Comedy to queer the heterosexual pitch

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE, loud lesbian who prefers to be called queer, sings like an angel, laughs like a circular saw and loves her mother, may yet do more to lift the lid off womanly lust than Dear Marje or Madonna. Her one-woman show as the Muff Diva at the Edinburgh Festival is very rude, very raucous and very nice. The sacred willie is subjected to some lighthearted banter, but is largely a subject of little importance.

Her show and the success that now seems, almost, to place her in the midst of cult comedy achieves something surprising. Coming from what might be seen as the edges of sexual culture, Lea de Laria goes to the heart of a woman's pleasure. Her humour belongs to, yet goes beyond, the current boundaries of what has been designated 'women's comedy'.

The tolerance of some cabaret critics for jokes about tampons, PMT and how many men it takes to change a light bulb, seems short. No sooner have women survived in the stand-up routine roughhouse than their comedy is accused of being boring, horrible, or both.

In the Nineties, however, a new coterie of comic amazons seems to be discovering that their time has come. Last year Thea Vidale, black, majestic and dangerously funny, stalked Edinburgh's festival stage. Britain called her back for a national tour. This year it is Lea de Laria, a white Italian-American, who makes her appearance at the festival after a decade doing gay clubs in the US.

What they share is that they are surreal, raw and very, very sexy. They confront the stereotypes and certainties of their class, kin and country. They disturb their audiences' right to be amused rather than challenged. They take control, yet create a comic environment for contemplation. They are among the most challenging comedians in our midst. They are not so much risque as risk-takers. They don't talk dirty but they do talk sex.

They stand inside and outside their origins. Thea Vidale is relentless in her assault on racism but offers no redemption for black men who mess up women. 'Black men love for you to go down on them, but you can't get a nigger to lick a stamp.' Lea de Laria is the Catholic girl made bad, for whom convent school was a perfect context for lustful thoughts, and whose jazz-pianist parent was her entree into terrific scat singing. Unlike Julian Clary, star of the small screen, who has appropriated ambiguity, smut and sticky buns, she has appropriated sticky sex.

These women also share the strength to make the white, heterosexual majority the other, the stranger. Vidale seeks out her black audience and affirms them, while her Exocets seek out white skin and berate its history, its performance and its modest bosoms. Simultaneously, however, she also parodies motherhood, truculent teenagers and men's seminal proclivities, when she reports how she warns her kids: 'I could have swallowed you]'

De Laria demands some audience participation which involves shouting: 'I am a lesbian]' Of the men, that is. And they do it, too. In its daftness it engages them. This is not for the purpose of doing the easy thing, uniting men and lesbians in desire for women, but to identify with women who don't desire men. 'How do you think you got that way?' she asks a straight man.

She invites questions from the audience. A woman, a banker who is there with her boyfriend, asks how she knows who is a lesbian. The audience roars and the loudest laughter comes from a corps of cool, chic young women. Their style is that of their generation rather than their orientation, which all goes to show that sexual bent is in the eye of the beholder.

De Laria wonders why the banker wants to know. 'Well, everybody knows we've all got tendencies,' she says, invoking a conventional wisdom that de Laria works with.

It is from her gay aesthetic, her delight in her desires, that she offers to women, and men, a new language of lust. Women don't have hard-ons, for example, they have 'wide-ons'. And she is less interested in turning against men than turning on women. Hers is a comedy of critique and celebration. It shames the fright and envy of her compatriot Camille Paglia and bounces the 'politically incorrect' paranoia that assumes only the right-off are so ravishingly rude.