By Jeff Walsh
Bob Smith seems ordinary.
His politics are poignant, but not scathing. His comedy routine is hilarious, but not over the top. And in his new book, Openly Bob, he writes about being in a committed relationship and bird watching -- nothing that will give Pat Robertson any fuel for the fire.
It's only after you sit back and look at the sum total of his "boy next door" looks, stand-up and his book that you realize -- Smith has pulled off a coup. He has presented a warts-and-all look at his life as a gay man, to the point that you almost feel like you know him better after reading the book.
Of all the flamboyant queer actors and musicians, venomous gay activists and the "we're just like you" assimilationists, Smith has been the stealth fag. As part of Funny Gay Males, he co-authored the Disney-published book "Growing Up Gay." He was the first openly gay stand-up comic to appear on The Tonight Show. He's writing a gay sketch comedy show for Showtime. And his new semi-autobiographical book rounds out the picture, providing more laugh out loud moments than any book I've read in recent history.
When you look at all he's done, Smith is actually extraordinary. And Openly Bob shows that Smith finds humor in everything.
"It's comic essays on everything from going home to my father's funeral with my boyfriend -- of course, I would find comedy in that, to couples counseling, living in Provincetown with gay performers for the summer, being in a hurricane in a gay resort -- it was like Twister meets The Birdcage," he said. "There's stuff on all the gay parts I've auditioned for sitcoms, it's been horrible. There's a thing on Newt Gingrich's comparing being gay to being alcoholic."
But people familiar with Smith's stand-up act aren't going to find the same rehashed jokes.
"It isn't my act put into a book. It's my point of view, so it's definitely from a comic's point of view, but I didn't want it to be just jokes in a book," he said. "I wanted stories and stuff you could read. I like comic essays and I always have."
Smith is the latest comic author to join the pack, which is already littered with musings from Drew Carey, Paul Reiser and the like. With all the stand-ups writing books, it begs the question: Whatever happened to comedy albums?
"People don't listen to comedy albums anymore. I did when I was growing up. I loved Woody Allen and Lily Tomlin," he said. "But now there seems to be a mini-boom of comic authors."
Smith began doing stand-up right out of high school. At first, he didn't talk about being gay or pretending to have a girlfriend.
"I knew I was gay, but I hadn't dated anyone," he said. "When I moved to New York, I talked about being gay. I was writing jokes about it and stuff."
His first "gay joke" is still a joke he tells in his act about coming out to his parents:
"I was going to tell my parents I was gay. I made my carefully-worded announcement at Thanksgiving. I said, 'Mom, would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual?' She passed it to my father and a terrible scene followed."
His own coming out didn't happen that way, but there are some similarities.
"It is based in reality. No, my mother did not accuse my father of being gay, but I came out to my mother around Christmas, so that's why the holiday theme was in my mind," he said. "In a stand-up act, everything is based on truth, but you take it one step further and add an element of fantasy, exaggerate."
Of course, his actual coming out happened because he was doing gay material in his stand-up act. He returned home to visit his parents and had some of his joke with him, which he keeps on three-by-five cards.
"My mother, not even being nosy, looked at them and said, 'These jokes are about being gay. Are you gay?' She totally surprised me, and of course, I said yes. And she said, 'how long have you known you were gay?' And I told her, 'since junior high school.' She said, 'that must have been hard. Our family has gone through so much. But look at the Moorlands across the street with those retarded grandchildren, and I started laughing and said, 'Oh Mom, thanks for that comparison. I love that analogy," he said.
And without being confrontational, Smith still manages to get political messages across in his act and book. For example:
"The Catholic Church says it's OK to be homosexual as long as you don't practice homosexuality. And I think it's OK to be Catholic as long as you don't practice Catholicism."
"So, I think I'm succinct and get my points across," he said. "I talk about homophobia. There's a new joke I've been telling a lot:
I think we could end homophobia right away, because we all know Newt Gingrich has a lesbian sister, Phyllis Schlafly has a gay son and Republican Congressman Sonny Bono has a lesbian daughter and the former head of the Republican Party also has a lesbian daughter. So, here's my plan to end homophobia. We start a rumor that being a right-wing conservative causes homosexuality.' So, I do think I'm political, but I think it's a waste of time to be political if you're not funny. Your job is still to tell jokes. But I do joke about my life a lot.
"Tonight, I'm going to try out a new line. I'm going to ask 'Are there any gay Republicans here? Oh, come out of your walk-in closet...' and then I'm going to say, 'You know what the definition of a gay Republican is? White squares wearing pink triangles.'" Smith told the joke, as planned, at the San Francisco gay pride parade and the crowd cheered wildly.
Smith is now getting ready to hit the road and do a book tour to support Openly Bob.
"I honestly think the book is the best thing I've done other than my stand-up. It really allowed me to develop a lot of ideas," he said. "In stand-up, there is the convention that you really have to keep an audience controlled and be relentless. In a book, you can elaborate. Not to the point that you bore the reader, but you can get away with more."
And one major part of Smith's life, act and book is his husband, Tom.
"We've been together eight years. He's part of the act and a big part of the book. There's a lot of stuff about being in a relationship," he said. "He's been great about it, and I've surely pushed it beyond the limits sometimes. He's an actor, and he just did an independent film called 'Alfred Hitchcock's Gun.'"
When asked if Tom is openly gay, Smith looked surprised.
"I don't know if he is or not. I have no idea, I never really think of that. I don't know," he said.
But, nevertheless, Tom may also feature prominently in an upcoming play Smith wants to write about a gay couple.
"I have a million things I want to do. I want to write a spec script this summer, and I'm hoping that TV show would take off -- that would be great," he said.
And Smith's coup continues...