THE UPSTAIRS SHOW hosted by Richard Ryder and Dawn Whitwell, tonight (Thursday June 22) at 8:30 pm. Big Mamma's Boy (554 Parliament). Free. firstname.lastname@example.org. Rating: NNNNN
Richard Ryder, Dawn Whitwell and I are discussing the term "icky gay." "A Montreal club owner said he liked my act because it wasn't icky gay, and I understood what he was saying," says Ryder, who co-hosts and produces (with Whitwell) the weekly Upstairs Show at Big Mamma's Boy. Their big, queer, standing-room-only show happens tonight.
"So what did he mean?" asks Whitwell.
"I guess an act that's not too fluid-heavy. Or aggressively physical."
"So is Margaret Cho icky gay?" she prods. "She talks about fisting."
"Yeah, but she's a girl," says Ryder.
"And she's an Asian woman," I add. "The dynamic is completely different."
"I mention fisting, but I call it 'going to the Muppet Show,'" says Ryder. "That's how I cover up the icky."
Welcome to the world of queer comedy, where you get to check and dismantle all those icky stereotypes and assumptions at the door.
Ryder and Whitwell, who are both queer, have been running the Thursday-night room since last fall, and it's become one of the fastest rising shows on the scene.
Guests have included Elvira Kurt, Carla Collins and Debra DiGiovanni (all of whom will be performing in the Pride show) as well as out-of-towners like Maria Bamford and Ryan Belleville.
"It's about a 50/50 straight/gay split," says Whitwell. "But most of the performers don't even think about the gay thing."
"Some straight comics come up to me and say they're going to write some gay material, but my feeling is 'Unless you already do gay stuff, don't bother. Most of us were raised by straight people. We'll get it. '"
What's refreshing about the room isn't just the queer-friendly vibe. The feeling of inclusion extends to different areas. Sketch comedy and improv, for instance, show up on the same bill as stand-up.
"I was also proud one week that we just happened to have three brown people on the show," adds Whitwell. "Nile Seguin told me, 'You've done what no comedy club in Toronto has done before. ''
Whitwell and Ryder alternate their duties each week. If one of them's hosting, the other produces. This frees up their time, and doesn't throw off that right brain/left brain equilibrium.
"Producing and hosting is too much to do at the same time," says Ryder, who did both previously at the Red Spot and the Looking Glass. "I would run to do the room and realize I hadn't written anything for myself."
The two also mesh their personalities. Whitwell says she likes planning but can get too precious about it all. Ryder likes her energy.
"I'm that fag who freaks out a lot, and Dawn can calm me down. We've had situations where I've said, 'You have to do the talking here, because I know I'm going to be an asshole if I open my mouth. '"
"And vice versa," says Whitwell. "Sometimes I might have nothing to say, and Richard will go on."
It's hard to imagine either comic speechless. Whitwell's relaxed, coy act is sprinkled with clever observations, while Ryder's chatty, genial routine includes a showstopping bit with a talking Cher doll. The two have both performed at mainstreams clubs like the Laugh Resort but mostly play alternative rooms.
The talk turns to conspiracy theories. With Will & Grace and Queer As Folk off the air and Buddies in Bad Times' Rhubarb! and Hysteria festivals resting in peace, is there a big queer shift in the zeitgeist?
"Maybe it's the Spike TV 'It's okay to be a straight white guy' backlash," muses Whitwell. "It has kind of shut down the audience for a lot of things. But then again, I think it's time for something new. Maybe the relevance died off. I'm going to start a new women's brigade kind of movement next year."
"Well, here's the fag's response," laughs Ryder. "I just thought they'd written all they could (on Will & Grace). Nine's good, let's shut her down. I didn't enjoy the last season. Will was too shrill."
As for the misconception that every lesbian comic must have an L Word joke in her stand-up arsenal, Whitwell disagrees.
"I love the show, but nothing's struck me as funny about it," she says in such an innocent way that it sounds like a joke. "The only thing I hate about the show is the theme song, which has to be the worst song ever written on the face of the earth."