British funnyman Stephen K. Amos, who only three years ago acknowledged the open secret about his sexuality, is an island. There are many successful black comedians. There are many successful gay comedians. There are not many successful black gay comedians. Speculate as you may about Martin Lawrence, David Alan Grier, and Eddie Murphy, the list of Amos’ kin comes down to, uh, Wanda Sykes, and that itself is a new development. Shirley Q. Liquor does not count. This explains why he’s not exactly thrilled with the state of gays in comedy today.
“Show me the other black gay comics who were talking about their experiences,” Amos tells Time Out. “I worry that if it doesn’t work out, then when’s the next guy going to get a chance? … You can’t not feel the pressure. When I first started most of my material was just about general stuff. When I started doing shows which were more about me, and race, I started getting critics saying: ‘Oh, we’ve heard him talk about being black and gay before, it’s all hack!'”
On the stand-up circuit, gay comics get to traffic in gay humor. Straight comics have a much harder time with punchlines about sexuality (which is so ripe for exploitation), since they run the risk of coming across as homophobic. But the real money is made in the bigger entertainment industry, not stand up: touring, DVDs, endorsement deals, and televised specials. Black comics haven’t had a problem scoring these; Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle have done nicely for themselves. Gay comics, too; Ellen DeGeneres has hosted many an HBO special. So, too, has Ms. Sykes, and she is the rare exception of being black, gay, and a commercial commodity.
In Britain, Amos has enjoyed his own success. He’s toured and released his own DVD. But while he gets to make funnies about being gay, that’s not the entire shtick of his act. But he doesn’t hold back, either. And we’re grateful, because it could entice other gay comics to use their sexuality for jokes — to make things very open. Now, you won’t have a hard time finding an openly gay comic, talking about butt sex or girl-on-gir, at your neighborhood comedy club. They are, frankly, a dime a dozen. But that’s where their glass ceiling has been installed: at the bottom rung. Breaking out of that mold, especially when you’re black and gay, is extraordinarily difficult.
The industry is partly to blame (homophobia is rampant in comedy, you might have heard), but so too are gay black comics too fearful to be out, and make their sexuality part of their act. They risk alienating black audiences, straight audiences, and most importantly, entertainment executives who can make their careers.
When you hear about gay actors being advised to stay in the closet, you can be sure gay comics are being told the same.
TELL QUEERTY: Who are some of your favorite black gay comedians? Any that are reaching commercial success we missed?
NEXT: Watch Amos perform at The Apollo.