Not waiting for it: Comedian Ashley Gavin stands up for diversity and vulnerability

Ashley Gavin is one of the comics who will perform at the United Nations of Comedy Tour at the Paramount Theater this weekend. Publicity photo Ashley Gavin is one of the comics who will perform at the United Nations of Comedy Tour at the Paramount Theater this weekend. Publicity photo

When New York-based comedian and actress Ashley Gavin met Jerry Seinfeld, she asked him when he last bombed a show. Seinfeld’s answer? “At a party last New Year’s Eve.”

“I bombed a show last week. Everybody bombs,” Gavin says. “People think it stops happening.”

She feels less likely to fall flat when performing stand-up comedy than improv. For Gavin, stand-up offers fewer logistical barriers, it’s easier to practice, and there’s no one to blame but yourself if you fail. That’s why five years ago, she left Upright Citizens Brigade—the sketch comedy group whose original cast included Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh, among others—to pursue her stand-up, acting, and writing career.

Before joining the Brigade, Gavin studied computer science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After graduating, she designed and taught a computer programming course at the nonprofit Girls Who Code, partnered on a project with Google, and worked at a another tech company. While Gavin calls her tech experience “really fun,” she says it’s not funny, so audiences at her shows don’t hear much about her early professional pursuits.

Gavin delivered her first stand-up routine during an open mic night at The Lantern in New York City. It went so well that once she finished, she remembers thinking, “Oh. This is what I should be doing.” The performance launched a flourishing career. She’s on the heels of a recent sold-out show at the Times Square comedy club Carolines on Broadway, and her current tour takes her up and down the East and West coasts, headlining at colleges and clubs nationwide.

Gavin is also working on a movie script, and her online miniseries, “Gay Girl Straight Girl,” has received over 400,000 views on YouTube. The show provides an absurd yet realistic representation of the dynamic between two female friends with different sexual orientations. In episode two, “Gay Girl Teaches Straight Girl How to Work Out,” Gay Girl (Gavin) takes a reluctant Straight Girl (Gavin’s writing partner Lee Hurst) on a run. Straight Girl, wearing a “Resting Brunch Face” shirt, doesn’t fare well on Gay Girl’s athletic regimen.

Gavin performs on November 17 at the Paramount, as part of the eighth annual United Nations of Comedy Tour along with comedians Mike Recine, Antoine Scott, and Funnyman Skiba. So what might you hear at her show?

“A lot of stuff on feminism. That’s my most-covered thing. There will be some stuff on my being gay, some stuff on race and class,” Gavin says. “I’m offering my unique perspective on topics that have been talked about thousands of times. Like Oreos.”

Lately, Gavin likes to talk about the “deeply emotional” aspects of daily life—like her dad dying when she was a child, the ups and downs of her career, and a recent terrible breakup.

“They’re dark, but I think about those things as weird social commentary. We all have those things in common. I don’t think we talk about those things very often and in public,” says Gavin.

Gavin’s sexuality is another aspect of her identity that she feels gets caught in a cycle of receiving too much or too little attention. As a gay female, it’s been difficult for her to book acting spots. She must choose whether she wants to be “flamboyantly gay,” or totally avoid the topic.

“I’m not visually gay enough to play a gay woman on TV,” Gavin says. “In auditions where I play a woman in a young [heterosexual] couple, or a mom, I have a tell. The only roles I ever land are ones where sexuality is totally not present.” And Gavin says that’s difficult, because, “People don’t realize how present sexuality is. If you look at any commercial ever, it’s there.”

Gavin’s routine doesn’t focus entirely on her sexuality. The jokes that explore her experience as a gay woman take place during her routine’s first few minutes, to “get them out of the way,” Gavin says. But even a short bit creates challenges.

“I could do a joke about loving Oreos and it could become a joke about how gay people love Oreos,” says Gavin. “Not being a straight white male, my jokes are filtered through the thoughts that other people have.”

She is especially frustrated by the cycle movie studios create when they hire heterosexual and cisgender big-name actors and actresses to play LGBTQ+ roles in order to draw crowds.

“There are no gay actors in that category because there are so few roles for gay people. Those parts simply don’t exist for gay actors in a truly significant way,” Gavin says. “How could those gay actors ever get to the point where they’re taken seriously for an Oscar film about being gay?” Despite the hurdles, she’ll continue to push against the stigmas and typecasting. It’s another facet in Gavin’s career where she is not afraid to fall flat.

New York-based comedian and actress Ashley Gavin performs at the Paramount as part of the United Nations of Comedy Tour on November 17.

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