40 at 40: Stand-up Elvira Kurt on making LGBTQ+ history and staying honest

27 years after her NOW cover, stand-up Elvira Kurt updates us on her therapy, why she mentors younger comics and the changing scene

Last updated on June 14th, 2021 at 05:28 pm

Over the last 40 years, dozens of stand-up comics have graced the cover of NOW. But only a few have made history. That’s what Elvira Kurt did the year before she was on our December 29, 1994 cover.

With her appearance on the CBC talk show Friday Night! With Ralph Benmergui in 1993, she became the first out queer performer on national TV – a few months before Lea DeLaria did the same thing on the higher profile Arsenio Hall Show south of the border.

In Daryl Jung’s cover story, Kurt discusses that Benmurgui appearance, calling it “a horror…. the most bizarre experience I’ve ever had.” She recalls feeling a wall of shock from the audience. The truly bizarre thing? Today – albeit 27 years later – Kurt doesn’t remember much about the experience.

“It sounds like this poor lamb being led to the slaughter,” she says, laughing. “I kind of remember what I wore, and I think I took a prop with me on set. But I don’t remember anything else.”

In true Kurt fashion, she brought the fact of her missing memory up in her therapy session, which she completed right before talking to me.

“One of the things I have been exploring in therapy is the way I shut things down and don’t want to think about them – I put them away,” she explains.

“It’s probably a survival tactic. Do you remember the end of the first Raiders Of The Lost Ark movie? The whole film has been about getting this object, and the very last scene is of the object being put into a giant warehouse filled with hundreds of crates. That’s where I imagine my trauma is. And it’s not in a big box; it’s probably the size of a ring box.”

What’s telling about reading that 1994 story is how psychologically insightful Kurt was about her artistic process – and this was years before she had begun therapy. Working on the Yuk Yuk’s circuit, she kept her queer material off the stage, she says, because she was keeping it from herself. Her breakthrough came when she was honest; and she was given the chance to do that in alternative clubs like the Rivoli and the Queen’s Bedroom.

“I was pretty insightful for someone with no self-awareness,” she says. “Dropping all my defences made me realize I even had them. So that was pretty huge. I wasn’t being fulfilled doing comedy while wearing this armour. It was very liberating to lose it. It’s something I still try to do, to peel the layers further and find out how much more truthful I can be.”

Even back then, a few years into her stand-up career, she was getting laughs from the acidic, judgemental observations of her Hungarian immigrant parents. They’ve been grouchy constants in her act, and Kurt’s impressions of them – especially her mother, Irene – still ring true.

Her parents are still alive but live apart – she recently took them to get their COVID-19 vaccinations separately. Did they ever become proud of her achievements, which include a couple of TV shows, like Pop-Cultured and SpinOff, as well as three decades of doing comedy both here and internationally? (Kurt just got nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards, for her writing on Canada’s Drag Race and The Great Canadian Baking Show.)

“I outlasted their desire to criticize me,” she says. “I don’t think they expected my career to go on this long. And now they’re just” – she gives me a bit of the accent, as if she’s just tasted something bitter – “Ugh… at least you gave us grandkids.”

Her busiest time as a stand-up was when she was based in L.A. – the cover story alludes to her contemplating making the move.

“There was a period of six to seven years when I spent a lot of time criss-crossing the U.S. doing shows,” she says. “I moved to L.A. to be in L.A., but I was finding it hard to be there and it was easier to run away and be on the road constantly working. It was lucrative and I could easily fool myself into thinking, ‘Well, at least I’m doing stand-up.’ But it wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be, the reason I was in L.A.”

After gaining so much attention and momentum in Canada, she didn’t anticipate having to start from the bottom in the L.A. scene. It was impossible to get into the major rooms, and in the smaller rooms that were just starting out there were people who weren’t very good acting as gatekeepers.

“I was full of hubris and ego and found it very difficult,” she says. “I didn’t have a support system – I didn’t even think of having one. Every once in a while, I’d run into another Canadian comic, and the one thing about L.A. that was true then – I’m not sure if it is now – is you didn’t want to hear anyone’s tale of woe. You didn’t want the stink of that to get on you. So I kept myself isolated. I made it harder on myself.”

As if to make up for the lack of any support early on in her own career, she’s always been incredibly generous with new and emerging comics.

“It didn’t occur to me that I might get any help from others – nor, with my youthful arrogance, did I think I needed any help either,” she says, ruefully. “I would have pushed it away or put the Kurt family world view on it, which was contemptuous and suspicious.

