Like a lot of lesbian comedians, Susan Norfleet used to play off stereotypes, so one of her comedy sets, a performance piece she called Gay 101, was meant to debunk “gay myths and stereotypes.” Her number one stereotype: Lesbians are humorless. After her Powerpoint slide with that phrase would pop up, Norfleet would begin to ruffle through her papers — presumably the studies, data, etc. meant to prove lesbians do indeed have a sense of humor — but after awhile, she sheepishly looks up and tells us, “I… I got nothing.” Bada-bing!
That stereotype of the humorless lesbian must have cropped up long before the queer comedy bloom of current days, which is dominated by lesbians, and which is on full display every month at the award-winning comedy/storytelling event Don't Tell My Mother! Happening monthly in Los Angeles, the show is now going on the road to New York and San Francisco as well.
The brainchild of longtime feature film executive (and herself a very funny lesbian) Nikki Levy, DTMM! is an event where “fabulous actors tell true stories they'd never want their moms to know.” The show features a new cast every month and past performers include Kate McKinnon (SNL), Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives), Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Fortune Feimster (Chelsea Lately), Tracee Ellis Ross (black-ish), and Joanna Kerns (yes, from Growing Pains).
This month is The Pride Show (“be proud of whoever you are”) on Thursday, June 11, and it features Stephanie Beatriz, best known as tough ass detective Rosa Diaz on the gay-friendly Fox comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as well as true stories you’d never want your mom to know from the iconic Moon Zappa, Grace and Frankie star Baron Vaughn, acclaimed lesbian comic Erin Foley (a writer on the Ellen DeGeneres-produced sitcom One Big Happy), and of course, Levy herself.
“I am telling the story of a threesome gone awry,” says Levy, the show’s creator and host — who by day is a development executive in Hollywood — has overseen numerous films including Academy Award-nominated Frost/Nixon, Fox Animation’s Epic, and Paramount’s upcoming release Monster Trucks. “I quit my job and left my girlfriend to find a man and get married. I ended up in a threesome with a rabbi and an Orthodox Jewess. The story is called Nikki Ménage.”
At right, Nikki Levy
Though there are plenty of straight A-list actors rotating through the cast, that Levy is queer certainly may influence some of her performance picks. There are a lot of queer performers among the DTMM! alumni.
“Well, I am Jewish and gay and from New York — so I have a lot to say!” she admits. “As a gay kid, I always felt weird and different, and that’s why LGBT folks are great storytellers. We were the outcasts, the weirdos, so we have wonderful stories of being the underdog and feeling awkward. Those yahoos who were popular in high school had the right shoes and the cool boyfriends/girlfriends — screw them! What do they have to talk about? What struggle do they know? It’s the outsiders like us who got to observe and feel lame, and as adults, tell stories where we own all of it! I always say the greatest comedy comes from our raw pain. As storytellers, we are alchemists. We turn shit into gold.”
The show has such a huge, loyal LGBTQ following that it is actually sponsored by the largest sperm bank in the country, California Cryobank, and each month they auction off free sperm vials during the show. I ask how that fascinating but oh-so-perfectly-lesbian partnership came about.
“I decided to freeze my embryos in October. I was single, turning 37, and knew I wanted a baby — just not yet!” Levy recounts. “I needed more time, so I found out about the California Cryobank. I picked my baby daddy from their online catalog and began to see how helpful they were to the lesbian community. They just want to help people — all people — have families.”
Of course, that became a story for Don’t Tell My Mother!
“When I told the story of freezing my embryos — called Ice Ice Baby because I now have seven babies on ice on Olympic & Bundy — I invited [California Cryobank staff] to come see it! They loved the show and the story. And since Don’t Tell My Mother! has a very loyal lesbian audience, I asked if they wanted to get more involved. They are now our official sponsor. Really, I just wanted to say, ‘California Cryobank is the official sperm donor of Don’t Tell My Mother!’
More than a gimmick, the sponsorship has become a personal high point for some of the winners. “The woman who won the sperm at the Mother’s Day show has been with her partner for 10 years and is dying to have a baby,” says Levy. “They called me crying the next day, they were so excited.”
California Cryobank is “now sponsoring the upcoming New York show in November, as well as our upcoming San Francisco show.”
Because of the show’s Hollywood proximity, the talent behind the stage is as impressive as the performers. In addition to Levy and her producer Joe Slepski, the 13-member team also includes (among others) senior producer/tech Bart Gold (who once designed props for Star Trek and Babylon 5); senior producer/talent Jake Webb (who works at famed United Talent Agency); and house musician Abby Posner (whose band Abby and The Myth just released a new album to acclaim and who you may recognize from her performance in the band on Glee).
Using her development background, Levy works with the incoming talent to curate their pieces for the stage, which helps deliver a performance that has become a go-to for industry executives who want to sign and cast new talent. You could see a performer dish at DTMM! one week, then on TV come fall.
This storytelling guru has seen dozens of performers pass her stage, but do any of them resonate months, or, years later? Yes, it turns out.
“Kate McKinnon told an amazing story about getting her period…in a white dress…at the home of her ex-girlfriend’s conservative, Southern parents. I believe it actually happened on a porch swing while eating grits,” recalls Levy, laughing. “Teri Hatcher told an amazing story about not having had sex in five years. And Jen Kober is the standout from the three and a half years we’ve been doing this. She is a big dyke from Louisiana and told the best story about stealing all of her mama’s American cheese as a child — like the whole Walmart brick of cheese — and eating all of it at one time in the bathroom, the only place Jen was allowed to lock the door as a kid. Cheese was her favorite food, and since Jen was so fat, her mama started rationing her cheese intake. Jen wouldn’t have it!”
The October 9 DTMM! event, dubbed "The Coming Out Show," is the biggest show of the year, and this incarnation will feature performances by the stars of Transparent and Orange is the New Black, among others.
Of course, if you aren’t near Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco (or even if you are and missed one of the shows) you can always tune into the Don’t Tell My Mother! podcast on iTunes, where you can hear any of the stories you missed at the show.
(Oh, and Jen Kober's cheese story, among others, is on the podcast; Levy’s right, you will love it.)
Don’t Tell My Mother! happens next Thursday, June 11, at Busby’s East (5364 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles). At 7 p.m. there's full bar and food service, at 8 p.m. show and music. Tickets are available (for $16 - $20) at DontTellMyMother.com.