Tammy Twotone always knew what she was. She just didn’t know everyone else wasn’t. That had to painfully dawn on her, and isn’t pain always the birthplace of comedy?
Comedian, actor and comedy-show-host Tammy Twotone is the middle child of five, born to a U.S. Serviceman and a German farm girl in Friedberg, Germany. Middle children have to be funny too. Especially when you’re the exact middle of five. Especially when your dad is a bastard.
We’re at Café Grumpy in Chelsea, New York City. Tammy likes my choice of meeting places. We’re just now getting acquainted. She’s a family-person: She has a partner of twenty years, a house in Massachusetts.
I’m a Brooklynite. I can’t believe people have houses. I’m delighted to hear she has a fifteen-year-old son. Me too!
“Oh, awesome,” she concurs. “Mine was born in February, so he’ll be sixteen in a couple of months. I have to crane my neck back to look at him.”
Me too! She and I are both early risers.
“I like to get up with the sun, have a cup of coffee,” says Tammy. “If it’s the summertime, I go into my garden.”
I can’t believe people have gardens.
“I love my garden,” she brags. “It’s my little sanctuary. I get away from everything and everybody.”
“Did you always know you were a comic?” I ask.
“I always enjoyed comedy,” Tammy answers, “for myriad different reasons. But it was an escape, and I always found comics to be different from everybody else. Comics always strike me as intelligent. That sucked me in.”
Tammy’s comic idol is George Carlin. And Carol Burnett. We both agree this is an interesting mix. Her mom bought her a George Carlin album when she was a kid, “An Evening with Wally Londo.” Her mom’s English wasn’t that great, so perhaps mom didn’t fully understand everything George had to say? Tammy listened to it over and over.
“I just soaked it all in like a sponge.”
“Tammy’s Twist” is trans-hosted and trans-produced, and spotlights trans comedians. It’s the only consistently-run trans-focused comedy show in the country. While there are some other shows that pop up here and there as a one-shot, “Tammy’s Twist” has been offered each and every month for the past three years. The “twist” is this: if you’re a straight person in the audience, she’s turned the table. Straight people often make jokes at the expense of trans people. Here, trans people are making the jokes.
“We try to draw a wide range of people for our audience,” she says. “We’re not gonna make jokes about you, but at least you can hear our point of view. We had some people from Canada down at the last show, and in the first five or so minutes, they didn’t know what to make of us. But by the middle of the show, they were having a great time. They loved it.”
Doing comedy, Tammy pulls some late nights. Sometimes, she’ll only get two or three hours of sleep. She still gets up early. She’ll grab a nap later to catch up. She’s an ex-marine.
“You don’t strike me as an armed-service-type,” I offer.
“Well, you know the old thing about how people are suicidal, and they wanna do the death-by-cop thing?” she explains matter-of-factly. “It was that, but with the Marines.”
Even so, she came out of it alive. She was ready to bail on herself, but life saw differently.
“Yeah, I survived. And I learned a lot of lessons. Good, bad, a little bit of both. I learned a lot about myself, what I was capable of.”
After she got out of the service, there wasn’t much that she was worried about. She survived that, what could be worse? So she took her comedy out, first to small clubs in her home town. From there she went to Connecticut, Hartford, Boston and eventually New York.
“So what was it like,” I ask, “your first time to get up in front of people?”
“It was terrifying,” she reports. “When you first start, it’s horrible. You don’t have that sense of confidence that you get after years, where you’ve bombed enough times. Like Colin Quinn says, you have to bomb a hundred times before you call yourself a comic. You bomb once or twice and you want to end your life. But after you’ve done this for years and years and years, you’re just like ‘eh, whatever.’ They’ll be another day, another show.”
“That sounds like another exercise in self-torture.”
“It is, yeah. But like I said, after surviving the Marine Corps, what else could they do to me?”
Tammy is also an actor. She’ll appear in an original play this March in NYC (stay tuned!) playing a character inspired by her.
“Do you have acting idols?” I ask.
Tammy was a latchkey kid. She spent a lot of time watching old movies, the kind of stuff with Humphrey Bogart. Her youth was not easy. There was emotional and physical abuse. She learned to play the part she was expected to play. Years after her unsuccessful attempt to annihilate herself via the military, it was Leonard Nimoy who helped her finally transition.
“Oh my god, this is such a good story!” I gush. “Really?
“I was on the fence,” she answers. “I’d been working a day job working with special needs kids, and going back and forth – how am I gonna do this? When am I gonna do this?”
Leonard Nimoy chose her for a project called “Secret Selves.” She was one of many people in the project. There was an interview, photos, video.
“He asked a lot of questions,” Tammy remembers, “and I explained a lot of what I’m telling you. And he just looked at me and said ‘how can you live that way? How do you do that?’ And I kept looking at him, like, what’s the matter with you? Are you slow?”
But she chose to transition. She told her family. She told her employers. She explained: “This is what’s gonna happen.” They stood by her.
Tammy’s learned to make her own chance rather than wait for one to roll around. She’s a hard worker, a networker, a community-builder. She does the time.
I’m curious: Is “Tammy’s Twist” getting coverage? Is that platform getting built?
