Janine Brito's typical uniform consists of jeans, a vest, and a tie. She almost always has the tie. Occasionally, it appears in bow form, though it's usually tucked behind the vest in a style that either screams "barbershop quartet" or "Banana Republic." Brito says her fashion sense dates back to first grade. "When I was six, I had a blue blazer that was my favorite article of clothing in the world," she said, adding that she wore it obsessively until the cuffs reached her tiny elbows.
Brito's sartorial choices make her stand out among Bay Area comedians, particularly when she plays a mainstream gig, like the Sunday night showcase at San Francisco Punchline. Her friend and mentor W. Kamau Bell explained it thus: You'll start off with several straight guys doing dick jokes. You might get a black guy talking about what it's like to be black in San Francisco. Then you'll get a straight woman talking about the single-girl blues. Then you'll get a Latino comic talking about what it's like to grow up Latino. Then you'll get Janine, and she throws everyone.
"Let's give it up for the frumpy lesbian," she announced, taking the mic from Alex Koll in February 2009. A then-bearded Koll sheepishly scurried offstage. Their exchange has since made the rounds on YouTube.
For all her protestations, Brito, who now lives in Oakland, is certainly not frumpy. And she's not the first lesbian comic to emerge in the seen-it-all Bay Area, where Marga Gomez still carries the day. But she's the first to really win over a young and extremely jaded hipster audience, albeit with a purposefully androgynous public image. She confronts the gender issue constantly, and to an almost obsessive degree. "Only thought about stealing two babies today," she tweeted on January 16. "Finally winning the war with my ovaries."
Such one-liners sometimes do better with a mixed crowd, than with an all-lesbian audience. Brito is serious about gender and sexuality, but not to the point of being shrill. Her peers think she could change the face of local comedy. She might not even need the LGBT community to rally behind her.
Born in Florida, Brito spent part of junior high in Scotland, and the rest at a British school in Hong Kong. Neck ties were required as part of the school uniform, so Brito began incorporating them into her wardrobe again. "My stepdad taught me," she wrote in a recent e-mail. "Both full and half windsor! Cause he's English and hellza proper like that." She went to high school in Kentucky, then moved to St. Louis to pursue a business degree at Washington University. That's also where she launched her comedy career.
The lesbian thing went over a little differently in St. Louis, which Brito describes as a prototypical Midwestern city. "I heard that St. Louis was a perfect microcosm of the country as far as race, class, and political breakdown," she said. "So you get a pretty good sense of jokes that go over with your average joe." She dressed plainer out there, and didn't wear men's clothes as explicitly. She also soft-pedaled the gay part of her act. "I did make a very conscious decision to not talk about being gay until I was onstage for a bit," Brito said. "I would see audience members be onboard with me up until I got to that point."
After college, she moved to Oakland, specifically for its comedy scene — apparently, the Bay Area provides an extremely good incubator for beginning- to mid-level progressive comics. She took a job at California College of the Arts, fell in love, got more fixated on identity-affirming politics (Brito is also half-Cuban, which informs her act, well, sometimes), brought back the neckties with a vengeance, and took more chances with her stage act. She started using comedy as a way to exorcise demons. Brito had a childhood preoccupation with being the anti-Christ, and it often resurfaces in her bits — she's fond of saying that when you grow up thinking you're a devil, being gay seems benign in comparison.
But most of the time, she's snarky. "This poem is called 'Really, White People?,'" Brito announced during a set at a Black History Month show at Stage Werx Theatre last year. She took a deep breath and intoned the first two lines in dramatic spoken-word cadence. "I just passed a stroller/With a dog in it." She paused a beat. "Okay, that's the end of the poem."
Brito has good reason to be optimistic right now. She won the San Francisco Women's Comedy Competition in 2009 and the Silver Nail Award from local broadcasting network Rooftop Comedy. Last year Bell recruited her to perform in Laughter Against the Machine, the political comedy tour he co-headlines with Nato Green and Hari Kondabolu. She has an enviable talent for navigating between worlds: gay clubs in the Castro; a burgeoning alt-comedy scene in the Mission; a political-edutainment tour in which most jokes could also be said at a lectern. At this point, Brito appears to be casting about for her exact niche.
That became a point of contention at her last recon meeting with Green and Bell. Ever the pragmatist, Brito arrived with her laptop and notebook in tow. She opened it to a page with two lines scribbled in the top margins — apparently notes for a setup to a joke about feminism. Brito had retired the bit a few years ago, but agreed to revive it at Bell's behest. It took a lot of behesting. Brito fretted that fellow up-and-comer Emily Heller might have the market cornered on feminist jokes.
"It starts out with me saying, 'I'm disappointed with my generation. Women who are around my age and younger look at feminism like it's a bad thing,'" she said, reading from the page. She looked up. "It's like, you always hear people say, "Oh, I'm a woman, but I'm no feminist." She adopted a tone of mock superiority.
Bell smiled, as Brito retracted demurely. She suddenly looked like a shy kid having to stand in front of the class for show-and-tell. "And, um, I can't remember the punch line. It's something like, 'Well I'm gay, but I'm no homo-queer-fag."
Green stared at her studiously. But Bell giggled, certain the joke would kill.