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Fall Arts 2015: Lea DeLaria 

Wednesday, Sep 2 2015

Lea DeLaria loves the c-word. She is trying to "de-demonize it" and bring it back into popular usage, in one precise context.

"I advocate that we only use it as a positive adjective," she told me, when I asked about her movement to popularize the hashtag #totescunt.

"Cunts are fabulous, and cunt has come to mean something bad, and I would like to change that around and make it mean something good. I hardly invented that; it's a big part of The Vagina Monologues. So 'totes' — which is how the kids say 'totally' today — when something's great, it's totes cunt!"

DeLaria also loves David Bowie, and her latest jazz album, House of David, is a compendium of Bowie covers.

There is a connection between the two. When DeLaria was first starting out as a comic in San Francisco around 1982, her material was so aggressive, radical, and challenging that she quickly realized the crowds needed a break from the onslaught.

"You need to be able to give your audience a respite so they can think about what you just said and chill out from being berated by this much controversial material," she said. "I learned right away in San Francisco that because my comedy was loud and obnoxious and in your face, and fast-fast-fast-fast, 'dyke-dyke-dyke,' 'cunt-cunt-cunt,' they would laugh really hard — but they could only take it for a small amount of time. If I sang a little jazz standard, it would give them a break. So I lulled them into a false sense of security and started screaming 'dyke' and 'fuck' and 'cunt' again."

Years down the line, those jazz standards have accumulated to where she has "a wide range of music and comedy that I can do at a moment's notice," much of which she'll be performing at the Regency Ballroom on Saturday, Sept. 19.

So why Bowie?

She threw the question right back at me, with mock indignation.

"Why wouldn't I choose Bowie? What the fuck, the man has been in the public eye as a no. 1 hitmaker since the 1960s. Everybody knows David Bowie. Ever hear anybody go, 'Oh that hack, David Bowie'? No! Nobody would ever say that, he's David-fucking-Bowie! And his music lends itself so perfectly to the language of jazz. The lyrics are so insightful."

Vehement fandom aside, DeLaria didn't choose Bowie for purely musical reasons. The through-line between pop culture's most famous gender-bender and a handsome, brashly masculine-of-center comic isn't hard to see. (Nor is DeLaria the only queer comic with a Bowie fixation; as of this writing, Cameron Esposito's Twitter avatar is her as Ziggy Stardust.)

Further, if the show goes well, DeLaria hopes that she can back to S.F. and perform House of David in its entirety, with four backup singers, a nine-piece choir, and a quintet of musicians. She would also very much like to see David Bowie in the audience one night. (They've never met.)

Bowie was "the first person that I watched, the first person I admired, and the first person that I purchased" who flouted gender norms, DeLaria said. "He really might have been the first artist to show me that was cool."

A similar transgressive fearlessness informs her portrayal of Carrie "Big Boo" White on Orange Is the New Black, which is doubtless how many people under 40 know DeLaria best. At first, the character was written as a vehicle for her comedic style, but in the third season, the writers developed Carrie's backstory, with one particularly poignant scene involving a confrontation with her father in a hospital corridor, after he refused to let her visit her dying mother while dressed as a butch lesbian. DeLaria called it "challenging."

"I approach all this as an internship," she said. "My acting school was a comedy club, and so whenever I get a part where acting is required, I'm always a little insecure. I always feel like I'm not as good as everyone else around me. Most people tell me to 'go fuck myself and shut up, I'm great.' The most difficult thing is trying to live up to how great I feel this show is."

DeLaria has elsewhere described her career as "one long, slow climb to the middle" — although "that was before Orange," she told me — and it's undeniable that her trajectory is atypical. Occasional intrusions into the mainstream (Matlock, Friends, the completely forgotten animated show The Oblongs) preceded her stint on OITNB, but the 57-year-old is at the peak of her fame. Does any moment stand out as her proudest?

"I think that I've been able to make it to this level in show business without having once not been the person that I am," she said. "All the odds should be stacked against me for that in this industry. That's why the SAG Award [for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series] made me feel so emotional, that I got to this point and was never once in the fucking closet. Never once did I not say what I thought. I stuck to my guns and in the face of the right or the left, conservatives and liberals, from whiny lesbians to whiny bisexuals to whiny trans to whiny gay men."

She paused.

"I include all of us in the 'whiny' there. I'm sure I missed somebody."

Fall Arts 2015

Fall Arts 2015: Art

Fall Arts 2015: Comedy

Fall Arts 2015: Film

Fall Arts 2015: Film Festivals

Fall Arts 2015: Dance

Fall Arts 2015: Theater

Fall Arts 2015: Television

Fall Arts 2015: Sex

Fall Arts 2015: Weird


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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