Comedian Guy Branum‘s new book is all about reclaiming his magical powers.
Well, not literal magic.
More like the secret abilities that enabled a fat gay Jewish boy to survive a childhood in rural California where he says he simply did not fit—in any sense of the word. The humorous essays in My Life as a Goddess chart his unlikely path from his hometown—which he describes as “a place with no dreams”—to Hollywood, with a slight detour into law school along the way.
A former writer for Chelsea Lately and The Mindy Project, Branum is the host and executive producer of TruTV’s Talk Show The Game Show and of his roundtable pop culture podcast Pop Rocket, where he brings his razor-sharp wit and fierce intelligence to bear on film, TV, music and everything else he and his co-hosts “love to love.”
That obsession with pop culture frames the stories and insights in the book, out July 31.
Queerty chatted with Branum last week about standup comedy, LGBTQ representation in media and why Twitter didn’t approve of the ad for his book.
I hear you had some trouble with an ad you posted for the book on Twitter?
So one of the odd things about being a gay male comedian is getting gay men to pay attention to me in any way. As a community, it never really crossed our minds that there could be gay guy comics. We like drag queens, we like female comics, and that’s pretty much it. So an effort for me has always been, how do I get gay guys to pay attention to what I do? I did a series of ads for my book with Alice Wetterlund from Girl Code speaking to angry feminists, Nicole Byer talking to women of color, Marissa Jaret Winokur speaking to the Tony-winning community. And what I did for gay guys was just hire some go-go boys to just rub on each other a little bit while holding my book. It was cute and silly and it got a decent amount of attention, so I was like, I’ll promote it [on Twitter]. But it didn’t run, and I didn’t understand. It turned out that some Twitter user had flagged it as being inappropriate because it was fully clothed gay guys who were kind of touching each other!
It’s just this problem that we may not think about that much, but the world sees low-level gay contact as much dirtier than it does low-level straight contact. And it’s something that has kind of come up in my career somewhat. When I was starting out in stand-up comedy I understood that most of my jokes that were about dating or sex wouldn’t be appropriate for television.
— Guy Branum (@guybranum) July 13, 2018
So, is the ad still out there? Did you get your money back from paying to promote it?
I think they didn’t charge me. And then I tweeted about [the situation] and it got way more attention than it would have just from the promoted ad. It worked out fine, but in the end, we shouldn’t have to do that.
Let’s get meta: As someone who pays a lot of attention to pop culture, what are your thoughts on the state of the celebrity interview?
Oh, it’s really like dead! It’s a completely moribund, uninteresting thing right now. Maybe that’s fine because we have bigger fish to fry when it comes to politics and stuff. But it also makes me sad that basically, most celebrities are wimps about interviews. They have publicists who have essentially ruined talk shows, who’ve made them completely uninteresting by scheduling everything. There is no magic. There is no discovery. Back in the 60s or 70s, people would come on talk shows and something unexpected would happen. The glory of the Tonight Show panel was that you had celebrities interacting and playing off of each other. And that just doesn’t happen anymore. You look at those games on Fallon and it’s such a rigorously scheduled game of charades where everyone makes two wrong guesses and then a right guess. It’s this attempt to create spontaneity, playing these little games where nobody is challenged and nobody feels questioned. I do think it’s part of a larger death of discourse in our culture where people can’t possibly be challenged anymore.
So, you get this book deal. I’m curious how you decided what kind of book you wanted to write.
It’s very interesting. I think when you are a standup comedian there is a temptation to write a book that is just going through the motions. When I was at Chelsea Lately I remember her telling us that she had gotten an imprint at a publisher, so we could write a book if we wanted to. But her dog had to write one first. I remember thinking, I would like to write a book, but not this way.
I was just structuring it as a memoir through personal essays. But that’s also kind of not how my comedy works. One of the issues that my book is addressing is the fact that, for a number of reasons—me being gay, being fat, the weird place that I’m from—like, my story just has not made sense. Or hasn’t fit into the structures of how we tell stories. And the book is kind of me using other stories and narratives to figure out what my story is. Because as gay people, we aren’t supposed to have stories of our own. We’re supposed to be features in somebody else’s story. We’re supposed to tell the heroine to go to the airport and get that man!
I think people expect books by comedians to be collections of humorous essays that are also sort of a memoir.
A lot of the time it’s just people writing down material. Or turning five minutes of material into too many pages of a book.
Whose essay collection/memoir are you eager to see happen?
Oh, yeah, there are a bunch of comics whose voices and perspectives I just love. Like, if Aparna Nancherla or Solomon Georgio wrote a book that would be thoroughly delightful to me. Aparna’s the kind of comic who doesn’t talk about her biography so much as her perspective. And Solomon just has this fascinating story of being born in Sudan, coming here and barely speaking English and having to learn about America by having it thrust upon him. Those are books I’d really enjoy because I feel like the best books by comedians have an agenda or something to say. The magic of [Tina Fey’s] Bossypants is that it’s really about how women face management and authority differently in our society because of an expectation that they do not have those things. That’s what makes all the stories of being a gay guy in college and otherwise being awkward and confused in life really fun. It has a purpose and a point.
