Newsmakers : Andy Nulman

In Thru the Out Door with Andy Nulman

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Andy Nulman

The world’s first-ever LGBTQ sketch-comedy television show was called In Thru The Out Door, and was filmed in Montreal 20 years ago, from November 17 to 19, 1997. The show was created and produced by Just For Laughs co-founder Andy Nulman.

Andy Nulman“I actually first pitched the show to CBC in 1993, got them to commit on the condition I could find the rest of the money elsewhere, which I obtained from Showtime in 1995,” Nulman says. “It wasn’t easy. After finally getting the networks on board, (my) being straight initially cast a shadow on my cred with the gay and lesbian community. But the groundbreaking nature of the project acted as a “Can we really do this?” rallying connector. So two years of casting, writing and headaches finally led to shooting in a Montreal studio.”
 
The show’s cast of young queer comics was superb: Elvira Kurt, Jonathan Wilson, Robin Greenspan, Jaffee Cohen, Maggie Cassella, Bob Smith, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Craig Francis and Lea DeLaria.
 
The wide-ranging skits ranged from fluffy to dark, the theme song was written and performed by Canadian pop legend Carole Pope, and the show featured the first-ever male-male kiss and one of the first female-female kisses on North American television. 
 
“To say the show was ahead of its time is an understatement,” Nulman says today. “Following In Thru’s premiere screening, both CBC and Showtime were inundated with a tsunami of complaints; everyone, but EVERYONE, was simply aghast. The show touched such a raw nerve that both networks decided to retire it after its one and only airing, cancelling plans not just for In Thru’s continuation as a series, but for ever being seen on their airwaves again.”
 
I recently sat down with Andy to look back on his landmark TV show to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
 
Ellen DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time in April 1997. She got a lot of glory when the out comics cast in your show helped lay the groundwork for Ellen. What are your thoughts about how Ellen kind of stole everybody’s thunder?
 
For 10 minutes it was disheartening, it was “Oh God!” We wanted to be the first, and now that was done. Then we thought this was a good thing because it was the first domino knocked over. We thought this could work in our favour.
 
Why were you so invested in an LGBTQ sketch-comedy show? I mean, why not an all-Black or all-Jewish sketch-comedy TV show?
 
The seed for In Thru The Out Door was Queer Comics at Just For Laughs. JFL also did Uptown Comics and The Bar Mitzvah Show, which primarily drew African-American and Jewish audiences. But everybody came to see the Queer Comics shows. You didn’t have to be a part of (the community) to be in on the joke, like in other theme-humour shows. That’s one of the reasons I got into In Thru The Out Door. The timing was right. 
 
How did the subsequent mainstream backlash to Ellen affect In Thru the Out Door?
 
It’s different than working within the safe framework of a comedy festival. When you say, “Let’s put it out there on a national broadcast network in Canada, and on one of the two major pay cable networks in the States,” that’s when suddenly it was out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, and I think people flipped out.  
 
Also, the backlash we got – the outrage – was not just from straight audiences. Gay audiences flipped out too. They were like, “How dare you portray us like that!” But I never portrayed them in any way – that was the way our gay and lesbian writers and cast chose to express their humour.
 
Then when the show aired, everybody asked themselves, “What have we done?” I think some people thought that by doing this (show) they may have hurt their careers.
 
Kids in the Hall aired on CBC from 1989 to 1995. Why do you think the CBC embraced Kids in the Hall and rejected In Thru The Out Door?
 
I can’t speak for the CBC, but there is a big difference between the Kids aesthetic and in-your-face, between nuance and a sledgehammer. Our show was a big honking sledgehammer!
 
I love that Montrealer Craig Francis was cast in your show. 
 
Craig was cast for one reason – he is incredibly talented. I think his talent really came out in the show, as a writer and a performer. He was killer in the sketches! He was a stand-out who didn’t take a back seat to anyone in the show. He almost never made it onto the show because of his lunatic agent who made such insane demands that at one point I was going to say, “Forget it! Life’s too short, you are killing your client’s chance to be in something that is groundbreaking.”
 
