An interview with Renee Santos

The comedy stand-up special Pride Comedy Jam, which is currently running frequently on Showtime, features six gay comics, including Renee Santos. A regular on the Los Angeles comedy scene at such landmarks as The Laugh Factory, Hollywood Improv and The Comedy Store, Santos will be taking her relatable, personal stories on the road in 2012.

During a recent chat with AfterEllen.com, Santos chatted about how coming out onstage changed the course of her career, why her material is not “all gay, all day,” the reason why she doesn’t talk to her mother much anymore (though she still talks about her in her act) and, of course, we got the 411 on whether she’s single, dating or off the market.

AfterEllen.com: Tell me about breaking into the stand-up world, which is not the easiest place to jump into.
Renee Santos: It’s not an easy world to step into but, it’s funny, I’ve been doing it for about five years and when I first got to L.A., I wasn’t out and I thought, “That’s going to hurt me.” I didn’t have a lot of success and I was doing open mics until two in the morning and I think it was because I wasn’t owning who I was. Right around year three, I was finally like “I just need to start talking.” I was out to my friends but I wasn’t doing it in my stand-up because I didn’t want anyone to know. But as soon as I owned who I was and I started writing gay material I started to get all these bites and they booked me at the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory. I did that for a couple of years and made a niche gay fan base, who were really just my friends who showed up to support me. Let’s be honest! Eventually, last year, they then offered me that green stuff – money – to perform! That was pretty awesome and that’s kind of how I got into it. I finally felt like I had a platform and a voice with my comedy.

AE: Was there any trepidation about being too gay with your material or did you have to work to make sure you mixed the subject matter up a little bit?
RS: You know, that’s such a good question because once I came out it was all gay, all day. Then, one time I went to Boston and I got booked in a club that was not at all a gay crowd and I completely tanked with material that had killed in L.A. That was my first epiphany that I had to become more eclectic and even though that voice was important I didn’t want it to be my only voice. A hard lesson learned but it’s not nearly as open and liberal in Boston, surprisingly not. It was a really good learning lesson for me so I started opening the door up a little bit more. I’m Latina so I started writing material about my mom being an immigrant. Also, for me personally, anecdotal stories are the types of comedy I like to do and being gay is just part of my anecdotes. It’s easy to get stuck in that niche when that’s what people are responding to.

AE: I love the fact that you use your parents in the act. Are they aware of that and are OK with that?
RS: [sighs] My dad is amazing and completely supportive. He’s actually hilarious and when my Showtime special aired, we were at a family function and he said his oldest son was a lawyer and his second eldest daughter is a nurse and his third eldest daughter was a lesbian. [Laughs] It cracked me up — like it was a career choice. So he’s very, very supportive of it. He’s come a long way. I’ve been out since I was 19.

But, my mother is a completely different story. She’s not at all happy and we don’t even really speak anymore. We always had a tumultuous relationship but she thinks I’m basically selling my soul by being out. She’s an immigrant, she’s very Catholic and she wanted me to overcome this. At first, she thought this was my challenge and God gave me this challenge to overcome and the fact that I’m choosing not to “overcome” it and embrace it instead is something she’s not so happy with.

AE: Talk to me about the Pride Comedy Jam. I love that it’s a show specifically for gay comics. How did you get hooked up with that show?
RS: It’s a great example of suiting up and showing up for your life even when you don’t want to. I was sick as a dog with strep throat and a friend of mine called me to do a show at the Laugh Factory in Long Beach at the last minute. It was raining and, of course, she calls me but I was like “Just show up and make it happen!” I drive down to Long Beach and Sandra Valls was doing her Lezberados Tour that she was taking all over the nation and she saw me that night and asked me if I’d emcee her tour.

Then a very good friend of mine saw me on the tour and gave my name to Andrea Meyerson and one day out of the blue Andrea called me and asked if I’d audition for her for this Showtime special. It was so surreal! All of a sudden two weeks later I was doing something for Showtime and it was absolutely incredible!

AE: Is the Pride Comedy Jam a special or series of specials and how is it airing?
RS: They’re re-running it through October but I’m hoping it’s a series of specials but I don’t know definitively. [Andrea] may do another cycle but I don’t know if it would be Pride Comedy Jam 2.

AE: I think it was from a Pride Comedy Jam clip that I saw you talk about realizing you were gay because of Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing?  Is that right?
RS: Oh my gosh! True story! I used to laminate pictures of Jennifer Grey on my wall. My sister would say “What’s up with that?” They had Patrick Swayze and Boyz II Men on the wall and I was like “I think she’s a great actress!” I didn’t even know I was gay but I remember watching that movie and I wanted to be Patrick Swayze.

AE: Because you wanted to lift her up at the end of the movie, right?
RS: Absolutely! I had this fantasy of lifting up her arm slowly. I was definitely the guy in my dream.

AE: Who are some of your favorite comedy icons that really inspired you?
RS: Definitely, Ellen DeGeneres — and I’m not saying this because this is for AfterEllen.com. But I remember watching the movie Mr. Wrong where she’s a straight woman and I remember thinking, “It’s such a disservice that she didn’t have enough courage to come out.” I had a lot of judgment but soon after that she came out and that just in itself, having that visibility for people like me, I just paid attention to her comedy and I actually loved the fact that she didn’t do a lot of commentary on being gay. People know intuitively that she’s gay but people still laugh at the material of her comedy without always having to comment on that and I think that’s really inspirational.

I also like Wanda Sykes and also Sandra Valls was a huge mentor for me. I remember seeing Queens of Comedy on HBO and I started targeting her and it’s amazing that she’s one of my good friends now but I loved how open and out she was in a group of women that were nothing like her. I thought that was pretty inspirational. But I also love Chris Rock. His physicality and the way he uses the stage. It took me awhile to move away from the mic and I remember watching him just to see how he took on the stage and I loved that.

AE: Living in Los Angeles as we do, we know entertainers who are gay but not out in their careers. Since you’ve gone on your journey, what’s your opinion of those who stay in the closet?
RS: I do believe that we all have to go through our process but I also believe that it’s almost our duty to come out because it’s important that young gay kids have a voice and it’s not always about making a political statement about your sexuality. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. For somebody who knows that they’re gay, you just keep moving on with your life, you go to the grocery store and you drive your car — that kind of visibility is really, really important for gay people to not feel so ostracized. For me, personally, I think that if you are part of any minority, it is your duty to come out and that’s just my opinion but I do feel it’s a process and you need to feel safe. Whatever minority you are, whatever you are, you have to own it.

AE: I have to, of course, ask if you’re single, dating, off the market? I think some people might want to know!

RS: [laughs] I am very recently single. I just went through a breakup mid-August so here’s to the new single life! I am embracing it. I’ve been in a relationship for a decade so it’s good to me. I’m loving it!

Check out this (NSFW!) clip from Pride Comedy Jam:

For more on Renee Santos, visit her website, ReneeSantos.com, and to get more info on the airing schedule for Pride Comedy Jam, visit sho.com.

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