by Steve Desroches
There’s a famous photo of a young Bill Clinton shaking President John F. Kennedy’s hand in 1963. It’s just a snapshot of a moment in time, but one that records a flash of not so much destiny, but perhaps the gravitational pull of excellence meets ambition plus inspiration. You just never know what a passing encounter can do to the trajectory of someone’s life and what they might accomplish. Consider Matteo Lane. When the up and coming standup comic was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago he had plenty of options. A talented visual artist he also speaks five languages, has a singing range of six octaves, and is also a trained opera singer. But on one night in Chicago he went to see the legendary Joan Rivers. She undoubtedly changed his life, he says. Sitting there in the dark he felt compelled, even called, with a sense of certainty that comedy was what he wanted to do. And so he did.
Beginning his career in 2011, as a gay man, he didn’t have very many role models in standup comedy. There have obviously been gay men in the field, but gay people have more often been the punchline rather than in the spotlight. Starting out it was Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin, two comics who worked pro-LGBTQ+ material into their routines, that motivated Lane to keep at it, even when faced with homophobic hecklers or comedy club owners. But over the past decade things have changed, particularly in New York City, Lane’s home, where he performs at the Comedy Cellar and other venues nightly. No longer are LGBTQ+ comics staying in the closet, and there is little to no need to adjust material for a majority straight audience. People aren’t laughing at him because he’s gay. They’re laughing at his material because they can relate even if they aren’t gay.
“My material transcends no matter the make-up of the audience,” says Lane. “Yeah, I might change a bit of the material if the audience is mostly gay. Maybe I can spend five full minutes on Liza Minnelli and people will care. But straight audiences are very open to queer stories. Ten years ago things were different. It’s refreshing to go out and have this conversation. I’m in the trenches. I’m doing the work. I’m seeing things change.”
His vantage point in comedy continues to new heights with appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and more recently on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup. While the pandemic had him sidelined for over a year, venues are opening back up and Lane is hitting the road starting a tour of North America here in Provincetown at the Pilgrim House this weekend. Lane made his Provincetown debut in 2019 for a one-night-only gig while in port as a performer on a VACAYA cruise that was in town overnight. He came back later for a vacation and fell in love with the place. He’d been to Fire Island and didn’t care for it, especially, he says with a laugh, because he once bombed there…hard. But Provincetown felt much more laid back with more to offer and a friendlier vibe. He’s working a lot now, largely straight through to the New Year. But he’ll make sure to come back both as a comic to work and as a visitor to relax.
Whether it’s his hatred for Starbucks coffee, and the people who like it, wishing white women wouldn’t drink on Tuesdays, the coworker who can’t get over he’s gay, how everyone looks gay in Italy, or that being called an anti-gay slur from a moving car can be funny, Lane’s humor is in that sweet spot, combining universal experiences through a gay prism. Comedy heals, and there has perhaps been no time like the present when we’ve all needed to laugh. These are also perilous times for comedians. A joke that bombed five years ago or an edgy attempt at humor that offends a blogger can haunt a comic, even the most seasoned. It’s as if the public has forgotten they’re jokes. But Lane takes it all in stride.
“Context, nuance, subtlety seem to be forgotten,” says Lane. “Now people are digesting 20-second clips of comedy online. They miss the show. They miss the context. They aren’t building empathy for the comic if you see it that way. When you’re there it humanizes [the comic], you build a relationship so when you go into darker territory the audience will go with you because they feel comfortable with you. It’s unfair to comedians to take a quick clip and judge their work by that. It’s the comic’s job to be ahead of the culture, to grow and learn. There are jokes I’ve told in the past that I wouldn’t tell now. The times have changed and so have I. There are no subjects off limits in comedy, but that being said you have to pay attention to the culture.”
Matteo Lane performs at Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown, Saturday, August 7, 9 p.m., Sunday, August 8, 7:30 and 9 p.m., and Monday August 9, 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($32) are available at the box office and online at pilgrimhouseptown.com. For more information call 508.487.6424.