“Tell the gay guys to come,” out comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer said. “They come and they love it and then they go, ‘We didn’t know we could come because we thought it was a lesbian event.’ I’ve been putting up with that for 20 years and have had enough. Tell the fags to get in the front seat. That’s where I need them.”
The show she’s referring to is the Atlantic City stop of her aptly named “Totally Inappropriate Tour.”
“To me, it doesn’t seem that,” Westenhoefer, 48, said about the tour’s title. “That would be what other people say.”
No matter what other people call it, Westenhoefer’s new show will continue her tradition of working mostly unscripted, and promises every night on the tour will feature new material inspired by her experiences in that particular city.
“It’s different,” she said about the tour. “It’s hard to explain. It’s not exactly different every night. No comedian could achieve that. I tend to talk very much off the top of my head and go with what’s going on in the world and my life at that time. So no two shows are identical.”
She added that the subject matter on this tour will be a little broader than what she covered on her previous “Finally Legal … in a Few States” tour.
“I can’t remember what I was talking about last year because I’m talking about [something else] this year,” she said. “Gay marriage is still in the act. But obviously I’ve been married for a year [to long-time partner Jennifer Houston] and stuff has changed and now we’re not legal anymore. We were and then we aren’t. But now we might be, now that it is in D.C. You have to keep up.”
Fortunately for Westenhoefer, keeping up is not something she has to work hard to do.
“It’s one of those things that if you’re an activist and you’re gay and you’ve been in the community long enough, you can’t open your e-mail or your Facebook or turn on your phone without someone telling you or hearing about what’s going on in the gay community,” she said. “I would have to throw away my phone and never go near my computer or television if I wanted to be unaware of what’s going on in the gay community now, which was so not the truth 20 years ago. Remember when it took forever for us to get the information out there? We would sneak it to you in a piece of paper in the park.”
Speaking of 20 years ago, Westenhoefer will mark 20 years as a stand-up comedian in July. After taking the stage to tell jokes on a dare, Westenhoefer went on to build a career delivering gay material in mainstream clubs as well as performing for the LGBT community. She was the first openly lesbian comic ever to appear on television in 1991, and the first openly gay comic to host her own HBO Comedy Special in 1994.
Most comedians with 20 years under their belt are trying to avoid the grind of touring and move up the industry food chain into endeavors like managing up-and-coming talent or more television work. But Westenhoefer said she’s still content being a performer.
“I can’t see me as a manager because I need management myself, badly,” she said. “If they gave me my own TV show, I would take that. But that’s not going to happen.”
LGBT representation may have come a long way on television since Westenhoefer started, but she said there are still unspoken limitations to the opportunities for LGBT talent.
“I think it’s why Logo and Here are struggling, because it’s almost like, ‘Isn’t Bravo doing that?’ There’s so many of us but we’re not one individual who wants to watch one kind of programming. I think someone will hit the marketing genius of finding the core and the majority of the gay community. Then everyone will follow, because it’s not happening yet.”
Westenhoefer added those limitations are usually why a lot of gay and lesbian TV personalities choose to stay in the closet until later in their careers.
“I think they stay in the closet because they are terrified,” she said. “They are being told — and shown — that they will not get work, get famous or have the power that they have because they are openly gay. Once they have the power and they know that they’ll have the freedom and they feel secure, then they come out. That’s it. Period. And who can blame them, really? I made a career and I’ve been openly gay the whole time, but you and I both know that there are a whole lot of opportunities that have not been offered to me because I’ve been queer forever.”
Hopefully that will change with her latest project, the popular Web drama “We Have to Stop Now.” The series stars out actresses Cathy DeBuono and Jill Bennett as lesbian therapists trying to keep their crumbling marriage from showing as a documentary film crew follows them after the success of their book, “How to Succeed in Marriage Without Even Trying.”
Westenhoefer plays the couple’s therapist and, while she is considered a star on the show, she thinks of herself as just another member of a talented cast.
“That’s me as an actor, though, with a cast,” she said of her role. “I think that the executive producers, writers and the stars would hear anything I have to say. But do I do that? No. These are really creative, smart people. I enjoy being directed and this is one instance where I’m being told what to say, so it’s quite freeing. Normally, I am in control of all the things that are getting said and it’s all my choice and responsibility. In ‘We Have to Stop Now,’ I have no responsibility. It’s just my own art and craft and what I’m bringing to it. Which sounds very Hollywood — and I hate even the way it sounds when I say it — but it’s really true. I show up and do my work.”
Television series have an established method of gauging how successful a show is, but how does the success of a Web series get measured?
“For me, because I am very shallow, if people say to me after my shows or put on my Facebook, ‘We saw it and we loved it,’” Westenhoefer said. “But I’m sure the executive producers and the marketers are trying to find ways [to measure the success of the show]. It’s pretty grassroots right now. Even in the second season, which hasn’t premiered yet, it’s so different from the first season. The first season we had like $8 and everyone was doing it out of love and all that other warm, gushy stuff. This past season we just did, we had more people involved technically, a little more money. Meredith Baxter joined us. And that made a difference. They’re writing season three right now and there are already established actors and actresses approaching us and saying we want to be in it. It’s changing so quickly that, the first season, which some people are watching right now, seems almost like years ago to me. Although, my hair is really different. I’m letting it grow.”
Since she brought up her hair, we had to ask if Westenhoefer will ever let it grow back to her crimped and massive, early-1990s proportions, when she first started out in comedy.
We received a terse “no.” But we inadvertently triggered some nostalgia.
“I grew up in Lancaster County so I’ve actually seen PGN forever and ever and ever,” she said. “Back when you can just get it on the floor when you walked into Giovanni’s Room. You guys probably have a picture of every possible hairstyle I’ve ever had.”
Oh, we do.
We were thinking of trying to trade those old photos in exchange for Westenhoefer performing in Philadelphia instead of the hour-plus-outside-of-town locations her tour seems to favor. But Westenhoefer said those decisions are out of her hands.
“I would love that,” she said about doing a show in Philadelphia. “We haven’t had a producer in Philly. You have to have someone who makes that whole thing happen. Someone who either loves comics or loves performers or is big in the gay community. It’s hard to rustle up a live performance.”
[Editor’s note: I think we know someone who could make that happen.]
She continued, “It’s been a struggle in these past years. People have access to everything you could think of at their fingertips on the computer. It’s one of the reasons I love doing an Internet series.”
And who knows. If the series keeps up in popularity, it might make the jump from the computer screen to the small screen.
“I think it would make the jump to television very easily because it’s an actors’ and writers’ series,” Westenhoefer said. “So it’s not like we’re doing something that can only be enjoyed on the Internet. It’s on the Internet because a whole lot of really smart and creative people wanted to create their own series and getting on television is damn near impossible. Think about every series that you see on television. There are 1,500 more that were rejected. It’s a miracle to be on TV.”
Westenhoefer added that starting out on the Web has given the show the freedom to develop on its own terms.
“We realized we don’t have to answer to anybody but the people watching, so let’s go for it,” she said. “It’s like cable was in the early 1980s.”
“We Have to Stop Now” can be viewed online at www.wehavetostopnow.tv.
Suzanne Westenhoefer performs at 9 p.m. March 27 at Trump Taj Mahal’s Xanadu Theater, 1000 Boardwalk, Atlantic City. Westenhoefer will also appear at Red Ribbon Gay Bingo to benefit the South Jersey AIDS Alliance at 3 p.m. March 28 at Xanadu Theater. For more information or tickets, call (609) 449-1000 or visit www.suzannew.com.
Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].