“But now, I’m a full two generations older than many younger comics, and I feel like it’s my job to help support them,” she says. “I’ve lived through this experience. I’m not as plugged in as the current comics, but I’m not afraid to make connections and share any information I have. I like to remind people that they’re awesome, because that’s always good to hear. And I have no problem sharing what I know. Why would I want to sit on that information?”

She also realizes that these days, talented comics don’t even need to work within the system.

“I don’t think everyone’s figured that out yet,” she says. “You don’t need to go through the CBC or do Just for Laughs. You think it’s prestigious, but you don’t need it. They need you. We’re all Jay-Z. They need us more than we need them. 

“One of the great things about having a 15-year-old kid is not only do I have the deep bench of my queer knowledge that extends back to the golden age of Hollywood, but I also have what she is constantly discovering online,” says Kurt. “She’s shown me stuff on TikTok before it goes viral, and these guys are so talented, so good. I don’t know how viable it is in the long term, but to be able to take a kernel of pop culture and repurpose it, and get millions of views and likes, there’s a real talent there.”

Not that Kurt is coming soon to TikTok. These days, besides writing on acclaimed TV shows – she loves the Drag Race writing because it’s often in-the-moment reactions to the queens’ outfits, ad-libbed and spoken into judges earpieces – and doing virtual comedy, she’s constructing a show that’s unlike anything she’s done before. She likens it more to theatre than comedy.

“In this pursuit of deeper honestly, I’ve been wondering how I can change the form of stand-up,” she says. “How can I use the space I perform in in a different way? I like performing without a handheld microphone when I can. I love the freedom to be able to move about a space and try to be creative in a more natural way. I feel like it’s a natural progression of where I’m going with my work. I’m not afraid to be daring. I can trust that I’m going to make something good, because after all this time I know that I’m good. I didn’t know that before. It’s liberated me.”

And then she pauses, perhaps sensing a Kurt family view punchline to deflate all that confident optimism.

“Just before the pandemic I was going to embark on this new daring frontier of theatre work. Instead what I’ve done is learn how to sit still in a chair for my Zoom comedy shows.”

Below, find Daryl Jung’s cover story on Elvira Kurt, republished from NOW’s December 29, 1994 issue.

Lesbian laugh queen shoots for across-the-board appeal

By Daryl Jung

Toronto comic Elvira Kurt wants to make it by being upfront and operating on her own terms.

On stage she picks apart the minutiae of daily living – and, of course, relationships – with the vulnerability of a child and the loving eye of a woman in control. In doing so, she’s hilarious. In her short career, she’s amassed more fans than she’s even aware of.

Indeed, her set at the Town Hall Theatre in New York City last June – as part of the OUTrageous Comedy 94 show with Sandra Bernhard – caused Comedy Central honchos to vigorously pursue her for their Out There II show, shot at Caroline’s Comedy Club. It was her U.S. network television debut.

She’s also turned heads at Montreal’s Just For Laughs fest, opened for Scott Thompson’s Champagne Soul show at the Improv in Washington, DC, and written for the Gemini, Juno and Hockey awards on CBC-TV. Her appearance on the Comics! series features a gay spoof on I Love Lucy, called I Love Ethel, with Thompson as Ethel.

She came of age with parents who immigrated to Canada from Hungary and had an unenlightened upbringing that made career choices as difficult as sexual ones. Comedy caught her attention as a high-schooler via Yuk Yuk’s and, like so many others, she took her first shot at it on amateur night. Her selection of professions – and, ultimately, lesbian lovers – was not what her folks had in mind.

“The reason I tell the stories I do is because my parents’ disappointment is so obvious,” says the engaging Kurt, plugging her New Year’s Eve First Night gig at BCE Place. “Faced with that attitude so constantly, I have to make jokes about it. I go home and the three of us have this pain competition, and I lose – every time. That’s very funny to me.

“When you’re the child of immigrants, you don’t know much. They don’t try to get access to any of the cultural icons of the new community or society they’re in. The constant struggling – the scrapping – that I do now makes me feel alive in ways a world like that never could.

Women’s humour

“In the back of my mind I always thought I could make people laugh, but I still don’t know why. I do know that my sense of humour comes from the women on television I most admired. Gilda Radner was my big hero.”

Kurt says she never did fit in. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in psychology and criminology from the U of T – her parents wanted her to be a doctor. But when she flunked chemistry – “What’s a girl to do?”

With her degree she could have been a personnel manager or worked in a prison. She ended up instructing Boots drugstore clerks on computers. Kurt thought she should probably expand her horizons.

“I was in such denial about my sexuality at the time that I couldn’t relate to what anyone at work was talking about,” she says. “I wasn’t into registering my glasswear, or whatever they do. There was just nothing that appealed to me about nine to five.

