Sabrina Matthews: Exclusive Interview
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For over 17 years, Sabrina Matthews has been inducing belly laughs in adoring lesbian fans. And what’s not to love? Her self-deprecatingly brilliant act on stage is side-splitting and has brought her not only gay comedy kudos, but taken her all the way to mainstream success as a finalist on Last Comic Standing.
I know you’ve been over 17 years—before Ellen and Rosie made it big—and you’ve been out all this time, so I’d like to know, how has your act has changed?
I started at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint in San Francisco, the only full-time gay performance space, in the country, maybe in the world. But there’s always Amsterdam, so one never knows. And the guy who managed it, Donald Montwill, was an extremely crafty activist and his idea was that stand-up gay comics would train there and then go out and be out comics in the rest of the world, and a few of us bought wholeheartedly into this concept in such a way that it struck us at strange when people were like, “No, we don’t want a gay comic.” Every so often you get a really rude refusal.
So, you never thought about hiding your sexuality in stage?
No, I never though about it, but once I came out I never thought about hiding my sexuality period. Like once I came out—in my life—I never thought about not…
Yeah, I mean I don’t like, walk up to people and say “Hi, I’m Sabrina Matthews, a lesbian.” But, you know, I look a certain stereotypical part. And I also, as soon as it comes up in conversation I will join in. If somebody’s talking about, like if a woman is talking about a problem that they’re having with their boyfriend, I might say, “Well, I dated a woman who acted like that once.” But I don’t consider it some big announcement or anything.
Television is becoming more open toward gay comedy but it seems like straights are the ones doing it. You’ve got Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler doing gay comedy, and it’s widely accepted. But there are still very few very openly gay comics. Do you see the imbalance? Why do you think that is?
I see the imbalance; I have no idea why it is. I’ve never really understood anybody’s psychology around comedy except my own. The whole time I have been a comic, gay comedy has been becoming acceptable, and it’s certainly gotten more acceptable to have gay characters and gay jokes on television. But gay people are frequently played by straight people, which is fine. I don’t know, I don’t watch that much comedy, what I have seen is that there is always going to be jokes about everything on television—there are always going to be jokes about everything everywhere—and because gay and lesbian comics have gotten more recognition and a more prevalent position in the mainstream of comedy, then all jokes that relate to gay and lesbian things have seemed to become less homophobic and more acceptable. I think that it has to do [with] education, you know what I mean? This is what’s acceptable to joke about, here are the stereotypes that are just mean and negative and here are the stereotypes that are really true, that you may as well play with because really as much as you’re making fun of us, you know you’re not wrong. [Laughs] If you’re a straight actor and you get a chance to play a gay role and pass it up because you think there is going to be some stigma attached to it, I’d say you’re probably crazy.
Do you think you were cut from Last Comic Standing because you were so open on a major network?
I don’t. I was really glad on Last Comic Standing that they left my gay jokes in. It is possible to show a minute of my material with absolutely no gay comments whatsoever […] but every single thing had me being out, and I love that, because I wanted people who are my fans to know that there is no way I would back off just to be on this show. And I wanted people who hadn’t seen me to get a slice of who I really was, and I wanted to represent. It’s all about visibility. Being an openly gay comic in a straight room is a form of activism. And, everybody who is constantly visible is a real activist. It’s not just comedy or entertainment.
Comedy is a good wedge.
It is a good wedge. You can sneak a lot in when people are laughing.
They’re caught off guard.
Absolutely. I think black comics have been doing this for years. You find the commonality with someone and you get them laughing about it, and then suddenly people start to realize how much they have in common with other people, and are not thinking about how little they have in common with them. It’s really powerful so on that side I was really happy about the Last Comic Standing experience.
My last set they showed the good part. It wasn’t like I tanked at the top, but it was a little slow at the top. And the thing of it is—which I probably shouldn’t admit nationally, but what the heck—the audiences that they tape the show in front of when you get to like, California, there’s friends of the performers, there’s people in the business and there’s people who actually want to come to the shows, that’s maybe half of the audience. The rest are high school students who are getting paid 50 bucks to sit in the audience. So on the one hand it’s a way of filling the seats, and on the other hand it is a way of seeing how their demographic is going to respond, because Last Comic Standing is for high school- and college-aged kids. It’s not just for the Heartland.