Robin Tyler – McSweeney’s Internet Trend

Dan Pasternack grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, voraciously consuming Looney Tunes cartoons, Marx Brothers films, old-fashioned radio shows, Dr Demento radio show and comedians on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He then became a stand-up comedian before embarking on a career as a writer, producer and programmer. Dan has been collecting autographed comedy records for most of his life. Here is his collection and here are his stories.

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When Robin Tyler left Canada for New York, she was not yet acting. She wasn’t even Robin Tyler. It was Arlene, a young Jewish lesbian trying to find her place in the world. In search of a community. And looking for love. In 1962, Robin tasted fame for the first time. After being swept away by a drag ball police bust at the Manhattan Hotel, she used her only phone call in police custody to contact the New York Post. The next day the headline said, COPS TO INPUT 44 MEN AND A REAL DAUGHTER IN TROUSERS. Robin Tyler now jokes that this is what launched her into show business. Seizing the moment, she quickly followed up this incident by securing a booking at the campy and colorful Club 82 as the singing impersonator of Judy Garland. Yes, long before Julie Andrews starred in Victor/Victoria, Robin Tyler was a woman taking on the role of impersonator. And it was while she was appearing at Club 82 that Robin met the woman who would become his greatest love as well as his comedy partner. A high fashion model named Pat Harrison.

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was raided by police. At the time, this was not uncommon in gay bars. But what happened that night was unusual. Stonewall bosses fought back, refusing to be arrested. The resistance escalated and the call quickly traveled across town to other members of the LGBTQ community. When Robin and Pat Harrison arrived on the scene, there were hundreds of people demonstrating on Christopher Street. Robin remembers taking a step towards action when Pat held her back, pleading with her Canadian-born lover not to engage, lest she be deported. The two women watched the melee for a few hours and then returned home. Robin says she cried that night, swearing she would never back down from fighting back…no matter the consequences.

When I looked up Robin Tyler, now eighty, I didn’t know that part of her story. I was just curious and eager to learn more about what I suspected was a vastly underexplored chapter in comedy history. I knew she and Pat had been Harrison and Tyler’s two-woman comedy team in the seventies. (I had their two albums, the first of which includes a brilliant feminist reflection on how men don’t like women using a certain “f” word. “They want us to, but they don’t let us say so.” ) I also knew that when Harrison and Tyler broke up, Robin went solo and had been part of the Comedy Store. But when I called her for the first time and asked her why our paths hadn’t crossed when I was at the store in the mid-80s, she laughed, “It’s because you were above ground. I had gone underground. At that moment, two things were clear to me. One, I needed to know everything about this woman; and two, she was, as my fourteen-year-old daughter has since described her, a “tough guy.”

Harrison and Tyler were radicals, both on and off stage. And it was deliberate. As Robin says, “We were the first women to make women the subject and not the object of humor.” They played anti-war material on a USO Vietnam tour. They had to be dragged off the field during a Rams-Raiders football game after staging a protest over the lack of scholarships for female athletes. And when they were wooed to play in their own ABC prime-time comedy and variety series, they refused to sign their contract until the network removed the “morals clause”, as it would have made them claim that they were not lesbians.

Unfortunately, after several failed pilots that watered down their voices, the team parted ways. But when Robin went solo, the substance of his act went even further. She shared her coming out story and spoke about being a lesbian, leading to her landmark album from 1979 Always a bridesmaid, never a groom. At that time, just being openly gay as a performer was virtually unheard of. But playing comedic material about it on stage, on TV and on records was totally groundbreaking.

At the height of Robin’s rise as a comedian, her power as a provocateur began to transform her into a prominent and powerful political figure. She began using her platform and wits to counter anti-gay propagandist Anita Bryant, joking that she was ‘so homophobic that she left her church after the choir insisted on singing ‘Go Down’. Moses “.” Then in 1979, following the assassination of Harvey Milk and the lenient criminal conviction of his murderer, Dan White, Robin was the MC at the Gay Pride ceremony in San Francisco, delivering an urgent and scathing speech to the crowd. angry and heartbroken. The event took place on the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Later that year, Robin was also a speaker at the first Lesbian and Gay March on Washington, which she had publicly called the previous year. Not since the great Dick Gregory has a comedian taken on such a pivotal role as a leader of a civil rights movement.

Robin went on to produce dozens of gay and (trans-inclusive) women’s comedy and music festivals, providing safe and fertile environments for a whole generation of talent to cultivate their true and authentic art. She also produced the main scene for two subsequent marches on Washington, featuring unforgettable moments including a moving presentation honoring gay people in the military and a mass protest for same-sex couples called “The Wedding.” Marriage equality continued to be one of Robin’s top causes for years, becoming particularly personal when she and partner Diane Olson sued for the right to marry. Represented by attorney Gloria Allred, the 2008 Supreme Court decision in Tyler et al vs. Los Angeles County made Robin and Diane the first legally married same-sex couple in Los Angeles County. Additionally, the city council voted unanimously to have their wedding day, June 16, forever known as “Marriage Equality Day” in Los Angeles.


Robin is on the far left, fist raised.

Robin recently lost his wife Diane and his longtime partner and soul mate, Pat Harrison, who lived with Robin and Diane for many years. Usually stoic, Robin now breaks down when she remembers Patty dying in her arms. But Robin remains determined to stay vital and fight on, as she sees hard times ahead for so many hard-won civil rights. In fact, the other day, when the Supreme Court struck down nearly fifty-year-old precedent on women’s right to govern their own bodies, photos of Robin on the front lines of that battle from decades ago started to resurface. She was and continues to be a warrior for justice. And so, as a friend and an advocate, I wanted to help tell her story because, as my daughter pointed out, “We should get to know Robin at school.” (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’re also moving the other way on that front as well.)

Last year, cable network FX aired a few notable documentaries: Hystericalabout women in stand-up comedy, and Pridea miniseries celebrating decade by decade LGBTQ the story. Robin appeared in both. She was included in the former as a trailblazing comic and in the latter as an influential activist and civil rights leader. However, neither project acknowledged the other side of Robin Tyler’s impressive legacy. But if you asked Robin which aspect of her past best defines her, she’d be quick to insist that it was both. She sees them as inextricably linked. And now that I know her, it makes perfect sense to me. Because at his heart, Robin Tyler is both funny and fierce.