Sabrina Matthews: Exclusive Interview
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.
I want to talk about Los Angeles because it seems like such a superficial place, and I know you have lived there for seven years and you joke about it. Is there room in L.A. for a woman like you?
There’s room but it has taken me a long time to find it. A lot of people say L.A. sucks and I said it for a long time, [but] there are a lot of really great things in Los Angeles, there are a lot of truly talented deeply interesting people. And it’s not everyone, [laughs] you can watch television or go to a movie and say, “Oh that person has no talent,” and you may well be absolutely right. But you can never say those people are lazy. Nobody who has acquired a modicum of fame is lazy in the slightest. What I discovered in L.A. is, I really want to be a rogue comic, and so I am a rogue comic who happens to live in L.A. Like being on Kightlinger’s show or taping something for Comedy Central. That all comes because of the people who happen to know me, not because I go out and bust ass. There are some people who really bust ass, like Sarah Silverman when I used to see a lot of her. Everywhere I went she was there. There’s a reason there’s a Sarah Silverman Show, and it’s not because she sat at home watching CSI reruns and eating Chinese food.
Who would do that?
No one. I’m not.
What about the lesbian community?
I am completely mystified by the lesbian community in Los Angeles, and I have always been, and I won’t always be in Los Angeles. I want to go somewhere where I am interesting and cute, instead of weird and fat. Everything seems to be so defined. You’re a feminine woman who wants to be with a feminine woman who is exactly like you. I see these couples and I think, What do they say to each other? I love me and I love me too? It is so prevalent, and then there’s a lot of very butch-femme couples. I have heard so many women say that butch on butch couples are disgusting, revolting. I have heard these words used. Also, the definition of butch is hilarious to me, like the butch women in L.A. are androgynous in other places I’ve lived. I kind of like androgyny, so I’ll see a woman who I think is androgynous and I’ll be like, Oh, she’s kind of hot. And someone will be like, Oh, you can’t, what are you talking about? Butch on butch action, that’s gross. Butch on butch action? Who the hell is the other butch?
Do you think gay and lesbian comedy is progressing and where do you think it’s going to be in five, 10, 15 years?
Well I think its really going to turn. I have been thinking about the gay marriage thing recently, and I’ll get to that in a second, but my answer kind of turns on that. I think that advancements are made, sort of social advancements are made in two ways. Either something huge happens and then people recover from it, in whatever way that changes their reality, or there is that kind of constant creeping forward of a group.
I would say that having openly gay comics do half hour comedy shows, and having shows on television where there are gay comics or gay characters—I would say those are huge things. And people—Joe Schmoe who lives in Idaho—people are going to decide what they are going to think about that. And there is the constant creep of, you know, there’s a gay comic at your local comedy club every so often, or your newspaper reports on gay marriage. If gay people get [the right to get] married, that’s going to be a huge thing. In five years I think we are going to be a little bit further along than we are now. But right now, maybe every season there’s another gay character on television. Now we’re in the slow, creep phase. That’s the reaction to the big, jump phase, because gay people were the flavor of the month about 10 years ago. It’s definitely a political thing as well. Five years ago, I think that the gay community became silent and now we’re starting to get it again. We had all these rights, we opened the closet in a lot of respects, but then [now that] we have these rights we don’t have to fight anymore. And now that our rights are being slowly taken away from us again, now we are doing less of a creep and more of a jump.