By Jeff Walsh
Two groundbreaking gay comics are out this month with new specials. Jason Stuart: Making It To The Middle (airing on here! TV) and Suzanne Westenhoefer: A Bottom On Top (airing on LOGO, and available on DVD) are two examples of gay standup pioneers still doing their thing. Both filmed their specials away from the traditional gay cities, both have acts that largely deal with them being gay, but on many levels they couldn't be more different.
Stuart comes across as very caring, down to earth and nice in the interview segments during his special, but onstage that's all gone. His act was just too ADD and superficially gay for me (the ADD thing is saying a lot for a comic, since they all tend to go from one topic to another, often without any transition). It just seemed more like a lot of interplay with the audience, mincing and quips, "brokeback" moments with a cute guy in the front row, and a frenzy and rush that never lets up. But that pace also robs us of getting to know Stuart better.
Westenhoefer, on the other hand, goes onstage without much of a script, and most of her show is improvised. But, she just seems so calm and natural onstage, just letting the stories unspool, but always bringing the funny at regular intervals.
It just seemed interesting that a lot of Stuart's banter seemed rehearsed and had a nervous energy to it, whereas Westenhoefer improvises a lot of her act and it completely calm. I'm not suggesting there is a right or wrong way to do stand-up, just that seeing the two specials in close proximity made the differences stand out.
My personal view of comedy is that the deeper and more personal the comedy is, the funnier it is and the more you relate to the comic. On this front, Westenhoefer certainly excels, as she has no evident barriers between her life and her act. Even her girlfriend, in the DVD bonus interview, mentions she never knows what elements of their life will end up onstage.
Stuart seems to stay on the surface when he's onstage, and you never really get any deep sense of who he is as a person offstage. Had he not included the thoughtful interview segments, I probably wouldn't have been aware of what seemed to be missed as much from his stand-up.
I also feel that his lack of personal connection there gives Westenhoefer more resonance after the fact. You remember stories she tells, expressions she makes, and how she slowly works the crowd; whereas Stuart's stuff is so quick and tangential, you never really settle into any one story long enough for that to happen, aside from him flirting with Buck in the front row.
I'm not necessarily saying to watch Westenhoefer's over Stuart's special. If you have here! and LOGO, by all means check them both out. But it was just interesting to see how after more than 15 years of them performing as stand-up comics, they evolved in such different directions.
To me, it became clear why Westenhoefer is a bottom at the top of her game, and why Stuart is still in the middle, to borrow from their own show titles.
Of course, the real thing to do is to try and catch them do their stand-up live. For that you should check out their websites. You can see Suzanne's here: http://www.suzannew.com/; and Jason's here: http://www.jasonstuart.com/. There's also video clips on their websites, as well as YouTube.