Interview with Suzanne Westenhoefer (March 2003)


Comedian and actress Suzanne Westenhoefer talks about the challenges of being an out lesbian comedian, her recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, her role in the new lesbian movie A Family Affair, and her new CD. The Late Show with David Letterman has never had an out lesbian comedian doing lesbian-themed stand-up comedy on the show; why do you think you were asked to appear now? Were you nervous about being the first?
Suzanne Westenhoefer:
Of the major late night hosts (Leno, Letterman, Conan, Kilborn and Arsenio) it goes like this…Kate [Clinton] and Lea [Delaria] did a spot each on Arsenio. Bob Smith (open gay comic) did one shot on Leno right after he and I did our HBO Specials (1994). Kate DID do Rosie (as did Lea) but they were not open (not allowed, I am sure). I also got a spot on The Jon Stewart Show (I think it was in 1996). That has been it.

I was the first for Letterman and yes I was very nervous — not just the being open thing, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the need to do REALLY well because I was speaking (and hopefully opening doors) for lots of gay folks. I was also scared because I am female (watch TV — not too many chicks getting the opportunity to do stand up either).

I think when it came down to it I was picked because I was funny, and successful (making a living etc.) BUT [also] because the man who has booked the comics on Letterman for the last two years knew me, knew my work (and had been trying for about the last two years by the way to get me on). He believed in me and championed me. When it comes right down to it…just like they always say. It’s who you know. Remember this: Ray Romano, Kevin James, Bonnie Hunt….they all have shows because of Letterman. This is how it works.

AE: It appeared from watching the show on television that the studio audience was very engaged and appreciative of your performance; was that your perception at the time? Overall, are you happy with your performance?
SW: The studio audience had a funny look on their face for about the first seven seconds. Contrary to popular belief, they are not mostly New Yorkers, but tourists, and although they say this all the time in the business…”Funny is funny…it doesn’t matter,” it’s a lie. People will NOT laugh at a lesbian if it goes against their moral or whatever beliefs….trust me, I have been doing this since July 31 1990. I am an expert on this!

[But] once the audience knew it was “okay” (meaning I was just going to be out and talk about Annie) they laughed. Network TV helps a lot. I had practiced that set six times: twice in LA, twice in Ohio, and Twice in NY, and there were still many who were shocked and upset.

I am very happy with how it turned out, very happy that I got three “applause breaks” without them using the applause sign (my friend was in the audience and she took note of that….we are shallow like that!)

AE: Did you ever consider “toning down” the lesbian-related references (to your girlfriend, the lesbian cruise, etc.) for the Letterman appearance? Was it ever suggested by the Letterman or CBS folks that you do so?
The Letterman people were totally fine with my being out etc. There was some concern — we went over jokes on the phone with producers etc. There was a lot of discussion about HOW out and HOW many times to say lesbian, was I going to say “dyke” etc. (I didn’t end up saying dyke, I don’t think) but they were fine in the end with everything. We had all this confusing stuff in the beginning — they only wanted ‘20% gay stuff blah blah blah….in the end, they let me do my set. I got a lot of help from the show’s booker (he’s a comic too, and very funny) and everyone just sorta said GO.

Funny note: Paul Shaffer and the band were very cool to me. He said they knew I was going to be way fun since one of the “bullet points” on my cue cards was “LESBO CRUISE.” They all enjoyed that.

AE: What are the challenges in performing in front of a mostly-straight audience (like Letterman) versus a mostly-gay one (like a lesbian cruise)?
The difference between a straight audience and gay audience and the difference between an all lesbo cruise…’s unreal. They are not the same at all. But I do the same stuff. You can’t compare. I have noticed that I can “straight bash,” as they say, to an all hetero audience, but the gays don’t like it. They think you are being mean. I get that.

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