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What is it like to start out as a gay guy in the straight white male world of stand-up comedy?

I thought, 'I couldn’t do this now. How can I go on stage after a guy who made a bunch of faggot jokes?'

What is it like to start out as a gay guy in the straight white male world of stand-up comedy?
Courtesy of Peter Bresnan
Peter Bresnan is starting out in stand-up comedy

You’re on your own on stage apart from a microphone. You’ve rehearsed and rehearsed, and all the crowd is waiting for is you to make them laugh.

Could you do it?

A lot of people would rather get a root canal. But for some people, trying out their material at open mic nights across the country and hoping to be funny is their life.

We know people like Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Chris Rock, and they all know what they’re doing. They know how to do it.

But what if you’re just starting out? What if you feel like you have no idea, really, what you’re doing? What if everyone else in the room, trying to become a professional comedian, is straight?

Peter Alexander Bresnan, a 22-year-old gay guy originally from suburban New York and living in Chicago, is showing us how he does it. With his podcast, Tell Me I’m Funny, he delves deep into what it is like at the beginning of a stand-up career. It’s raw, revealing bad jokes and good ones.

There are currently five episodes, with the latest out today (18 February). Here’s the first one:

GSN: What have you been up to?

Peter: As I mentioned in the [fourth] episode of the show, I was unemployed for awhile. I now have a nine to five data entry gig. I’m doing everything I was doing before, the podcast and comedy shows at night and all that jazz – plus 10 hours of work a day so I’m very tired all the time.

That sounds quite stressful?

It is quite stressful. But it’s great, it feels good to never be standing still.

How is the comedy going? Do you feel like you’re getting more confident with it?

The interesting thing about comedy is that every time I think I know what I’m doing I realise that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m getting more confident as a performer – someone who’s writing comedy. I don’t think I’ve figured out the formula for it, though. I’m still learning a lot.

Cool. So let’s go back a bit. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in suburban New York.

What was that like?

Very, very normal. As a comedian, that can be detrimental sometimes but I had two brothers and a very loving family. We moved around a lot so I never sunk my roots into any one place. People ask where I’m from… I don’t really have a hometown. We moved three or four times as a kid. I’ve lived an itinerant lifestyle which makes sense now that I want to be a comedian because I’m constantly moving all over the place.

What was your coming out process like?

Slow and painful and stubborn.

See, now that’s where the comedy is.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but to a certain extent I think all comedians need to have a personal tragedy in their life to get on stage and talk about things in a way that’s funny. But for me? Being gay is my personal tragedy. I took it so hard. I don’t know why, because I had a family that was loving and supportive. As soon as I realised I was gay, I said immediately, ‘Absolutely not’. I didn’t just fight my sexuality, I fought myself in this fundamental way for five or six years. When I finally came out, it was an act of desperation. I was at war with myself. It was either coming out or I wasn’t going to make it to 25.

Was it pressure you put on yourself or was there anyone being openly homophobic towards you?

What makes it weird is that I didn’t have any pressure from the outside, it was all internal. I kept on imagining friends knowing I was gay and them not liking me all of a sudden. There was a dissonance between how I thought the world would respond and how they actually responded: they didn’t care, they liked me, they wanted to be my friend. In my head, I imagined being this social pariah.

So when did you finally come out to your parents, your friends?

It was kind of slow. I came out as bisexual when I was 17. I’m not bisexual, it was just a stepping stone. I came out to my friends and my family on the same night. I called my parents, and then I took a boy to a big school dance and then made out with him in front of 600 people.

That’s definitely one way of coming out.

That’s not the kind of person I am, usually. I can’t really deconstruct the psychological processes behind that.

So what did people say when you started making out with a guy on the dance floor?

I remember I ran into my ex-girlfriend and she was nice about it. Everyone was nice about it. The really strong memory I have about is when I was in this guy’s face, and I heard someone go, ‘Woo!’ I turned around and I saw a friend of mine looking at me in the eye and screaming and being really happy. It went well, I think.

So tell me about when you were first interested in stand-up comedy?

I’ve always loved making people laugh and I think it’s a very special thing to do to make people laugh. I’ve always had people prodding me, ‘You should be a comedian!’. I never saw it as a serious profession, I wanted to do something that would be ‘serious’ – like being a journalist or making documentaries.

When I got out of school and none of those trades would give me an opportunity, I fell back on this thing I always considered maybe doing. I knew I always loved making people laugh and performing and so I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ I’m not sure why I kept on doing it because after the first three months I was so bad. I’m less bad now, but there was some small spark and joy that I found in the midst of sucking really bad that made me want to keep doing it.

