Well, that's not entirely true. His meal ticket is his unrelenting wit, his incorrigible intelligence, and his undeniable charm. A writer and stand-up comedian, his new album, Effable, just opened at number one on the iTunes comedy charts. We linked up with him at a tasteful brunch spot of his choosing to discuss the state of gay comedy. He told me about his preferred venues, the ways queerness plays into his jokes, and that one time he went to jail.
VICE: What's your mission statement as a comedian?
Guy Branum: To be understood and thereby make it possible for people to realize that their perspective isn't the only perspective—to push people's heads a bit and [...] and make people see from my eyes, which [are] just as self-absorbed as every comedian's, but they're weird.
Do you ever tire of your eyes being construed as weird?
God, yeah. But it's so much fun. A lot of people are scared of having their own take. I just think it's fun. Sometimes it's annoying when it becomes conventional wisdom that things are good or bad or this or that way. That doesn't work for me, but I'd rather do this than just submit to someone else's construction of the world.
Do you ever tire of being the "other"?
It's weird, because I grew up being insistently told I wasn't the other, being insistently told I was the right perspective. But then things stopped working for me—social practices, the media. There's something so nice about understanding why it doesn't work. Did I tell you about being arrested?
No. What happened?
I got a warrant for not going to court for a traffic violation. I was arrested and put in West Hollywood jail, which was fine. But then they took me to county with everyone who committed a crime last night. It was all these dudes being terrible; power games and all that. Before they put me away they asked, "Do you need to be segregated? Are you gay?" and I was like, "Yeah." They put me in a room with four homeless meth-addicted gay guys and four homeless meth-addicted trans women. And we had a lovely time. It was just a situation of not being expected to be in a room with straight guys who are doing their straight guy power games and who would be ready to identify that we were doing them poorly. It was so not bad. There were definitely power games in there, and I definitely had to feel other people out, but...
Sounds like a jailcation or something.
Yeah, it wasn't bad. There was just something lovely about being in a space where my perspective was the same as everybody's. It's nice to have moments being around people you don't have to explain yourself to.
Do you think your life would be better, in comedy at least, if you weren't a homosexual?
It's weird, because I feel like—I feel self-conscious about how much I talk about it. I feel like any gay person in any situation feels self-conscious about how much they talk about being gay, whether it's a lot or whether it's a little. Because you're kind of not supposed to. And I think, if I weren't me, would I still be a comedian? What would I have to say? I just know that being me was a very long period of having thoughts that were different from the people around me and not being able to express them—or, when I expressed them, not having anyone really understand. Once I got to a place in this world where they did understand, and once I got comfortable talking about all of myself, I almost started getting drunk on it. I did not have that for 23 years. And now that I've got it, I love it too much.
Why do you think there aren't many headlining gay male comedians?
It's an interesting situation. [James] Adomian headlines, but other than that, you don't really have anybody. It's interesting because most of the gay female headliners were closeted and not talking about their inner lives for most of their career—with the exception of Wanda Sykes, who is doing amazing work. It's not like Ellen talks that much about being a lesbian or how that experience impacted her. Now she just sort of gives us Portia [de Rossi] as an echo of heterosexual domesticity. And I think there is something a bit more threatening about gay guys or that seems a bit more alien.
Why is that?
I think gay guys are less present in comedy clubs because they're hostile environments. There's also a bit of—we're not used to being represented in media, and there's a little bit of difficulty there, of looking at some gay guy who's not a super hot go-go boy and not a drag queen, and being able to say, "Oh, he's like me," without that reflecting on some aspect of yourself you find terrifying. I think most of it is nobody's seen it happen before, so the intermediate people in the industry just don't understand how it could happen. They don't take a young gay comic and set them on the path of being a real club comic. They say, "Oh, you're a writer, or you're an actor, whatever." And the fact that gay comics are going to start out in New York or LA where those things are possible, you're less likely to have somebody really grinded out as a gay comic.
How did you get going?
When I started out in San Francisco, there came a point where the more-established Latino comedians started taking the less-established Latino comedians out on the road to open for them. The black guys took the Jews out. That sort of thing happened, but there was no one there to extend a hand down to me. You need to have that process of being taught how to go on the road, especially since the road is more hostile to us. You have to learn how to deal with someone [in the crowd] yelling, "You're a fag." You learn terribly, terribly valuable lessons along the way, but a lot of people are just going to be like, "I don't want to deal with it."
