Betsy Salkind Answers Our Questions
Betsy Salkind is that rare comic who transcends sexual identity, winning all hearts and minds, gay and straight alike. Although she’s no longer a formal member of our team, she continues to seduce, enlighten and offend us with her brilliant wit, biting tongue and keen, near reverent observance of animals. She’s a founding member of Julie Goldman’s Offensive Women comedy show and she’s got a new book out this fall, so pay close attention to this extraordinary woman and talent.
Betsy Salkind, are you absolutely sure you’re not a lesbian?
I’ve been a lot happier since I stopped defining myself sexually.
In the words of Dr. Phil, did you struggle with your straight closet?
Is he even a doctor? His words are written by writers, but aside from that, yes, I did.
When’s the memoir coming out?
Not ready for the memoir yet. Hoping to live a while longer, but so far the title is They Fucked the Wrong Kid.
Have you lost any girl groupies since you went through the change? Or do the lovely ladies still flock to your shows?
Yes. I think I did lose some following. Not the ones who knew and liked me, but the ones who didn’t know me yet and thought they might not be interested. But the lovely ladies do still flock and rock my world. But, I definitely lost work. The straight comedy world—which thinks it is the comedy world—“already had a woman,” and I lost work in the alternate circuit that I had helped to build. But over time I found my following again. The gay men didn’t care, but some lesbians took it badly. And I understand it. I’m a separatist at heart, though I prefer the company of animals to humans.
Where does your comic genius come from?
I think I get my sense of humor from my mother. When I was growing up, she refused to bake. She said, “Well, you just eat it.”
When did you know you were funny or realize you could get a laugh?
I was always getting in trouble either laughing or making my friends laugh in school. And really I wanted to be a serious actress, but everything I did just came out kind of slapstick. I was a klutz. Then I fell in love with Lily Tomlin, and Lucy and Gilda Radner and Carol Burnett, and I was hooked.
What do you think makes someone funny?
Most people are funny some of time, but they don’t all like being laughed at. My mom once asked me, “I saw on a television program that comedians all had bad childhoods, do you think that’s true?” I said, “I think most people have shitty childhoods, and some of us become comedians.” I think being funny requires you to not worry too much what other people think of you and to be willing to be a little different or odd.
How does humor serve you? How has it over time?
Humor probably saved my life. It gets me out of the house. It gives me a way to look at stuff that’s not supposed to be funny and make it tolerable and okay to talk about. And if you don’t worry too much about security, it’s a great job. And it’s fun. And fun is good. The older I get the more I think joy is a good goal. Also, I laugh a lot more at myself—which is a great relief. I am just full of contradictions and ridiculous thoughts and stances.
I think that lesbians inherently have a “funny bone.” They have to in order to deal with society’s crap. Do you agree?
I think most people who have been a part of an oppressed group do well to have a good sense of humor. Of course what we find funny may not be funny to the powers that be. That’s probably where the punchline “that’s not funny” came from. But I think Hothead Paisan is hilarious.
What line or routine gets the most reactions from an audience?
Of course, that would be the squirrel. I do all this smart, insightful, clever comedy, but the thing that people still go the most crazy for is my imitating a rodent. Go figure.
Ellen or Margaret Cho?
Both. Ellen’s coming out episode was some of the best writing on TV ever. And she’s got one of those voices I could listen to all day. And I love that she’s so popular amongst the daytime TV ladies. And I love Margaret. She’s so funny and I love her fearlessness and her language and her queerness! When I did my first TV show and was crying in the bathroom after the shoot, Margaret came in and gave me a hug and I will never forget her kindness.
What was it like working on Roseanne? What did you learn from the diva herself?
Roseanne fed me. Literally. I gained 10 pounds when I wrote for her. We sat around writing jokes all day eating, and they had a candy room! I loved it. Roseanne was a hero of mine long before I was a professional comedian. And I had been trying to get a job with her using all the right channels and got nowhere. Then she saw my stand up—she wanted the squirrel for an ABC Hanukkah special, but it didn’t happen, ABC decided it was too Jewish—and saw something she liked. I’ve always found that my biggest champions were other artists because they judge for themselves what’s funny—as opposed to the non-artists in the business who typically want to know what everyone else thinks before they can make a decision. In turn I always try to help other comics, especially women.
Do you aspire for a one-word name some day?
Tell us about Offensive Women.
The idea came from our experience of having audience members say they were offended. And we knew they were offended because we were women and we were just saying what needed saying. [There’s a] big double standard in the comedy world—even on the part of audiences. So the idea was that we would call the show Offensive Women and that way when they sat down to watch the show, they’d accepted that we might be offensive to them and we didn’t have to talk about it. The very first Offensive Women show had the tag line “The Defense is Over.” My favorite is “Offensive Women: because we’re alive.” That’s really what it comes down to. The other thing I love about the show is that it’s lots of great women comics getting to work on the same bill. We often get separated and tokenized. Plus Julie Goldman and I have always been big fans of each other and love creating stuff together.
What’s next for the “pro-lesbian, radical-feminist, animal-loving, sarcastic funny girl”?
I have a new book that just went to the printers. It’s called Betsy’s Sunday School Bible Classics and it’ll be out for Christmas. I took the classic children’s Bible stories, restored all the sick and twisted parts that were removed so children wouldn’t run screaming, and then illustrated it.