Kate McKinnon Hits It Big

Out comedian Kate McKinnon's path to The Big Gay Sketch Show (which airs on Logo, AfterEllen.com's parent company) began some 19 years ago. Which is funny, because McKinnon's only 23 years old now.

“When I was 4,” McKinnon explained, “I asked my mom what a gay person was. She said, ‘A gay person is someone who loves people of their own gender, and also a lot of times gay people are very creative, like Michelangelo was gay.' I loved Michelangelo and so I thought, ‘Well, s—, I want to be gay then.' I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that I was.”

Of course, she didn't find out for a few years — not until certain signs started creeping up. There was her, uh, physical obsession with Gillian Anderson, which she mentions in The Big Gay Sketch Show. And there were the white ribbed tank tops she wore around the house during her teen years. (“It felt so good.”) Later, she noted with a laugh, the telltale signs included a desire to weld.

McKinnon came out in “several theatrical ways” during high school — including a speech at theater camp and another at her Methodist church. As a “quiet and painfully shy” person, she said it was typical for her to prefer sharing intimate revelations onstage.

“It feels so much more natural to bare the black depths of my heart to a crowd of people I don't know than to tell one friend about it,” she said. “Always, it has been that way. It just feels completely and totally natural, comfortable and lovely to do a performance by myself for an hour in front of people I don't know. I love it.”

McKinnon took her love for the stage to Columbia University, where she graduated last year with a degree in theater. Though she described Columbia as a “trying, cold and lonely” place, it was through The Varsity Show, a musical theater event at Columbia written and produced by students, that she learned the basics of sketch comedy.

Then one day during her senior year — “like a miracle,” she said — a friend received an email announcing auditions for The Big Gay Sketch Show and encouraged McKinnon to give it a shot.

She was intimidated. “Terribly intimidated,” she said. “In fact, I'm still intimidated.” It wasn't just that it was a big break. It's that it was a big break on a queer network, on a groundbreaking show targeted at an audience of people like her — people with a unique and personal appreciation for the material and the shared experience behind it.

McKinnon said her portrayal of Fitzwilliam, a transgender British boy hoping to receive a gift-wrapped vagina for Christmas, was her all-time favorite stage performance. “You just can't really play that character anywhere else,” she said. “To be with a live audience where people laughed at that instead of being grossed out or weirded out by it, that was really wonderful for me.”

It was especially wonderful given the tough times the Harlem-based McKinnon has endured recently while performing her stand-up routines around New York. Jokes about masturbation (remember that fascination with Gillian Anderson?) and about her father, who died during her teenage years, have led a few audiences to cringe at the punch lines. She's adjusting, learning to rein in some of her darker jokes to hit the right note onstage, while also staying true to her passion: “comedy borne from pain, that's my favorite,” she said with a laugh.

It's appropriate, then, that the one-woman show she's now developing is called Sad Sack. Like her previous solo efforts, McKinnon will populate the show with a wide range of personalities. “I like doing characters, and I in fact don't like not being a character,” she said. Her favorite creations include Scottish ladies and nerdy girls, outcasts she describes as “upset or downtrodden and just not regular people.”

The dark humor of shows like the British version of The Office inspires McKinnon's material. “I think the best comedy is grounded in true, utter tragedy — and also profound hope,” she said. “I like to talk about depression or just general sadness and explore how people deal with it, how sadness manifests itself in different characters.”

McKinnon jokes about how she “always wanted to be a lesbo comedian,” but there's truth behind the comment, as she embraces the perspectives that lesbians and all minorities bring to comedy. “As minorities, we're on the fringe, and there's just something so wonderful about that perspective, something so inspiring," she explained. "If you're part of that minority, you can make fun of those people while respecting them and lifting them up. That was part of our goal with The Big Gay Sketch Show.

During the show's filming, McKinnon developed a friendship with co-star Julie Goldman (“the big lesbo sister I always wanted”), who has become her mentor. And she was overwhelmed by the opportunity to work with lesbian icons Rosie O'Donnell, who helped her with a couple of monologues, and Amanda Bearse, who directed the show. McKinnon said, “These are people who have made it OK for me to be gay, to be who I am right now, and I'm just so grateful as a person to them for their work and what they've done for all of us.”

For now, the show's set is in storage, but Logo has recently announced it has picked up the series for a second season to air in 2008.

“This show was the best six weeks of my life,” McKinnon said. “I felt like, not only was I getting to do comedy, but I was getting to help my people. It had a sociological significance that made it even better to be doing. It's amazing. I could die tomorrow and I'd be kind of OK with it.”

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