Strung out

Ben Lerman and his ukulele make one funny gay pair.

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WRITING’S ON THE WALL Lerman contemplates queer culture.

WRITING’S ON THE WALL Lerman contemplates queer culture. Photograph: Michael Weintrob

Queer New Yorkers are no strangers to gay comics poking fun at them. But musical gay comics accompanying themselves on the ukulele? Enter Ben Lerman, 33, best known as the keyboardist for the Isotoners, the homo pop band that fired off songs about gay divorces and "man boobs" until breaking up in 2005. He's since released a couple of videos on YouTube (including one for "Anderson," a love song of sorts to Anderson Cooper, sung to the tune of Elvis Costello's "Alison"), sharpened his ukulele skills and written some new material, including ditties like "Fag Hag" and "The Big Gay Paradise Valley." You'll find those on his just-released CD, Ukelear Winter, which Lerman (who has written for this magazine) will showcase on a multicity tour that starts this week at Sidewalk Caf. We recently caught up with him for some laughs.

Why the ukulele?
Because keyboards are heavy, and lugging them around town for five-minute spots at showcases or open mikes seemed retarded.

Who is there to inspire you besides Tiny Tim?
You know, I've never been able to watch Tiny Tim. That's the kind of thing that makes me uncomfortable. I feel like, Am I laughing at him? It's disturbing. But I recently played at a New York ukulele night, filled with ukulele players! Stephin Merritt [of the Magnetic Fields] was the only person I knew of who was playing it. And the Hazzards. But I don't know, it's kind of thought of as hokey.

What part of the infinitely mockable gay culture do you live in?
I could pretty much survive on The Golden Girls. And I have ridiculous body issues. I'm totally one of those gays. I'm like the Weight Watchers gay.

Are you also furry?
Yes.

Though you're "Not a Cub," according to one of your songs.
I have mixed feelings about the bears. I feel like gay culture can be really alienating if you don't fall into that Queer as Folk--hot look. So it's good because there's this other scene where something else is prized as beautiful. But there's also something really weird about people self-segregating based on their weight and body hair. [Laughs] It's, like, so image-[conscious] that it makes me a little bit uncomfortable and sad.

What's your day job?
I'm not working right now, though I do a little work for my family's business. They own a steel company. It's like the B&H Photo of South Bend, Indiana. Orthodox Jews. But [when I was growing up] it was do-what-you-can. We would keep kosher in the house, but we would also go to restaurants. And we would go to shul on Saturday, but I would also play in Little League and we would drive to the games. My dad's older brother is a rabbi in Brooklyn. He would be mortified.

When did you come out?
At 17. It was when they found the gay porn. My friends and I, after prom, decided we were going to a Grateful Dead show so we could get high. Three hours into a six-hour drive it occurred to me that I left Bus Depot in the VCR. I pulled into a rest stop and I called my mom to do some damage control. I was like, "There are these kids at school who say that I'm gay and they planted gay porn in my car and I didn't know what it was and I put it in the VCR and I was disgusted and horrified and I turned it off immediately and totally forgot about it." And my mom said, "Uh-huh."

Ben Lerman plays at the Sidewalk Caf on Fri 16. For more information, go to benlerman.net.

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