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A Conversation with Lea DeLaria

Ethel Merman meets Sammy Davis Jr.

Photograph courtesy of The Katz Company

It’s hard not to start with the moment Lea DeLaria ran onto The Arsenio Hall Show screaming, “I’m a biiiiiiiiiig, faaaaaaaaat dyyyyyyyyyyyyyke!” and became the first openly gay comic on national television. But she’s done a lot more since she left Belleville, Ill. She’s recorded live comedy (Bulldyke in a China Shop) and jazz (her newest album, Be a Santa, was just released). She won an Obie Award and stopped the show at Carnegie Hall. For TV, she created strange and memorable characters for One Life to Live, Will & Grace, Friends, and Matlock; on jazz radio, her recording of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” was the top DJ pick nationally for two months straight. She wrote a book, too—Lea’s Book of Rules for the World—and was the featured vocalist on the Newport Jazz Festival’s 50th anniversary tour.

There’s no quiet way to introduce her.

How did you become so comfortable with yourself?
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with myself. And you know how it is—the more time you spend with someone, the more comfortable you are!

How would you describe yourself to somebody who’d just landed on this planet? What are you good at?
I guess I can’t say. [She’s right—she can’t.] My manager would kill me. My record company would kill me.

You have handlers?
Everybody tries to handle me. But I’ve reached an age where I handle myself pretty well. When I was younger, there was no battle small enough. But these days, it’s not worth the joke.

So you’re really good at…?
Entertaining. I’m like Sammy Davis Jr., except I’m not black and I have both eyes. I do a lot of things, and I do them really well, onstage, and throw them at you.

What entertains people?
Depends on the individual. But there are certain rules that seem to stick: You always want to have a big opener and a big closer, and ebbs and flows in between. Rhythm is really important—and no one can teach you that. When I was in The Rocky Horror Show on Broadway, they asked us to talk to students, and I told them, “No one can teach you this.” The grown-ups were not happy.

Were you funny as a kid?
Yeah. I was very dry, even then. And acerbic. My mother was like that, smart-funny. My dad is a complete goofball. I’ve incorporated both.

What were your parents like?
Both very strong individuals, both artistically inclined. My dad was a jazz pianist. Then the work dried up, and he had five kids, so he became a social worker. My mom was a dancer with the USO—that’s how they met, just after World War II.

What was it like growing up an Italian Catholic lesbian in Belleville?
It was a different time back then. We had the lesbian bar in south St. Louis that was firebombed… It was a lot harder then. I wouldn’t say St. Louis or Belleville were any harder than anywhere else. Although I have to say, I was surprised to come back and find a gay bar right on Main Street. Shocking!

You once said, “It’s a cosmic joke that I’m a lesbian, because I understand men so completely and women are a total mystery to me.” Explain men.
Oh, come on. Men are simple creatures. Football, football, beer, boobs, football, football, football. Life would be so easy if I were heterosexual.

Er…how would you go about it?
You just want to let them talk. And with men, you can just pretend to listen. With women, they will catch you every time. You are so busted.

Why do you find women confusing?
I said that a while ago. I’ve settled down—I’m in a nine-year relationship—so the mystery that is women is not as prevalent in my life anymore. Now, I just have that one woman who’s a mystery.

What’s it like playing somebody straight? Or playing a man?
A man? Oh, honey, I’ve played so many men. But there’s nothing general. I instinctively adjust for any role.

Is that why it’s easier for directors to cast you in so many different ways?
Oh, I still get typecast, don’t get me wrong. For a while, all I did was play PE teachers and police officers. And the lesbian who inappropriately hit on straight women—in L.A., that was my niche.

But you’ve broken out of those boxes.
Sure. I’ve done straight women, and I’ve done full male drag—pants roles, I call them. Just elevates it a little bit, for Broadway. It’s not like you put a sock in your pants. But the makeup takes forever. Still, it’s no more prep than any other role. We all get wrapped up in our method.

And what’s yours?
I have a running inner monologue: “Be funny, make money. Be funny, make money.” For film or television, that monologue’s still there. But it’s much smaller.

