Manic, campy and witty, with a quicksilver talent for free association perhaps second only to Robin Williams and an ear for gossip to rival vintage Joan Rivers, Mario Cantone has carved out a thriving career as a female star's best gay friend, whether in his role as a mouthy wedding planner in 'Sex and the City,' or regular visits to dish with the gals on 'The View' or hang with the likes of Kathy Griffin or Rachael Ray. He's out 'n' proud and always has been, but Cantone, 50, considers himself an actor and comedian who happens to be gay rather than a gay comic. In his first visit to Austin, he's bringing his act to the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday as part of Austin Pride 2010, the annual festival sponsored by the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Cantone isn't someone who has only nice things to say about people, he doesn't shy away from what used to be called ribaldry and his most popular YouTube routine can't be detailed in a family newspaper. But he puts over this material, which in the hands of a less-likable comic might come off as mean-spirited, as affectionate, all-in-fun riffing. He's not exactly someone you could picture having a beer with, but definitely a cocktail or two.
Although he enjoys performing in front of what he calls 'my gay brothers and sisters,' Cantone says he doesn't tailor his act depending on whether he's playing to predominantly gay crowds or general audiences, and his act doesn't depend on gay jokes in any case.
'If you look at my show, "Laugh Whore" (a one-man Broadway show, later filmed for Showtime), it's not something I talk about a lot,' he said. 'It's like being a fat comic and just doing fat jokes. I find that, you know, my audience is so mixed, especially in New York, it's more women and straight couples, more than the homosexual thing. (Austin) is probably the first show I've done in a Pride weekend in my life. I've got a band, and I do a lot of musical impressions. I don't know who's seen that special and who hasn't, but they never released it on DVD.'
Cantone's high-strung onstage persona notwithstanding, over the phone he's calm, measured and polite, if still capable of rising to ire over the state of gay rights in America. He doesn't talk politics in his act, he says, but occasionally discusses it on talk shows. 'I always say in the '70s the gay movement was making huge strides, and then AIDS came along and slapped a big judgment on the whole thing for 30 years. Now it's a little better, but it's not much better. And the reason I say that is it's been so (expletive) long. And if you want to keep the word 'marriage,' go ahead - just give us all the rights.'
Cantone also complains about anti-gay discrimination in his own field, show business. 'As a comic, I've come up with all these other comics like Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, and you see all your friends get development deals. Name me one openly gay comic or actor that's had a show developed around them that went on the air.' An openly gay actor can play a straight character on Broadway - take Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell's turns starring in 'Fiddler on the Roof' - yet, he says, that still wouldn't happen on screen.
The entertainment industry sometimes stereotypes and pigeonholes its actors, and though Cantone's been a willing participant, there's more to his range than the predictable impressions of Judy, Liza and Cher and catty celebrity commentary. He's done everything from a children's show ('Steampipe Alley,' which ran in the greater New York City TV market from 1987 to 1993) to Shakespeare to playing Samuel Byck, the hapless would-be airline hijacker/murderer of Richard Nixon, in the Stephen Sondheim musical 'Assassins.'
Cantone grew up in the Boston suburbs in the boisterous bosom of an Italian family that supplied much material for his one-man show. His parents owned an Italian restaurant and nightclub, Cantone's, in Boston, which became one of the city's major showplaces for local and touring punk bands in the '70s and early '80s (the family sold the venue in 1983). (Though he's proud of the club's legacy, pointing out that it has a tribute page on MySpace, his own musical tastes run more to show tunes.)
Cantone is a bit surprised that 'Sex and the City' retains its popularity a dozen years after its premiere. 'It was such a big hit on HBO, but so are a lot of things,' he says. 'They were supposed to do the first movie right when they sold it to TBS, and then they syndicated it. So that syndication quadrupled the audience. So yeah, I get the appeal, but it's amazing that it's as huge as it is. I think the chemistry of the four women is pretty amazing. New York is a beautiful character within the story. Women are fascinated with partying, relationships and New York, even if they don't want to live there.'
He demurs when asked to name a couple of style icons for our time. 'I'm the wrong person to ask,' he says. 'I don't care, I don't know, I don't watch 'Project Runway' - I'm bad at interior design, I always question what I'm wearing. I pretty much know what looks good on me.'
As for Austin, he says, 'I don't know Austin at all but I've heard nothing but great things. The restaurants, the food's good … that's all I'm concerned about.'
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive