Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria on butch representation, queer comedy and Dave Chappelle
Orange Is the New Black star and all-round comedy legend Lea DeLaria is a woman of two halves.
“You seem to be getting the very heady Lea this morning,” the comedian and actor Lea DeLaria says halfway through an interview with PinkNews.
“There’s two of me – there’s the crazy, outrageous me, but you seem to be getting the very intellectual, introspective version.”
It’s a perfect description for DeLaria – she’s made a career out of walking the line between being side-achingly funny and politically astute. Since she launched her career in the early 80s, she’s been putting butch lesbians on the map – and she’s made countless queer people laugh along the way.
Ahead of her F**k Love shows at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho, Lea DeLaria caught up with PinkNews to talk about queer representation on television, the legacy of Orange Is the New Black, and Dave Chappelle’s “jokes” at the expense of the trans community.
PinkNews: What was it like for you coming up as a queer comedian in the 80s? How have things changed for queer comedians since then?
It’s completely different. First of all, in the 1980s, I was edgy, underground, I wasn’t part of a mainstream comedy world. When I performed, I performed entirely for queer people. Always. My room was always filled with d**es and f*gs. I could talk about our culture to my people, and there was nobody doing that. A lot of the other comics tended to speak about the politics of the day, but I really did a deep dive into what we were doing as gay people, especially in the face of AIDS. In the 80s, my friends were dying left and right, and I was full of rage about that – just furious about it. So I talked about that non-stop.
Today, we’ve become more accepted by society. There’s still the ongoing debate that’s been going on for so long around the mainstream, middle-class assimilation of the gay male people who control our cause, and people more like me – who are far left of the centre, who think we have our own culture and our own way of doing things, and think we should celebrate that rather than trying to become straight people who happen to be fabulous.
Today, the [queer] comics are performing in comedy clubs, they’re performing on television shows, but they do that for everyone – it’s not just for us queers. And that’s great too… Today it’s more of a talking to everybody kind of vibe they have, whereas when I first started it was more rabble rousers trying to create a movement.
When you’re doing comedy today, do you still feel that you’re speaking specifically to queer audiences? Are there more non-queer people in your audiences today than there would have been in the 80s?
In the 1980s, it was nothing but queer people. Starting in 1993, it was a mixed bag for me – once I did the The Aresnio Hall Show and toured the world, there was always a mixed bag in my audience. I still speak very heavily towards the queer community, and I love that by the way, it makes me so happy. I recently had a funny experience [at a show] where this straight couple in the audience didn’t know what a throuple was, so me having to explain to them what a throuple was was really f**king fun.
The other thing is I also sing. That’s always been a part of my show. For me, it’s kind of a spoonful of sugar method of comedy. I would sing something and lull the audience into this false sense of security and start screaming “d**e” and “f*g” and “c**t” at them again.
You’ve spoken before about this period in the 90s when you were cast as the lesbian who ‘inappropriately hits on straight girls’ – how much has television changed since then?
Well, you’re seeing a lot more than the lesbian who inappropriately hits on straight women at every function, I can tell you that. There isn’t a show out there, pretty much, that doesn’t have some kind of queer representation. It’s far surpassed what I could have possibly imagined. We have non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans, all being represented on major shows – honestly, in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d see anything like that on television.
And now not only is it on television, it’s all over the world – it’s in major motion pictures. I count that as a stride we have made – that’s a major, major step for us. We have a long way to go still, but the fact that this much of society is – how shall I put this? – I don’t want to say accepting because I don’t give a f**k whether they accept, but that they respect my right to be. That’s pretty cool.
You famously played a lesbian who hits on straight women on Friends. That show has faced a lot of criticism in the last few years over its treatment of queer characters. What’s the legacy of that show and other shows of its era?
Well, you know, people can only be where they are. That’s always my response to everything. A heteronormative view, that’s all Friends is – it was written mostly by straight white men and it has an entirely all-white cast living in an entirely white neighbourhood in New York City. That whole thing was about, ‘Will Ross and Rachel get together?’ That was basically the entire show.
In terms of how they handled their queer characters, I gotta say, they handled their queer characters the way everybody was handling queer characters at that time. You’ve got to remember that that was at the height of lesbian chic. So basically you didn’t really see gay men, but there were lesbians on almost all of the shows, and they were mostly portrayed by straight women, as they were on Friends. The two women getting married were actually straight girls playing lesbians. They threw me and Candace Gingrich in there just to give it, how shall I put it, a realistic feel – ‘let’s put a couple of real d**es in there’.
