I Told You So
by Kate Clinton
Beacon Press. 208 pages, $22.
IT CAME AS A SHOCK to me to realize that Kate Clinton has been on my radar—and gaydar—for 25 years now. I first encountered her stand-up comedy on my local PBS radio affiliate as a teenager, and it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. At that time, Clinton was introducing herself as a “fumerist—a feminist-humorist.” The material was funny, and as I recall it, not overtly gay, so my discomfort can’t be pinned on the fear of being outed by laughing too hard. It was probably her choice of subject matter. She talked about things that seemed better suited to people’s bedrooms—or bathrooms—or perhaps pamphlets discreetly handed out by medical professionals. I laughed, but also wanted to hide under my bed a little bit. It’s embarrassing to recall reading an article around that time that made sweeping generalizations about women in comedy and how it just wasn’t funny to talk about the subject matter they favored (boyfriends and menstruation being singled out for scorn), and how this brought home my own discomfort with my body, my self, and my sexuality. Kate Clinton’s work unsettled me that much, notwithstanding the lack of boyfriend jokes.
Thus the news that she had a book coming out this summer piqued my curiosity. I am older now and more comfortable in my skin; Clinton has built a terrific career and fan base that keep her in constant demand. Clearly her material has evolved over the years, as has my taste; how would we get along now? Simply put: what a difference a quarter-century makes. It’s delightful to have grown up, down, and sideways enough to realize I owe Ms. Clinton an apology, and even sweeter to see that she has continued to hone her wit and vision into a laser-like focus on modern life, the better to expose and cauterize today’s political landscape. Her talents are displayed to great advantage in I Told You So.
The book features a hybrid of previously published magazine columns, some re-tooled blog entries, and material written for this collection. There’s varied subject matter, but let’s get the potentially bad news out of the way first: the majority of the essays here either focus or touch on the last presidential election. If just thinking about last summer and fall makes you want to climb into bed with a quart of Rocky Road (or something even stronger) and never come out again, you’ll want to shop around rather than plow straight through this volume. The better news is that the 2008 election is still pretty funny, at least in Clinton’s hands, so it’s worth reading even if your side didn’t win (Kate was rooting for Hillary Clinton—no relation).
Some of the best lines in I Told You So are one-line hit-and-runs. Here’s Clinton on Sarah Palin: “Dan Quayle with a ponytail.” On Karl Rove: “He said he was like Moby Dick. The Moby is silent.” On mega-church multimillionaire Joel Osteen: “God’s show pony and patron saint of teeth whitener.” And this on George W. Bush and his fondness for “intelligent design”: “He seems to have discovered that the Scopes trial was not a blind test for mouthwash.”
If the book were just an onslaught of rim-shot-worthy lines like those, it would fulfill its comedic duties adequately, but Clinton goes much further: she writes an excellent essay and has a fine ear for language. A piece titled “I Wish I Could Quit Ewe” takes off from a study that considers why eight percent of sheep are gay—”I say who cares why it happens, how fabulous are those sweaters?” She zings the Bush administration for the culture of fear and conformity they imposed on the nation for eight years, then points out that gay people are often all too willing to play the role of sheep in our still homophobic society. The essay runs a mere two pages but manages to blend humor, political commentary, and a shot in the arm to GLBT activists.
There are some personal essays here as well, though the connection between the personal and the political is never far away. We get glimpses of Clinton at home with partner Urvashi Vaid, some scenes with her family, and a peek at her method of writing, performing, and refining the material she tours with in front of summer crowds in Provincetown, Mass. Surviving a Catholic upbringing has driven many people to stand-up comedy, and Clinton deftly mines her own experience for material. She describes the conflict that attending confession and receiving communion began to pose as she coveted increasing numbers of her neighbors’ wives: “I felt like a fraud. I was sure I got the placebo host.”
A news story from the early part of the presidential primary campaign apparently slipped right by me. It was mentioned a few times in I Told You So, and seemed so ridiculous and appalling as to have to be pure fiction. I suspected Clinton was making it up for humor’s sake and might have let it slide, but my inner investigative journalist wouldn’t let go. It seems Mitt Romney really did take his family on vacation with their dog strapped on the roof of the car! (He was spotted at a drive-through car wash, rinsing doggie diarrhea off the station wagon.) The title of Clinton’s essay on Romney, “Curb Your Mitt!”, puts the rimshot in front of the joke and still scores. I Told You So is sharp, funny, and as relentlessly feminist as its creator. Long may she fume.
Heather L. Seggel is a writer who lives in northern California.