“Fumerist” Kate Clinton Continues to Make Us Laugh


Clinton's book "Don't Get Me Started"Tired of comics who seem to focus exclusively on straight sex or crass male humor involving toilets? Tired of so-called lesbian comedians who routinely avoid the word “lesbian”? Or perhaps you’re weary of “family-friendly” comedy that rarely seems attached to the real world we are living in—you know, the one where the guy in the White House can’t pronounce the word “nuclear.”

If so, then Kate Clinton is the solution. An out lesbian comedian for over 23 years, Clinton makes us laugh with her sharp take on lesbian life (and sex), politics, and the length of your index finger. She is one of the few intelligent comedians out there—and by intelligent I mean laugh-out-loud funny because your brain was invited to participate.

Born in 1947 to an Irish-Catholic family in upstate New York, Kate Clinton grew up as the middle child in a family of five children, a situation that she credits with starting her off as a comedian. “I had two older brothers, a younger brother and a younger sister, and [humor] was a way to make myself heard; sort of a way to diffuse the towel snapping that could happen after dinner,” she told In Word in 1998. “My goal was usually to get someone in my family to fall off a chair or something.”

Educated at a small Jesuit college in upstate New York and at Colgate University, Clinton was a high school English teacher for eight years before a friend—who had taken note of Clinton’s interest in doing stand-up—signed her up to perform at a Syracuse comedy club in 1981.

Clinton did not come out until she was 27, and she has often described herself as a late bloomer, but her comedy never shied away from the fact that she is a lesbian. Her openly gay routines restricted her from performing at mainstream comedy clubs, but they also built her a loyal following among lesbians who attended her early performances at women’s coffeehouses and music festivals.

Some of her many live performances have been recorded on her seven audio albums, from Making Light! in 1982 to her most recent CD, The Marrying Kind, which was released this spring and is available through her website. In 1996 Clinton was briefly a writer for the fledgling Rosie O’Donnell Show before she took time off to write her book, Don’t Get Me Started, which was published in 1998.

Her two decades of comedy and her vocal support for gay and lesbian rights were recognized in 1999 when she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Hardly one to rest on her laurels, Clinton has spent the past five years continuing to tour around the country, volunteering as an emcee at numerous fundraising events, as well as hosting the memorial service for GLBT victims of 9/11. She was recently featured in the 2003 award-winning documentary Laughing Matters (available on DVD on July 6), which focused on lesbian comedians Suzanne Westenhoefer, Karen Williams, and Marga Gomez in addition to Clinton.

While other well-known lesbian comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O’Donnell tend to stay away from hot-button topics such as feminism or politics, Clinton’s brand of humor has consistently and openly affirmed her support for feminism and gay rights. Self-described as a “fumerist,” or a feminist + humorist, Clinton explained to In Word in 1998, “I always called myself a feminist, which to me is a very inclusive term. A lot of times people would think was very exclusive but I think it’s for all people.”

She has also repeatedly expressed her intent to use humor in an activist manner to make positive change for women. As she noted to In Word, “I also think that as a feminist, I want to change to world. And so there’s a way that humor can bear the weight of that where a lot of times the serious just can’t.” In her 1998 book Don’t Get Me Started, Clinton wrote:

“Since the goal of feminism is the end of oppression of women and since there still seem to be some loose ends to tie up before we bring it about, I will be employed as a feminist humorist for a few years more. No downsizing, no layoffs, no early retirement packages for me. Obsolescence is my plan. Liberation is the goal.” (p. 199)

In a time when feminism is still often dismissed as man-hating, old-school (for younger women), or too exclusive of race or class differences, Clinton’s outspoken yet humorous support for feminism is refreshing and much-needed.

She has also been very open about her criticism of the Bush administration, and much of her comedy nimbly skewers political figures and news stories (including last year’s obsession with gay marriage) with her trademark dry wit and sarcastic puns. She does more than simply poke fun at the right-wing imbeciles who run the US, though, by donating her time as a volunteer host for numerous gay rights or women’s causes, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Ms. Foundation.

As more lesbian and gay comedians have come out over the past two decades, Clinton’s comedy has evolved to reflect those changes. “I think for me when I first started I really talked about lesbian life, and lesbian politics, and lesbian social and cultural things, and with more lesbian performers I don’t have to do all that,” she told In Word. “I feel like I’ve been able to talk more about politics.”

She now writes regular monthly columns for The Advocate and The Progressive in which she comments about topics as diverse as The L Word and becoming ordained online to marry her gay friends—but always with a savvy political edge. She has appeared on CNN and MSNBC in addition to more typical outlets for comedy such as The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Roseanne. In another sign that Clinton is rapidly becoming the grande dame of lesbian comedians, she was recently awarded the 2004 Stonewall Award, a $25,000 grant that recognizes individuals or groups that have made a significant contribution to the LGBT community.

Clinton currently calls Provincetown, MA, her home, where she lives with longtime partner Urvashi Vaid, an Indian-American attorney and activist. Talking to The Advocate in 2001 about their relationship, Clinton said, “[My relationship with Urvashi is] the best thing that ever happened to me. I met Urvashi in ’88. We really helped each other. She’s very serious, and now she laughs more. I was very funny, but now I have more content.”

Clinton continues to tour for a large part of the year, and this summer she can be found opening for Melissa Etheridge’s Lucky tour, as well as performing at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. All lesbians (or women, for that matter) who like their comedy mixed up with some smart—not to mention funny—political commentary should buy themselves a seat.

Visit KateClinton.com for more information.

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