When Ross Mathews started his career as “Ross the Intern” on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” there were only a small number of LGBTQ people on TV and gay men, Ross says, weren’t happy with him representing them. He was accused of setting back the movement. In an interview with the podcast, LGBTQ&A, Ross Mathews talks about his response to the pushback, what happened after his own show went away, and why comedy is his weapon of choice.
Ross Mathews: I remember when I got my start on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno back in 2001. It was a very different time in the world and that was reflected in television and how little diversity there was for people of color and people from the LGBTQ community. I started unapologetically and raised a lot of eyebrows.
Jeffrey Masters: I think Jay Leno would be accused of gay bashing today. He used to make fun of your hands and how you were always moving around.
RM: He did, but I always won by the end of it.
That always bugged me when people said, “Do you think you’re being a stereotype?” “No, I was being myself,” and I thought that they celebrated me more than anything. I think he goofed on me, but he goofed on every comic that came on. He said what people were thinking, but when I first started, the landscape was so different. I knew I’d have to get them to laugh with me by the end. He was pointing out the obvious, but he also put me on his show for 13 years, so there was a method behind the madness, I think.
JM: Thinking about you on Chelsea Lately and your show, I’m shocked by how recent it was because it still felt subversive to see an out gay man on TV, one that’s not trying to butch it up.
RM: I just never gave a flying fuck what people thought or think. I think that me embracing what I am, which is this plus size, unapologetically, openly gay person, woke some people up.
JM: How did you navigate being visibly gay and not caring what people thought with the fact that it’s not always safe to be perceived to be gay?
RM: Well, I grew up in a farm town, sounding and looking like I do, it was tough. I was very aware that I was different, just like I am aware now when I go through a drive-thru, they say, “Pull ahead, ma’am,” and when I pull up, they’re shocked. But I also knew that I had comedy. I had the strongest weapon you can have, which is being quicker, faster, and funnier than any bully who comes your way. They came at me and I chopped their dicks off with a joke.
JM: You had a girlfriend in high school. Did you talk and sound like this when you dated her?
JM: Is that rude to ask?
RM: No, but that’s how powerful who you’re suppose to be is. Where even I, who was following the North Star of being gay, said, “Well, I guess I should try this because that’s what I’m suppose to do.” So, I did and it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I tried it.
JM: When I’m out and I hear someone who sounds gay, I think, “Oh, I’m safe here.”
RM: Yeah. I get excited because it’s like, “Oh. Hi. You’re one? Okay.”
JM: It’s how we find each other out in the wild.
RM: Yes, but our tribe is also so varied that people can sound very different than you or I sound. We have to be more inclusive. When I first started on The Tonight Show, I got a lot of hate mail and the majority of the hate mail was from gay people, saying, “You’re setting the movement back. How dare you. I’m embarrassed to be gay because you’re representing us.” Let me tell you something, if your bigoted parents could accept me in their living room back in 2001, your life just got a little easier.
JM: That’s a great point.
RM: They wanted me off TV. They wanted me not to represent them, gay people. I wrote every one of them back. Some people I called. I don’t back down. Everyone that knows me, knows that.
JM: You’ve talked before about how your big dream was to host your own TV show. And you did that. I’m curious how someone recalibrates after working so hard and achieving a massive goal, and then having it go away.
RM: It was tough. I got to do my show, Hello Ross, for two seasons. That was the dream. Then it went away and when I talk about the North Star, that’s where you follow what is innately in you. It was innately in me to want to be a talk show host, so I followed that. When I was 34, it happened and then by 35, it went away and so I really felt rudderless. It hurt so bad. I thought, “Do I want to put my heart into anything again?” Then I realized that, that’s just who I am and there’s no choice.
I’m not a bazillionaire, but I feel like I can choose a little bit of what I want to do. You know? I want to start focusing on my life and my happiness. I want to have kids now. I feel like I’ve been married and raising my career. I’m ready pretty soon to think about having some babies.
JM: Is that going to happen soon?
RM: Well, I always said that I’ll have kids by the time I’m 35. I turn 37 in a few months, so we’ll see.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The full podcast interview with LGBTQ&A is available on iTunes.