Brooklynite Kelli Dunham is a nurse…and a funny one! She has several comedy albums out, her latest being Why Is the Fat One Always Angry? Her speciality is laughing off the negativity brought in life. Besides comedy, she has authored several books for adults and children.
You have an album called “Why Is the Fat One Always Angry?” Really, I was thinking this exact same thing about Hollywood type casting in roles, most particularly when I saw “Bridesmaids.” Melissa McCarthy was severely stuck as the angry girl, or the girl people made fun of for being fuller figured. Whenever she was in anything in the movie, it was like they couldn’t find one single flattering outfit for her on purpose. She was *ANGRY AND FAT*, I’m sure the script read. While poking fun at this, how do you also plan to change this idea in dramatic works and comedy?
The name of the CD comes from a story that’s on the CD about being in the hospital with my partner when she was dying. She was a tough native New Yorker with a black bob and fierce red lipstick. I was the more chatty person, she once imitated me “Hi, my name is Kelli Dunham, I’m from Wisconsin, would you like my lunch?” But when she was in the hospital, I had to be the patient advocate, the bad guy, the person yelling and screaming to get her what we needed. So she once joked the medical personnel whined as they walked away “the fat one, why is she always angry?”
Who are your favorite comedians and comediennes? How have they influenced your humor?
My favorite comics include Eddie Izzard, Kate Clinton, Bob Smith and Margaret Cho. All have done really ground breaking comedy about something of substance. For me, that is what makes interesting comedy. Seinfeld is very skilled technically, but he makes comedy of out the little things, hotel soap, a hair on the wall. This bores me. I also think we have enough people in the world making little meaningless things into huge things. I’m impressed with Izzard’s ability to make comedy about God (or the lack thereof) and history. Kate Clinton has been doing sophisticated political comedy with a lesbian twist since before people had any concept of what a lesbian is. Bob Smith is also another technically skilled comic, his timing is so good I’ve often wondered if he practices with a metronome. He was diagnosed with ALS a few years ago and he writes about that and he’s really funny about it. That’s some pretty serious comic talent, to be able to do that. And a certain skewed perspective which is actually quite healthy. Some of the most amazing comics have never stood on a stage. I don’t know if you’ve seen United in Anger, the ACT UP oral history movie? ACT UP’s actions were hilarious, very camp, very over the top. Here’s a group of people literally dying, literally being allowed to die, en-masse by governmental indifference to their fate, and they’re fighting for their lives and they’re very very funny.
How can people laugh at themselves? How can we learn to forgive ourselves for what we hate most about our flaws? How do we learn to get over things using humor?
Humor does a lot of different things and one of the real benefits of keeping a humorous outlook, the benefits of actively looking for funny everywhere you go is that it gives you some perspective. If you can mock your oppressor, you’re a tiny bit closer to gaining the upper hand. And flaws, hmmm, well, it depends. If one’s flaw involves not looking exactly like someone on the cover of a magazine, it’s important to remember the person on the cover of the magazine doesn’t even look like that, it’s called photoshop. We should all be laughing at media images all the time. Maybe they’re pretty to look at, but they aren’t based on reality. Bodies are complicated and all different. Just the idea of botox: injecting POISON underneath your skin to look younger, it’s ludicrous, right? I get why people do it, this culture is very youth focused. On the other hand, injecting toxin under your skin is ludicrous, straight up.
But if a person’s flaw is that they are a jerk, or selfish, or they’re not taking care of their responsibilities, I don’t advocate laughing at that. I would say stop being a jerk, stop being selfish, take care of your responsibilities. Go to therapy or go to a 12 step meeting or just make “to do” lists. We all struggle with not being the images of “perfection” we’re exposed to in the media but you’d be surprised how much better a person can feel about themselves just by making a list of things to do and crossing them off when they’re done.
What do you differently when approaching comedy versus writing books?
Comedy on the stage is more immediate of course, you can get that immediate feedback. I remember I was trying to develop a closer based on comparing a first date to an episode of Intervention and I was getting totally blank looks. Turns out not enough people watch Intervention to make that joke, there’s not the critical mass you need to have it work. Maybe if I was performing for a group of substance abuse counselors? Or people in recovery. You get that immediate feedback and it helps you grow and refine your act. There are limitation to what you can do in stand up comedy, even in the kind of storytelling stand up comedy I do. Not as many limitations as people think: I talk about being a nun, about the death of my partner, about being born after my mom had a tubal ligation, all as part of stand up. But I can’t get into the same kind of detail on the stage, so it’s really fun to write about something I’ve done stand up about and be able to share the experiences in a more three dimensional way.
