Westenhoefer—who just happens to be gay and is one of the biggest names in comedy—began her career on a dare. Friends challenged her to enter a comedy contest. She did, and she won. “I never had time to contemplate where I was going, what I was doing … it was just boom, boom, boom,” she says by phone from her Los Angeles home. “It went very, very fast.”
But Westenhoefer quickly met with obstacles because of elements in her act arising from her sexual orientation. “There was a queer feeling in the beginning, and I wasn’t shocked by that in any way. I knew that would happen. I mean, I couldn’t get on Letterman; I couldn’t get on Leno,” she explains.
Meanwhile, in her live show, Westenhoefer was playing to straight audiences—or whatever audience was at the club that night. “But that was sort of the point,” she says. “And it was very, very difficult.” Often she was not allowed to get onstage because she was gay or that the club didn’t use “theme comics.”
“‘Theme comics?’ What is that? Every comic has a theme, like relationships or being black or being sad,” she says.
But Westenhoefer worked hard to succeed, often working “triple hard,” in her words. Clubs still had a hard time getting cozy with the idea of a lesbian comic. Part of the problem, believe it or not, was Westenhoefer’s “lipstick lesbian” looks. “It’s too hard when you look like someone they know or someone they dated in college. I still have a little trouble with that: not looking ‘gay enough’ for them to be relaxed with it. … It’d be easier if I was a screaming queen or big dyke-y dyke. But it is what it is, and I’m OK with that.”
Which isn’t to say that every door’s been slammed in Westenhoefer’s face. She’s a giant in her field. Since hitting the scene in the early ’90s, Westenhoefer has released multiple CDs and DVDs, starred in the documentary Laughing Matters, recorded an HBO special and performed on Letterman as the show’s first openly gay comedian. Not too bad for a girl who could have been discouraged by repetitive rejection.
Westenhoefer, meanwhile, has said “yes” to Salt Lake City a lot lately, performing here annually for a decade. “I love the gay community there. They come out. They’re supportive. They’re ready to go,” she says.
She understands that it’s hard to live in a strict, tradition-bound city. Salt Lake City, she believes, is in a lot of ways like her hometown in Pennsylvania Amish Country, where Westenhoefer performed for the first time only two months ago—except that a pride parade hasn’t been successfully staged there. “You have to give Salt Lake [City] some serious props for the fact that, even though all of that is going on with the deep conservative Christians, they come out,” she says. “They have pride.”
Of course, she does have a sense for the quirkiness of the local culture. Westenhoefer finds humor in an interview conducted by the Deseret Morning News a few years ago. She was referred to as an “alternative comic,” because the paper couldn’t refer to her as a lesbian comic. “It was hysterical,” she says, “because an ‘alternative comic’ would be someone who isn’t funny. I mean, isn’t the alternative to comedy ‘drama?’”
Even as a lesbian comic, Westenhoefer’s appeal crosses demographic lines. She works extemporaneously—without a script. She talks about situations she has observed over the past week or month. It feels so organic, like an easy conversation. It’s accessible. It’s not about gay or straight; it’s comedy for everyone. It helps that Westenhoefer is great at what she does. Her good looks, witty commentary and engaging sets are disarming.
Westenhoefer easily acknowledges her hope that this will always be the case. “It is totally my goal: to make people laugh, that they’ll turn [to someone with them] and say, ‘That is you! That’s totally you!’ or they go, ‘Oh my God, I do that, too.’”
Westenhoefer’s comedy has the ability to create unity where there could be a division between gay men, lesbians and straight people. Humor has a way of doing that. “When we realize we are all in this together, we relax a little,” she says. “We don’t feel like everybody is different. How funny is it to think every single human being fights with their partner about the toothpaste cap? That’s interesting and fun. I like that we all know that about each other.”
It’s strange to think a comedian could comfort you, make some sense of life. But with Suzanne Westenhoefer, it’s not only possible: You can count on it.
SUZANNE WESTENHOEFER @ Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Friday Jan. 11, 8 p.m., 355-ARTS, ArtTix.org