A can’t-miss regular on the Chelsea Lately round table, staff writer and self-appointed “staff homosexual” Guy Branum also shows off his pop-culture savvy and shameless salaciousness forComedians of Chelsea Lately, a live stand-up comedy tour starring the rotating panelists on Chelsea Handler’s late-night E! talk show. Branum gives us the skinny on how to craft a good gay joke and why his bombshell boss doesn't love you as much as Kathy Griffin.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: You recently celebrated a birthday. Judging from the drunk e-mail I got from you that night, I’m guessing you had fun.
Guy Branum: I cannot tell you how obliterated I was. I turned 34 on a Thursday, so I totally went to TigerHeat at Avalon, the trashy and amazing 18-and-over night in L.A., where I listened to pop music, got shit-faced, and talked to people who were born when I was in high school. I also drunk-texted Chelsea, but she always deals very well with my drunk texts. I’m the sort of guy for whom five or more drinks can result in some sort of existential revelation or just deeply needing to tell people how much I love them, so she generally gets one or both of those texts. She’s a great boss, and Chelsea Lately really is like one big family.
Before Chelsea Lately you wrote for shows on TechTV, which was later absorbed by G4 — a network devoted to technology, the Internet, and video games. Was that a gay-friendly environment?
Nerds can be socially awkward, but they’re smart and open-minded, so I was very comfortable in that situation. I also had to do crowd warm-up for a bad talk show I worked for called Unscrewed With Martin Sargent, and all I had were butt sex jokes. Pretty soon my sexual tastes were something my coworkers could come listen to any day. Our audience was primarily 15-year-old boys, so I got to have cool moments where I could reach kids who’d never been exposed to gay people. One time I was playing World of Warcraft with a teenager from the South who thought my job was the coolest thing in the world. He was making homophobic comments, and we talked about why he shouldn’t say those things. It was nice to bear witness to him about homosexuality — to use the vocabulary of evangelical Christianity.
When you’re doing risqué gay material, how do you stay truthful without alienating a heterosexual audience?
As a gay performer, you have to figure out how to express some honest representation of homosexuality that isn’t just about performing gayness for straight people. A lot of gay comics don’t show that honesty so much as they reinforce what straight people already think of us. Early on there were definitely people who said to me, “You’re too out there and you’re talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.” But it’s my life. You may not like it, but I’m always going to be open about who I am and tell the jokes that are funny and interesting to me.
I recently saw a Judy Gold comedy special from the ’90s when her stand-up act was still weirdly straight. Was there a time your act wasn’t gay?
No. Nothing on this planet creeps me out more than somebody who’s a practicing homo but closeted onstage. I don’t understand how you can take pleasure in the stuff you’re talking about when you can’t talk about your real life. For the astounding number of lesbian comedians in the ’80s and ’90s like Wanda Sykes and Carol Leifer who came out later, I realize there was frequently a process of them figuring out who they were. For guys, it’s just different. I can understand how actors don’t want to be too strongly identified with their sexuality so they can take on different roles and still have believable romantic chemistry with a woman, but there’s no such excuse for a comedian. If you’re a closeted comedian, you’re just a coward. There was a time I didn’t want to use the gay thing as a crutch, so every other set I would try to talk about other things in my life. The problem was that some audiences would laugh just at the simple fact that I was gay, so I realized I needed to be on top of and in control of that laugh.
How do you craft a gay joke that’s funny without being offensive?
You have to determine if the joke simply rests on the preposterousness of homosexuality — “two guys having sex is hilarious!” — or if it honestly looks at gay culture and how it relates to straight culture. Basically, don’t objectify people and don’t be an asshole. We shouldn’t make fun of an out gay person for being out and gay; we should respect that. It’s infinitely more successful to make fun of a closeted, possibly gay person who’s pretty fuckin’ gay.
Writing jokes for Chelsea must be easy since she somehow gets away with saying just about anything.
It’s interesting to write jokes in someone else’s voice, which means that sometimes I have to pitch a joke about my vagina. Chelsea is very aggressive in the way she talks, but she does want to respect other people’s experiences and the stuff that she doesn’t quite get. Sometimes she makes a joke and we have to point out, “Hey, I don’t know about that one,” and she gets it. She once made the best tranny joke that felt so fucking true, but we couldn’t use it on the show. I can’t even repeat it.
