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From waitress to cultural commentator, THEA VIDALE has emerged unscathed from a life of wife-battering, the Ku Klux Klan and second-rate soap operas. Philip Parr samples the sharp end of the US stand-up’s knife-edge wit.
merican agents hunger for their artistes to be pigeonholed. So for Thea Vidale take ‘a bit of Richard Pryor; borrow a cup of Roseanne Barr’s housewife woes; a pinch of Joan Rivers’s sassiness; and throw in a twinge of Andrew Dice Clay’s outrageousness.’ It’s about time that Vidale changed her agent, for comparison with all of the above does her no service at all. How many of them, for instance, could launch into a lucid, yet vitriolic, attack on Neighbours by the mere mention of soap operas?
‘You’ve got the sorriest soap operas I’ve ever seen,’ she screams. ‘Neighbours should be hit in the head. They don’t handle sex, they don’t handle nothing. In American soap operas we have people killing folk, we have lots of sex — I need sex and garbage in my life. In Neighbours they don’t do nothing — the highlight of the show is when they go and fix the car. That soap opera is so ridiculous, I just want to go hit somebody. You need me to hurt you don’t you? You guys just have no life.’
Too many American comedians (Bill Hicks springs to mind), for all their talent on stage, seem to have no views on anything if it isn’t included in their act. Vidale is the complete opposite, being willing and able to follow the conversation wherever it leads, and coming up with funny lines in the process. This is probably due to the fact that her formative years were spent a little differently to most of the blue collar or middle-class comedians which make up the bulk of the American market.
Having been beaten relentlessly by her husband (‘a mongrel of a human being’) for the best part of eight years, Vidale left home and found work in a bar/restaurant. Nothing unusual there, aside from the fact that the bar was three blocks away from Ku Klux Klan headquarters in Houston, and many of the Klansmen had been drinking there for years. ‘The first couple of months they were real uptight,’ says Vidale. ‘I just put my foot down and said, “listen up — you can’t call me anything I’ve not been called before. I’ve heard it all — nigger, jigger boo, jungle
bunny, darkie. I’ve heard it all. I’ve been beaten up by my husband, all you can do is take my life and I don’t think it’s worth that for a goddam bourbon.” Eventually, they came to love me. One time a guy came in and called me a nigger— I’ve never seen so many white people mad in my life. They threw him out and said, “You don’t talk like that round here”.’ But it wasn’t only her toughness which melted the hearts of the fascists, she also kept them entertained with a constant stream of wisecracks. Persuaded by a friend to get up on stage at a cabaret club, she ‘just talked about what went on at the bar, just
‘I think men should be seen and not heard, much like children and dogs’
talked to my friends like I did every day. The audience loved it.’ Vidale has broadened her attack since those early days and now finds inspiration from every quarter. Naturally, though, the prevailing racism and sexism of American society is a favourite topic.
‘Does Scotland know about the Rodney King thing?’ she asked, and I assured her that we did. ‘That’s the way it is in my country, and that’s why the whole of the world thinks America is a piece of shit. I’m almost inclined to believe it. He was allegedly speeding in a Hyundai — a hundred miles an hour he was allegedly going. In a Hyundai? Have you seen a Hyundai? I’ve seen fucking joggers pass them by, Fred Flinstone could beat a Hyundai. That’s the video I wanted to see — him getting a Hyundai to go that fast. I think the whole world has an idea about America. The whole world sees America, after this, for what it IS. ’
And America at the moment, of course, has election fever; something else Vidale is not exactly reluctant to talk about. ‘The sad thing about going abroad, is that they’re very interested in what’s going on in my country and at the moment I’m unable to
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play the proud American. My country is wonderful but it’s also full ofshit a lot ofthe time, and we’ve got a president who’s full of shit and his vice-president is real full of shit.’ But at least Ross Perot will not now be taking his place. ‘I was waiting for that little sheet (sheet meaning Klansman) to fall out of the closet,’ she says. “Cos sometimes. if you look at him in a weird light, you see his little hood coming out: really you have to look at it — it‘s kind of like a double aura thing. Like when you see Jesus and you see a little halo on his head - you look at Perot in the moonlight and there’s a little Klansman sheet just visible.‘
This constant battle against the racism of her homeland is one that Vidale has to fight, especially when you consider that her antithesis, Dice Clay, filled Madison Square Gardens this year with his own brand of mindless racism. ‘I respect the fact that he filled Madison Square,‘ she says, ‘but he didn’t say anything that a lot ofwhite people in America didn’t think. Ifmy country wasn’t so racist, people wouldn‘t be digging what he was saying. A lot of people were acting like they were appalled, but they know damn well that they think the same way. Clay, I just think, is someone to beat up
16 The List 14 — 20 August 1992