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Doing ‘Mad’

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Some people are infuriated by absurdities in the news. Other people, like Kate Clinton, build a career on them.

by Nancy Ford

Kate Clinton is in a serene mood the day I call her in Provincetown to talk about her upcoming appearance in Houston.

“I have such a blessed life,” she shares with me in an uncharacteristically reverent voice from that famously gay Mecca.

“It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous blue-skied day, and the white whales are on the move. It’s amazing!”

My offer to call her back at a later time, so as not to interrupt the Zen of her moment, is rebuffed.

“Oh, I’ll bolt after this, don’t worry. I’ll carry you with me,” she replies into her cell phone, likely never averting her eyes from the New England coastline. “You can see them spouting, of course, but they’re, like, flapping fins, tails up in the air—ah! It’s amazing.”

For more than 25 years, Kate Clinton has never averted those steely eyes from the vast, ongoing joke we call life. For nearly three decades she has stood watch on the comedic coastline, dominating the gay stand-up stage—hell, she invented it—with her surgically accurate observations aimed at political, religious, and cultural leaders.

She tours. She blogs. Her third book, I Told You So, comes out in paperback in May, “just in time for beach reading and vacations,” she hawks.

On June 19, she brings those observations to Houston, performing in conjunction with Bayou City Performing Arts’ Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston. The concert, appropriately titled Let’s Misbehave (Clinton’s lone show in the Lone Star State this year), is set for June 19 at Jones Hall, and benefits Kindred Spirits Foundation.

Expect Clinton to talk about…well, that’s the challenge: it’s impossible to predict her subject matter. Her comedy is consistently as fresh and new as the headlines she rips her set from. Only one thing is certain: expect it to be funny.

“By the time I get to Houston, who knows what I’ll be talking about,” she says.

Here is what Kate Clinton was talking about on the April morning we interrupted her whale watching.
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Nancy Ford: I noticed on your website that you’ve asked for gardening tips. Are you a gardener?
Kate Clinton: My girlfriend

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calls me The Arrogant Gardener. I like what I like, and let’s see if it works.

For example?
Oh God—what was it that I put in? It was some kind of hibiscus. I don’t remember from one to the next. I’m like, “Oh look, it came up!”

[Laughing] It’s so good to talk to you again! It’s been a long time.
I know! What’s happening in Texas?

Oh girl, it’s all happening in Texas! We have a lesbian mayor now . . .
I know, it’s so great. Good ol’ Annise Parker! [Using a fake announcer-like voice:] “Houston, we have a lesbian!” It’s awesome!

Have you heard? A “minister”—and I’m putting that word in quotes—has called for an economic boycott of Houston? Because, of course, a lesbian mayor is going to bring wrath and God’s judgment raining down upon our city.
[Laughing] That’s mayhem, not mayor, thank you! Just ignore him, then follow the money.

I was recently picketed in Kansas City by the Fred Phelps family.

Really? Congrats!
Yes, thank you. I’m very proud. [Laughs] I’ve got this whole auditorium of lesbians, and they’re carrying these tired old signs [that say] God Hates Fags. I said to them, “Would you mind updating your signs?” These are lesbians. “How about God Hates Lesbians, not ‘Fags.’”

Maybe He does, but this is the wrong venue. Get it together.

And George Bush is back in Texas, as you well know.
[Laughing] Oh, I know. I was in Dallas for the Creating Change conference. I wanted us all to go over there on a field trip. I have toilet paper and my aim is true.

There are some other things in the news about Texas that might be of interest to you, as a former teacher. The Texas school board…
Oh, I’ve been reading about that! [Laughs hard] You just worry that [Texas students] are the people who are going to build bridges and do your brain surgery. “I don’t believe in brains. I’m going to operate on the heart today!”

And they removed Thomas Jefferson from the textbooks’ list of enlightened figures.
Because he…held slaves? No? Why—because he…was gay?

Because he promoted the idea of separation of church and state?
Which they’re very convenient about, aren’t they? Very convenient. And if you’re the Pope, you have total separation between church and state. [Uses Pope voice:] “I never thought to tell civil authorities.” Oh, okay.

That leads me to our next subject: there’s a fine line between a news story that is so outrageous that the punch lines just flow, and a news story that is so outrageous that you can’t even be funny about it.
Well, I think if you work on it and you have the right confidence and competence, then people go anywhere with you. There are absolutely wonderful churchgoers, and when I start ripping into the Pope, I can see them wince a bit. But they go with me. I think we can either spend thousands of years crying about this or have one really good, calculated laugh and move on.

I just find it appalling. A lot of times I look at my routine and I think, “Well, you’re just mad; it’s not really funny.” But I think that I’m “doing mad” for people.