Is Chelsea a worthy gay icon?
We have a long tradition of female comedians like Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho who cater to us and emphasize how much they love their gays. Chelsea also loves and values us, but she calls us on our shit. She’s not just accepting at face value that everything that’s gay is wonderful. If we don’t want people to irrationally hate us, we need to let go of the idea of people irrationally loving us. Yes, it’s lovely having a lovely platonic woman friend who thinks you’re the best thing on the planet just because you’re gay, but she needs to love you for you.
You joined the Chelsea Lately writing team in late 2007, after the show had been on for several months. Do you think you were hired in part because the show needed a stronger gay voice?
They’ve actually said to me that one of the primary reasons I got hired was because they thought I’d get along well with Heather McDonald and be a good playmate for her. She and I have to share an office and write jokes together.
Is it generally safe to assume that you’re the one pitching gay topics for roundtable discussion?
Each of the writers has certain websites and magazines that we’re responsible for keeping up with. My beat does include Out, The Advocate, and sites like Queerty and Towleroad, but the gay agenda is part of Chelsea’s core topic focus.
Chelsea introduces you as “staff homosexual.” Are you really the only gay person working on the show?
No, I’m not. Chelsea’s wardrobe stylist is a lesbian, our office manager is gay, and one of the lighting guys is gay, so there’s other representation. When I was going to be on the show for the first time, Chelsea was like, “I want people to understand that he works here and that he’s gay when I introduce him.” So I suggested “staff homosexual.”
That title just sounds so rife with responsibility.
Well, on Unscrewed I had a character called “The Ambassador of Gay.” When you frequently have to deal with people coming to you with questions about homosexuality, you do sometimes feel responsible for speaking for homosexuality at large. Straight comedians constantly come to me and ask, “Hey, is this offensive?” And the answer is almost always yes.
Why are you and Ross Mathews never on the roundtable at the same time? Would that be too much gayness for viewers to handle?
Ross and I spread out the representation of the homos. I’m also never on with my officemate Heather McDonald, so I think they’re trying to keep the estrogen down to reasonable levels. We once had a “gay day” panel with Scott Thompson, Justin Tranter from Semi Precious Weapons, and me, and it was so nice to have a wall of gay coming at the audience.
Have you and Ross ever tried to determine who’s gayer?
I would be wary for anyone to go into a gay-off with Ross Mathews because he’s packing some heat.
In various sketches you’ve appeared shirtless or even sprawled out half-naked on a conference room table for laughs. Are you as comfortable as it seems being a plus-size personality?
Yeah, they put me in a Speedo on my third day. Straight people have this idea of what homosexuality is, and bigger guys don’t frequently don’t fit into that. The trouble is that so many gay guys also internalize these notions of what it means to be gay. I live in the middle of West Hollywood, where people have a very clear shared aesthetic, but there’s nothing sweeter than the feeling of being in a bear bar, at Russian River Resort, or another bear space where I get to feel as pretty as the day is long.
So you identify with the bear community?
I like people who like me. That said, a lot of the bear culture and aesthetics doesn’t really appeal to me. I mean, if I wanted to date someone who was hairy and liked hiking all the time, I’d be dating a lesbian. But I try to like as many things as I can, because I haven’t always had the most options in the world. A burly muscle bear is a good time, but an adorable, hairless young man can also be a wonderful thing.
You’re very accessible to fans through Twitter and Facebook. What kind of feedback have you gotten from gay viewers?
Once a kid messaged me on Facebook and basically said I’d helped chill him out about being scared to tell his parents he was gay, which made me feel really good. I feel like gay people are proud to have Ross and me speaking for the community in our own way on the panel.
Do you use your fame to get laid?
Absolutely. I have very little shame, as you noted with my body. It’s so nice to live in a world where a lot of people have already been introduced to me, so they already know who I am and whether they like me or not.
You also have no shame about expressing your attraction to hot young male stars on the show. Out of all your celebrity crushes, whom would you most want to join our team?
If Taylor Lautner can maintain that 30 pounds of lean muscle mass, he’s welcome anytime. I realize that Paul Rudd has probably already figured out the things he’s going to figure out in life, but if he ever just wanted to hold hands with me for a little while, that would be really cool too.
Advocate.com, November 2009.