If this holiday season you heard anyone adopt a thick New York accent and a nasally whine while going, “Make the tree look niiiiice!” then you’re already familiar with the work of John Roberts. Roberts, a Brooklyn son, rose to fame after his dead-on impression of an aging, doting, New York mother – his aging, doting, New York mother – started making the Internet rounds. Soon to follow were his award-winning short, Jackie and Debra, and an inevitable SNL audition. Though not a Not Ready for Prime Time Player just yet, it’s safe to say you should keep an eye out for Roberts, who sat down with Queerty to discuss his comedic origins and explain that homophobia in comedy might not be as bad as you’ve heard.
QUEERTY: So do you come from a big Jewish family in Long Island?
John Roberts: I’m actually Italian. A lot of people think I’m doing a stereotypical Jewish mother in my videos, but she’s an Italian from Brooklyn. I was born in Bay Ridge before being shipped off to New Jersey. But a lot of my relatives are from Long Island, Staten Island — the whole Tri-State Area.
A lot of stuff I’ve read about comedy suggests it’s a hypermasculine, straight male-dominated environment. As a gay comedian, have you encountered a lot of problems with that?
No, I’ve never felt that way. I just think that if you’re funny then you’re funny. It’s not like I have a bunch of of gay comedy friends; all my friends in comedy, no matter what their orientation, only care if you’re funny. As far as I’ve seen, that’s all that matters at the end of the day.
So do you think maybe comedy is more sexist than homophobic?
I can see that. A lot of my favorite comedians are women – Gilda Radner and Amy Sedaris – but I think that’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m gay. The thing is, I’m sure those people are out there, and I’ve seen them, but you just have to have real tough skin in comedy. Everyone deals with situations, and you’ve just got to tell people who are going to say rude shit to fuck off. I’ve been in New York for a long time, and I’ve learned to speak up for myself when that kind of thing happens. The crazy thing is that every time I’ve been in a situation like that – where someone’s a dick – you’d never know it when they were onstage, because they were still funny.
Do you have more female characters than male characters in your repertoire?
I don’t think I do, people just think that because I’ve filmed more of the female ones. I’m going to start exploring more male characters on film. Like I’ve got one – “Pauly P” – who’s sort of a hypermasculine, Andrew Dice Clay-ish guy. I also do an actor character. And I’m gonna start parodying myself a little bit, kind of like a stoner who’s in a band. I do think there’s room to grow in that direction, but it’s obvious that people like my mom routine, so, you know, give them what they like. But at the same time, it’s not like I wanna be doing my mom 10 years from now.
Do you think people respond better to your female characters?
Well, I was raised by a lot of women. When my dad and mom divorced, I initially lived with my mom, who always had a lot of divorcee girlfriends who all had daughters. So I would end up on these vacations with all girls and I would spend the whole time making them all laugh. I think that’s probably why the female characters and what females react to are fresher in my mind, just because I’ve come across so many women in my life and spent so long making women laugh. I was also very influenced by my dad, though, who was this huge, burly Brooklyn guy who would say things like, “Ya got dis city by de bawls.”
How do the different characters play live? Do people laugh more when you’re a woman or a man?
At my live shows, everything’s kind of even. For some reason, the female characters have gotten really popular on YouTube, way more than the male characters. But live, the audience usually reacts the same to both.
Have you heard that a lot of black comedic actors don’t like to dress up as women?
Really? Tyler Perry? [Laughter] Who is that guy? I just see his name on everything.
Well, obviously not Tyler Perry. But Dave Chappelle has discussed his apprehension about dressing in drag, and the director John Singleton has said he doesn’t understand why so many black comedians (Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Flip Wilson, etc.) dress in drag. Was there ever a time in your career when you second-guessed the drag? When you considered it an easy laugh?
When I auditioned for SNL, this came up actually. Lorne Michaels obviously knew my characters and told me that John Belushi used to say that a guy in a dress was an easy laugh. But there’s a difference between actually getting in there and being funny and doing a good character and putting a dress on and prancing around. And I think I’m actually in there doing a good act.
So you’ve never felt awkward about it?
No, you know, I’ve been impersonating my mom since I was a little kid. Not because she’s a woman, but because she was just such a New Yorker to me and so easy to impersonate. It just sort of came naturally.
You tried out for Saturday Night Live and didn’t get on. Because SNL has been accused of homophobia in the past, do you think your sexuality had anything to do with you not getting the gig?
SNL has definitely been accused of homophobia in the past, but I don’t think that they necessarily are. I can’t imagine the people that work at that show are homophobic. I would hope not.
So why do you think SNL didn’t work out?
I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with homophobia; I didn’t feel excluded at all. I think it was just terrible timing. My dad had passed away a month before, so I was dealing with that, but because it was always my dream to be on SNL, I felt like I had to do the tryout. It was maybe a little too soon.
How do you feel about the SNL sketches that have made headlines for seemingly being about nothing more than the “humor” of two men kissing?
See, I don’t look at that stuff as being homophobic—I think that’s just not funny. It’s more adolescent than anything and I think they’re probably catering to their audience. It seems very frat boy-ish. When I think about that show, sadly, I do think that a lot of their ideas go out the window when it comes to the bottom line, which is to get audiences. I think it’s still very culturally relevant, especially considering the election, but it’s also gotta maintain viewers. I would still be very flattered if I were cast on that show.