'Outstanding' documentary traces the history of LGBTQ comedy: NPR

Excellent: A Comic Revolution examines the history and current state of LGBTQ comedy: the pioneers, the breakthroughs, and the setbacks. Above, Lily Tomlin, left, Wanda Sykes, Joel Kim Booster and Trixie Mattel.

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“Comedy is always a reflection of culture, good and bad,” says Page Hurwitz. Her new Netflix documentary about the history and current state of LGBTQ comedy is proof. Through archive images, performances and interviews Excellent: A Comic Revolution covers nearly a century of LGBTQ comedy, including the milestones and setbacks for queer comedians pursuing careers that make people laugh.

A multigenerational who's who of comedy fills this documentary. Lily Tomlin, Rosie O'Donnell, Eddie Izzard, Sandra Bernhard, Billy Eichner, Fortune Feimster, Tig Notaro and Solomon Georgio are among many performers sharing their personal stories of developing their comedic style and grappling with homophobia.

Page Hurwitz gives opening remarks at the premiere of Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on June 7, 2024.

Page Hurwitz gives opening speech at the Excellent: A Comic Revolution Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on June 7, 2024.

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Hurwitz began her career in the late 1990s with stand-up in San Francisco's Castro district. Today she writes, produces and directs comedy specials and TV series. When she started putting the documentary together, she knew she had to do something right: “We are gay, so I wanted to make it dynamic. There is nothing worse than banal.”

To ensure her documentary would bring some razzle-dazzle, Hurwitz hosted a massive event at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles with a Marquis lineup of LGBTQ comedians. She turned the event into her own special for Netflix and interspersed footage of it throughout the documentary.

Among the revealing moments Excellent are interviews with comedians who might have been more famous had they not come out of the closet.

Robin Tyler in Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution.

Enter Robin Tyler Excellent: A Comic Revolution.

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Robin Tyler, one of the first comedians to appear on national television, says she was never in the closet. “Cupboards are vertical coffins,” she explains in the film. “All you're doing is choking.”

Tyler's comedy career suffered when she incorporated jokes about Anita Bryant into her act. A former beauty pageant winner, singer and Christian, Bryant was one of the most active voices in the anti-gay crusade. One such joke declared that Bryant “is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art.”

“That's why no one knows her name,” says Hurwitz of Tyler, “and she should be a household name because she's so funny and so talented.”

Hurwitz and a small staff studied hundreds of archival performances and news footage to show how queer comedians progressed or suffered from one decade to the next, depending on the political and cultural climate of the time. There's Moms Mabley playing an openly gay character in a 1930s film and the so-called Lavender fear during the Cold War.

As comedian Scott Thompson puts it in the documentary, “I thought life can change in an instant and society can change in an instant.”

Thompson points to an “embrace” of gay culture in the 1970s – think disco and Village People – and a complete reversal in the 1980s with the AIDS epidemic.

“It went back thirty, forty years, all at once, almost overnight,” he says. “Gay men were considered despicable at the time.”

Scott Thompson/Buddy Cole at the Greek Theater for Netflix is ​​a gagfest.

Scott Thompson/Buddy Cole at the Greek Theater for Netflix is ​​a gagfest.

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Beth Dubber/Netflix

“Comedy was incredibly homophobic at the time,” says Hurwitz, “and we had a lot of well-known comedians who chose to turn that tragedy into fodder for their hackneyed comedy acts. So whether it was Andrew Dice Clay or Sam Kinison, or honestly Eddie Murphy.

But comedians know how to respond, and during the AIDS crisis, Sandra Bernhard's politically charged, cabaret-style performances were a force. As she explains in the documentary, “This became like the next wave of having to be there and going full throttle.”

Comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster, who is interviewed in the documentary, says he was “floored” when he saw the latest version of Excellent. He says it made him grateful to all the queer comedians who paved the way for his generation. “We weren't the ones who kicked in the door. We just walked through,” he says.

Joel Kim Booster in Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution.

Joel Kim Booster-in Excellent: A Comic Revolution.

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Excellent shows how there are still challenges for gay performers, especially transphobic material from major comedians. But Page Hurwitz says LGBTQ comedians will continue to take the stage, make people laugh and change the culture.

“You share who you are with the audience and that is so powerful,” she says, “because laughter is disarming. You make the personal universal, so that we can realize that we are actually more alike than we are different.”

Bob The Drag Queen, Trixie Mattel and Rosie O'Donnell at the Greek Theater for Netflix Is A Joke Fest.  Cr.  Beth Dubber/Netflix © 2022

Bob The Drag Queen, Trixie Mattel, Rosie O'Donnell at the Greek Theater for Netflix is ​​a gag fest.

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Beth Dubber/Netflix

The audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Ciera Crawford. The audio story was produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento. The digital was produced by Beth Novey.

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