Rick Scotti was always guided by an outspoken inner voice, and it seemed to consistently have his back. It provided him practical know-how, like excellent public-restroom radar, but sometimes it was eerily clairvoyant, like the time it screamed at him to jump out of a chair just before a bullet from a neighbor’s gun came blazing through his wall and into the very spot he had just been sitting. So with such timeliness, one has to wonder why that voice waited 50 years to say, “Oh, hey, by the way, you’re really a woman.”
To be fair, “there were signs galore that something was amiss in my DNA,” but unless you were Little Richard, tapping into your inner sissy wasn’t sensible for a boy growing up in the ’50s — especially for Rick, who came of age in a working-class North Jersey town populated by tough Irish and Italian immigrants; in other words, a place where a fellow would get his ass kicked for even thinking about acting fruity. So he shoved his feelings aside and learned to “toughen up” by imitating other boys in town, latching on to the few artsy activities males could get away with. In high school, he played drums in several bands, but nothing made him happier than comedy. He idolized funny people he saw on TV, especially Lou Costello, who inspired him to perform some of his own spit-takes and pratfalls for his family: “I was always the one who made the adult relatives laugh. I just had this innate ability to string funny thoughts together in an impromptu fashion.”
A comedy career seemed like a long shot when he graduated from high school in 1970, so he picked up some cash playing drums in a few jazz bands. Around the same time, he married his first wife, they had a kid and he continued to play while waiting for his comedy stars to twinkle. One evening, in the late ’70s, his bandmates agreed to let him do some comedy between sets, a bit in which he wore a trench coat, beret and sunglasses and goofed around as an Italian skateboarding champ. It bombed. No laughs. Crickets. “But what it did do was give me the confidence to walk out in front of people alone. When you walk out there for the first time and realize there’s no band to help you — no mommy, no daddy — and you’re able to get past it, you’re a comic. Whether you’re funny or not, you’re a comic.”
His first official standup gig was on May 30, 1980, at a Chinese restaurant in Paramus, N.J. This time, he went out dressed as Moses trying to hock “10 Commandments Hair-Coloring for Men,” and people dug it. Laughs! Encouraged, he traveled to Manhattan, where he auditioned for and became a regular at The Improv in Hell’s Kitchen. There, he shared a stage with fledglings like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Eddie Murphy while working on his own shtick — a loud, crabby character who’s modeled after his dad and is “most comfortable when he’s bitching.”
Not much later, Rick and his wife split up, stirring up the “continuous argument inside of me between the male and female sides.” For a while, he thought he might be queer, so he sought refuge in gay bars, where he’d only wind up sitting alone shaking “like a person with a muscular disease.” So again, he buried his feelings, married another woman and kept plugging away at the comedy thing — but this time in the City of Brotherly Love. In those days, Philadelphians were waiting in line to see standup acts at clubs like Comedy Works, Comedy Factory Outlet and Going Bananas on Second near South. Rick would soon become a top-draw headliner at all three clubs, making Philly the epicenter of his career during the late-’80s and ’90s comedy boom.
Things were going great career-wise, but as Rickapproached 50, it became more difficult to ignore the nagging sense that something inside him was off. In the mid-’90s he divorced his second wife and met Kate, a free-spirited spitfire who allowed him to speak candidly about his identity issues. One night, when explaining his failed attempts at dating men, she said something that put everything into perspective: “It doesn’t sound like you want to love as a man; it sounds like you want to be loved as a woman.” Rick was dumbfounded. He was a she. And she is Julia Scotti — which is actually not her original choice, Roxanne, because “that sounds like a hooker.”
According to the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, the current go-to treatment guidelines for patients with gender dysphoria, a successful transition process takes at least two years. Trans people shouldn’t take the first leap — hormone therapy — until after undergoing two months of psychological evaluation. After that, they have to live a year as their new gender and then acquire signatures from two psychologists and a medical doctor before getting the OK for gender-reassignment surgery. “That really pisses me off,” Julia says. “Anyone can go in and get a nose job or assplants or whatever, and nobody questions that. It’s kind of prejudicial, if you ask me.”
Not sure how a gender change would play with her old fans, she decided to retire from comedy and go to college to earn a teaching degree. Her final performance as Rick was on May 30, 2000, exactly 20 years after her first gig in Paramus. End of chapter. Now she was ready to “become” a lady.
The gesticulations came easy. “My voice was always kind of high to begin with,” she says in a cheerful, warbled tone that rings almost Julia Child-like. And as far as gestures, “It wasn’t so much a matter of learning how to act, but letting my natural mannerisms come out.” The walk was a different story. “Julia galumphed,” laughs Kate. “I did everything but make her walk with a book on her head” to discourage her “elephant-like” gait. “Now she glides, feet pointing forward, head up and shoulders back — which makes her boobs look bigger.”
