New documentary is a journey of inspiration
Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, the new documentary about the comedian, is aptly titled, and not simply because its inimitable subject has a surplus of wit and humor at her disposal.
Scotti’s life story unfolds as an unlikely but compelling wellspring from which LGBT audiences and their allies can derive strength and inspiration, with an emphasis on self-knowledge and the ties that bind us along life’s journey. And what a journey it has been.
The New Jersey native has had an uncommon evolution. After two decades as comedian Rick Scotti—touring often and opening for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Chicago and Lou Rawls—Scotti quietly disappeared from professional comedy, became a public-school teacher in Freehold, and transitioned from Rick to Julia in her late 40s.
Choosing to embody her authentic self after years of inner turmoil and struggling with her identity was—as to be expected—no small matter, further complicated by the fact that she was married at the time. (One of her best bits recounts coming out as transgender to her ex: “I took her out to a Chinese restaurant because they don’t have knives there, just chopsticks…”)
Some ten years after Scotti put down the mic a friend said, “So, when are you coming back to comedy?” Finding she’d lost none of her gift for making people laugh, she forged a new identity as the self-described Crazy Old Lady of Comedy. She came full circle in a big way, appearing on the eleventh season of America’s Got Talent and making a long overdue network television debut, charming scores of new fans around the world.
Scotti has emerged as a craftswoman at the top of her game, with her transgender identity serving as one ingredient of many in her comedic stew.
Julia Scotti: Funny That Way embraces the fact that Scotti’s victories—both personal and professional—have been singularly hard-won. The contentment she enjoys, which includes being involved again in the lives of her children (her son, Dan, in fact, has followed her footsteps into comedy), nearly eluded her due to the rock-bottom lows she experienced on the way to finding her true self, as well as the distinct challenges transgender people—and those who love them—must grapple with. Now, she and director Susan Sandler hope their film can offer help and solace to others… as well as a laugh or two, of course.
Scotti took time to chat with me about the film and her Jersey roots before inciting raucous laughter from an attentive audience at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick.
The film is more serious than I expected, which I liked because it offers a comprehensive view of the evolution you’ve undergone, which many people, especially LGBT people can relate to. Whose idea was it originally to make it?
Julia Scotti: I was in Nantucket doing a show and Susan Sandler happened to be in the audience. She’s a big fan of comedy and knew [my friend] Jane, so we all got together for drinks after the show and Susan and I hit it off right away. She’s a screenwriter and a professor at NYU, well known for Crossing Delancey. Since I was thinking of doing a one-woman show I picked her brain about it, and she expressed an interest in helping me produce it. The more we got to talking, with me telling her about my life, she finally called a month or so later and said “Look, this has got to be a documentary. How would you feel about that?” I said sure, and we ended up filming about five and half or six years.
That sounds like a long time of filming!
JS: Yes, there was a lot of filming, but she also had a ton of archival stuff to go through I had given her. I had given her things almost from the time I started doing stand-up.
You grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Fairview. Did that inform your comedy, that Jersey background?
JS: Oh yeah, I think it was [influential]. It was a survival thing for me, too. I came from, really, kind of a single parent household, and it was kind of a stressful situation at home, and my dad liked to drink a little bit, [and yet] he was funny. I inherited my sense of humor from him, I think. And another plus, it got me to be popular in the neighborhood, too.
That reminds me of George Carlin saying something about how his parents were difficult to deal with when he was a child, so he used his sense of humor to alleviate the drama and entertain others, especially his mom.
JS: It’s what you do. I mean, you can escape. And when you see people smile, they’re not hurting you. I can totally agree with that. You’re Italian, right?
I am half Sicilian, yes.
JS: Okay, well the old comic joke is you’re half Sicilian, half-regular.
JS: So yeah, you know the kind of pressure to be sort of uber-macho in an Italian family and what that’s like, and my neighborhood was also that way, too. But I never really knew what [my] issue was until I came out.
Was it very early that you knew something was different about you?
JS: It was right around when I was 18, I guess. And I thought that I was gay. In fact, I kept going back to that well several times, but it wasn’t answering my questions. You know when it’s the thing, and it’s right? I wasn’t getting that, and I thought I was doing it wrong. [Laughs]. Remember, there was no such thing as “transgender” back then. I mean, I knew about Renee Richards and Christine Jorgensen, but [I thought] that never happened to people like me.
So the thought of being gay didn’t feel authentic, like it had to be something else?
JS: No, it didn’t feel authentic. That’s a good word for it. But there were no other alternatives. What else could it be, other than the fact that my dad was insane?
You’ve said you feel that, as an out, transgender public figure, you’ve been handed a responsibility to uplift people and give them some hope. When you debuted on America’s Got Talent and you had to weigh the decision of whether to come out to the millions of people watching, did thinking of what it might mean to others affect your choice?
