‘Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution’ Review: Netflix Doc Is an Epic Chronicle of Trailblazing Queer Stand-Up

Tribeca 2024: An ambitious, informative film unites Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard, Robin Tyler and many more

Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution
Rosie O'Donnell in "Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution" (Photo Credit: Netflix)

The history of entertainment is a lot like the history of almost everything else, in that it’s been marred by generations of bigotry and oppression. Page Hurwitz’s new documentary “Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution” celebrates over 100 years of queer humor, highlighting important icons and movements, and painfully illustrating how every time social progress is made for the LGBTQIA+ community there’s a horrifying conservative backlash that sets the movement back decades.

Page Hurwitz has assembled a small army of queer comedians for the film, using the backdrop of the “Stand Out: An LGBTQ+ Celebration” event from 2022. That special, co-directed by Hurwitz, united trailblazing comics like Sandra Bernhard, Lily Tomlin, Margaret Cho, Suzy Eddie Izzard, Wanda Sykes, Judy Gold, Scott Thompson and Marsha Warfield along with relative newcomers like Trixie Mattel, Mae Martin, Patti Harrison and Fortune Feimster. To name a few. And you can tell that was a wonderful event because every couple of minutes, “Outstanding” cuts to backstage footage of all these comics hugging each other.

That sense of camaraderie has been forged by a shared history. “Outstanding” takes us back 100 years, when queer acceptance was on the rise before getting knocked back down by conservative movements across the globe. Queerness didn’t vanish from the media, of course, it just got mutated. Humorists like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Rip Taylor were ubiquitous in the mid-20th century and were openly gay in every aspect of their lives and career except they weren’t allowed to actually talk about it.

Like many of the earliest queer comedians, Lynde and Reilly and Taylor are sadly no longer with us and cannot contribute to this kind of documentary, but Robin Tyler sure is, and she’s dynamite. The comedian and activist contributes many of the documentary’s most searing quotes — “Closets are vertical coffins, all they do is suffocate you to death” — and reflects on coming out publicly on television in 1978, and the backlash that damaged her career immediately afterwards.

The fear of being publicly outed and destroying your career still lingers in the traumatic memories of many of the older comedians in “Outstanding.” Todd Glass recalls nearly dying from a heart attack and crying out to Sarah Silverman to “call my girlfriend,” because even when he thought he was dying he was afraid someone would know he had a boyfriend.

The Netflix documentary does an effective of job of explaining, in case anyone doesn’t get it, just how risky it is for queer people in entertainment. Jobs lost, shows canceled, public outcry, all of that was bad enough, but the sound of a White House press conference announcing the AIDS epidemic that immediately shifts to gay panic jokes and laughter is like a dagger in the heart of this whole country. It’s the sound of evil and there’s nothing funny about it.

“Outstanding” also isn’t afraid to point fingers at other comedians, correctly pointing out how many successful comics made homophobia a major cornerstone of their humor. Eddie Murphy, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay all get singled out in this film, but there are lots of other stand-up comics who should probably send Page Hurwitz an expensive edible arrangement because that segment of “Outstanding” could have been a whole movie unto itself and it would have left scorched earth in its wake.

It’s worth noting that “Outstanding” isn’t afraid to point fingers at queer activism either, highlighting Richard Pryor’s set at the “The Star-Spangled Night for Rights” in 1977, when he openly discussed his own queerness before turning the tables on the almost exclusively white audience for ignoring the rights of Black people for decades. And all anyone can say to that is, well, good point. Give ‘em hell, Richard.

It’s unfortunate that “Outstanding” doesn’t have a better note to end its history lesson on than where we are now: the latest in a long line of oppressive social regressions. David Chappelle and Ricky Gervais and Bill Maher aren’t just criticized for telling transphobic jokes, they’re criticized for not telling jokes at all, frequently indulging in bigoted rants that don’t always meet the minimum technical criteria to qualify as humor.

“Humor,” Robin Tyler reminds us, “is the razor sharp edge of the truth. There’s no such thing as ‘Just kidding.’ So if anybody does homophobic jokes, they mean it.”

It’s worth noting, of course, as we point that camera inward, that “Outstanding” isn’t entirely unworthy of criticism itself. As younger comedians talk about how important it was to finally see different queer lives represented in the stand-up comedy medium, it becomes painfully evident that some queer people — like asexuals — aren’t represented in “Outstanding” in any form. And then there’s one particularly telling clip of a comedy set mocking gay panic by normalizing panic over sex work. We have a long way to go.

For better and, unfortunately, sometimes for worse, “Outstanding” shines a very bright light on the heroic, tragic, cyclical and very difficult world of queer comedy. It’s an impressive and nearly-comprehensive overview that will probably have something to teach almost everyone in the audience, regardless of how familiar they already are with the topic. It stands out, it stands up and it’s almost outstanding.

“Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution” premieres on Netflix on June 18.

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