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Suzanne Westenhoefer says comedy is therapy -- for the comics. 

Suzanne Westenhoefer planned to be an actor -- which meant she spent time tending bar after earning a BFA in acting from Clarion University. But plenty of patrons told her she was funny, and it wasn't just the booze talking. So Westenhoefer left her cocktail-shaker behind, and went on to claim the title of America's first openly gay standup comic.

"I used to be afraid, not because I was a new comic but because I was gay," says the Lancaster County native. Westenhoefer, who lives in Hollywood, spoke by phone from St. Louis, in advance of her Fri., Oct. 9, gig at the New Hazlett Theater.

Westenhoefer had been active in ACT-UP and other gay advocacy groups, and worried how that would color audience reception of her comedy. "I was already out. I wasn't going back into the closet to do standup."

She didn't, and has gone on to appear on David Letterman, HBO and Logo, the gay cable network. Gay and straight audiences alike eat up her witty commentary, and part of her appeal is that she's less a "gay comic" than a comic who happens to be gay.

"You can't make Chris Rock not be black. It's part of who you are," she says.

Observations on small airplanes, the futility of football and an aging mother who doesn't want to die hooked up to machines are all pretty universally funny, especially in Westenhoefer's deft hands. But she turns an equally gimlet eye on the expectations that all lesbians know how to fix cars, or that all gay men are vain.

Inspiration comes from "sex, my girlfriend, my animals. Really, the freaky weird stuff that happens to me. It's really just life. I don't do a lot of political comedy." She acknowledges that dropping onstage references to her wife does add a political flavor, though.

The early '90s, she says, were a tougher time to be openly gay in show business. "Comics in their 20s and 30s [today] come into a different world. People who are 20 and 30, unless they are from extremely religious backgrounds, it's not an issue." 

Yet women, straight or gay, still face barriers in comedy, she says. "Boy comics can get away with more. They can say harsher things, meaner things. It doesn't really fly -- an audience doesn't respond well -- if a woman steps out. The response is so much better for the boys. Men are still ruling the world." 

Aside from touring, Westenhoefer is preparing to be a featured performer on SWEET Caribbean Cruise, a lesbian excursion. She's also gearing up to film the second season of We Have to Stop Now, a Web show where Westenhoefer plays marriage counselor to a lesbian couple, both of whom are therapists.

"All comics want to be therapists, or rock stars," Westenhoefer says. "Most comics are up there telling their shit, they're up there bleeding on the stage. It's like therapy: 'I don't have time for therapy, this is what you people are getting.'"

 

Suzanne Westenhoefer 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 9. New Hazlett Theater. North Side. $25. 412-320-4610.

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