By Gary Kramer
When asked what to expect from her act at the Rrazz Room Nov. 18, out comedienne Suzanne Westenhoefer does not reveal any of her jokes. It is not that she is keeping her humor a secret. She just does not know what she will discuss yet.
“I tend to talk about whatever is in my head at the time,” she admitted on the phone from Akron, Ohio, and deadpanned a line about her “glamorous” life as she irons a shirt in her hotel room. “My stuff is timely — not to the news — but to the audience and me. Literally. If it rains, I’ll talk about that — if that’s funny. I don’t do bam-bam-bam jokes. I have a lot of bam-bam-bam jokes in my act, but they go into a story that I’m telling. That’s not usual for comics. My goal is to tell a story and disarm audiences with my humor. I want folks to have a great time. I want audiences to like me.”
She paused to make an observation about her act.
“I just had a show in San Diego, and someone pointed out to me afterwards that I come out and make the audience feel like we’re your best friend. You have all this stuff to tell us and we’re laughing the whole time.”
Even on the phone with Westenhoefer it is impossible not to be charmed by her and laugh at her stories.
When asked about growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and if it had an effect on her humor and her outlook on life, she responded, “Everything I learned in Pennsylvania got humiliated out of me when I went to college in New Jersey.
“I used the word ‘dopic’ which is a Lancaster County word meaning klutzy,” she added. “I used [Pennsylvania] Dutch phrases, like ‘Throw me down the stairs, my blanket.’ It’s such a common way to talk! They beat it out of me in college. Even my pronunciation: It’s ‘water’ not ‘wooter.’”
Westenhoefer said that growing up, the person with the biggest influence on her “voice” as a comedienne was her grandfather, who was a storyteller and the only man in her life.
“He was a factory worker. We were lower-lower middle class. You didn’t say poverty then. You had to have a ‘middle’ in there. It gave you legitimacy.”
So where does the performer find humor in the absurdity of everyday life?
“In everything!” she effused. “I don’t think, How can I say this that it’s funny? It’s just natural to me to answer your questions and make you laugh. I don’t mean that to be conceited. I think in a way that is humorous. My brain just goes there. I’m trying to make you laugh, but I’m not trying.”
As for being an out lesbian comedienee, Westenhoefer is proud to have started her career on the comedy club circuit in the 1990s, when there were only five out gay comics who were appearing mostly at Pride events.
“I wanted to be openly gay in the clubs. That was my activism. I was performing in front of straight audience, talking about lesbian sex and going to bridal showers. It became a ‘thing,’ and I’m fine with that. I wanted that visibility.
“I’ve been an activist all my life!” she exclaimed, recounting a story about getting the kids in her high school to boycott the cafeteria because there wasn’t a salad bar. “I was a big loud, scream-y, ugly feminist. In sixth grade I was playing ‘I Am Woman.’ I remember watching Billie Jean King play Bobby Riggs when I was 12. I have been openly queer since 1981. I started stand-up in 1990, and I went with it. When I was asked, ‘Are you a lesbian comedienne, or a comedienne who is lesbian?’ I found it offensive. I said I was a lesbian comedienne. It was necessary to move things forward.”
However, while Westenhoefer acknowledged that the comedy circuit has improved for both queer comics and women, it’s not moved forward enough.
“There are still ladies’ nights. And [clubs] will say, ‘We have two women [tonight] so we can’t have a third.’ The gay thing is not any better, but it’s better than it was in the 1980s. A comic can get up and talk about their partner and no one is going to lose their shit. If they are funny, they will be asked back. Being queer won’t stop you from getting work, but things still need to be improved. The work is not over.”
Suzanne Westenhoefer will perform at the Rrazz Room at 8 p.m. Prince Nov. 18. For tickets, visit www.princetheater.org/events/suzanne-westenhoefer.