Kevin Meaney Yuks It Up at the Boston Comedy Festival
All together, now: "We’re big pants people!" That’s just one of the laugh lines made famous by openly gay funnyman Kevin Meaney, who joins a multitude of other star comedians appearing during the 13th Annual Boston Comedy Festival, a multi-event yukfest running from Sept. 13-22 that will not only feature establish comics, but which will also reward one of 96 up-and-coming contestants with a $10,000 prize.
The contestants will be competing to score big laughs with audiences, and points with the judges, during a series of Preliminaries and Semi-finals slated to take place at the Davis Square Theater. In the end, it’ll all come down to a Gala, hosted by the Somerville Theatre that will include the Festival’s Finals.
Meaney’s career took wing in the mid-1980s, when he plied his trade at comedy clubs in New York and Boston and appeared on programs like "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. In 1990, Meaney took the starring role in the TV version of the feature film "Uncle Buck." Since then he’s appeared in films, on stage, and on television, including a 2010 guest role on "30 Rock."
But it was a five-year stint in the Broadway show "Hairspray" that brought Meaney to the life-changing realization that he needed to come out of the closet. That might have spelled career crisis for lesser funnymen, but for Meaney (as for other comics who have successfully come out, such as Ellen DeGeneres) it meant liberation... and some fresh, as well as topical, material.
(By the way, out, proud, and uproarious comic Jim Lauletta will also be headlining this year’s Festival, appearing at Dick Doherty’s Beantown Comedy Vault, appearing Sept. 19 at 8:30 p.m.)
Kevin Meaney chatted about all this and more with EDGE during a recent phone interview.
EDGE: You’ve been on "The Tonight Show" with Carson and Leno, as well as Letterman and Conan and even Oprah; who’s funnier?
Kevin Meaney: I would have to say my favorite would be Johnny [Carson]. Another one would have to be Letterman, and probably Oprah, and then Conan. Johnny was my first, and you always remember your first! He was just this wonderful man that just loved standup comedians and when you’re a 14-year-old bot and you’re sneaking some to watch TV late at night, you see Johnny Carson. And then you fall asleep in front of the TV and then your parents come down and it’s, "Get upstairs! What are you doing down here?" [The appeal is that] you’d sneak downstairs to watch an adult program. You probably didn’t understand half of it.
I was attracted to that style of humor. I loved it! I thought it was dangerous, what he was doing on TV every night, and I embraced it.
EDGE: So much so that you became a comedian yourself. What’s the hardest part about being a funnyman?
Kevin Meaney: It never changes: You’re always a total wreck before you go up on stage because you never know what’s really going to happen. That danger aspect of it is ever-present; it never goes away. You can’t take it for granted that you’re just going to be able to go up there and be funny, even with all of the hours of material that you have. It’s your head [on the line]; are you going to be able to pull it off? You have to be in a good head-space. You have to feel good about yourself. You have to have fun.
And then when you throw in all that other crap that is your life... you have to leave all of that behind you to get up on stage.
EDGE: Although you do bring your life into your act to a degree.
Kevin Meaney: I do, but that’s a pretend life. You exaggerate your real life to put that up on stage. Your real life is not as funny as the life that you create to share with an audience. It’s somewhat real; it’s based on experience, but you have to spice it up a bit.
EDGE: You came out of the closet in 2008. Did that feel like another occasion of terror before going out before your audience?
Kevin Meaney: It was totally risky, because once you come out you can’t go back in. You can’t just say, "I was only kidding." I realized what the consequences might be; I realized I was going to lose friends and family, and my life was going to change 100%. And it did! It was really scary to do it, and I came out in a gay friendly musical on Broadway; I was in "Hairspray" on Broadway, the gayest show ever, and everybody I was working with were either gay or gay friendly so it wasn’t like I was working on the docks and saying, "Hey fellas--I have something to tell ya!"
