Originally published on The Washington Blade, January 31, 2013
For one of her first shows this year, comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer cannot assure her audience she will stick to a certain theme or what kind of jokes she will make. She doesn’t even have a name for her current tour.
However, she does promise that straight or gay, boy or girl, attendees will laugh.
Westenhoefer comes to the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria) Friday night, bringing with her personal stories that audiences can relate to and laugh about.
“Because the act I do is very truthful, very personal, my show is changing hourly,” she says. “If something changes in my life that makes the story not true, the show changes. It’s not like a written script.”
The blend of honesty and often self-deprecating humor is what brings audiences back year after year, says Michael Jaworek, Birchmere promoter, who has been booking Westenhoefer for more than 15 years.
“Her audience is very devoted and follows her,” he says. “She is funny. Her humor is insightful. A lot of her material deals with gay life, or rather lesbian life. She speaks to and for the majority of her audience.”
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Tickets are $54.50
Westenhoefer does know that a bulk of her show will deal with recovering from divorce and entering the dating world for the first time in years. Through this process, she’s learned a few new things about herself.
“I suck at dating,” she says. “I don’t date, I don’t know how.”
A little less than a year ago, Westenhoefer divorced long-term partner Jennifer Houston, whom she married in 2008 before Proposition 8 was voted on in California. Through the transition, she’s learned a lot of new things about herself.
“I thought I would be fine, apparently not,” she says. “I didn’t know how to feed myself. I hadn’t cooked for myself since I moved in with my first partner when I was 21.”
But she says despite the bumps and challenges in her new life, there are so many great and new people to meet and that everyone should “go out, be nice, buy someone a cocktail and meet somebody.” She’s currently exclusively seeing a woman whom she calls “tall girl” in order to respect her privacy.
The stage to Westenhoefer is an open diary, and even when the story is tragic in nature, she always tries to make it comedic.
“I see what everybody is thinking, what needs to be said,” she says. “I’m getting everybody off the hook by saying it. I’m giving them a chance to laugh at tragedy that befalls them all.”
Growing up in the heart of Amish country in Pennsylvania, and coming out right when the AIDS crisis was starting in 1981, Westenhoefer has had plenty of stories to tell. But the act of sharing her personal narrative has its roots in something deeper and older.
“My grandfather was the same way,” she says. “He was that kind of person who goes to the store to get milk and bread, come back and have a fantastic funny story about it.”
On stage, Westenhoefer is not afraid to say whatever is on her mind.
“Once my sister told me she thinks she might be gay, but asked me not to tell anybody,” she says. “What did I do? I went right on stage and said ‘So, my sister thinks she’s gay.’”
This has not gotten her in trouble with her family so far, she claims, because they know it is “out of love.”
Westenhoefer began her stand-up career at the end of 1990, when a friend dared her to go on stage while she was working as a New York bartender. However, she did not need anyone to dare her to be honest and talk about gay life.
“My opening line was I am the only gay comedian you’re going to see tonight,” she says.
Though her first time on stage didn’t go well (by her own admission), her career took off through the ‘90s. In 1991, she became the first lesbian comic to appear on television, when she was on an episode of “Sally Jessy Raphael” called “Breaking the Lesbian Stereotype: Lesbians Who Don’t Look Like Lesbians,” and then went on to be the first openly gay comic to host an HBO Comedy Special in 1994.
Being on television created an opportunity to start a conversation, she says.
“It was a way to tell people not to panic, we aren’t killing babies,” Westenhoefer says. “This has always been and always will be.”
This is not the first time Westenhoefer has been a force for change. She says in high school she formed a group to ban dodge ball. She says activism is in her blood and that she and her family always were political
While still blunt and honest with her audience, Westenhoefer says things have certainly changed since she began. Westenhoefer no longer uses her original opening line.
“I used to do shows in straight clubs and I literally would say I was lesbian in the beginning of every show,” she says. “It’s definitely gotten to be a different show. It doesn’t have to be gay gay gay gay.”
Recent events, such as Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes and Barack Obama’s speech at his second inauguration, she says mark the change in attitudes toward the LGBT community.
When she came out at 19, Westenhoefer says it was a scarier time period. There was more violence against the community. However, most of her friends and family were supportive.
Now she finds it amazing that people like Foster can go on international television and discuss their sexuality with the world.
“I am very excited for her,” Westenhoefer, who’s met Foster three times, says. “She is a very shy, very private woman. I am very proud of her. To get up in front of an international audience and tell this, it’s amazing.”
Despite leaving the much warmer West Coast to do so, Westenhoefer says she’s always glad to return to the D.C. area.
“I love D.C. for several reasons,” she says. “First of all people will come out for a show even if there is an ice storm. They have southern hospitality, they are political and they want to be entertained. It is the perfect storm for comedy.”
Jaworek is happy to have her back because, “Suzanne is a very funny woman period.”
Even though she shares the experiences of a lesbian, Westenhoefer insists that, “the boys are welcome. It is not just for girls. It’s a show for straights, for gays, and if they wanna come, I promise they’ll laugh.”