Lea DeLaria goes ’Out of Iceland’
Pint-sized powerhouse Lea DeLaria got early raves for her hilarious stand-up comedy routines, parlayed her strong singing chops into a Broadway singing career, and moved on to recording with Warner Brothers, with her "Play It Cool" named The Best Jazz Album of 2001 by the New York Times.
Now, she travels the world entertaining crowds at legendary jazz festivals, but will recently returned to New York from London to star in Walkerspace’s new production of "Out of Iceland."
EDGE Media Network caught up with DeLaria between performances to dish about her storied beginnings in show business, and her upcoming off-Broadway performance.
Her Clinton comment
EDGE: Let’s start at the very beginning. When you played "The Arsenio Hall Show" back in 1993, you were the first lesbian comedian to appear on national TV. Do you remember that soon after, you suffered a major fallout from Congress?
Lea DeLaria: It was the March on Washington that I got shit for. I said I liked the Clinton Administration because we finally had a first lady you could fuck. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich had a cow that I had said that about the first lady -- and then that I had said fuck.
I think it was sexist; I was a woman being sexual and out there at a time when they were not going to put up with it. I started doing stand-up in ’82 in San Francisco...but this was the beginning of when people outside the LGBT community knew who I was.
EDGE: Instead of damaging your career, the controversy only seemed to help it. You moved from there to recording live comedy albums for HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, and more. Do you still do stand-up?
Lea DeLaria: I do still do stand-up, which is interesting because I am in full force with my acting and singing career. I am working on a new show, "Last Butch Standing," and will premiere some of it at 54 Below in NYC on the last Monday in July. It is about what I see happening for butches in the dyke world; they are disappearing. I started working on it about a year ago, and tested it in front of two packed houses in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. It went down like a storm! The idea is to open it off-Broadway, hopefully by spring.
That U-Haul joke
EDGE: Do you happen to remember your funniest joke from that time period, the one that really killed?
Lea DeLaria: The best joke I’ve ever written was, ’What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul.’ I wrote that in 1988 for Lesbo-A-Go-Go, and it swept the world. It’s a ’Take my wife, please’. I remember watching ER and they told that joke, and I thought, ’Fuck, are you kidding?’ Now everybody knows it. The follow up is ’What does a gay man bring on a second date?’ The punch line is, ’What second date?’
EDGE: From comedy, you began breaking into Broadway with "On the Town", and ended up winning an Obie, Drama Desk, Theater World, and Fanny Awards. Tell me about your early work on Broadway, and about that notorious Tony snub.
Lea DeLaria: As I’ve often said, if the worst thing in your life is that you didn’t get the Tony nomination you thought you deserved, you’re probably leading pretty charmed life. At the time I was very upset, actually devastated. I know that different people said it was because I was openly gay, but I’ve always said it’s the butch thing; it’s okay to be a lesbian if you’re Cherry Jones. I had a lot of old theater queens stabbing me in the back. I’ve always felt that they weren’t going to have anyone who looks, acts, and talks like me win Best Leading Lady on Broadway. That was the shape and size of things at the time. Now I feel like the last real Broadway star was Kristin Chenoweth.
A wig snafu
EDGE: You continued in Broadway, showing off your amazing voice in numerous shows, including "Chicago" and "The Rocky Horror Show." Which was your favorite performance? Can you share any funny stories of your early work on Broadway?
Lea DeLaria: One time in "On the Town," the hydraulic lift with the cab didn’t come up, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and I had to do this scene on folding chairs in the middle of a Broadway stage. We had to pantomime being in a cab. So we did "Come Up to My Place" in folding chairs, and got in trouble because I kept ad-libbing.
And another time, the tape came off on my wig. I often play a man, but when I play girls, I spend hours in the chair being made up, with three sets of fake tits and wigs. So I’m on stage doing a big number with the entire cast, and I do some motion with my head and the wig came unpinned and went flying. The two pieces of tape on my sideburns stuck, so the wig just hung on my face like Cousin It. I can’t see, and I’m just singing the song with my mike all muffled. When I finally get the wig off, the entire cast was laughing so hard that they had left the stage.
There was always stuff like that. But the thing I remember most was the very first time I sang "I Can Cook Too" in the park. It stopped the show, which was very cool. Afterwards, Betty Buckley crawled over 20 people to get to me, and I thought ’My life is about to change.’
EDGE: Around that same time, you also began appearing in major motion pictures, including "The First Wives Club" and indies including "Fat Rose and Squeaky" and "Edge of Seventeen". What are the differences between playing in a studio film verses an indie?
Lea DeLaria: Obviously the pay, the honey wagon, the private dressing room -- all this stuff you get on bigger films. Generally when I get hired to do film or TV, it’s because they want me to ad lib and be funny, so when I’m on the set it’s been cool. Most often they’ve written the part for me, and know if I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it. I feel it even more on independent films. They are all very queer-centric, because I make it a point to work on them only if they’re real and honest. I’ve turned a lot of films down because I read the script and some straight man had written it, and wanted me to be in it to make their move legit. I fell for that once on "Rescuing Desire." Never again.