Your thoughts on Bob Smith who famously was the first out gay comic to appear on The Tonight Show.
 
I feel horrible about the turn of events that life has dealt him (today Smith has ALS). On the show Bob was the voice of reason because when you get these big personalities in the room, there is going to be dissension and competition. Bob was the voice of reason, he was almost like a pastor once that show got rolling. 
 
Your thoughts on Lea DeLaria?
 
Lea was a hurricane up until getting onto the set, and was a pussycat after. If you look at the credits, she was credited as a special guest star which ruffled a few feathers, particularly Suzanne Westenhoefer. To work with Lea was a pleasure. She is larger than life, a boisterous person and when you see her performances, it shows. 
 
How about Maggie Cassella?
 
Maggie was truly my big sister, my best friend on the show.  Very boisterous. My image of Maggie is her eyes bugging out, her hair shaking, her big smile. This woman was certainly not afraid – like Lucille ball – to plain herself down and do whatever it took to play a role and be funny. She had no vanity. She said, “Let’s just go for the funny!”
 
How did you get Carole Pope to do the soundtrack?
 
I had a soundtrack done by a friend of mine who was a Juno writer and it was probably the gayest song you ever heard – it had angel harps - and the cast listened to it and thought I was out of my mind. Elvira told me, “Have you heard of Carole Pope?” I said, “Are you kidding? I love Rough Trade!” So Elvira, who knew Carole, said, “Would you like Carole to do the theme song?” And that’s how it happened. It’s a great song, even to this day. And for me, a rock and roll nerd, to have Carole Pope on-set, that was amazing!
 
What did LGBTQ activist and events producer Puelo Deir do on this show?
 
The show was four years in the making, I pitched it to the CBC four years before it aired. It was a long road to filming. Puelo was ¬– I hate to use this word – an unpaid consultant. But what he did was bring a big dose of cred to the set. Puelo being there was a like a stamp of approval from the community: “In Thru The Out Door is cool” versus “We’re being mocked and taken advantage of.” Stand-up comic Martha Chaves – who was the warm-up act – also gave us cred.
 
Twenty years later, despite Will & Grace and LGBTQ cable networks, mainstream television seems no closer to airing a show like In Thru the Out Door. Why do think that is?
 
Look at Sean Hayes’ character on Will & Grace: it’s out there, but it’s nicely packaged and surrounded. It’s a piece of the puzzle, it’s not the puzzle. Eventually that will change. I mean, now we got LGBTQ television networks! Still, I thought the time was right 20 years ago, so I think the time is right now. What we need are open minds.
 
When the end credits roll, it says “Straightly produced by” Andy Nulman …
 
All the credits were silly credits. It was a merciless lampoon of me trying to integrate. 
 
You are fit, you’re a sharp dresser, you know how to accessorize, you met Divine at the Limelight in Montreal. You are an honorary gay, Andy Nulman.
 
I’ll take that, and I’ll take that with a sash, thank you!  You know, when we were shooting the show, Robin Greenspan went up to my wife Lynn and said, “You must be a very understanding woman, having a gay husband.” Lynn laughed because everyone thought I was gay. Lea thought that too, she wrote on (my copy of) the script, “I was certain you were a big fag.” To this day, everyone says, “This guy must be gay!” 
 
How proud are you of In Thru The Out Door? 
 
I really thought it was the beginning of us all gay and straight coming together. I thought it was a big “Kumbaya!” moment and would be looked back on as a turning point in society. It was an almost delusionary vision. So when the show wasn’t picked up by CBC and Showtime, it was devastating. But in retrospect, when I look back on the quality of the writing and performances, the show still resonates to this day. Was this show a failure? Today I think it was a huge success because who else had the guts to do this? I’m so proud of this show that every once in a while I‘ll take it out and tell myself, “I can’t believe this actually got done.” I am rainbow proud of this one.  
 
To watch the pilot episode of In Thru The Out Door on YouTube, visit https://youtu.be/J30VKLizl4c.