Can the right fish role catapult comedians to certain stardom? Disney’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet made an icon of Don Knotts’ bespectacled bluefish. Ellen Degeneres was Disney’s second choice for Finding Nemo’s ditsy tang fish, Dory, yet Degeneres stole every scene and soon thereafter landed a talk show, no pun intended.
When URI theater student Poppy Champlin made a name for herself on campus performing in Oceantics, a cabaret-style, dinner theatre-type show with a watery theme, Champlin found there was an appreciative audience for her salty wit.
“I was many things: Siren of the Sea, an Atlantic salmon, a squid who did ‘The Masochim Tango,’” she recalled. “Oceantics was probably the most exciting show I did at URI. The amount of laughs I got and the reaction I got were so exhilarating.”
Champlin’s crowning skit was her stand-up routine. Entitled “Fish Shtick,” it comprised 135 puns on the ocean. “People loved it,” Champlin recalled. “They were spitting up stuff and choking.”
Spurred by the enthusiastic reception of local audiences, Champlin, who graduated in 1982 with a B.F.A. in theater, took her act to New York City. The Big Apple, though, wasn’t biting. “I had a Fish Schtick that wasn’t funny,” Champlin recalled.
Instead, what would win the Los Angeles-based Champlin her audience was something else entirely: her sexuality. Her 20-plus year career as an openly lesbian comedian would outstrip her headiest dreams. Champlin has opened shows for Ray Romano, Denis Leary, and Bill Maher. She’s told how-hot-is-it jokes on the Oprah show and won the 1993 America’s Funniest Real Woman competition on the Joan Rivers Morning Show in New York City. Two years ago, Champlin performed in her largest venue yet: Chicago’s Wrigley Field where she was the closing act for the Gay Games and performed before an audience of 40,000.
That her sexuality should be the thing upon which she would build a career surprised no one more than Champlin herself. “In the beginning I was terrified to tell anybody about it,” Champlin said. “So I didn’t tell anybody about my sexuality for a long time. I realized, though, that my career was not going to be hurt if I were to come out.”
Far from it. Champlin chose the audience at The Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles to first share her sexuality. Far from being a career breaker, Champlin’s frank sexual humor resonated not only with the crowd, but also with agents and club owners in the audience. Champlin was booked at another club the next day. Bookings at clubs all over the world followed. In 2006, Champlin traveled to Africa to appear in the Cape Town International Comedy Festival.
Champlin is also never far from the sea that gave her her start. She performs on the R Family Cruises and the Atlantis cruises, both of which cater to the gay and lesbian populations.
“I love the gay men,” Champlin says of the Atlantis audiences. “The guys are great.” But that by no means implies that they are an easy audience. “You have 1,200 gay men watching you and judging you ’cause they do judge you, girl,” she said. “They may be gay men, but they’re still men.”
Like many in her line of work, Champlin has her share of the-one-that-got-away stories. You just can’t get away from the marine metaphors.
Champlin learned early in her career that it is the savvy entrepreneur who stays on stage. Being funny is a prerequisite for the comedy business; understanding the business of comedy is a requirement for longevity. It is a business of perseverance.
When Champlin arrived in Los Angeles a decade ago it was to pitch a sitcom, The Oddest Couple, about a gay man and a lesbian living together. She had representation: an agent with the prestigious William Morris Agency. Champlin waited patiently to hear from the agent about the fate of the sitcom. To no avail. “I later learned he went into the nuthouse,” she deadpans.
Ten years later, Champlin is still working on selling the sitcom. She said she intends to take it to Logo, the new gay and lesbian network. In the meantime, she’s also created a touring show called the Queer Queens of Comedy. Champlin and two other lesbian comedians perform at college campus venues.
Champlin manages the bookings and the show’s earnings. It’s a role she’s grown used to performing. Early in her career, Champlin would book rooms at different clubs and then bring in name talent to sell seats. In this way, she could guarantee the talent for the club owner and the audience for the performer. Champlin would open for the bigger act, which afforded her a place to perform.
“It’s pretty competitive,” Champlin said. “And it’s hard for women. Club owners are usually guys. Audiences are guys. The owners would say things like, ‘okay, we’re gonna have a chick now.’ Women had to be twice as good as the men.”
Champlin is proud of the success of Queer Queens of Comedy.
“We all do our own thing,” Champlin said. “I host and hold it together.”
Champlin has also written a screenplay entitled Buggin’ Out. It’s a bee story about two sisters and their “crazy scientist parents.”
The comedian may also reprise a fish role or two someday. She recently was a featured performer on a children’s audio book called Tell Me a Story. She played a raccoon for one episode and a loon in another.
“My loon,” Champlin said, “is always right on.”
— By Marybeth Reilly-McGreen