity commit to a project to prevent celebs from backing out. People have to sign agreements and swear on the Bible – or just the parts that don’t condemn gays.

“Just like straight people, though, queer people in entertainment are mostly out for themselves. In TV and film, it’s all about whose project something is, rather than the merit of the project. I had film people and TV ‘suits’ fighting over who should get credit over what, more than how to make the idea of Outlaugh good. I had to make sure Outlaugh was good myself.”

Even today, Mike tells me, gay comedy in the US is not totally acceptable.

“A lot of the comedy clubs out here,” he says, “have ‘gay nights’ on non-weekend nights and many advertise the comedians as Some Gay and Some Not to get people to attend. I think that’s bullshit. Imagine advertising a ‘black comedy night’ with Some Black and Some Not. There is a sentiment which is fading away that ‘gay comedy’ is not accessible to everyone. Again, bullshit.”

In my British Islander ignorance, I think of San Francisco as being more gay and Los Angeles less so, but Mike tells me I am wrong:

“LA is actually gayer,” he says. “There is more gay theatre and comedy going on here than in San Francisco. I think because all the closet cases finally came out and because it’s chic to be gay now. I wish John Travolta would realize that.”

Inbrook, the New York based entertainment company for which I am a UK consultant, is in discussion about bringing Outlaugh to Britain.

Mike says: “I would steal babies for that to happen!”

“But,” I asked him, playing devil’s advocate: “why should the UK have a gay comedy festival? Isn’t that ghetto-ising gays?”

“No,” he argues. “It’s centralizing gays. There are gay film festivals and gay pride festivals and gay political organizations. Comedy is another major art form that we can rally around to tell our stories and assert our outrage.”

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Internet, Television, Theatre