For the physical stuff, nothing worked its magic like estrogen. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful hormone,” Julia says, praising God for its ability to grow her a thick head of silver hair that, as Rick, was receding with a quickness. Kate also showed her how to apply makeup — something that, “being no frou-frou femme,” she wears sparingly — and waxed her brows. Julia says that’s the first time she saw herself. “It’s like being blind your entire life and suddenly you look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ It was a very emotional moment.”
The toughest part was presenting herself to the world — as a woman and an out lesbian. At first, “I was so embarrassed and ashamed and guilty. I had a cousin who said I was doing it for attention, and I was, like, ‘Really?!’ It would have been less painful to stand on the roof of a building with a high-powered rifle than go through that.” She quietly moved to a town where no one knew her and prepared for what would be her toughest obstacle yet: starting work as an elementary-school teacher. “I was scared out of my wits,” she says about walking in on the first day in women’s clothes. “I’ve performed in front of thousands of people and it never bothered me half as much as walking into a classroom full of sixth graders. It was a scary year.”
To make things worse, not long after she began, a kid slipped a note on her desk that read, “Everybody here thinks you’re really a man.” Mortified, she considered never going back, but, “I thought, you know what, I’m not going to let this 12-year-old kid bully me and ruin my life.” So she rolled up her sleeves and waltzed — not galumphed, thank you — back to finish the year.
The following summer she went to Montreal to complete the final step: gender-reassignment surgery. And just like that, things were official. “I remember waking up — with bags of ice in my crotch — and hearing that inner voice saying, ‘It’s right, it’s what’s supposed to be.’ But what I took from that is it’s not about the surgery, it’s about who you are and finding that you in you — getting out of that prison. There’s nothing better than being free.”
After that, Julia would go back to work where she taught for the next seven years, until … wait a minute, is that …? Yep. She started to feel that old, familiar tingle in her funny bone.
Her decision to get back into comedy didn’t come easily. “When you’re transgender — as much as you don’t want to admit it — there’s a little shame going on because of what the world heaps on you,” she says. “I’d been called every name in the book — he-she, it, freak, she-male. I didn’t know if I wanted to expose myself to a public where I had a target on me.” But she was tired of screwing around. Let’s do this, she decided.
“My very first night back was last fall at Comedy Works at Georgine’s Restaurant in Bristol. I obviously couldn’t do my old act,” she laughs, since “it was a lot of dad stuff. But I had this mission to be a trans comic who could stand up for other trans people. So I said to the audience: ‘I’ve been away for 10 years and a lot’s happened. I went to college. I became a teacher. My parents died. And, oh yeah, I had a sex-change operation.’” Silence. “I realized they didn’t believe me, so I said, ‘No, really.’ And still nothing. So then I went, ‘NO, REALLY!’” She still didn’t get much of a reaction, but, “I had to say it out loud … to strangers, and with pride,” she says. “Then a weight lifted off my shoulders. I did it and I survived.”
After that, she decided to cool it on the trans stuff for a while, not only to have the chance to “be like all other comics and just do regular material,” but to give herself time to work on some of the issues she still harbored about putting her trans experience in the spotlight. A year into her comeback, she’s been invited to perform in clubs all over the tri-state area, including a five-month weekly stint as host and creator of Julia Scotti’s Comedy Test Kitchen at Dark Horse Pub. There, she had the chance to hone her new character routine as a “crazy old lady” modeled after her mom, who apparently was just as irritable as her pops. Like her old repertoire, her new material involves a lot of yelling, arm flailing and getting in people’s faces, but now she’s bitching about getting old and the woes of womanhood. At last month’s Ladies of Laughter preliminary competition at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City, she had the crowd in tears over “a bit about not having to use her fake orgasm moan anymore because I’m old.” The women in the audience started cackling because they know what’s up. But then she threw in the zinger: “Yep, they taught us that in trans school.” The crowd lost it.
That night, she became the first trans person to ever perform in the Ladies of Laughter competition and one of only five finalists, a show of support that’s emboldened her to set a new goal to become America’s first successful transgender comic (“by next fall I want to perform on Ellen”) so she can break down the stigmas that continue to set her trans brothers and sisters apart from the rest of society — even in the places you’d least expect. “In the LGBT world we’re the ‘T’ at the end — after the bisexuals, for crying out loud. So we’re kind of like the stepchild in that world, too. I want to change that … to show that we can have lives and do anything we want. We’re our worst enemy if we don’t let that happen.” She admits it may have taken her a while to get to this point, but she’s finally “past the fear and the shame. I’m past the guilt. I’m past it all. Now, I’m here. Deal with me. And that’s my attitude: ‘Just deal with it.’”
Julia Scotti will perform Fri., Sept. 21, 9 p.m., and Sat., Sept. 22, 7 and 9:15 p.m., $20, at Comedy Cabaret, 200 N. Route 73, Marlton, N.J., 856-866-5653, comedycabaret.com/newjersey.