What made you want to record it?

I wouldn’t have done comedy without the podcast and vice versa. There’s this inherent difficulty that comes with starting comedy. I don’t think I’m a strong enough person to go on stage and bomb and just come and be home and be sad about it. I had to have something creative to do with that failure. I started recording stuff, and soon no matter how badly I failed on stage I could come home and do something creative and productive with that failure. It didn’t have to just be failure.

So what does your boyfriend think of the podcast and your stand-up career?

He’s great. He’s not gushy, and he doesn’t tell me everything’s perfect. He’s very honest and realistic with me which is awesome. As you heard in the show, he told me that it was all good but he had heard it all. He comes to most of my shows. He’s seen me really good and he’s seen me really bad. He was one of the first people to listen to my podcast and he’s been with me all the way. He doesn’t want to be involved in it but he loves that I do it.

Who are your comedy icons?

Absolutely Louis CK, he was my entry into comedy. There’s a lot. Joan Rivers was really big. Richard Pryor, George Carlin.

What about the podcasts? What inspired you?

I got into podcasts because of Serial, essentially.

Who didn’t?

I came to it after it was cool. I love the idea of long-term narrative storytelling via audio, and so I loved Serial. I love This American Life, love Radiolab. There’s a show called Love + Radio that I think is phenomenal. There’s a show that are like mine, there’s one called StartUp. There’s one called Millennial which is a serialized audio journal about someone maneuvering their 20s. They were important to me.

Do you think it’s harder for you as a gay guy in comedy compared to a straight guy or a straight girl?

Honestly, I think it’s harder and easier at the same time. There’s just no gay comedians, at least in the scene I’m in. I know two gay comedians, and both of them are beyond the level of where they’re doing open mics. I don’t think I’ve ever done a single open mic with another male gay comedian. There’s none of us. That can be hard because there’s a lack of sensitivity sometimes.

I remember one of my very first shows, I was 17th in line, and I think the guy who was 16th went up and made a bunch of faggot jokes. He talked about how he didn’t want his kids to be faggots. I considered walking out of the room because I thought, ‘I couldn’t do this now. How can I go on stage after a guy who made a bunch of faggot jokes?’ In my comedy, I talk a lot about a lot of gay stuff.

But in a way it is an advantage. People who don’t like faggot jokes see someone who’s different and has a different perspective to what they’re used to and they’re attracted to that. They’re attracted to something that is not the white cisgendered straight male standard that you see in the Chicago comedy scene. It gives me a perspective, and they enjoy seeing that new perspective.

“I’ve never felt more beautiful.”

A photo posted by Tell Me I’m Funny (@tmifpodcast) on

How did you follow that guy? Did you comment on it or not?

I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. I was totally unable to respond to that.

Did you talk to him afterwards or did he say anything to you?

No, and I see him all the time. I kind of want to approach him about it. It’s not something I feel totally comfortable responding to. I’m not sure why.

What do you think of the culture around comedy? What do you think of trigger warning culture? Do you think people are too sensitive?

I think it’s awesome we’re living in a time when people are becoming so aware of each other and of the different lives we live. For me, comedy shouldn’t have any boundaries. I think you should be allowed to talk about whatever you want.

But I don’t think you should be allowed to talk about whatever you want and then not get criticized for what you talk about. I don’t think you can make rape jokes with impunity. I guess, in general, people aren’t good at identifying what is humor and what is serious conversation. I’m very mixed about it. I’m happy people can’t get on stage and talk about raping women and get away with it. But I do think, especially in college campuses, there’s a lot of sensitivity that’s not necessary. Comedy is a way of dealing with these issues and not treating them flippantly. That sort of sensitivity ignores what comedy is supposed to do.

What do you think your comedy is meant to do? What do you hope to get across to people?

What do I hope to get across to people?…That blindsided me.

Sorry, it’s a deep question!

It is! It’s weird that I don’t think about it that much. I’m just trying so hard to make people laugh that I don’t think. This is so broad, and this is what I want to do with my podcast and this is what I want to do with my comedy: I’d like to make people less lonely. Whether that means making them laugh or it means making them feel not alone, that’s for me is the purpose of what I’m doing in the moment. If people can feel less alone, then I’ve done my job.

Peter Bresnan is a cast member at 100 Proof Comedy at a theatre called Comedy Sportz Chicago, where they do shows on Monday nights at 8pm.

You can follow Peter Bresnan on Twitter. His podcast Tell Me I’m Funny is on iTunes and other podcatchers. You can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram

The interview was edited for length and clarity.


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