‘Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution’ Rises Above Netflix’s Hypocrisy To Deliver Delightful Doc About Queer Comics

Well, revoke my they/he lesbian card because I was today years old when I learned that Lily Tomlin was both a comedian and a lesbian. I know, lock me up and throw away the key at Good Judy.

But, in my defense, the films I saw her featured in had her playing straight women — mainly 9 to 5. How was I to know her sexuality? The entertainment industry and America’s rampant homophobia kept her and many other queer performers closeted throughout the 20th century. That is one of many highlighted discussions within Page Hurwitz’s Netflix feature documentary, Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution, which chronicles LGBTQ comedy pioneers and the tribulations they faced to pave the way for the fresh faces dominating the stage today.

On May 7, 2022, at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre, Hurwitz produced the Netflix Is A Joke Fest event “Stand Out: An LGBTQ Celebration” show featuring 22 LGBTQ+ performers ranging from rookies, vets, and legends including Fortune Feimster, Margaret Cho, Billy Eichner, Joel Kim Booster, Rosie O’Donnell, Lily Tomlin, Mae Martin, Tig Notaro, Wanda Sykes, and Eddie Izzard. Her mission in this assembly was to have them narrate the LGBTQ comic history, describing the relations between making their name in the industry and the risks they took to live authentically.

This event is threaded with talking head interviews and archival material, tightly crafting a colorful textbook of rich gay history from the lens of standup. Many of its discussions about who were the first people to ever perform out and proud are truly fascinating.

For most of my life, I thought Ellen DeGeneres coming out in her sitcom made her the first out lesbian comic on television. While what she did was pivotal to television history — the documentary includes a segment dedicated to her landmark moment — she wasn’t the first.

One prominent pioneer, for example, is former comedian-turned-activist Robin Tyler, who was the first out lesbian who appear on national television in 1978. She and her comedy partner Pat Harrison had a rising career as a duo, Harrison and Tyler. Unfortunately, after making a joke aimed at homophobic evangelist Anita Bryant, Tyler lost the network contract she had with ABC. In retaliation, she became a gay rights activist.

Lily Tomlin’s segment, in particular, surprised me. She intimately recalls her experience with being a gay performer during the 70s and having to live in the closet amid a booming career. Meanwhile, the Californian queer community, where she often performed comedy, did know. It’s like the world didn’t need to know, only the real ones did. Time Magazine offered her to come out and be on their cover of an LGBTQ-related issue in 1975, but she turned it down.

The most shocking moment for me was footage of Tomlin headlining a Gay Rights benefit show called “The Star-Spangled Night For Rights” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977 in response to Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade. During the show, she brings out none other than Richard Pryor, one of the great Black stand-up comedy legends. In his set, he admits to giving blowjobs, leaving me like, “HUH?! Richard Pryor was a bisexual.” Revoke my Black ca—. Anywho! His impatience was wearing thin cause he didn’t see any Black people in the audience, specifically any Black queers, a sentiment I personally still feel as an operating queer comedian in the Brooklyn stand-up scene today.

Hurwitz aligns many talking points within gay rights activism and its relation to comedy over the years. She gives the trailblazers the flowers they deserve while letting them shed light on the dark past they had to survive. She also brings up a prominent discussion about transphobia and its current relevance, especially in the wake of David Chappelle’s constant ongoing ant-trans attack in countless comedy specials. Wait. uhhh. What service is that on again? Oh right.

Despite my appreciation for Outstanding and gratitude for the opportunity to become more informed about LGBTQ comedy history, there’s a wavering insincerity because that big red N. After all, Netflix produced the very same specials that allow Chapelle to spew his TERF agenda while producing this LGBTQ doc and the event it captures. It doesn’t sit right with me that Netflix would promote someone with a wide influence making hateful, hurtful comments about trans people — and being wildly unfunny while doing so — and then say, “Okay, my little gay-bies, here’s a documentary, about LGBTQ comedian history on pride month. Buy a subscription to watch it. Don’t mind the Chappelle listing right on the same queue. Today, it’s about you!”

Netflix has the power to side with queer people instead of comics that attack us. Instead they play both sides. Any progressive strides they make to better the community is tainted with hypocrisy. There’s nothing I dislike more than being a morally indecisive person, and if this were on any other platform, I would highly recommend it with the utmost enthusiasm.

All in all, Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution is a funny, educational doc essential to any novice queer comic wanting to learn about the roots within their scene. Everything about its structure and discussions are hefty, and told by humorous storytellers. It’s just that the platform it’s on is far from the safest space to tell this history. The criticism is coming from inside the house.

Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution is now available to stream.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Rendy Jones

Rendy Jones (they/he) is a film and television journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are the world's first gwen-z film journalist and owner of self-published independent outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics' Choice Association, GALECA, and a screenwriter. They have been seen in Vanity Fair, Them, RogerEbert.com, Rolling Stone, and Paste.

Rendy has written 12 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. Yeah my god, when they really got into Chappelle’s transphobia at the end it got so weird. It’s literally on the same page on netflix. The level of hypocrisy of capitalism never ceases to amaze me (for the worst). I’m sad because a lot of these comedians stay in this double standard when they get paid by netflix and I really think they should take after the brave activists mentioned in the doc and take their (good) shit elsewhere..

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!