JS: They left it up to me. I walked out on stage still not knowing whether I was going to do it, and somewhere along the way [it just felt right]. Finally, I took a deep breath and came out and said it, expecting the worst, and it turned out to be an amazing event for me, and the response from all around the world really was so much more positive than negative—there were just a few people who did say kind of horrible things online.
And it’s not like you lost their business anyway. They’re just armchair people.
JS: Yeah, they’re never gonna come see me anyway. [Laughs.] I kind of felt like I may never get this opportunity again, you know, to come out on such a huge platform. It’s 13 million people [seeing you] on one episode—at least it was at that time—and it’s still up on YouTube. I’ve gotten e-mails over the years of people [seeing] it for the first time, so it does have an impact.
I remember thinking you were hilarious and being surprised that you were trans when you talked about it at the end of your set. I just thought of you as funny.
JS: Thank you! That was the idea. I said, if “If I do it, it’s not going to be until after the set, because I want this set to stand on its own merits.” I kind of lost it when I came out because I had been accepted for being a good comedian, first of all. It was all those years of struggle just [coming together] in that one moment. It was overwhelming, and I’m glad she’s got it in the film.
Do you think you’re funnier now that you’re Julia? You’re certainly more fearless.
JS: Well, those were the two criteria I had when I came back. I had no intention of ever coming back to comedy at all, but if you know anything about comedians, you know it’s like the Hotel California—you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave. We always wind up coming back or hanging around the fringes. So when I returned, I made a conscious decision that I was gonna be fearless and totally honest, so I think my comedy reflects that, and I’m much happier with the comedy I’m doing now as opposed to what I was doing before, because I was hiding then.
There’s a moment in the film from a gig in the late 80s or early 90s where you were making transphobic jokes that’s remarkable to see considering where you are now. It’s clear you were struggling with so much internally, and that’s important for people to see who can relate to going through the same thing. Is it bittersweet to look back on that?
JS: Susan, God bless her, found that going through old VHS tapes. Aside from the cringe factor, I think I was still trying to figure out if I was gay or not at that point. I’ve heard from others [who can relate] to that sort of over-macho-ness, you know, where it’s easier to make fun of someone than to deal with your own feelings. I think I was able to figure myself out partially because I was on stage talking so much.
What did you come out the other side having learned?
JS: I learned that the only emotion that really ever matters in this world is love. It’s the only absolute.
Believe me, I’ve had some people say some pretty horrible things to me, but they hurt while they hurt—they’re not nearly as impactful as the people who’ve loved me through this process. Once you experience hate or hatred from someone, you make that conscious decision to not hate and to put love in its place. It brings you peace.
For trans people, we’re making a case that this is a biological issue with us… I consider myself a lesbian and identify that way if I had to name a sexual identity, but those two things are different, and I hope that’s [ultimately] clear in the movie. Straight people [conflate that] all the time, and my audiences tend to be 99 percent hetero or cis people—don’t ask me why—and I think I’m doing what I call the Lord’s work by performing mostly for them because I can show them, “Look, I’m just a person. There’s nothing odd about me.” And more and more people are coming up to me after shows saying “I have a child who’s trans” or “A relative of mine just came out…” It’s wonderful.
I think it will be emotional for LGBT folks to see the relationship you had with your ex-wife, who grieved the loss of someone who’s still here, and how you mended your fractured relationship with your kids. It healed and became something beautiful and renewed.
JS: I hope that people do see there is hope and light beyond the transition, that it’s a journey. It may not end the way you want it, but you will come out the other side a different person. The people who were in your life before may be there or they may not be there. It’s really a leap of faith. You really have to believe in yourself, that this is the right thing for you, and that that’s where the universe is taking you.
Is it that knowledge that compelled you to volunteer your time at PFLAG meetings, as we see in the film?
JS: I want to do more of that. I think their work is terrific. Sometimes people have asked me to speak, and then I never hear from them. [Laughs.] I am open to speak at any PFLAG meeting. Tell your readers!
What interests you the most these days as you continue to write and perform new material?
JS: I’m focusing now on ageism-related stuff because being trans [in the public eye] and this old—it’s virgin territory. When the media talks about trans folk it’s mostly discussion of [young people], which is kind of cool in its own way. But older folks are being kicked aside, and I still have a lot to say!
I mean, look at Springsteen—what is he now, 900 years old at this point? He just keeps going. I think the Rolling Stones have technically been dead for five or ten years already, and they’re still performing. But with comics, we tend to get aged out. I think it’s because comedy is such a personal thing to people that if a young person sees me on stage they may not feel they can connect with me, so I make a concerted effort to attract younger audiences… Inevitably I’ll hear “I want a grandma like you.” And you know what? That’s fine. I’ll take that.
Julia Scotti can be seen at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club on August 11 in Asbury Park. She will also co-headline (with Uncle Floyd) at the Brook Performing Arts Center in Bound Brook on October 9.
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