Kelli Dunham brings Good Ol Fashioned Queer Comedy to Tennessee
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An ex-nun walks into a bar and proclaims that she’s a lesbian. The bartender looks up and says, “So you had to give up the habit?”
Okay, while I might lack a powerful punchline (or any humor for that matter), comedienne Kelli Dunham has been drawing from those life experiences and transforming them into successful comedy routines for nearly a decade.
Dunham’s comical aspirations started at a young age. “I always wanted to be a comic when I was younger,” the Wisconsin-native said. “My first audience was a hard one, but it was a twenty-minute walk home from the bus, so I had plenty of time to practice on the cows.” However, a comedienne was not something to aspire to be when raised on a Wisconsin family farm.
Life had other plans for Dunham. After being shuffled between Christian schools in Florida and Oklahoma, the first stop on Dunham's journey was Haiti.
“When I was 19, I was working in a school for kids with disabilities in Haiti,” she said, “but it ended up closing because Haiti was in the middle of a civil war. That led me to the Missionaries of Charity where I worked as a full-time volunteer for five years and a nun for two.”
Eventually Dunham was let go from the convent but not for the reasons one would think. “It was the kind of termination notice you would only get from a convent,” she shared jokingly. “They told me, ‘Kelli, you feel good about yourself and your abilities and that’s not working for us; we’re going to have to let you go.’
“So ultimately I had too much self-esteem,” she added. “Afterwards I attended nursing school, but this was really the beginning of comedy for me.”
In addition to beginning her comedic efforts, Dunham also came out as a lesbian. While she felt drawn to the nuns she worked with, her calling may not have been in the same vein.
“There was this moment,” she said, “where all the nuns were standing in front of the statue of Mary and we were singing a song before bed and I looked around and thought, I get to be with these women for the rest of my life.
“But then I thought, I bet that’s not what they’re thinking.”
Since the early 2000s, Dunham has written several books and recorded several comedy albums. Her first book, How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Nursing School, was published in 2004. Other titles have included the teenage-themed books The Girl’s Body Book and The Boy’s Body Book.
“My comedy has helped me deal with a lot of gender issues,” she explained, “as I’ve always been mistaken as a young boy, hence the name of my first comedy CD, I Am NOT a 12-Year Old Boy.”
Over the years Dunham has focused her routine on “alternative performance”.
“I don’t see a lot of people like me on TV,” she said, “and there are definitely situations as a gay comedienne where you are marginalized, but on the other hand, when you perform comedy for LGBT people or progressive people you can talk about so many more interesting things. You can talk about racism without being racist. And even if you’re labeled, there are so many vast opportunities in the [GLBT] community that I’m grateful for.”
At the end of April, Dunham kicks off the Good Ol’ Fashioned Queer Comedy Revival Show Tour in Atlanta.
“My initial idea was a throw-back to the time of house concerts,” she said, “but I realized it wasn’t 1979 anymore.”
With stops in New Orleans, Huntsville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Nashville, Dunham has found an accessible way to travel with the Mega Bus.
“The cut-rate bus service allows me to bring my comedy to more people,” she said. “It allows my shows in Knoxville and Memphis to be free. I’ll just pass a hat around at the end.” A hat that we’re tipping to Kelli Dunham and her efforts to legitimize her experiences, and ours, through comedy.
Catch Kelli Dunham in Memphis May 1 at L&G Community Center, in Nashville May 5 at Little Hamilton, and in Knoxville May 6 at MCC Knoxville.