Bubbly and frank, Dana Goldberg makes the counter guy laugh as she orders her coffee. She's got so much energy this weekday morning, it's hard to believe she needs any wake-up juice. I stir my own cup and hope I'll be able to keep up with her speedy, nimble conversation style and worry that she's going to be shooting for flashy and funny the whole time.
Happily, this is not the case. Easy to relate to and confident, Goldberg puts me at ease, a skill I can only imagine translates to the stage when she's performing what can sometimes be contentious material to unlikely crowds. (Lesbian humor in a biker bar? Well, as long as everyone's laughing ...)
Her kindergarten teacher told her mom that Goldberg was the funniest 5-year-old she knew. If someone asked tot Goldberg what she wanted to be when she grew up, she's sure she would have answered "comedian." She performed and killed at a talent show in high school, but then faced a decade of stage fright. "I lost this dream somewhere between 18 and 29," she says. "I was in college and I was trying to figure out who I was and what made me tick. I changed my major six times, probably."
After years of teaching high school, she decided to quit and give herself three years to make something happen in comedy. At the appointed deadline, she had a couple of articles in the national magazine Curve and a sweet gig performing on Olivia Cruises and Resorts. These days, she's not even on the club circuit. She's usually flown out to do a show in front of 600 people, and then she comes home, supplementing her income with bartending in Albuquerque.
Like most people, she would rather do just about anything than sit in a four-hour lecture about social issues. Comedy is a great way to get people thinking important thoughts without being bored stiff, she says. "If you can find that avenue where people can let go for awhile, and in the back of their mind, they're like, 'Oh, and we're supporting a really great charity,' that's what our goal is." She's bringing national performers to our city for the first ever Southwest FunnyFest, the proceeds of which will benefit the New Mexico AIDS Foundation.
Stand-up comedy looks like an intense kind of performance, almost lonely. It's just you up there.
I could see my heart beat in my chest the first time I went on stage—through my shirt. It was amazing. I still get nervous. I think that’s good. I think if there comes a point in my life when I’m like, "yeah, whatever," I shouldn’t be doing it anymore.
It’s scary, getting up there. It’s one of those careers that has immediate feedback. You tell a joke, and you either get laughter or you don’t get laughter, and that’s your feedback. I don’t know if it’s lonely, because there’s like 500 people staring at me.
Tell me about your comedic persona.
I didn’t want to be a lesbian comic. I wanted to be a comic that happens to be a lesbian, but the gay-lesbian community is incredibly supportive, and if that is an avenue that I can use to get my name out there, of course I’m going to take advantage of it. They’re wonderful.
But I’ve had some of my best shows in a biker bar out in California, with a bunch of long-bearded, straight couples riding Harleys, but it’s my out material, and they love it. I think if you’re funny, they don’t care.
What is the difference between being a lesbian comic and a comic who happens to be a lesbian?
Not all of my material focuses around my sexual orientation. I was raised by a Jewish mom; I mean, if that doesn’t give you comedy, nothing’s going to. That is a huge part of it.
We live in a crazy place right now with what’s going on, whether it’s politically, or environmentally. People struggle with it, or they’re afraid of it, or they’re afraid to talk about it. Humor breaks those barriers. It lets people relax for 15 minutes, an hour, two hours, and they don’t have to think about all that bullshit.
To answer your question in a round-about way, I perform in straight clubs, in straight competitions, whether it’s "Last Comic Standing," or the Wendy’s comedy challenge in Vegas. They’re all mainstream competitions and festivals, and I can fit in there just as well as I would anywhere else. But being gay is part of who I am, and it’s a proud part of who I am, and it’s a really funny part of who I am, so I wouldn’t leave that out.
How do you take something that’s serious and turn it funny?
Politically we’re in a mess right now, and I don’t know if we’re going to get out anytime soon. It's going to take years and years and years to clean this up. The best thing president Bush has done is that he has woken people up. At least they care one way or another now instead of being silent.
The president just gives you loads of material anyway, any time he opens his mouth and speaks. He’s from this country and I don’t know what he speaks, but it’s not English.
I think the gay/lesbian issue still freaks some people out, and for those people who are like, "Well, I don’t know any gay people," if they can meet someone that makes them feel comfortable, makes them laugh, it's human.
How do you interact with stereotypes of being Jewish, or being lesbian?
My mother does fit some of the stereotypes, so I definitely will go there. We'll go to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. We’re fine while we are there, but we will go to a movie three hours later and she’ll pull out like four hard-boiled eggs, a half a chicken and a couple of pieces of corn bread. I’ll be like, "Where did you get that?!? It’s all-you-can-eat there." She’s probably one of my No. 1 supports. She really is. She’s wonderful.
Those stereotypes are either about my family or my community—but they’re the communities I belong to. I won't do comedy about communities I’m not a part of, or that I don’t necessarily understand. How's that my place?
You know that big outbreak that happened with Kramer (Michael Richards) when he freaked out and he started calling names? That’s not the kind of comic I will ever be. I don’t use those kinds of words in my act. I don’t use those kinds of stereotypes in my act. I won’t attack an audience unless I am attacked first. I will never do it. I think it’s cheap.
Have you ever had to fight back?
A couple of times, but they lasted maybe 30 seconds. Someone got out of line in the audience, and I’ve been a bartender for 10 years, so it pretty much comes right off of the top of my tongue. It will come out, and sometimes I’m like, "Oops. I probably shouldn’t have said that."
Do you try your material out while you're bartending?
Sometimes I do, but other times I’ll get in a mood and someone will be like, "Tell me a joke," and I’m like, "I’m not going to tell you a joke, and if you come to my comedy show, I’m not going to serve you a beer."
Does your family ever get mad?
I have this joke about the fact that the gay/lesbian issue is all over the place, and I went to the store the other day to buy homogenized milk, and I got my receipt and it says, "Homomilk." And I say, "Wouldn’t that make sense if I were the milk because I’m gay, my older brother’s gay, and my straight sister’s lactose intolerant?" And the tag on that is, "Trust me, it’s the only thing she won’t swallow." So if I'm in a club, it’s one of those things that my sister goes "ugh!" It’s also true, but ... no (laughs). She’s funny.
I think they realize this is what I do. They support me. If something comes out, it comes out. My mom’s funny though, because of all the jokes about my mom, the only time she got upset was when I told her age on stage. She was like, "Did you have to tell everyone that I was 61?” It was a joke about rectal-thermometers when we were kids, and you have a problem that I said you were 61?
My wife now every time I write something, she’ll be like, "OK, are you going to say that on stage?" Or she’ll do something funny, and she’s like, "You can’t use that as material.” I’m like, "Oh yes I can!"
Do you ever ask her if she thought stuff was funny?
Yes. She is my eyes and ears. I’ll come off stage, and she’ll say, "That’s the fourth time you told that joke. It doesn’t work. Take it out." And I’ll be like, "I know! Can you be a little nicer just for a second?" (laughs) But she’s also the first person when I come off the stage and I’ve rocked the theater who's like, "Oh my God, baby, you did so good."