As a nurse, you have probably seen a lot of negativity caused by bad health. It seems when we’re sick like nothing will make us feel better. What do/did you do to make patients feel better with comedy?
When people are sick, they’re not just sick, they also often feel out of control. Our healthcare system just makes this worse: “here strip off your clothes, put on our clothes, be on our schedule, we call you by your first name, but you have to call us by our last names.” Patients often want to joke about their situation, to reduce it to something less threatening, to help them understand it and to take back some of that control that has been stripped from them. Most of the time, as a nurse and a comic all I have to do is stand back and not stop them. I do a presentation called Laughter at the End of Life, specifically created for health care providers. I usually do it for hospital systems and the people who show up are always nurses and social workers. And they say “our patients and their family members joke all the time about death, even while close to death and we don’t know how to deal with it.” And I always say “follow their lead” It’s more complicated than that, of course, but you can’t go wrong with following the patient’s lead about when and how they use humor.
Personally, you identify yourself as genderqueer. Mainstream media and Hollywood tend to cover the LGBT community as fitting into gay, lesbian, bisexual or drag queen positions. In fact, while I am familiar with the term, I cannot name one big celebrity who is genderqueer except for maybe Andrej Pejic, and I myself am unsure if he mostly does this to be able to cash in on women’s and men’s modeling jobs for the mere fact he/she can earn double the money. Which places you all alone…when you were figuring yourself out, how long did it take you to come this conclusion as a young person that you may be not gay or bi but genderqueer? What was your thought process? What do you want to say to anyone feeling the same way?
Well, I think mainstream media and Hollywood have recently begun to understand that there are people living all over the gender spectrum, but it’s true they’re not doing a responsible job with representation. The mainstream representation of transgender identified people in particular has been jaw droppingly horrendous for years, and even now when they have decent representation, they can’t ever god forbid have a trans person playing a trans person. It’s always some cisgendered actor who everyone lauds as brave. It’s ridiculous. But that’s what the mainstream does. Frankly, they’re doing a totally irresponsible job representing people of color, and women. And people with disabilities. And people with mental illness. As for the genderqueer label, that’s just a shortcut: I’m a chick who people think looks like a dude, and people think walks like a dude. So even though I think this idea that’s there are just two genders is really ridiculous, genderqueer is just a shorthand, it’s a way of telling people: okay here is who I am, if that makes you uncomfortable let’s at least have this upfront. I don’t know that’s the customary way of using genderqueer, but that’s how I use it.
But then again, your website refers to you as “she” as opposed to “they,” and…you said prior to this interview you also consider yourself a lesbian. Are you between places or do you feel like you can be both depending on the moment, that sometimes you can embrace having a gender while other days you feel genderless?
I’m all those things, I’m a lesbian and I’m genderqueer, all on the same day: gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. I think of “lesbian” as a shortcut as well. For straight people, I might use the word lesbian, because they know what that is and it describes me pretty much, I guess. Within the LGBT community specifically, lesbian is a more complicated word so I am more inclined to use the word “queer” within the community. About pronouns: If someone asks me, I’ll say use female pronouns because it seems like too much pressure on the other person to shrug and say “um, I don’t care.” I also want to indicate a pronoun in a sense for solidarity. There are a lot of people who look a lot like me and pronouns are really important to some of them and I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from asking. It would be great if we could start a cultural movement that made asking about preferred gender pronouns a part of everyday generalized conversation. It could really move the conversation forward on gender if kids started saying “hey dad, which pronouns do you prefer?”
At one point I thought about spending the time to take all the female pronouns off my website but then I remembered I had comedy to write so I haven’t bothered. Gender is part of my comedy: some of the juxtapositions of people trying to gender me, mistaking me for a young boy, all that is hilarious, and so it becomes a part of my act. But if you want to learn about me, the fact that I used to be a nun, that I am the person everyone on the subway tells their most intimate secrets to, that I grew up in rural Wisconsin, all that is much informative than knowing my gender. Um, whatever it is.
