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The L is for Laughter 

click to enlarge Kate Clinton will perform on February 9 at SUNY New Paltz’s Studley Theater. (Image provided)
  • Kate Clinton will perform on February 9 at SUNY New Paltz’s Studley Theater. (Image provided)
Generally, one does not think of comedy as a service industry—but Kate Clinton does. She has performed at hundreds of fundraising dinners for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Ms. Foundation, the New York City LGBT Community Center, and many other groups. (Clinton's February 9 SUNY performance is a benefit for the Hudson Valley LGBTQ center.) Born in Buffalo, Clinton moved to Syracuse at age 10, and attended Le Moyne College. She taught high school English before beginning a career in standup comedy. Clinton has written two books, the most recent being What the L? In the summer, she lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she tries out new material at the Crown & Anchor.
—Sparrow

Sparrow: How did you start performing?

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.

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  • Generally, one does not think of comedy as a service industry—but Kate Clinton does.

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