Show People / It's de limit, it's De Laria: Audiences beware. Last year's Edinburgh Fringe best comedy act is back and taking no prisoners

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The Independent Culture
ON MONDAY, Paul Ross was interviewing Lea De Laria for this week's Big City, the London arts programme, and De Laria was washing him away in a stream of abuse. 'My comedy's about being an outsider. You can relate to that, look at your haircut] Does it move? You're almost as butch as I am]' The interview lasted five minutes, and Ross was begging for mercy by the end

of it. 'When you interview her, you'll have her for a full hour,' De Laria's publicity agent told me. It sounded like a threat.

Lea De Laria - aka Muff Diva, Bull-Dyke in a China shop, and Queer Brat - can be intimidating, as audiences of her comedy and scat-jazz shows will tell you. She is 5ft11 2 ins tall, with five studs in her left ear, one in her right nostril, two interlocking female symbols tattooed on her neck, and 'queer brat' tattooed above her left ankle. She is 36, but looks 10 years younger ('No men, no wrinkles'). With her slicked-back hair and dinner suit she resembles a nightclub bouncer. On stage she becomes the roaring, destructive Tasmanian Devil from Bugs Bunny cartoons, with a Woody Woodpecker laugh. Actually, 'on stage' is not appropriate. Audience participation plays a large part in De Laria's shows, whether the audience likes it or not. She is a firm believer in the intrinsic comedy value of sitting in the laps of terrified women and getting men to stand up and shout: 'I am a lesbian]'

When I meet her in a West End hotel, I am prepared for the worst. She has just endured an interview with 'a lesbian with no sense of humour' who objected to her use of the word 'dyke', and she is not in a pro- journalist mood: 'All my boyfriends have died of Aids, my girlfriends can't get jobs, and she's arguing over one word. I don't have time for it. Save that kind of debate for your living room, and focus on the issues that matter.'

However, she is soon friendly, funny, and mercifully uninsulting. She poses with abandon for our photographer, while passing executives pretend she's not there, and she bubbles with excitement about her upcoming London show: 'I saw the theatre and I couldn't believe it] I'm next to Five Guys Named Moe. I'm Moe number six] The Ho-Moe]'

This has been a delirious year for De Laria. Her performance at last year's Edinburgh Fringe won the Critics Award for Best Comedy Act. Since then, she has been a regular on British and American TV, hosting comedy specials, guesting on The Arsenio Hall Show and other chat shows, and appearing in a detective serial, Matlock. Next, she stars in a film, Rescuing Desire: 'I play a lesbian character. Let's face it, they're not gonna be chasing after me for the roles that Winona Ryder gets.'

It's all a long way from Belleville, Illinois, where Lea grew up with her parents and four siblings. Her father was a jazz pianist before taking up social work to support the family, and he nurtured her love of be-bop. She was educated in a convent school, a breeding ground, she says, for both lesbians and comics. In a variation on the old 'I told jokes so I wouldn't be bullied in the playground' myth perpetuated by male comedians, she says: 'I thought, if I can make the nun laugh, maybe she won't hit me.' After school she was a garage manager, a carpenter, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and, at 23, a stand-up comic at a San Francisco gay club: 'I got on stage in April and I just killed them. I was a natural. By November I'd quit my job and was living off what I made from comedy.' Realising that nobody could take her high-octane humour for more than 15 minutes at a time, she introduced musical interludes to let people recover before the next barrage. She toured gay clubs and then theatres, but never comedy clubs, which were not keen on 'queer' material. Other gay comics tailored their jokes for straight audiences. De Laria never did. 'There would be no point,' she says. 'People would say, 'Look at that big bull-dyke. Why doesn't she talk about it?' ' She performed in a comedy club for the first time last year.

So, which is more important in her act, to make 'em laugh or to make 'em think? 'It's always got a political agenda. There are several ways to change people's attitudes, and comedy is one of them. And I do it to get laid.' And the difference between gay humour and straight humour? 'Gay humour is funny.' (Woody Woodpecker laugh.)

There is the film coming up, and more TV, but what about next year? Where is she heading? 'I'm heading to Jodie Foster's bedroom, I hope.'

In the meantime there is Queer Brat, premiering in Edinburgh and London, before hitting the stage in New York. How does it compare to the award-winning Muff Diva? 'That was an introduction to me, an ABC of Lea. This one's even crazier, even wilder, and has even more audience participation. If there are ever any empty seats at my shows, they're always at the front. But that won't help you. Sit where you want. I'll find you. There's nowhere to hide, I promise.'

'Queer Brat': Edinburgh Acropolis, 031-556 6528, tonight & Mon; London Apollo, 071-494 5040, Thurs to Sat.