EDGE: You’ve said that you started your five-year run on Broadway in "Hairspray" married to a women but ended that run divorced and with a boyfriend. Was being in that show bring you to a tipping point for you when you knew you had to come out?
Kevin Meaney: Yeah, it did. In the stand-up world you really don’t run into many gay people. Maybe an audience member or, rarely you might see a gay comedian. Now you do, more than in the ’80s and ’90s, when if they were gay they were in the closet and they wouldn’t talk about it. You could be as gay as you wanted on stage, as long as you never mentioned it.
Most people thought that I was gay. When I came out, they’d say, "I’m not surprised." In my act I have a line: My mother said, "We should have told you a long time ago." It was something that I carried with me throughout my whole life and always swept it under the rug. I was totally afraid and ashamed. The issue has religion written all over it, it ties into the way your were raised, the friends that you have; so many factors come into that mix where you just can’t do it.
"I married a wonderful, wonderful woman, who I was in love with, but that wasn’t... there was more to me, and I was denying myself that. Once I got into "Hairspray," all of a sudden my life just changed. I found the courage to become who I am today.
EDGE: Coming out has given you some material--for example, the short video called "The Marriage Ref," about being gay and being married. And the whole subject of marriage, too, fuelled your one-man show "Wedding Vows in Vegas" about getting married the day after meeting someone.
"Wedding Vows in Vegas" was a story about me when I was 39 years old and I wasn’t yet married. Everybody else I knew was married, and I thought that was what I need to do--basically, get married so people wouldn’t think I was gay. That never came into the plot, though, because I didn’t want to put that information out there. I should have come out at the ending of that show, because that would have made the most sense, but I didn’t have the courage to do that.
Who’s to say when is the best time to come out? I’m glad I came out later; if I’d come out at 20 or 30, or even 40, I wouldn’t have the wonderful daughter that I have. She’s the greatest daughter in the world. That’s a result of being married and loving your wife. [That said, although] I was happy [in my marriage], there was something missing. Looking back today, I have a wonderful relationship with my ex-wife and with my daughter, and with my entire family. They’re all totally supportive.
EDGE: Will you be one of the judges at this year’s Comedy Festival?
Kevin Meaney: No, I’m going to do my act.
EDGE: Okay, but let’s pretend for a moment you were going to be a judge... What do you, as a fan of comedy in your own right, look for in a comedian? You mentioned Johnny Carson earlier.
Kevin Meaney: That was me watching Johnny Carson when I was 14 or 15 years old, going "Wow, he’s doing stuff that nobody’s laughing at now he has to recover." That was the danger; I didn’t know he had cue cards. I still thought he was the best at recovering from a joke that didn’t work. Every time you get on stage you have to be fast on your feet and be ready to come up with something else that you’ve never done before.
EDGE: Is that a matter of staying in character?
Kevin Meaney: It’s definitely in the character that you’re doing on stage. You keep your stage persona, yes, because your stage persona is a little bit different than your regular self.
EDGE: What advice would you offer comedians who are just starting out?
Kevin Meaney: I would say you have to do it every day. You have to get up on stage every day, and you have to write every day. It’s not just writing; it’s also executing your material on stage. You sit in your room writing, but to take what you’ve written from the page and put it on stage involves a monumental amount of work.
It’s got to be rehearsed, and where do you rehearse it? You have to rehearse it on stage. You have to find out where the laughs are going to fall up in front of an audience. There’s no other way to do it. You can say things to friends, and maybe they’ll laugh and maybe they won’t, but the last thing you want is friends in the audience. You want people that have no idea who the fuck you are; once you get up there, you’re getting a true reading of whether this stuff is funny or not.
Comedy buffs will be able to check our Meaney’s act at the Davis Square Theatre on Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets for Meaney’s act, Jim Lauletta’s Big Gay Comedy Buffet, and all the other performers, film screenings, and the Preliminaries, Semi-finals, and Gala and Finals featuring the Festival’s contestants, are available online.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.