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LA's LGBT Seniors Are Learning Comedy From A 'Tragically Hetero' Teacher

Stand-up comedy in a class for LGBT seniors. (Los Angeles LGBT Center)
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Older LGBT people are learning the art of stand-up comedy from the self-proclaimed "tragically hetero" writer/comedian Caitlin Durante at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Comedy has always been about giving a voice to the voiceless -- comedians are always advised to punch up toward those with power, not down at those without. It's something that's particularly meaningful for Durante's students.

"Comedy can be a very therapeutic process, and a way to deal with struggles from your life, and to talk through them, and to make sense of them," Durante said. "For some of them, it might be a way for them to open up about their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, and talk about that experience, and their coming out process."

Durante was approached to teach the class for LGBT people over 50 last summer by someone she knew who worked at the Center. She questioned whether she was the best person for the job, as she's "tragically hetero" herself, as she put it.

"The interest in the class was, I think, more than anyone at the Center expected," Durante said. "And it turns out, as far as I can tell, people don't mind that I'm not queer. And they have accepted me as one of their own."

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Writer/comedian Caitlin Durante (center, 5th from the left) with some of her stand-up comedy students. (Courtesy Caitlin Durante)

She joked that it turned out to be the next step in her lifelong mission to become a queer icon.

The students have been funny beyond Durante's own expectations, thanks largely to everyone having a life experience that hasn't been as widely heard.

"A lot of them are shy, and/or have never performed before, so they have a lot of anxiety about performing," Durante said. "So one of the things I say to calm their nerves, is 'Look. Historically, comedy has been performed by younger, white, straight men. So the fact that you're in the queer community, you're older, makes you more interesting than so many of the performers that we as audiences are used to seeing.'"

Durante and the Center built on the class's momentum and, after a few weeks training seniors in how to put their stories into their comedy, they held a graduation show to showcase their work.

"Until the last decade or so, any sort of gender identity or sexuality that wasn't hetero and cisgender was not widely accepted, and in many communities, still isn't," Durante said. "I would imagine that it can be, for some people, an opportunity to come out and be proud about being out, and to talk about their experience openly."

LGBT seniors are learning how to do stand-up comedy, thanks to instructor Caitlin Durante. (Los Angeles LGBT Center)

Durante teaches her students how to structure a joke, the different types of jokes they can try, and the tones and approaches they can take to comedy. Each week, students would come back with one or two minutes of material -- then they'd workshop those jokes with a class open mic. Durante and the other students would offer their own suggestions to punch up the comedy before the grand finale.

"Until I started teaching this class really, I didn't have that much exposure to an older community," Durante said. "I wasn't quite sure to expect, because of the old people that I had had any sort of interactions with throughout my life, they weren't good people."

She didn't get along with the older members of her own family, and was hesitant to start teaching an older crowd.

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"Because I was like, 'Well, if I make a reference, are they even going to know what I'm talking about? Or, can they hear me?'" Durante said. "Now, I'm so glad I have had this experience, because it's really opened my eyes to the fact that all of my preconceived notions about an older community were not right, not good."

One of Durante's students acts out her joke in front of a live crowd.

The class has continued on since the first edition, with the most recent iteration starting in November. After each session, Durante said, the Center has been asking her when she can do another. Durante's made the class a couple weeks longer, allowing the students to really polish their set.

Now, Durante said, she's grateful to have this exposure to older people and to learn what they're really like.

Not everyone talks about personal experiences -- some students get their creative self-expression out through one-liners about their pets, or other less weighty issues. But it brings an opportunity to have fun in a way that many had never participated in before.

Durante said she was excited to see how her students were growing as comedians -- several of them were so excited after the first class that they came back for more, with the second class being half returning students. Each week, she receives a couple emails from students showing their appreciation for her efforts, and her patience with them as they learn.

Beyond teaching the class, Durante does comedy, teaches screenwriting classes, and gives notes on scripts. She also works on a podcast about the portrayal of women in movies, the Bechdel Cast.

The latest class is currently in progress, with a show shortly before the holidays on Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. Durante invited everyone to come check out the shows for a chance to see some exceptional performers with a unique voice.

"I've been doing comedy for nine years, all over the country," Durante said. "I've seen hundreds, if not thousand of comedy shows -- and these are some of the funniest performers I've ever seen."

You can also expect more classes to come in the new year.

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