In her new Netflix special Gentleman Elf, comedian DeAnne Smith wonders aloud whether she can simultaneously call herself “lesbian” and “agender,” which she defines as feeling “neither here nor there” when it comes to picking a label.
“The world is changing so fast!” she shouts, with mock exasperation.
It’s one of the most winning moments of the half hour—released as part of the Canadian edition of Netflix’s Comedians of the World on Jan. 1—and it was improvised.
“That particular line came up in the moment, on the night, honestly,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I just kind of heard myself talking and I think I was really aware of other people with all different perspectives and backgrounds seeing it.”
All of which led her to wonder, “Am I using these terms right?”
But both Smith’s gender and her comedy defy easy labeling. Dressed in a leopard-print Scotch & Soda blazer with a wooden bow tie, she offers more whimsical descriptions of her gender identity in the special, like “transmasculine house mouse” and, of course, the eponymous “gentleman elf.”
Labels like “man” and “woman,” she says, are “still so confining.”
“There’s not enough room to move,” she adds.
Her special, on the other hand, moves deftly between deconstructed lesbian stereotypes, grim jokes about depression, and a particularly memorable two minutes on scissoring, a lesbian sex act common in pornography but avoided by many actual lesbians. At one point, she mocks the hyper-gendered names of shampoo, like “gentle peach petals in a moist cocoa breeze” for women and “icy hurricane business truck” for men.
“It’s secretly a very hack premise,” Smith said, making fun of her own routine: “Oh, men and women are so different! Oh, they market to us in extreme ways!”
But she uses that tried-and-true premise to tell one last joke about her own “neither here nor there” gender, admitting that she uses the tear-free L'Oréal kids’ shampoo that comes in a fish-shaped bottle.
For Smith, humor that comes from a life on the margins is her favorite kind: “I don’t want to hear a popular person being funny,” she said. “I want to hear from the misfits, and the freaks, and the weirdos—to me, that’s the best part of comedy.”
Thirteen years into her stand-up career—and currently touring through Ontario and the Midwest—Smith is still mystified by the nature of her work. (She frequently breaks the fourth wall in Gentleman Elf, for example, pointing out the strangeness of the audience-performer relationship so often that it becomes a running gag.)
“I can’t help but comment on it,” she said. “Almost any show I do is going to have some little element of commenting on what we’re doing because I’m just always fascinated and bewildered by the whole entire thing. I can’t get up and be the only one in a room talking without acknowledging, ‘Hey, this is kind of weird! I’m sure all of you have very interesting stories, why is tonight the night we agreed that I’m the only one talking?’”
Smith went viral in 2017 with a video that racked up millions of views. The clip, she says, was taken from a performance at the 2016 Winnipeg Comedy Festival–and it shows Smith talking about her experience dating a woman who had exclusively dated straight men prior to her. (“It is so easy to impress her,” Smith says.)
That video led to a few additional opportunities, Smith said, but it was her continued global touring that ultimately led to her new Netflix special. She was scouted for the opportunity while performing in Australia last year, told during an out-of-the-blue May phone call that she’d have two months to prepare for a July filming.
Smith has often incorporated her own evolving queer identity into her comedy, but she has successfully “resisted” being pigeonholed as a “lesbian comic.”
“Because I want to speak to as many people,” she explained. “I think obviously my stuff is possibly more resonant with a queer audience, and I love a queer audience, but those aren’t the only people I want to talk to.”
The result is comedy that works simultaneously on two levels: Audience members who aren’t LGBT themselves will be thoroughly entertained—and might learn something along the way, though her material rarely comes across as didactic. (“I really think it’s for everybody,” Smith said. “As queer as it is and as wacky as it can be, I did my best 30 minutes that I feel like anybody can enjoy—except maybe my grandma.”)
And people who are LGBT—especially those who, like Smith, don’t identify as strictly male or female, will come away feeling represented in a way they might never have before in stand-up comedy.
That’s why Smith chose to explore her own lesbian, agender identity in the closing minutes of Gentlemen Elf, she said. The increasing visibility of transgender and non-binary people in media over the past few years, she said, is what helped Smith realize “what was true for me, which was this feeling of—I don’t really feel like either one.”
“So I just started voicing it for myself,” she said, “And then people would come up to me after shows—young people especially—and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, and it made me feel really seen.’”
Ultimately, in the same way that Smith cannot help but comment in a “meta” way on the audience-performer dynamic, she wondered aloud whether she provided enough good material during this interview.
“‘Did I do my job in this conversation?’ is what I’m asking,” she joked.