A BLOG BY SHANNON FISHER
This post is an excerpt from the full-length biography I am writing about the late stand-up comedian and HIV activist Steve Moore. He was a force for good in this world, and the lingering effects of his efforts to humanize HIV/AIDS are felt worldwide to this day.
“I never knew Oz was in color!” Steve announced to the crowd as the opening applause began to subside. “We were poor when I was little, and we had a black and white television. When Dorothy opened the door to the glorious Land of Oz, everything was still in black and white. We didn’t know the yellow brick road was truly yellow!
“My brother and I had never seen life outside of our little world in Danville, Virginia, and as kids we didn’t much care. We had no idea we were poor, and for all we knew we were happy!” He paused. “We were happy.”
Though he shared the bright yellow spotlight with a baby grand piano and three taped “X” marks on the stage floor, Steve Moore – in a tailed tuxedo and a top hat – had the group’s undivided attention. They had all come to this West Hollywood comedy club to see the one-man show of a stand-up comedian colloquially known as “The AIDS Guy.” Engaged in his reverie, the standing-room-only crowd was charmed after just a few sentences. This slight man with thinning blonde hair and otherworldly blue eyes was disarming. His goal for the night was to open the eyes and minds of the audience, and he was already well on his way.
Until recently, Steve Moore had been a relatively unknown entertainer living paycheck to paycheck. After years of struggling in Hollywood, his notoriety skyrocketed for a bittersweet reason: he was HIV positive, and he was not afraid to talk about it – or joke about it. HIV was still very much feared and misunderstood in the early 1990s, but the frenzy of panic was beginning to subside. The public was growing curious about the personal side of the AIDS virus and the manner in which it affected people who lived with it every day.
The lingering stigma of HIV kept most patients hidden in the shadows of shame, but Steve replaced shame with daring. His brave public confessions created a public dialogue about HIV/AIDS that was groundbreaking in the entertainment industry. Steve had an air of sincerity most comics lack, which put his audience at ease. Once he started telling his story, he never stopped. His one-man show took the audience on a tenacious journey through a series of circumstances, events, and personal demons that shaped a life comprised of near equal amounts of comedy and tragedy.
For those who did not know him personally, the label of “The AIDS Guy” was the entirety of Steve Moore’s identity – etched like a scarlet letter next to his name on The Comedy Store marquee. Steve always packed the house, but he never knew what to expect from the crowd. In the glare of the spotlight, he couldn’t see whether the audience was smiling, but he could gage the mood from the volume of their laughter. Some audiences would laugh at every line. Other nights, the house was so quiet chairs would be heard creaking as people squirmed uncomfortably in their seats.
Steve was powerless over how his show would be received but in complete control of how it would be performed. At all times, he was majestic and enchanting; it was the subject matter that was met with variation. The crowds, whether friendly or hostile, were learning about AIDS from one of the most fearless men in show business. He wanted the public to walk away from his show with a greater understanding of the virus, perhaps feeling a lingering connection to the humanity of what was at the time still a frightening enigma. And they did. Even during the tense evenings, the audience hung on his every word – and his work became more recognized and revered as news spread about his show.
“My parents didn’t have much, but they did the best they could,” he continued. “My mom would go to those dime-store fire sales where everything was cheap because it was either charred or smoke damaged. One of my first memories is being so proud of my new ‘rich guy’ Buster Brown Tee Shirt. It smelled a little like smoke, but I didn’t care. My momma had given it to me, and that’s all that mattered. I’ll tell you what, they would have done anything for my brother and me – and we knew it. They even gave us indoor plumbing one year!”
The spectators reacted with a quiet chuckle. Steve wasn’t as innately funny as many of his contemporaries, but he was far more endearing. While endearing doesn’t cut it for most stand-up routines, it is exactly what Steve’s act needed. The vignettes from his childhood were more sweet and sad than funny, and the audience reaction grew tentative every night at this point in the show.
Steve had performed his act almost a hundred times, altering lines or timing according to the response he received from audiences in the first dozen or so shows. By now, he had learned precisely where to sprinkle jokes into this sometimes dramatic oratory.
With a swift motion, he removed his tuxedo jacket, rolled up his left shirt sleeve, walked to the front of the stage and exclaimed, “Okay, everybody, listen to me! If you don’t start laughing at my jokes, I’m going to have to open up a vein and take out the entire front row.”
The crowd roared uncontrollably! They were hooked! Steve had just given them permission to laugh about AIDS, probably for the first time in their lives. The room was entirely disarmed and, as usual, utterly mesmerized.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Steve was about to get his big break. Performing the one-man show for several years to rave reviews had earned Steve Moore the holy grail of opportunities in comedy: a 90-minute HBO comedic documentary based solely on his life. The 1997 HBO special, Drop Dead Gorgeous, was Steve’s grand entrance as a true player in Hollywood.
Steve’s trailblazing did not end with going public about his HIV diagnosis; he also carved a safe path in the entertainment industry for performers who feared their careers would be ruined if they came out as being gay. His openness enabled the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell to live authentically without fear of being ostracized by Hollywood. And that was just the beginning of the impact Steve Moore would have on the world.
Despite his professional credits, it isn’t Steve Moore’s success that makes him noteworthy; it is the grace he exhibited through the many struggles, foibles, and blessings in his life that is so remarkable. Steve’s is far from a typical Hollywood tale of rags-to-riches. This is the story of Stevens Spencer Moore.