EDGE: Which was your favorite role to play, and why?
Lea DeLaria: My least favorite was when I went up for the butch in "The L Word," and they changed the role and gave it to Pam Grier. I knew the creative team, and can’t believe they fell for that straight male bullshit. I thought "Will & Grace" was more representational of the gay community than that show.
EDGE: Do you have any future plans or desires to act on screen again?
Lea DeLaria: Of course! I’m in "Californication" next season. I play one of the lesbian moms whose son is dating the character who is David Duchovny’s daughter. I was in the last episode this season.
EDGE: Your singing voice is, by this point, legendary. Can you share a little bit about your early career -- did you sing in the church choir or with a chorus -- and how you got interested in singing Broadway standards and jazz.
Lea DeLaria: I was all of those things -- but it’s a little seedier than that. My father was a jazz musician in St. Louis at the time when the work was steady, before rock and roll changed everything. As work dried up, he had to get a day job. So he would work his job, then hit a seedy nightclub at 1 a.m. and play with his trio.
When he saw I liked to sing -- I was about 8 -- he took me into the club and said, ’Here’s my daughter’, and I sang "Summertime". People loved it! He kept doing it until I reached puberty and my mom was like, ’no’. That’s kind of where I got started. Of course I sang in the school choir, and my father was conductor of the church choir. I always sang the tenor solo for "O, Holy Night". My father taught me how to read music, and instilled in me that love of it, which is something that I have pursued.
When I started doing stand-up in San Francisco in ’80s, I was a very angry little dyke, safety-pinned and bald with big, stomping-ass boots. Everywhere I could see lesbians singing Holly Near’s "We are a Gentle Angry People", and I wasn’t gentle. I performed as "Fucking Dyke" and was so in-your-face, foul, and angry, generally people could only take it for a minute.
But I always worked with some sort of musicians, so then I’d sing a jazz standard as part of the show, lull them into false sense of security, and then soon as they were applauding, start screaming "dyke" and "fucking cunt" again. It is a format that has worked for 30 years. It has gotten more sophisticated, as you will see in "Last Butch Standing", where the story I tell leads to the song. It’s a combo cabaret/stand-up.
EDGE: You recently released your album "The Live Smoke Sessions", recorded at New York’s famed Smoke Jazz Club. Tell me a bit about some of the songs you recorded; which was your favorite, and why.
Lea DeLaria: I currently have five altogether, including a Christmas record that the London Times [raved about]. I am going into the studio to record "House of David," jazz covers of David Bowie songs. I am working on it, have done concerts, and Warner Brothers is in Bowie’s face to do a duet. I am hoping to God he does it. We might even get Grammy nominations.
EDGE: You also recorded "Double Standards,", a collection of rock classics by Neil Young, Green Day, and Jane’s Addiction, with a jazz treatment. Tell the readers about how it was to jazz up Neil Young.
Lea DeLaria: There is a Neil Young song that is one of my favorites on there, "Philadelphia." I was very pleased with how that came out. Gay boys loved "I’m Just a Girl," lesbians love "Call Me," the Blondie song. But people who are really into music loved "Philadelphia." A lot of jazz musicians play the same fucking songs over and over, so I thought, why not take tunes I love, modern day tunes, and swing the hell out of them. As long as you don’t go to a corny place with it, it’s cool.
EDGE: Now, you are starring in the new off-Broadway production of "Out of Iceland" at Walkerspace. Tell readers a bit about the show, and about your role as the character that helps keep the protagonists in love.
Lea DeLaria: It’s a romantic comedy that takes place in Iceland, so right away that’s something unusual. The characters are ’man’ and ’woman’, and I play... a hidden person. In Iceland, they have "hidden people," who they make intricate little houses for, so that an imaginary person can live it in. It is sweet and cultural, but also fucking insane. My character isn’t real; it’s one of them. I’m not bound by the natural laws of physics, so I get to make ridiculously hilarious and fun choices, and I have a great costume I wear.
Bjork and "Bali Hai"
EDGE: How did you come to the production, and what are the highlights of your work with the company?
Lea DeLaria: When they called and made offer, I liked the play. I knew it needed work, but that’s what rehearsal is for. The playwright and director were just amazing.
For me, the biggest deal is during the big scene change, when I come out in a Bjork swan dress singing "Bali Hai" in Icelandic. It’s a very guttural, Scandinavian-sounding language, so you can imagine how funny that’s going to be.
EDGE: The play runs through April 22 here in New York City. After the final curtain closes, where will fans find Lea DeLaria next?
Lea DeLaria: At the "Last Butch Standing" at 54 Below. And, of all things, I’ve written a jazz show for kids, "Welcome to Jazzland...Boom Boom’s Bow." I’m going to Europe to tour that all over Great Britain. I feel like jazz is the one true art form in America, and I see it disappearing. So I want to give it to kids before they hear it’s not cool.
You can see Lea Delaria in "Out of Iceland" from April 1-22, 2012 at Walkerspace, 46 Walker St., btw. Broadway and Church. For info or tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/911889 .
Watch Lea DeLaria sing "I Can Cook Too":