I think that there are such valuable lessons to be learned from performing stand-up comedy for an audience that doesn't necessarily know that you're what they're looking for. And club wise, so many people show up expecting comedy. They don't know who the headliner is. They just show up for comedy. And when it's somebody who is a straight white guy, who may have a very specific perspective, who may be a lovely, glorious creature, it's easier for them to be like, "Ah, yes this is comedy." And for me, in my own head, and in other people's heads, there is an anxiety that this may not be what they're looking for.
I just did a week at Stand Up Scottsdale, in Arizona. And I went into it like, "Am I going to be what these 20-something professionals are looking for from an evening?" And the answer was fuck yes, because it was a glorious evening of comedy. It maybe wasn't what they were expecting, but they sure as fuck had a good time.
Generally, is it easier to perform in alt rooms?
What are the differences?
The audience showing up to an alt show understands that they are getting a grab bag of interesting things. They know it's going to come from varying perspectives. And those situations always feel like a lovely breath of fresh air.
Presumably, you cater the set to the audience—a set in an alt room would be different than a set in a club environment.
One thing that's nice now is having people know me well enough in alt rooms that I can go up and not have to spend two minutes of time and goodwill explaining that I'm a homosexual; we can just start off from a place of some basic assumptions about who I am. It's so easy to be like, "But Guy, you talk that way and you dress that way, wouldn't people assume?" The answer is no. It needs to be addressed or else they will be confused by it because there is just a presumption that everyone is heterosexual and thinks dicks are gross.
I imagine you would need to explain yourself even more in a club environment then.
Yeah, but you usually have more time and space to do it. And that's lovely. What it takes is communication for them to realize who I am. I'm not able to start off with the basic assumptions and goodwill that a comedian who looks and acts like a comedian has. But we also get to go on a more interesting adventure, and I never wanted to do comedy that didn't delve into my soul. There are a lot of people who tell very funny jokes and don't give you a lot of who they are—that's a school of comedy, but that's not what I do.
The other thing is, I'm not doing a fucking one-person show, but I also want to get to know my audience, which I think a lot of comedians don't. I feel like over time I've learned that it's better to be listening and attentive—not in a pandering way, but just to sort of understand where they're at, as an audience, and let them know that I'm hearing them. I tell big mean jokes sometimes and I want them to understand that I'm there for fun. There's something nice about showing a basic degree of respect for your audience.
Do you think your ability to empathize like that has anything to do with your sexuality?
I think I had to learn it, because when you start out in comedy, you're just trying to do what the people you admire do. In a lot of ways, you can lionize a "take no prisoners" approach. Of course I'm not going to be for everybody. There have definitely been people who have watched my set and didn't like it. A girl once told me I was too dark and unsettling, and that I should quit comedy. I told her I read what she said, but comedy's the thing that pays my bills, so I'm gonna keep doing it. We may have different aesthetics, but I'm not going to tell someone it's not their right to have a thought or a reaction.
I don't think gay guys are inherently more empathetic. We just don't have women present to be empathetic, as women have been trained to do, so we learn to pick up the slack. It's like human interaction camping.
What's the future of gay comedy?
The thing is, our numbers are never going to be amazing. Even living in a world where there are probably more closeted than out people right now, the best bullet we have is that 2.5 percent of Americans are out gay people. But I think part of what we're trying to learn in America right now is that you should listen to people regardless of [whether] they're going to bring in the most numbers or not. God knows we have a long way to go, because we still haven't figured out that women are people yet. But I think [...] gays will benefit from us learning women are people and certainly vice versa. We're a solid demo. We have nice disposable income because we don't accidentally make babies.
Has there been any progress?
It's so hard to seem as grateful as I am to comedy and the comedy industry while at the same time addressing its shortcomings and difficulties. I don't want to be one of those people whose always whining. I just want to be undeniably funny and respected for it. I also think that if Sheryl Sandberg taught us nothing else, it's that doing a great job and waiting for someone to notice that great job is never gonna happen. So, yeah, I do point out things I have a problem with. But I try to not linger on them, and I try to not use them as an excuse, so I'm not just bitching and whining about an industry I don't think has done well enough by me because God knows I've had so many lovely opportunities and so many straight white guys who are very funny don't succeed. We all understand that, but we can't let it get in the way of understanding that there are real structural problems facing people that aren't straight white guys.
Right. Just because you're consistently employed as a comedy writer and you have the number one comedy album on iTunes right now, it doesn't mean things are fine.
Yeah. But it means things are getting better.
You can find Effable, Guy Branum's latest comedy album, on iTunes.
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