Gay jokes are nothing new to comedian Scott Thompson. After all, he's gay and he tells jokes. But Thompson, a charter member of TV's Kids in the Hall and a part-time player on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, sometimes tells gay jokes that aren't very funny, at least not to other gays. Like the time he made a comment in Time magazine regarding the film Philadelphia.
"I was quoted as saying that Tom Hanks on his death bed looked like most people on a bad hair day," Thompson says from his home in Los Angeles. "I basically ridiculed the film. And I really think I pushed a few buttons with people. Therefore, I don't get much work in Hollywood and, therefore, I have to do standup to earn my bread."
Indeed, Thompson's bringing his nascent live routine to the Tempe Improv for a set of shows this weekend. The comedic actor says pissing off Hollywood's "Gay Mafia" isn't the only reason he's giving standup a try.
"I did a thing for Comedy Central two years ago, and I hated myself so much in it that I vowed I would learn how to do it right. So about a year ago, I started doing alternative comedy nights at different clubs. I'd go up with very little prepared and just talk. From there I just kept working at it."
Thompson, 37, says his second career helps keep him alive, that having to work on new material all the time makes him feel vital again. He also considers doing standup "liberating" in the sense he can say what he wants. His material still gets an occasional cringe from some gay and lesbian audience members, but he's learned to live with it.
"I think people are so polarized by all this stuff," he says. "They think there's so much at stake that they don't like people to break ranks. That's what they thought I did with Philadelphia. It's like a black person coming out as conservative. It's just not done."
Thompson's life was far less complicated when he was cavorting around with his fellow Kids in the Hall. The Canadian comedy troupe churned out off-kilter skits for six years on CBS, HBO and the CBC. Many of the bits involved women characters, a potential bugaboo the all-male ensemble eagerly solved by dressing up in drag. Indeed, some sketches seemed written solely as an excuse for the Kids to look like sorority girls. Thompson says the show's gender-bending bent made sense when you think about it.
"We were doing sketches about real life, and real life is 50 percent women. It's really that simple." He adds that people are surprised to find out he was the only gay Kid on the block. "We weren't five queens dressed up as girls. In fact, I don't consider what we did drag. It was more kabuki than Ru Paul. We played women, not queens."
Thompson figures the cross-dressing Kids were so good at playing women they pushed a few buttons of their own, this time with straight audiences.
"America is so uptight about gender and sex roles. As if any man that dons a dress is gay, especially if he plays a young, attractive woman. If a comic or an actor plays a drag role, they almost always make the woman ugly or old to take away the sex. Like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. He's an old bag. And Tootsie--look at her, she's old."
Such women characters, according to Thompson, aren't as threatening to straight audiences as when men play more desirable women. He notes the especially convincing fresh-faced females Kids cohort Dave Foley (now on NBC's NewsRadio) portrayed.
"Those women Dave played confused men, made them angry," Thompson says. "I mean, he was gorgeous."
Thompson, Foley and fellow Kids Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald and Mark McKinney released their first feature film together, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, last year. It was an underachiever at the box office, something Thompson blames entirely on Paramount Studios. "They didn't sell it, didn't really work it. Many people didn't even know it was out." Thompson says there's another Kids project in the works, though he's mum on the details. "There's plans to do something. We're either gonna do a film or collectively bake a cake. Who knows."
Thompson's latest TV gig has him playing Brian, the unflappable, overtly gay personal assistant to vulgar sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. As such, Thompson beat out Ellen DeGeneres as the first openly gay actor playing an openly gay character on TV sitcoms. Thompson says he tries to make Brian as real as possible, and if some nastiness comes through, well, all the better.
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"In fact, I'm looking for more negative qualities to reflect on him. I find that more interesting. Gays have always been saints or sinners. They usually die at the end of the movie, or they're redeemed in some way, or they're too good. They're sucky and sexless like the guy on Melrose Place. Nothing's solved by doing phony portrayals to make people feel better."
And Thompson says there's still a lot to be solved when it comes to society coming to grips with alternative lifestyles. He figures he's relearned that lesson doing standup. His audiences, he says, are mixed but mostly straight, which can be a challenge.
"I've been spoiled doing TV and films," he says. "I haven't had people call me 'faggot' in a long time. I haven't been given the finger by frat boys in a while. But I'm getting it again, and I realize I've been missing it. It's nice to know that hatred's still out there. I guess it means I'm just pushing new buttons."
Scott Thompson is scheduled to perform at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater, Rural and University (at Cornerstone mall). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday, July 17; 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, July 18; 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, July 19; and 8 p.m. Sunday, July 20.