I really want Jon Lovett from Crooked Media to write one.
Yeah! He is a lovely person with strong takes on everything, who also had just a really fascinating journey.
Back to you: You call the book a survival guide. What do you mean by that?
Survival is a question in the queer community. We live in a world that is very hostile to us and says we shouldn’t exist. A fair amount of our community takes that advice along the way. I think that to survive as a marginalized person in our society you have to put some things together. It was really my self-congratulatory way of saying, Here’s how I figured out how to see myself in culture and be guided by that when culture was saying, “There’s no place for you.”
That’s really interesting that you use the word “hostile.” As much progress as LGBTQ people have made, your book really made me think about all of the tiny, subtle ways in which culture is hostile to us.
I don’t know that being told that you’re gross and disgusting by most forms of media for most of your life is a microaggression. One of our obligations as gay men is to say, We can take it. The queer community prides ourself on this strength and this ability to push through, and we’ve prioritized other things. We have said marriage and adoption and basic civil rights are the things we’re gonna focus on. But all of this was conditional on, Hey, can’t you take a joke? It’s not just a joke, it’s the absence of any other kind of representation. It’s living in a world where Boy Erased is still made by a straight male director and a straight male star. Can we not have control over of our own stories? Think about what a revelation Pose is, that there just are trans people involved in telling a trans story. Before this, all of the trans people we had in media were caricatures that were built entirely by cis people. Of course, I’m not saying I’ve had the same struggle as them, but it’s hard when you never get to be a speaker when you never get to be a participant in the conversation when you’re just a thing that is talked about.
Right, and I think something that gets lost in that conversation about representation is that film and television are industries. That gay and trans roles are jobs that are not going to gay and trans actors who want to work.
There’s always this presumption that gay people are doing fine in entertainment, so this never needs to be helped. Because there have always been gay people behind the scenes and of course closeted on television. There is this weird misunderstanding that that also equals representation. I talk in my book about doing a podcast with this venerable comic and making the point that there are no nationally touring gay male headliners in standup. And they listed, like, eight or 12 names, like, “So-and-so is gay!” And we were on a podcast and I had to keep being like, “You’re not allowed to do that! That person is closeted!” It’s not just that we be present or get these jobs, it’s also that we be able to contribute some truth or what our experience is, and that has largely been denied to us.
So, how did you find standup comedy? And what has your experience as an out gay guy been like in that world?
I grew up in the 80s and early 90s when comedy was having a boom, and I really fell in love with the art form. It was so great, so compelling. I really enjoyed it. As soon as I had access to Comedy Central I was watching a bunch of it and had this very romantic connection to standup. I was, of course, closeted then in a way that was like deep denial, so I didn’t really understand that there was no one like me in standup. It was really only after I came out that I started doing it. But I started doing it in San Francisco, which was the rare city where there actually were all-gay shows—well, all-gay performers means half gay performers and half straight women. But still. I do sometimes ask myself, Why did drag not call to you? Because that is the tradition that takes that place in our culture. There are ways that that just comes down to arrogance on my part. It never crossed my mind that I would ever need to put on a wig and lip sync to have people pay attention to the funny things I had to say. That said, I do really like putting on wigs and lipstick. But only periodically.
Maybe we’re in another standup boom, but there’s almost no gay presence on all the Netflix specials and cable shows about the lives of comics.
I will give you an answer in three parts: First, culturally we are not that used to hearing a gay person’s perspective. Straight people, gay people, we are just not used to hearing a gay person talk about their worldview. One of the things that’s interesting about it—and this goes to the second part—is that it’s one of the few areas where gay women are actually much more represented than gay men. There was a Seeso show that’s now on Starz called Take My Wife, with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher. Queer women have a much more significant place in standup comedy than men do. And a lot of people just don’t notice that or assume that if queer women are doing fine, queer men must be doing fine.
And the third part is that the industry just doesn’t know what to do with us. Entertainment still has a very crusty and mechanical understanding of diversity, which so frequently focuses on visible diversity. There is a notion that gayness is something you can’t see and doesn’t contribute to that. The thought that where someone coming from or what their perspective isn’t something people are thinking about. And the industry very sincerely doesn’t know what to do with us. The problem isn’t at the Netflix level. It starts much earlier than that when managers or agents are trying to look for who’s next. And when they’re thinking about that they’re looking at models for comedians who have existed before, and it’s only been in the last couple of years that you saw gay male comics at New Faces [at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival]. It’s only been in the last couple of years that managers would sign gay male comics because they were like, “What am I gonna do with this person?” It’s been kind of annoying having to build a career where I was always having to sort of show them what to do with me. At a point in time when I had been making very good money for an extended period of time, I still had trouble finding a manager who would rep me. Where nice, attractive, funny straight men I knew who had never made a dime off of standup still had representation because they understood where the path would go. But when the path isn’t there yet, the industry is gonna be risk-averse.