“I didn’t come into comedy with any kind of consciousness of it. I was such a misfit that I just stumbled into it. Now when I realize how versatile I am, I understand that not having a specific focus made me a jack-of-all-trades. I mastered how to do comedy in the most horrific situations. When you can do that, it’s easy to adapt to whatever may come along.”

Adapting to being gay and a comic was confusing at best. On the Yuk Yuk’s circuit, always having a secret made it difficult for her to connect or actually become good friends with the guys. It also didn’t help her act.

“I kept the gay material off the stage because I was keeping it from myself,” she says. “Since I never said I was gay, I thought I was quite successful at hiding it. That’s the most amazing thing about denial. Here I was, with my hand in the cookie jar, saying ‘No, it’s not!’ I figured as long as I was not saying it, people must not believe it.”

She took a job at Second City in London, a different experience from the stand-up scene, one not so imbued with the desperation of individual competitiveness. It was a more nurturing environment, more of a family situation. There, she met someone “important.”

From that point on, when talking about relationships, Kurt didn’t want to change pronouns anymore. If it mattered so much that she’d be fired because of it, she figured the job wasn’t worth having – a first step in leaving her denial behind. She came clean and didn’t lose the job, learning instead the valuable improv ropes that helped her soften edges sharpened at Yuk Yuk’s.

And then things started happening. She discovered alternative bookings, taking the stage at places like the Living Well Cafe, the Rivoli and the Queen’s Bedroom, armed with a book full of notes and a fierce commitment to creating on the spot.

She became the queen of the gay scene, effortlessly charming a good share of straight folks along the way. She broadened her base and stockpiled material, using her dual comedy background to the max. Having made certain people like her for the right reasons, the challenge of taking the act back to Yuk Yuk’s, just to see where it would go, beckoned her. The experience was a revelation.

Antagonistic package

“I saw what I had almost become,” Kurt states flatly. “I was turning into a very slick, antagonistic package, always waiting for someone to start up on me about being a woman or about not being funny. The gigs at the Queen’s Bedroom taught me that I didn’t want to do that kind of comedy anymore.”

It was in the Bedroom – not the oft misogynist boy’s club that is Yuk Yuk’s – where everything fell into place.

“It occurred to me that those audiences don’t want to attack you,” enthuses Kurt. “They just want to enjoy you, which is very different from the comedy clubs. I knew what I wanted to get away from, but I couldn’t do black if I didn’t understand what white was. I just didn’t need to be this aggressive person. I was embarrassed in a way. I’d been so hard on them.

“Then my style just started to change. In that deconstruction of my style, I began to talk about things I wouldn’t have been able to within that style – just who I am, without pretending.”

Her first high-profile coming out was a disaster. The producers of Friday Night! With Ralph Benmergui were flogging the titillation factor and told Kurt not to hold back. The result was two minutes of general, banal observations and then “Here’s the gay stuff.”

She was getting attention, but the audience never recovered.

“It was a horror,” she says. “It was the most bizarre experience I’ve ever had. For a person who relies so heavily on her connection with the audience, to feel a wall of shock come up so instantly like that was almost devastating.

“But it was an experience, and I’m glad I had it. Attention? Yeah. But to what end? It was my first taste of representing something that people didn’t understand. I became the ‘dyke on TV.’ I wasn’t thrilled with that at all.”

What Kurt realized was that her forte was “word groups with laughs at the end,” and that she’d like to be thought of as a comic who is gay, not a gay comic. Her sexuality is only a fraction of the complete comedy package.

“I don’t think my gay stuff is my best stuff,” she says. “It’s the honest stuff. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not afraid to let all the experiences I’ve had inform my act. This is how I got here.”

And now Kurt is haunting L.A., where it’s been pointed out by the powers that be that she might choose to stay closeted in her act. Not a chance.

“When you’re telling the truth, you uncover the darkness,” she explains. “It’s under everything. I can’t talk about my parents or my sexuality and have it be any different from the way it really is, which is very difficult and painful.

“I try to put myself in as many positions as possible – warts and all. I don’t know any other way to go. It’s the way I’ve dealt with everything in my career. It feels like I’m going through a snowstorm. Everybody else is saying, ‘There’s a blizzard! Why don’t we stay here and think about how we’re going to get through it?’

“And I’m like, ‘We’re already in the blizzard. Let’s just keep going!'”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

@glennsumi | @nowtoronto

Glenn Sumi talks to Elvira Kurt and Nour Hadidi about the rocky transition to Zoom performances in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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