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The Queer Young Comics Redefining American Humor

This isn’t the finish line. For gay men in entertainment, there has never been a finish line, never a moment when you couldn’t take the yardstick used to measure how far they’ve come and turn it around to see how short of parity they still are. Gay men may connect to Booster’s lay-it-all-on-the-table stand-up act to such a degree that when they meet him, some of the more boundary-less ones will enthusiastically grope him (it makes him acutely uncomfortable; please don’t do it). But other audiences have a long way to go, he says. “I see a lot of stand-up all over the country when I’m traveling, and it is wild how our existence is still used as a punch line. The idea of homosexuality is still really funny for a lot of people.”

Nor have large parts of the industry moved past casting decisions that may have felt fresh 20 years ago but don’t now. “I’m still out here auditioning for stuff,” says Matt Rogers, who lives in Los Angeles, and “it’s still mostly assistants or [the heroine’s] best friend being like, ‘Girl, you’re wearing that?’” In his forthcoming show, Rogers will play “the senior associate — he’s very clear that he’s not the assistant. … It’s a great take to have him be aware of the stereotype and watch him navigate that.”

For all the progress that’s been made, the era when discussions like this would have been unimaginable is still recent enough to remember, and grim. “I think about Terry Sweeney a lot,” says Yang. Sweeney, now in his early 70s, was a trailblazer who made his mark before the people in this story were born — in 1985, when he became the first out gay man who was hired as a regular cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Sweeney was “the gay one”; he “had a moment”; and his go-big impersonations of Joan Rivers, Nancy Reagan and (it was a different time) Diana Ross might have made him a star in a newer era of “S.N.L.,” or of America. But Sweeney arrived in the spotlight during the AIDS crisis, at a time when the demonization of gay men was on the rise, and the show essentially quarantined him, treating him as a drag oddity. He lasted one season.

“I’m sure I would not have survived one week,” says Yang. It seemed “so shocking that there was a gay man on ‘S.N.L.,’ but it always felt that the writing staff thought it was shocking, too. … Sometimes I get into this dark place where I think, ‘Have we [moved beyond that]? Do people see me as this novelty on the show — that I come in, do my little queer song and dance and then leave? I don’t think that’s true. I’m obviously in a much better circumstance than he was. But I think about him very often.”

We’re not there anymore. We’re not even in the place we were a decade ago, when Torres, still trying to find his voice as a performer, started doing open-mic nights without having any idea whether he would face a hostile audience or not. “Then, years later,” he says, “I get asked to do a queer-only open mic. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, there are enough aspiring queer comedians to have their own open mic?’”

“Not to be like, ‘I knew them when,’ but these are all people that I’ve seen grow and develop,” says Yang. “I hope that what’s gleaned from all this is that we’ve all charted our paths to some version of fulfillment or success or finding our own voices. I know I’m just spitting out all of these earnest little phrases, but I guess I’m just saying that there is such a thing as this community of people who are all looking out for each other. And I hope it keeps happening.”