Sugarbutch Says: What does Kelli Dunham have to be funny about?

For Kelli Dunham, comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. Just four years after losing her partner Heather MacAllister in 2007 to ovarian cancer, Kelli’s girlfriend Cheryl Burke died from lymphoma this June. But, she says, “How could I not be on stage, making people laugh, with what I’m going through?”

She’s just that kind of person, who takes her material from everywhere around her — tragedy, death, the Haitian earthquake, or an unfortunate incident on the B train involving bodily fluids. Former nun, nerd, genderqueer dyke, Dunham is performing her sixth one person show, “Why Is the Fat One Always Angry?” which will become her to be released third comedy CD. I caught up with her to ask her some questions about her upcoming show October 1 in New York City. Where did the title of this show come from?

Kelli Dunham: So I have a chubby, round, friendly Wisconsin face. My girlfriend used to do this imitation of me [adopting midwestern accent] “Hi, my name is Kelli Dunham. Would you like to tell me about the worst thing that ever happened to you? Oh and here, take my lunch.” She on the other hand, was a tough New York girl, black hair, black clothes, black lipstick, lots of attitude. No one ever told her the worst thing that ever happened to them, and no one ever asked for her lunch. But when she started treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma I went with her to all the appointments, and in the role of advocate, I became much less easy to get along with. I remember telling someone who had messed up the schedule for Cheryl’s ultrasound, “Do you understand this is completely unacceptable?” Like I was Donald Trump or something. So Cheryl used to joke that any time we walked away from an encounter with medical professionals, they would whisper to each other [whiny voice], “Why is the fat one always angry?”

AE: What’s different about this show than others you’ve done?

KD: This is my sixth full length show and will be — we’re recording a Bay Area show in in December — my third full length comedy CD. In a sense, I’ve never done simple comedy. I’ve never done comedy about hotel soap or the differences between men and women — ike that would be simple in our community — or jokey joke stuff about bad dates, etc. My first CD, I am Not a 12-Year-Old Boy, was all material about being a nun, having an insane family and why aren’t lesbians getting pelvic exams. But it was very well received, even among people from outside the community, they still play it on Sirius Satellite radio’s Rawdog/mainstream comedy station and they play it, you know, right after Jerry Seinfeld talking about hotel soap.

So all that to say I’ll be sharing all new material on some possibly familiar topics: family dysfunction — what happened when my mom came to see me perform at the Stonewall, is is true that my mom had a tubal ligation 18 months before I was born, gender policing — who called me what in the bathroom at the airport — and, of course, every one of my shows includes at least one story that is almost as embarrassing for the audience to hear as it is for me to tell. I’ve been doing little teasers about these stories on Facebook all week. Although if folks want to hear about my body fluid/B train incident they’ll have to come to the show on October 1st in New York or catch me when I tour.

What feels to me really different about this show is that, in light of my recent circumstances, I am more real and more raw than I have ever been in my life. I don’t know whether it’s my life course, or getting older, or maybe all those 12-step meetings but I’m simply not apologizing as much anymore.

AE: So because of your recent circumstances, should we, the audience, expect this to be a funny show?

KD: Hell yeah! Definitely! I know sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how I can be on stage, being funny with what I’m going through [losing her partner Heather MacAllister in 2007 to ovarian cancer and then losing her next partner Cheryl Burke to lymphoma this June]. But for me the question is, “How could I not be on stage, making people laugh, with what I’m going through?”

First of all people talk about comedy and tragedy as being two sides of the same coin. I don’t think they’re even that different, they’re certainly not opposites. As far as I can see, the fact that I wake up every morning, feel for Cheryl on the other side of the bed and my very first thought, every morning is “Oh, the person I love most in life is not here with me and never will be.” How can that be anything other than completely ludicrous? The only two responses to that are laughter or throwing yourself in front of the Q train.

And of course, I keep doing comedy because comedy is my job. And besides wanting to pay my rent and pay for stuff like food and medical care, I’m also a midwestern farm boi at heart. Laugh and work, that’s what I know how to do best.

AE: Is this show more than morbid humor? How do crowds react to your open honesty about your experiences, and jokes about death?

