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Laughing Out Loud

By Lavender June 4, 2010

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Rainbow Comedians Thrive in Twin Cities

Monty Python’s Eric Idle said, “One way of measuring the freedom of any society is the amount of comedy that is permitted.”

If that is so, then I hope future historians include the Twin Cities in their assessment of America, as our home is a hotbed of comedic talent. Thanks to the metro’s fondness for diversity, some of our funniest comedians aren’t afraid to show their rainbow colors.

Although the Twin Cities has no specifically GLBT comedy shows or venues here—the kind one is more apt to find in New York—according to local stand-up comedian Tom Steffen, that “lack” points to the open-mindedness of general audiences.”

Steffen says, “Here, the comedy is so good that audiences don’t reject you for any one reason. Whether you’re a black comic or a gay comic, if you’re funny, they like you.”

Outside the Twin Cities, that is not always true.

Years ago, I wrote a piece on the Broadway tour of All Shook Up. For a jukebox musical, its plot was surprisingly ballsy: Guy meets the girl of his dreams, but sadly, falls for the wrong one. In order to get his attention, his dream-gal dresses as a man (“Ed”) to get closer to him. It works: He becomes attracted to “him” for who “he” is, and vows that if it is his destiny to be with “Ed,” then so be it. In the Twin Cities, when the two lovers kissed, the audience cheered. The actors tried to stay in the moment, but it was clear they honestly were surprised. The actress who played “Ed” later explained that elsewhere, their kiss often met with an awkward silence.

Because Twin Cities comedians benefit from a flexible audience, a performer’s coming out can be a much more fluid experience. Steffen, for example, gradually opened up as he became comfortable with his comedic skill.

Steffen explains, “I kind of eased into it. I wanted to hone my craft as a performer, and I wanted to be multidimensional in terms of the different things I wanted to talk about. It’s a part of my life. I’m not secretive about it, but it’s not all that I am.”

While the job of any stand-up comedian includes adjusting his or her material to suit an audience’s mood—and Steffen is no exception—he or she appreciates that being out onstage offers benefits beyond an evening of laughter.

Steffen shares, “That’s one reason I do what I do—to make people more comfortable with someone like me. I’m not trying to say that I’m something special, or that I have a higher purpose with my comedy. Bottom line is, it’s fun, and I like making people laugh. But if I can change an attitude while I’m doing it, that’s fantastic.”

Local comedian Leah Mansfield also has found her audiences to be more accepting than not, to the point where her own “comedic coming out” was almost a nonevent.

Mansfield relates, “I think in the beginning, every gay person thinks, ‘What are they going to do if I tell them that I’m gay onstage?’ At the beginning, it wasn’t obvious that I was gay. I was at this bar called Rooster’s doing an open mic contest, and all these nasty, toothless men would hit on me every time I went. I got so tired of it, I finally said, ‘I’m going to tell a lesbian joke.’ And I did, and they all clapped.”

Like Steffen, Mansfield isn’t about to vulgarize her sexuality in front of an uptight, unappreciative crowd.

Mansfield quips, “I’m not going to tell a joke about scissoring to a group of ranchers in Wyoming. But it’s more like drawing a line about using dirty or clean jokes, as opposed to gay or not gay.”

One of Mansfield’s favorite onstage moments, however, occurred thanks to a blessed combination of lesbian humor and one audience member’s naïveté.

Mansfield recounts, “I have this joke, and the first line is: ‘There are two types of guys in the world: tits guys and ass guys, and I’m a tits guy.’”

Apparently, one woman in the audience could not wrap her brain around the concept, and Mansfield began riffing with her, trying to get her to catch on. Much to the delight of the crowd, the woman was a slow study, and Mansfield finally dropped the “L” word.

Manfield recalls, “She just started screaming and freaking out. I almost fell down laughing onstage. The whole crowd was laughing at the woman who didn’t get it.”

Outside of the stand-up scene, the Twin Cities is the perfect place to find excellent comedic improvisation groups. Think Whose Line is it Anyway?, only much edgier. Local ComedySportz, in Calhoun Square in Minneapolis, employs a cheeky sports metaphor to “battle” two teams of competing improvisers. Improvisation, almost by definition, renders a player’s age, race, gender, and sexuality a nonissue.

ComedySportz Artistic Manager Doug Neithercott points out, “If I have to play a woman, I will play a woman, and my straight teammate will do the same thing as convincingly as they can. When you’re doing improv, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight—the audience just goes with it. I can do a character that’s sooo gay, and they love it, because that’s what the scene was calling for.”

For Neithercott, who has done everything from female impersonation to working at Children’s Theatre—he’s currently in the production of Mulan Jr.—comedy has been his calling as long as he can remember.

Neithercott remarks, “It sounds so corny and so stupid, but I want to make everybody laugh as hard as they can until milk comes out of their nose. It’s not that it makes me feel powerful or better than anybody. It just makes me feel happy.”

The Twin Cities Improv Festival, running June 24-27, provides the perfect introduction to the area’s most talented improv teams. Neithercott will be appearing with the Gay Straight Alliance, Beat Box, and ComedySportz teams. Visit www.twincitiesimprovfestival.com.

To catch Mansfield onstage, go to www.mnstandupcomedy.com. Clips of Steffen’s act, as well as his performing schedule, are at www.funnyman-tomsteffen.com.

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