Orange Is the New Black was such a massive milestone for queer representation on television. How do you view the show’s legacy today?
Oh, well that’s very simple. Orange Is the New Black changed the face of television. It literally changed the way television was made, the way it was viewed, and what was acceptable to be seen. Orange did that. If there was no Orange, there was no Me Too movement. If there was no Orange, we wouldn’t have these women-run, women-acted, women-written shows. We wouldn’t see as many female directors out there as we see now if it wasn’t for Orange Is the New Black. We certainly wouldn’t see the queer representation that we see – Orange changed that quite a bit.
Before that, there was a queer revolution going on on television, but Orange, because it was on Netflix, could go further. For example, you’re not going to see the screwdriver episode we did on Orange on Hacks. Even though HBO and Showtime could go further than network television, it couldn’t go where streaming went. We took advantage of all of that.
What Orange did for me and my character and my people – and when I say ‘my people’ I’m referring to butches – it was the very first time you ever saw a positive portrayal of a butch d**e. Up until then, she was the butt of every joke. She was always stupid, always drunk, always beating up her girlfriend. It was always that. Just basically take any redneck American truck driver and make him a butch d**e, and that’s the way butch d**es were portrayed. Orange portrayed us as multi-layered human beings and not dumb.
You’ve said before that stand-up is your ‘activist tool’. What do you think the power of stand-up is when it comes to activism?
It always has been an activist tool. Every great political movement that you can name throughout the 20th century had a cultural movement that went along with it. There were painters, singers, writers, and there were stand-ups. So of course when the queer movement started gaining speed in the latter part of the 20th century, there were going to be comics who would be involved with that. I’ve always been that kind of comic – there are comics that I admire greatly as stand-ups and they weren’t talking about socks being lost in the dryer or airplane food, they were talking about the politics of the day.
Comedy is a fantastic way to affect change. I found that was able to do that – I count myself as one of the people that has changed the world, and by sticking to my guns and by doing what it is that I do, I have definitely made a difference. That’s one of the best things about stand-up, besides the fact that it’s a great therapy tool for me – I get a fantastic release when I do stand-up. It’s better than therapy because you’re paying me!
We unfortunately have some comedians who use stand-up to punch down on minority groups, such as Dave Chappelle, who’s faced criticism over transphobic comments in his routines. What’s your opinion of that kind of comedy?
This is again one of those things where people can only be where they are. I’m not a person that immediately says, ‘Cancel somebody’. I’m not a person that says, ‘You should never listen to Dave Chappelle.’ I’m a person that says, challenge Dave Chappelle. Go up to Dave Chappelle and talk to him. Say something about him in your comedy and then maybe you and Dave Chappelle will start having a conversation, and that conversation is how we can affect a change.
This is what I think: I think you’re woefully, woefully misinformed, Dave Chappelle, and I think you’re viewing the world through your heteronormative view, which is unfortunate because you never used to do that. Dave was always a huge, huge supporter of queer rights. He was always doing very pro-gay stuff, so to suddenly have this turn is to me indicative of someone who is hugely misinformed and needs to have some information.
Within our own community, the biggest issue is our non-stop, constant infighting. Instead of talking to each other like we’re family and like we’re part of the same community, we just yell at each other. This is where I think it’s time for us all to grow up a little bit.
I think it’s time for us to approach each other within our own community with love. And yes, I get it, it’s difficult. I’m a f**king butch d**e. I’ve looked the way I look my entire f**king life. Do you have any clue what it’s like to be who I am within our community? It’s non-stop, the abuse I get from within my own community. But I still haven’t become this person. I still try to approach those people with love in my heart and say, ‘This is what’s going on.’
Grab a clue. Start trying to be a part of our community and part of the solution.
What can people expect from your shows at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London?
This is the start of the next record and this is how I make records. I have an idea, so the concept is “f**k love”. What ties the record together is that these are all love gone wrong songs. What I usually do is not just the American songbook – you’re not going to find the American songbook anywhere. We’re doing “Tainted Love”, but we’re doing it all in the language of jazz.
I’ll be there with my longtime collaborator, Janette Mason, who is a very underrated jazz pianist and composer and arranger. She’s one of the most talented, genius musicians who are out there, and she doesn’t get used enough. Why? Because she’s a woman and a lesbian. The folks at Pizza Express know who she is and they know how great she is.
You’re going to hear that music and then you’re going to hear me do my normal Lea DeLaria ranting and raving. It’s all going to be mostly about love and whatever’s going on in the room, like I generally do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Lea DeLaria will perform at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 February. Tickets are available here.