KD:The show certainly isn’t all about death. In fact, I would say the death related material that I’m doing these days isn’t even about Cheryl’s illness or her unexpected death. I don’t think this is anything people are ready to hear jokes about — and by “people” I think I mostly mean me. The part that references my current situation is just that: what it means, how it feels to be someone living in the world, having sustained these two huge losses in a relatively short time and how people react to me.

People have been reacting brilliantly to the comedy though and I think this is why: The universality of the two choices I mentioned earlier, 1. Laugh 2. Throw yourself in front of the Q train. When I was in Haiti [doing relief work after the January 2010 earthquake] I was amazed by how people, in the most dire of dire circumstances, would say “lespa fe viv” — that is “hope makes life.” I was so inspired by it I got a tattoo of those very words, which I grew to hate after Cheryl died. Oh, hope makes life? Really? But what I’m coming to realize it’s, again, this choice. I choose hope. Not because I’m a special person but because the alternative is ending it with the Q train.

Everyone feels that, maybe not every day, but we all feel that pull between hope and the Q train and my job as a comedian is to push folks away from the Q train and over to hope. People are looking for reasons to choose hope, wanting to be reminded hope is a valid choice even in the bleakest of moments. So I think that’s why they’re laughing harder than ever before, even at sometimes challenging material. They are hungry for hope.

AE: Is comedy inherently political? Is this show political?

KD: Comedy is inherently political in that laughter is a revolutionary gesture. The first person who speaks the true to power had better be the court jester and all the rest follow behind.

The show is political not so much because I talk about politics and politicians. My one Obama reference has more to do with the amount of times my mom has been married than any of his domestic policies. But because I talk about the important choices we make every day, the little and big choices we make to step up or fade back, to make the world a better place or just stew in our apathy.

AE: Looking at your busy upcoming fall schedule, you do a lot of readings and conferences, but rarely comedy clubs. Why is that?

KD: I did start out in the comedy clubs but the level of misogyny, racism, homophobia and sheer stupidity in the mainstream comedy world is simply staggering. It’s all the lowest common denominator stuff, almost like playing as a cover band. You have to write material that will work for a drunken bachelor party in Mobile, Alabama.

One night in 2003 I was performing at the Comedy Cabaret in Northeast Philadelphia. I used to start my set with “I need you to do me a favor: ignore all the visual cues and believe I am an adult female and not a 12-year-old boy.” A dude yelled from the audience, “You’re not a 12 year old boy; you’re a big fat ugly dyke.” It was out of my mouth before I had a chance to think: “You’re just sad I’m not a 12-year-old boy. You and the Catholic priests both.” After the show, the heckler chased me in the parking lot with a broken bottle and as I was weaving around the parked cars I thought, “You know, I have to find different venues or work on my running speed.”

I decided finding different venues seemed like more fun. And I have to say, that incident was the luckiest break of my career so far. I started using the indie musician model as a career path, building an audience/fanbase, working on the alternative circuit and everything changed. I started doing prides, colleges (I do a lot of comedy/health presentations to colleges), coffeehouses, house concerts, conferences of all sorts.

Ultimately, the comedy club scene — the idea of spending my life on the road, telling jokes to angry people who didn’t want to hear what I wanted to say, being physically threatened by drunks — paralleled too closely my experience of childhood. I just wasn’t interested; I’d spent too much money on therapy to re-enact that trauma again!

AE: Who are some of your influences?

KD: I admire so many amazing women comics! In terms of integrity, in performing but also all around, Kate Clinton, of course. Margaret Cho, for her timing and storytelling as well as her compassion for herself and her audience Marga Gomez for her ability to keep doing it and deal in an interesting way with hard topics and actually say the word “racism” on stage. Ellen, for just being hilarious. I’m excited to see her really embrace her masculinity and be more and more herself.

Finally, watching Eddie Izzard is what keeps me in comedy. The kind of crowds he attracts are amazing and he also has a well developed sense of social justice. A gender bending comic who talks about war, genocide, death and god and can fill a stadium. That’s pure inspiration baby!

AE: Anything else you’d like to add?

KD: Damn, I think I’ve said plenty. Come see “Why Is the Fat One Always Angry” when it comes to your area, or conspire to bring me to your college, coffeehouse, pride event or living room. We’ll have a great time.

Kelli Dunham’s one person show “Why is the Fat One Always Angry?” will be at the Stonewall Inn on October 1st at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.