"The first time someone said, 'You're a feminazi,' it shut me up," says Suzanne Willett. "It's very effective, because it's associated with the most evil thing in the history of mankind."
So why is this 44-year-old feminist comedian touring under a name popularized by Rush Limbaugh as an antifeminist jibe? "I'm taking the term back," maintains Willett, on the phone from her home in Tampa, Florida. When she conceived her show in 2005, she thought, "I have to treat that word comedically," she says. "I finally came up with, I should be the feminazi. I should speak in a German accent. I should be the personification of the word."
The Feminazi, who wields a riding crop and walks the audience through a doctrinaire deconstruction of "Snow White," will strut the stage of the FlynnSpace this weekend. Willett also plays three other characters in the show, each representing a different face of femininity - and feminism. There's Sarah Whitcomb, the self-proclaimed "middle-class white female" who sings the blues about oppression but can only muster lackluster outrage. There's Fran Schneider, who's "starting a social movement about the invisibility of older women in America," and whom Willett describes as "Martin Luther King and a rapper." Finally, Willett plays not just a mom but the mom - the Virgin Mary, who's kvetching because she "has a lot of angst over how Jesus was raised."
Willett seems to have lived a few different lives offstage, as well. Raised in Connecticut, she joined the Army straight out of Catholic school, then went back to college and earned two degrees in electrical engineering. As a single parent, she supported her family in traditionally "male" careers, including a stint on Wall Street.
Comedy came later, after Willett moved to the Florida suburbs with her husband and two kids. In 1998, she started trying her stand-up material on live audiences. Since then, Willett has opened for comedians Basile and Jimmie "J.J." Walker, won the Talent of Tampa Bay contest, and been a finalist for the title of California's Funniest Female.
For the past two years, Willett has been performing in venues such as the FlynnSpace, rather than traditional comedy clubs. In theaters, she feels freer to explore her choice of material, without worries about heckling: "If somebody's bought your ticket, they've read about you," she says. "Their curiosity is piqued. They're not going to have animosity."
That doesn't mean Willett pitches softballs. She says her experiences in the military helped hone her comic sensibility: "My humor has an edge to it. It's not like Ellen DeGeneres at all."
And her jabs at "post-feminist" culture reflect her own life - on the job, in suburbia and in comedy itself. "I didn't want to be known as a feminist when I was younger," Willett explains. "I bought into the economic myth that the playing field is level. When you're young, you just want to be treated as another person." In her early routines, she won over the audience by avoiding topics like dating and "that time of the month." "Guys would come and say, 'I don't like female comics, but you were really good,'" she recalls.
Nowadays, Willett isn't afraid to broach political themes - she's working on "Migrant: The Musical," a show she says is about the "modern-day slavery" of immigrants working for big Florida agricultural firms. And she'd like to see more women brave the boys' club of comedy: "Stupid comedy is so promoted today. We have so much to say, and it is funny."
"The Feminazi," March 16 & 17, FlynnSpace, Burlington, 8 p.m. $24. Info, 863-5966.