Standup, Stand Out: Netflix Docu Delivers Accessible Slice of Queer History

By Aditya Mani Jha 22 June 2024 5 mins read

Netflix's 'Oustanding: A Comedy Revolution' maps the evolution of queer comedy and using standup to break stereotypes in the United States.

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Thirteen minutes into Netflix’s new documentary Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution, we meet one of its arch-villains, the anti-gay ‘activist’ and former pageant queen Anita Bryant. Straight off the bat, we see Bryant arguing that because gay couples “cannot reproduce biologically”, they have to “recruit” new cohorts of young people. Significantly, the film then cuts straight to a video of queer icon Harvey Milk (1930-1978), the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, delivering the line he often opened his speeches with: “My name is Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!” With this punchy one-two opening, the stage is set for a deep dive into the history of queer liberation in America, and comedy’s significant role in this movement.

Outstanding has been directed by former stand-up comic Page Hurwitz, who also directed the 2022 special Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration, wherein 22 queer comedians performed at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. That three-hour performance was condensed into a 90-minute special, and many of the same comedians have been interviewed for Outstanding. This is a well-meaning, historically proficient 90-minute documentary about queerness in American standup comedy. For the most part, it asks the right questions, plays well-chosen, timeless clips and strings together a cohesive story about a complicated topic. Its occasional failures are in documenting the very recent past—interesting, considering the nuance with which it tackles 100+ years of queer-performer history.

There is nothing formally inventive here. It’s the standard Netflix talking-heads format, with archival material used liberally, albeit intelligently. Its biggest strength is the incredible lineup of older (ages 60 and above) queer comedians who are interviewed at length—Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard, Wanda Sykes, Robin Tyler, Scott Thompson et al. These are performers who have lived the history Outstanding is trying to chart, and they do not disappoint. Together, their testimonies add up to a succinct oral history of how queer comedians slowly made their way into the mainstream from the 70s onwards.

Epoch-marking moments abound: the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, Richard Pryor coming out as bisexual during a 1977 gay rights fundraiser show (and then laying into the mostly-white, mostly-gay audience for their racism), Sandra Bernhard and Madonna’s joint appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman (1988). All of these iconic moments are set up beautifully, with detailed explorations of the impact these events had in the long term.

These ‘flashpoint’ moments illustrate the fact that the struggle for queer rights in America has historically been a case of two steps forward, one step back. For every enlightened soul like Richard Pryor, there was prolific fear-mongering by conservative commentators like Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant. For every Stonewall-like progressive social movement, there was a society-wide push-back like the “gay plague” framing of the AIDS crisis.

More importantly, Outstanding shows us how there were always several different ways of being a queer comedian in the public eye. Not everybody enjoyed the freedom of being their authentic self, mostly because stepping out of the closet meant risking your financial future as an artist. Still, audiences tended to be in on the joke long before these performers ‘came out’ in any real sense of the word.

“I mean, I was somewhat out in terms of the general gay audience,” Lily Tomlin says at one point, as we see pictures of her in a muscle-tee in the 80s, rubbing the point in. “I’d never made a declaration or held a press conference or anything. And it was the 70s anyway. They had offered me the cover of Time in 1975 to come out, and I was just insulted that they thought I would trade my sexuality or my life to be on the cover of Time.”

It’s also touching to see the younger comedians talking about their early influences, elder queer comedians whose lives and works acted as guiding lights. Bernhard talks about Tomlin, while folks like Joel Booster Kim and Margaret Cho in turn talk about Bernhard. It’s a feel-good family tree of artistic lineage.

Not everybody enjoyed the freedom of being their authentic self, mostly because stepping out of the closet meant risking your financial future as an artist.

As Roger Q. Mason says during his interview: “Queerness is sort of an apprentice and mentor-mentee-based world. We learn who we are through the people that we meet that feed our spirits.” The segment about Bernhard also touches upon a crucial juncture in the history of American entertainment—the rise of the variety show, where conventional, sitcom-like character-based comedy was mixed up with musical performances, pranks, crowd work and all sorts of other hijinks.

The intertwined questions of historicity and artistic lineage can also be approached in a different way. Comedians whose biggest successes included blatantly homophobic material through the 80s and 90s (especially during the peak of the AIDS scare) conveniently apologised once public sentiment swung in favour of the queer community. The prime example of this is Eddie Murphy—undoubtedly one of the all-time greats of comedy, but also the author of some of the most hurtful, homophobic jokes ever performed onstage. Outstanding uses a clip from Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (1983), the hour-long special that catapulted Murphy to the front row of the standup comedy scene.

“F*gg*ts aren’t allowed to check out my ass onstage…. I’m concerned because girls be hanging out with them. They could be in the club, hanging out with their gay friend, give a little kiss and go home with that AIDS on their lips.”

In 1996, Murphy apologised for his homophobic material in Delirious with a one-page note in the San Francisco Chronicle. During the publicity interviews for Murphy’s 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy claimed that he had written these jokes “while still very young, and nursing a broken heart”. The film was a biopic about the comedian and singer Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008), by all accounts a bisexual man who never came out during his lifetime. It’s a complicated thought to wrap one’s head around: Murphy’s performance was sensational and rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination. But it’s also true that he contributed (significantly) to the kind of stifling atmosphere that kept performers like Moore in the closet.

The nuance that we see here while talking about Murphy, alas, is absent when it comes to Dave Chappelle. His transphobic rants, both onstage and off, have been more or less continuous over the last couple of years. And yet, Outstanding has precious little to say about the matter except a cursory acknowledgement. Imagine the delicious tension if someone like Tomlin or Bernhard were allowed to speak their minds on the harm Chappelle’s transphobic Netflix special has done. Imagine if we heard from the Netflix employees who took a stand against Chappelle, forcing former CEO Ted Sarandos to respond.

I’m not nearly naïve enough to believe that these hypotheticals were ever on the table for director Page Hurwitz. At the end of the day Netflix’s business choices as an industry giant have been extremely conservative. Siding with money and power (and Chappelle is one of the richest and most powerful comedians in the business) is like a religious choice for Big Capital. And in a way, calling them out is also a religious choice for journalists like myself. It may well be futile or besides the point, but it is what it is.

Its reticence on l’affaire Chappelle apart, Outstanding is a first-rate history lesson and feel-good group therapy session rolled into one. Anybody interested in the past and present of standup would do well to watch it.


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.


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