You’ve done two children’s books about body image. I wish I could lie about saying I think I’m the most incredible looking person ever, but I swear, every woman AND man compares themselves to other people of their respective genders. What current or past insecurities inspired you to write the books? What did you want to tell kids? Are boys included too in your body image talks?
I’ve written two books for pre-teens 8-12: the Boys Body Book and the Girls Body Book. They’re basically super illustrated, funny but serious puberty discussion guides. The books are about the physical changes that come with puberty. They are not at all guides to body image. However, I think having accurate information about body changes and about having a body in general, is important for everyone of all genders. The books have been tremendously successful and are used everywhere from mainstream foster care organizations to conservative Christian homeschool curriculum. About inspiration and body image: everything about our culture sets us up to think of ourselves as less attractive than other people. It’s how our whole system works, you can’t sell people stuff they don’t need if they don’t feel badly about themselves. Some people might need professional help, like therapy or support groups to deal with whatever is going on with their body image, and that can be a really important step, especially for young people. But beyond the situations that might need some specific professional support, it’s all about answering back to this idea that there is one ideal beauty standard. And it’s all so random! Most of the people we see on television and movies don’t conform to the Random Beauty Standard naturally. They have had plastic surgery and they have full time trainers and full time cooks and then they have more plastic surgery. There are a few people who might have some genetic predisposition to have the look of what we call “supermodels” but that’s not what people look like naturally. Not if they’re not starving, or using cocaine to sustain that appearance. Which makes it not sustainable at all.
We all need to find whatever images there are of people who look like us and keep those images in front of us, we need to hold the mainstream media accountable for their representations. But until that time, we need to we need to yell at our televisions. This is one thing I find tremendously interesting about Lena Dunham and the GIRLS phenomenon. First of all, I hate that show, all the characters are so vapid and uninspiring and shallow. And the fact that they’ve created a completely whitewashed New York and Brooklyn is unforgivable. And you know what would cure 90% percent of their problems? Volunteering at a soup kitchen. The characters have no real problems, that’s their problem.
But what I find interesting is how people will refer to Lena Dunham, I even saw some supposedly enlightened gay man do this on his facebook wall recently, he referred to her as “that ugly chick.” Lena Dunham is just a normal looking person. She’s not particularly unattractive, she just hasn’t dieted herself into weirdness or had her faded tattoos touched up. Look around, THAT’S what people look like: people are flabby and they have bad, often faded tattoos. So as much as I detest that show, I have some grudging admiration for her being a part of the cast of the show and being just as naked as the rest of the chicks. And I’m relieved that the whole show isn’t about what a loser she is because she’s not a supermodel. All the girls are losers, even the more conventionally attractive ones. So I guess that’s some kind of progress.
Campus Pride’s poll listed you among its favorite LGBT college circuit comediennes/comedians. What do you do to impress young people, who are constantly, and I say this AS a young person, growing more obnoxious as time goes on?
Today’s young people don’t the market cornered on obnoxiousness. I used to wear flash bulbs for earrings and my bathrobe and swim flippers to English class (sorry Mrs Brooks!) for no reason at all except to be obnoxious. Today’s young people just need a challenge, and I hope I do that with my comedy.
What can people look for you to do in 2013?
My goal is to put out a new comedy CD every year, so I’ll be releasing a follow-up to “Why Is The Fat One Always Angry” in the fall, there will be some new surprises on that CD including a choose your own adventure interactive multimedia portion which you’ll be able to access through my website. I’m excited about that and about getting more work out there. For the month of February I will be doing a bundle special on my website, where you can download all three of my comedy CDs for just 15 bucks, so people who are new to my comedy can get the whole treatment at once. Of course the biggest thing I have coming up is my new book Freak of Nurture from Topside Press. The book is a collection of humorous essays, some about very serious subjects including grief and cancer and earthquakes. It’s getting great advance praise, Kate Clinton, who is THE godmother of lesbian comedy called it “hilarious, laugh out loud storytelling.” The book comes out in May 2013 and I’ll be doing an actual tour and we’ll be doing some interesting video interactive touring as well that should be really fun to follow along on.