Clinton: I had taught high school English for eight years, and it was the beginning of the comedy boom. And I had always been funny. I had three brothers, and I found if I kept them amused, they wouldn’t snap towels at me. So I was always performing. And I just thought, “Oh, I want to try stand-up.” Truly, I talked about it entirely too many times in front of my best friend, and she booked me in a club. She said, “You’re on in a month. I don’t want to hear about it anymore!” And that’s how it started. I performed at a little women’s club in Syracuse in March of 1981.
Sparrow: So you were teaching in Syracuse?
Clinton: High school English, 11th and 12th grade. It’s the toughest work I’ve ever done. Sometimes when I play a smaller theater and I do two shows, they say, “Oh my God, how do you do two shows a night?” And I say, “Oh, please! I used to do five shows a day—and I had to bring papers home!”
Sparrow: Are teaching and comedy similar?
Clinton: I learned things when I taught. For example, when it’s not going well, I learned not to leave in a blind, murderous panic. And I am very prepared to do stand-up comedy. I have a routine that’s written down. I can improvise from that, but I’m very much, “Thirty-five pages, that should be about an hour.” And I’ve always been told that no matter how radical and punk I’ve ever tried to be, I always look like your English teacher.
Sparrow: And when you’re working on your new routines in Provincetown, you write them down?
Clinton: And in the course of a week, some brilliant piece I’ve written that might be three pages long goes to one line. And yet something that’s one line —that’s just a throwaway line—can grow. So it’s written, but a lot happens in performance, when—blessedly—people hear things differently from what I thought. Either it’s a completely unintended double entendre, or I hear them laugh before I get to the punchline. Because often I don’t know what a punchline is. It’s beyond me. And when I hear them laughing, I think, “Oh, that was the punchline!” So in that sense, it’s a folk art.
Sparrow: Gay people always know which famous people are gay. So I wanted to ask you. You must know the secret inner lives of every...
Clinton: [Laughs.] Every one of them!
Sparrow: And they’re all gay! According to my gay friends, every celebrity is gay.
Clinton: Oh, sure! If you watch the Olympics at my house, my girlfriend thinks everyone in the Olympics is gay. It’s amazing. I’m like, “How do you know?”
Sparrow: Both the men and women are gay?
Clinton: Whole teams of them! Then she says, "Well, you like to think the best of people."
Kate Clinton performs at Studley Theater on the SUNY New Paltz campus on
February 9 at 7pm. (845) 331-5300; www.lgbtqcenter.org.