Netflix’s ‘Outstanding’ documentary reveals queer comedy icons’ impact on LGBTQ+ rights

Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution. (L to R) Trixie Mattel, Scott Thompson and Margaret Cho from Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution. Credit: Courtesy of Netflix/© 2024 Netflix, Inc.

A Landmark in LGBTQ+ Entertainment

To say that the world of stand-up comedy has a long history of homophobia would be putting it mildly. Netflix’s new documentary “Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution” takes viewers on a journey through this complex history, highlighting both progress and ongoing challenges.

From Taboo to Triumph

Any queer person who has lived long enough to remember when Sandra Bernhard openly flirted with Madonna on “Late Night With David Letterman” — a deliciously transgressive pop culture moment remembered fondly in “Outstanding” — can also certainly recall the horrific anti-queer bigotry spouted by comics during the same era, just to get a laugh.

Filmmaker Page Hurwitz captures these moments, offering younger viewers a stark look at the past and a celebration of queer progress in entertainment. The film, shot over two years ago at “Stand Out,” a landmark performance at LA’s Greek Theatre, is now streaming on Netflix.

A Star-Studded Celebration

“Outstanding” features an impressive lineup of LGBTQ+ comedy icons, including Lily Tomlin, Sandra Bernhard, Wanda Sykes, Eddie Izzard, Rosie O’Donnell, Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster, Todd Glass, Hannah Gadsby, Scott Thompson, Judy Gold, Bob The Drag Queen, and Joel Kim Booster. These performers have been instrumental in forging a new comedy landscape where queer comics can authentically share their experiences.

While the film celebrates progress, it also acknowledges ongoing challenges, calling out figures like Dave Chappelle for perpetuating harmful attitudes. However, the focus remains on the empowerment of queer voices in comedy.

More Than Just Laughs: A Cultural Shift

“Outstanding” is not merely a record of performances. It’s a sweeping look at the history of queer repression in American entertainment culture and the impact of LGBTQ+ comedians in changing societal attitudes. The documentary gives members of the queer community a chance to feel seen and represented.

Hurwitz builds her chronicle by letting the comics tell their own stories. Extensive interviews feature stars, commentators, writers, and scholars recalling their experiences growing up queer and seeing how LGBTQ+ people were portrayed in mainstream culture. These narratives are supplemented with clips from television and film, news footage, and performance excerpts that provide context for the rise of queer-centric comedy.

From Coded Characters to Out and Proud

The film traces the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in comedy:

Pre-Stonewall era: Coded characters like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Rip Taylor

1970s: Comedians like Lily Tomlin, Robin Tyler, and Pat Harrison pushing boundaries

AIDS era: Activist comedians like Sandra Bernhard, Scott Thompson, and Margaret Cho using humor to combat backlash

Modern day: A diverse generation including Eddie Izzard, Wanda Sykes, Hannah Gadsby, Bob the Drag Queen, and Joel Kim Booster

Spotlight on Unsung Heroes

“Outstanding” elevates lesser-known trailblazers, particularly Robin Tyler. After becoming the first queer comic to come out publicly on national television in 1978, Tyler faced career setbacks but became a pivotal figure in LGBTQ+ rights activism.

Tyler organized and produced the first three national marches on Washington for LGBTQ+ rights, including the 1987 “mock wedding” of hundreds of queer couples — the largest act of civil disobedience by queer protesters in U.S. history. Her legacy as a queer activist warrior was firmly cemented when, alongside partner Diane Olsen, she filed the first lawsuit against California for the right to be married, leading to a seven-year legal battle that helped pave the way for nationwide marriage equality.

The Power of Visibility

Speaking to the Los Angeles Blade, Tyler reflected on her journey: “The best thing that happened to us is that we didn’t get picked up, because then we could go and be free. It takes your life away, having to live a lie. We gained our freedom and lost nothing.”

This sentiment encapsulates the documentary’s central message: without being visible, we are powerless — which is why the forces against us are so fixated on erasing us from view.

A Celebration of Community and Progress

“Outstanding” not only makes us laugh but also showcases the camaraderie among these comedic revolutionaries. United by their refusal to stay “inside the lines” drawn by a bullying profession or an intolerant culture, these performers have achieved a shared victory that extends beyond individual success to the entire queer community.

The palpable sense of camaraderie among these comedic revolutionaries — for, true to its title, Hurwitz’s documentary makes it clear that they were and are exactly that — helps to underscore the feeling that their biggest victory is a shared one, which eclipses their individual success and extends to the entire queer community.

Why “Outstanding” Matters

This Netflix documentary is more than just entertainment; it’s a vital piece of LGBTQ+ history. By illuminating the inside forces of queer comedy across the years, it offers both a celebration of progress and a reminder of the ongoing fight for equality.

A Must-Watch for Pride and Beyond

“Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution” is essential viewing for Pride Month and anyone interested in the intersection of comedy, LGBTQ+ rights, and cultural change.

It’s a testament to the power of laughter in driving social progress and a victory lap for the entire queer community. It feels like our victory lap, too.

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