But about Netflix and other venues, they don’t understand that there is an absence. And the other big problem is that there isn’t an audience. Gay women go to standup events. Gay men go get drunk and try to fuck. That’s wonderful. I love getting drunk and trying to fuck. But it has been interesting seeing the way that gay marriage and greater gay male domesticity has led to more gay male stand-up. Also, knowing that you’re not gonna go to a comedy space and hear someone talk about how gross faggots are—which is something that happened on the regular three years ago. We haven’t shown up and if we’re not interested in this thing and supporting it, it’s not going to have that additional economic energy. Most gay men performing standup today usually are performing for straight audiences, and that’s going to affect things. It leads to places like Neflix not understanding that this is a contributing voice to the standup scene.
Well, what do you think of gay men as an audience, just generally?
I think we’re not used to seeing ourselves represented. For us, there’s always a danger in exposure. We don’t think about it, but we manage the amount that we are coming out and being honest about our experience. When it’s somebody else, there is a danger in that. There’s this reaction like, That’s not what I’m like! When I was first on Chelsea Lately regularly, gay guys would say, “He shouldn’t be on there, he acts too gay!” Or “He’s fat! Gay guys aren’t like that!” Because there are so few honest representations it’s this question of, What does this mean about me?
But gays are so unused to having media that is for us. Gay male culture is so built around the consumption of media that we have to build ourselves. We like bringing our distance and our irony and our commentary to things. And standup doesn’t require that in the same way that drag or watching Clueless does. I think gay guys miss that. We hunger for it. And it’s been interesting watching the growth of the queer comedy scene in Brooklyn over the past five or six years with people like John Early or Julio Torres or Sam Taggart or Pat Regan, who are creating queer comedy that succeeds by feeling conspiratorial and requiring that you be savvy enough to be in on it. That makes gay guys feel like it resonates with them.
So, there are a lot of points in your book that made me think of The Velvet Rage—and to be fair I am someone who picked up that book thinking it was cultural theory and found myself reading a self-help book.
Those two things are not super distant when it comes to gay men, and I think that is a fascinating issue.
There’s a quote from your book, “If you’re going to risk it all, why not try to be magical?” And that almost feels like a rebuttal to The Velvet Rage, which to me seemed like it was all about not having to be special and magical.
Yeah…It is this question in gay male culture particularly: Is what we’re shooting for normalcy? Or what about this beautiful tradition of us being artists and thinkers because we’re not allowed to do practical things? With the understanding that a decent number of us will kill ourselves along the way. [Laughs] But I definitely didn’t think about it as a rebuttal to The Velvet Rage. The Velvet Rage is an astoundingly well-observed book, but I think the self-help-iness of, You should be fine just being normal, is a little bit impossible. We’re never going to be normal. We can be normal-er. Things can be way, way, way more normal for us. But we’re always going to be this weird, tiny subset of the population that is magically selected by some factor we don’t understand, to be different. I’m not saying we should have to be magical. I’m saying it’s neat that we are.
The thing is, when I talk about [My Life as a Goddess] being a survival guide, it is a guide to my survival. There wasn’t a place that I fit so I understood that I was going to have to transcend the boundaries that existed for people like me. I think that is a valuable power. I have a couple jokes in my act that are essentially about the fact that it’s gotten a lot easier to be gay in my lifetime and that’s a wonderful thing. But I think we should always remember those tools and powers that have enabled gay people to exist in this world because we’re still going to need them. We’re always going to be at least a little different. A lot of people don’t understand why I identify as Jewish as much as I do considering how culturally distanced I am from most Judaism.
I just think my mom raising me to understand that, You’re a little different and we have a culture that is about managing that difference, really made me see the importance of culture as a tool. Every couple of months there’s an article about the death of the gay bar or the death of the gayborhood or the death of gay culture because we’re being beaten and killed slightly less than we were 10 years ago. And look, being killed slightly less now is a good thing! But I think behaving as though the need for gay culture is over, or can be over is silly. It’s silly nonsense that straight culture is trying to sell to us. They’re trying to tell us that our culture is something bad that we only needed because we were marginalized and now we’re not, so it will all be fine. No. It is a magnificent tool that helps us see the world. Straight people have always been trying to keep gay people from communicating with each other and learning from each other, and it’s super important.
So to wrap up, what does being a goddess mean to you?
It really does come back to the story that I tell in the first chapter. It’s this story from Greek mythology of a goddess who was cursed to never be able to find rest anywhere, having some peasants be mean to her, getting pissed of and then remembering that she had powers and using them. It just comes down to so many times in my life I’ve felt powerless or alienated and had to be reminded, Guy, there’s a lot of shit you can do. Do some of it. Do something! Being a goddess isn’t about thinking I’m great or wonderful or shouldn’t be challenged. Goddesses are challenged all the time.
It’s just remembering that I have a voice and a perspective and the power to fight back and I should remember to use it.