“The word’s gotten around,” she says hopefully. “I used to have to spend hours and days contacting people to say ‘I do this show, I’d like you to come and do it’, and the response was either no response or, ‘hey, it sounds interesting, but we’ll see if I can work into my schedule.’ Now, I’ve been getting people that are contacting me, saying ‘hey, I heard about this.’ So we’ve had people like Lizz Winstead, Eddie Brill, Seth Herzog, and a lot of that from word-of-mouth. So that’s awesome.”
I haven’t actually seen Tammy’s stand-up set. I’ve only seen her in the hosting capacity.
“When I’m hosting,” she tells me, “my job is to make everybody else look good. So I’ll do a little bit at the start, because me and Lorelei [her friend and collaborator Lorelei Erisis] will do some [hilarious] improv, but I like to build it up and keep it moving along. You don’t want to bore the audience.”
Tammy feels there are a lot of people who are funny. But there are not a lot of people who are professional.
“The best advice I ever heard was from J.R. Havlan,” she tells me. “He was the head writer for the Daily Show. He said ‘if you’re going to get into this business, the biggest thing is just don’t be an asshole. If you just show up on time, do what they ask you to do, then you’ll move ahead.’”
With trans issues lately more in the mainstream, I wonder what Tammy’s feelings are about visibility. Those feelings are mixed. In the broadest scheme, she feels it’s a good trend:
“There’s a lot of really great people out there,” she says. “I’ve met people like Laverne Cox. She is wonderful. You couldn’t ask for a better spokesperson. There are people of the trans community that are in it for years, that are heroes, that have sacrificed a lot.”
But not all trans performers are getting opportunities.
“One of the things with Tammy’s Twist,” she tells me, “is we’ve brought together a lot of trans performers at all different levels, so not only do we have a place that is supportive for everybody coming, but it’s a group, so we can network. If something comes up, we can share that information.”
Is there a downside? Exploitation? Trendiness?
“Yeah,” Tammy sighs, “I’m wondering if this is gonna run its course, which, as you know in the media, comes so very quickly. There are the people that end up saying something, and we all do face palms, like ‘why?’”
She’s not a huge Kardashian fan.
“On stage,” I tell her, “you strike me as kind of deadpan.”
“More in short bits. If I do longer bits, I get into it a little bit more, and people will say ‘I never realized you giggle.'”
“It’s like ‘yeah, I do,'” she giggles. “‘But you’re always so calm and cool.’ And I’m like ‘I giggle all the time, you just never see it.’”
But Tammy’s seen it all. Her healthy cynicism protects her from overly-high hopes. The better to be truly surprised and delighted with the Supreme Court stands up for marriage equality. Does that count for something? It does!
“I consider myself a cynical optimist,” Tammy cracks a smile to offer. “I look at everything as, like, bad. But I’m hoping things will work out. I’m not completely gone.”
Personal disclosure: I used to be a gigantic “Glee” fan. I didn’t see the final season, but that was the one that Tammy was on. I’m like, wow.
“That was amazing,” Tammy almost gushes. “They were casting a trans choir. They put out the call. I got the phone call.”
They told her they needed her in L.A. in a week. That was short notice! Understandably, she passed.
“And then I was like ‘what did I just do?’” she goes on. “So I called them right back and said ‘wait a minute, I can do this.’”
She went out to L.A. She crashed with wonderful friends. They took her to all the best places. And at the Glee shoot, she found herself one member of a two-hundred-person trans, gender-fluid and queer choir from all walks of life.
“It was, like, wow,” she says.
“Like, everybody,” I concur.
“Yeah, everybody! They fed us, they clothed us. They told us what they needed us to wear, but different people showed up not looking exactly the same, the costume people would just change it a little bit to make it right. It was a two-minute video, but it took thirteen hours with a lot of corralling. I met a lot of people, I made a lot of friends, to this day. It was my introduction to television and filming.”
I think about the young audience that forms Glee’s large fan base.
“I talk to a lot of younger people,” I tell her, “who are really pushing back against labels and categories, and they’ll basically – they’re ‘genderqueer.’”
“Or gender-fluid,” Tammy replies.
“What are your thoughts?” I wonder. “We both have fifteen-year-old sons, so I feel like that’s the world they’re entering.”
“Me and my son will watch The Daily Show or The Nightly Show together,” she tells me, and I have the strange feeling she’s been spying on me and my son. “He asks me questions, and I have to try to explain what the world was like twenty or thirty years ago. He looks at me, like, ‘why?’”
“Do you have what you would consider a mission?” I ask her. “Or is there a world you envision that you can put into words?”
“Um, I’d like to be able to pay my bills.”
“That would be a key event,” she goes on. “And it would be nice to be able to do a show where I don’t have to specifically say ‘this is a trans-produced, trans-hosted show with trans-talent.’”
I don’t get the feeling Tammy wants to be trans as much as she simply wants to be. I like the deadpan, down-to-earth, rolled-sleeve optimism of Tammy Twotone.
“It’s a comedy show,” she argues. “We have funny people. We get people from MTV, Comedy Central, Last Comic Standing. That’s why you should come. If one or two happen to be trans, so what? You shouldn’t even think about that unless they’re talking about it. And a lot of comics that I bring in there are finding new ways to talk about things that I never heard, but I love. Yeah, come in, try it out. It doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s beautiful.”
She doesn’t have to twist my arm. I’ll be there with bells on.
Tammy will appear in NYC this coming March in "Women of New York", a new play by Ege Maltepe. She'll be playing a trans comic, a part the author wrote with her in mind. Don't miss! And stay tuned for the next Tammy's TWIST.