Comic Suzanne Westenhoefer brings her brand of off-the-cuff and relatable humor to St. Pete’s Palladium Theater Saturday, March 15, 7:30 p.m., as part of her “Falling Down Funny” tour.
This pioneering funny lady was one of the first openly gay performers on the comedy scene when she launched her stand-up career in the early 1990s.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Westenhoefer headed to New York City in the 1980s with dreams of acting. But she quickly realized she didn’t actually enjoy it.
As a quick-witted bartender trying to make ends meet by slinging drinks at a Manhattan Houlihan’s restaurant — “Basically a pick-up bar for yuppies”— she kept her customers laughing with one-liners. Her regulars, along with her then-partner and her boss, encouraged her to give comedy a try.
“Everyone kept asking me, ‘When are you going to take that shit on the road,’” Westenhoefer said.
They dared her to take the stage during a comedy contest at an open mic in the Village. She accepted their challenge — and won. From there, her career took off and she began booking gigs regularly.
At the time, there were only two or three out and proud comics, she said, and most of them were based in San Francisco. So she found herself, as an openly gay woman, performing predominantly for straight audiences.
“Everybody was terrified of me,” she said. “I was like, Ok, I’m gay, but relax. I’m just like you.”
And many people don’t realize that Westenhoefer is actually the first openly lesbian comic to appear on television.
“Even before Ellen came out on TV,” she said. “Ellen is famous now, and her show is what you hear about.”
But in 1991, Westenhoefer appeared on an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael entitled "Breaking the Lesbian Stereotype...Lesbians Who Don't Look Like Lesbians."
“I went on and looked like every Jersey girl you’ve ever seen with big hair,” she said. “That was so controversial then.”
She added, “Now [that topic] would be so offensive. You’d never have that show today. But that shows how things have changed. But at the time I was thrilled to be invited to do it.”
She’s also the first openly gay comic to host her own HBO Comedy Special in 1994. This special earned her a Cable Ace Award nomination. And she was the first gay comedian to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2003.
The comedy scene has changed drastically since Westenhoefer’s early days, she said. Though she performs at many gay pride events and LGBT fundraisers, she also headlines at comedy clubs across the country.
“Now people come to see me, gay or straight,” she said.
But there is one group she’d especially like to appeal to and invite out to her Palladium show: “Tell the gay guys to come out,” she said. “My shows aren’t just for lesbians.”
Westenhoefer’s performance will benefit Metro Wellness and Community Centers, and the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
General admission tickets are $31; $40 for VIP seating and $100 for VIP entry and an exclusive reception with Westenhoefer.