I read, I try, I get corrected, and I learn from my mistakes. I work by feeling and listening. All the things I do—stand-up, music, acting—they’re all based on listening.

What was your favorite rule in Lea’s Book of Rules for the World?
Absolutely my favorite rule was to never walk into an all-lesbian party, stand on top of a coffee table, and shout, “I don’t know what it is, girls, I just eat and eat and eat and never gain an ounce!”

What stereotypes have you shattered?
Women aren’t funny. Women aren’t sexual. Women aren’t loud. Women don’t spit, they don’t holler, they don’t swear. Lesbians aren’t funny; they have no sense of humor. Lesbians are not attractive. Fat people aren’t strong, resilient, or resourceful. [She stops for breath.] That’s a few of them. Y’know, no one’s ever asked me that question, and basically, it’s almost the entire reason I became a performer. That, and to get laid.

What did the U.S. Congress criticize you for in 1993? And how is one officially criticized by Congress?
They actually have a session, and they vote on whether or not you are to be criticized. I was an emcee for the March on Washington. I’d just hit it—I was on Arsenio Hall in March of 1993, and this happened April 20. I was the apple of the gay community’s eye, and anybody who knew me knew that wasn’t going to last very long!

Just what did you say?
I was pretty strong. The million people there screamed with laughter, but on television, it really upset people. Congress had a lot to say to me. People in the queer world did as well. I’m the only person I know who’s actually been picketed by the Christian right and lesbian feminists at the same event.

It might suggest you’re steering a middle course.
I would never say I steer a middle course! But I steer my course.

What do you do when a joke strikes somebody as insensitive?
I made an Anne Frank joke once, and a guy came up to me afterward and said he didn’t like the Anne Frank joke—he thought it was too soon. Too soon! So now I’ve incorporated that: I make the joke, and some people groan, and I go, “What, too soon?”

What makes you angry?
Breathing. Pretty much when my eyes open in the morning. Voluntary stupidity. People walking with blinders on, unable to see the truth and it’s right in front of their face. All the isms that are still out there. [She pauses.] It’s more rage than anger. Because anger is sort of a simple emotion, whereas rage, that’s going to get something done.

What tickles you?
The Marx Brothers. The simplest little pratfall when you are walking down the street. Babies, children, tickle me to death. My favorite thing to do is just look at a 4-year-old and just lie to them, the most bold, in-your-face lie, and watch them try to deal with it. Their face just screws up: This crazy lady’s lying to me!

Asked for a wish list of parts, you once said, “Anything Ethel Merman’s done.” What is it about Ethel Merman?
She was loud. Ethel and I have pretty much the exact same range—I can belt a D-sharp. And I’m very good at brassy broad

King Herod was on your list, too.
That’s a great part. It’s because of the Andrew Lloyd Webber song in Jesus Christ Superstar. And I think there’s room for me to cross gender in that role.

Was that history-making appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show a big decision?
No. The big decision was whether to do Arsenio or The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. We got the invitations at the same time, and in the end, we chose Arsenio, because at that point, it was the No. 1 late-night talk show.

When you played the horny cabdriver Hildy in On the Town, you won Obie, Drama Desk, Theatre World, and Fanny awards. What was it about that role and your performance?
Oh, I know exactly the answer to this. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ilk, those folks basically changed the sound of Broadway, gave it a more legitimate feel, a sort of classically trained sound. So when I came up as Hildy, very old-school, old show-business, the old Broadway belting it out, they hadn’t heard anybody sing like that in a very long time, and they just went nuts for it. And I was funny.

What does it feel like to stop the show at Carnegie Hall?
There’s no way to describe it. Even talking about it now, the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. I walked offstage, and the audience would not stop applauding. They would not stop. Finally the stage manager said, “I can’t go on with the show. You are going to have to go back out there and take a bow.”

What else are you proud of?
That I’m an answer in newspaper crosswords now. That makes my dad so happy.

So what’s the clue?
Thompson or DeLaria, usually. Or just ___ DeLaria.

What do your fans not realize about you?
What a marshmallow I am.

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