It’s a fine line. So, there’s the Pope, there’s George Bush, there’s Texas, there’s Tiger Woods—what has been the greatest gift to comedians lately, of those stories?
Oh, it’s very difficult. I think people were concerned for me—and it was lovely—when George Bush went on his O’Doul’s and golf vacation. Really, at the end of that reign, it was so, finally, boring. How many times could you say, “Yep, he’s bad; he’s really bad. And those are his pals; they’re bad, too”?

There are things to try to understand about health-care reform, there are things to talk about with economic reform, there’s racism—it’s very exciting. I sometimes get overwhelmed in a really delightful way. Right now I’m putting together kind of a trial show that I’ll start working on in the summer. It is like corralling cats! It’s like, “Where does that piece go?” It’s really exciting.

Well, you’ve been doing [out stand-up comedy] for more than 25 years now, and I really appreciate that you can keep it fresh. In those 25 or so years, has there been any discernable change in your audience?
Oh, thank you. There’s a lot more walkers now! [Both laugh hard] Sometimes I can actually hear the oxygen machines clicking. [Both squeal] It’s true! One time I did a show and I looked at the front row and I thought, “It looks like Lourdes up here!” [Even more laughter]

It’s a great thing that they still come. And they’ve seen it before, but they come because they know it will be new. I learned years ago, from Lily Tomlin, “You just keep bringing everybody along.”

And this summer, I’m working in Provincetown at this club, and the assistant manager comes to me and he says, “Are you in transition?”

That could mean so many things these days.
I know! And he says, “I’ve never seen so many men at your shows.” At 25 [years into my career], I’m their overnight success. I think they finally saw my show on Logo.

The other thing that’s great: there’s a whole new way of getting in touch with the younger generation.

Yes, the whole Facebook, Twitter thing. Are you all plugged in to that?
Totally plugged in. The problem with the younger generation is, they literally don’t have money. You talk to them about gay marriage, and they get this blank look on their faces. They’re dealing with homelessness and bullying and HIV. So you see how my routine gets longer and longer!

More straight people are coming, too. I think it’s definitely because I’ve been doing a lot more radio. Another thing is, my CDs are being played on Sirius Comedy [satellite radio] all the time. And as you can imagine, the royalties are huge! “Oh look, honey—another check for $1.32!” [Both laugh]

What are you going to do with it all?
I buy a pretty party dress and off I go! [Both laugh] But it’s just amazing, the different ways you can reach people. The trick is to get moving before they’re in front of their computers, to get them out to the show. That’s where the real fun is. You can have all these things, but I think a live show is just great.

Well, the interaction is unmatchable. Your show here in Houston with Bayou City Performing Arts is probably going to have quite a mixed audience. The show benefits Kindred Spirits, a nightclub opened by Marion Coleman in the early ’80s. It closed in 1990, but about 10 years ago, a group of women started doing annual reunion dances, and from that it’s burgeoned into a foundation that funds women’s charities. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, since the club was opened. Talk about needing walkers and oxygen! [Both laugh]
Let’s talk a bit about the need for women to still reconnect and support each other, beyond the Internet.
There are so many levels. In my own personal life, day-to-day, I miss my friends. We are on e-mail, and texting, and there is the illusion that we are together, but we just don’t see each other. Everybody’s busy, but so what? We need to get together. That’s why I’ve brought back the potluck [dinner]; I don’t think you can underestimate the power of sitting around a dinner table together. That’s really, really critical. My girlfriend and I try to have dinner parties and get-togethers and make sure we’re having physical contact with our friends.

But everybody’s so busy, waah waah…

…and event-driven, and cause-driven…
Exactly, exactly. And I think that there’s that important element of who-knows-what that happens in a live audience. Just being together, working on something, is critical.

And I think this is a really incredible moment in history. Thirty, 35 years ago was the beginning of the women’s movement, and we wanted to bring down the patriarchy! And what’s happening? Male institutions, like the church, the economy, capitalism, the car industry—the white maleness—are under assault.

It’s very nervous and a lot of people are suffering, but this is a time for women to step in and lead. I think it’s really important for us to encourage each other and run for office, to work on people’s campaigns and fundraisers and that kind of thing. I really do. Sometimes I just want to be in a fetal position, crying. And other times I think, “Whoa, this is such an opportunity.”

It’s like, we planted the hibiscus 30 years ago, and now it’s starting to pop through.
[Laughs] That damn hibiscus. I thought it was going to be red!
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Let’s Misbehave! An Evening with Kate Clinton and Bayou City Performing Arts
Saturday, June 19, 7:30 p.m., at Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana St. Benefits Kindred Spirits Foundation, Inc. Get your tickets now! kindredspiritshouston.org • www.gmch.org

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See also sidebar on Kindred Spirits: “The Beat Goes On”

Got a comment?—[email protected].

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