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‘Funny That Way’ is an eye-opening look at transgender comic Julia Scotti

UPDATED: Thu., June 17, 2021

It’s never too late to hit as a comic. Rodney Dangerfield was 59 when the “Caddyshack” made him a star. Redd Foxx passed the mid-century mark when he landed the lead in the hit TV series “Sanford and Son,’ which turned him into a household name.

Julia Scotti was 63 when she made the finals of “America’s Got Talent” as a standup in 2016. Scotti’s comedy impressed “AGT” judge Howie Mandel, and all of a sudden an avalanche of gigs was offered to her.

“That experience with ‘America’s Got Talent’ put me on the map and changed my life,” Scotti said. Scotti knows a little something about life-changing events. For the first 48 years of the entertainer’s life, the irreverent humorist was Rick Scotti, an energetic comic who was a staple on the East Coast standup circuit.

Scotti made it to the finals of Showtime’s “Funniest Person in America” contest before losing to Ellen DeGeneres in 1982. Scotti was a working comic with a wife and two children, but something wasn’t right, and it’s chronicled throughout Scotti’s documentary, “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way.”

The film focuses on the personal and professional triumphs and struggles of Scotti as a thrice-married father who is transgender. “What I hope people see in this movie is love and acceptance,” Scotti said while calling from her Toms River, New Jersey, home.

“I want people to see that transgender people are just like everyone else. The rate of suicide of those who are transgender is abominable, at about 40%. I just hope young people can understand it better than I could and figure it out sooner that I did.”

“Funny That Way” director Susan Sandler, who wrote the play-turned-film “Crossing Delancey,” includes clips of Scotti delivering anti-transgender material a generation ago. “I was mortified watching that,” Scotti said. “I didn’t know who I was then.”

The documentary, which was shot over five years, is an emotional roller coaster. Scotti had maternal feelings for her children. “But there was already a mother in our marriage,” Scotti said.

Scotti’s marriage unraveled, and she had no custody rights. Her son Dan was 9 and daughter Emma age 12 when Scotti lost her family. Scotti didn’t see her children for 14 heartbreaking years.

“All of the birthdays, graduations and important life moments I missed out on,” Scotti said. “It was so painful.” Her children have come around. “But it was a process,” Scotti said. “It took time. My son talked to me on the phone, and we eventually met up.”

While Scotti was figuring out her identity, comedy was on hold. “I had so much to deal with,” Scotti said. But Scotti picked up the pieces after transitioning. “I wanted to feel normal,” she said. “I had to stop running from the truth. Now I’m happy.”

Scotti is now close with her two children who are part of the documentary. Her son dabbles in standup and sketch comedy. Scotti has made an impact with her own children and those from other families. “I thank God for the loving parents out there,” Scotti said.

“Parents come up to me after shows and tell me about how their child is transitioning, and they support them 100%. I’m talking about 17- and 18-year old kids who need a lot of support. If you give your children love and support, they will survive and thrive no matter who they are.

“I love meeting such kind, understanding parents. I didn’t have that when I was growing up in New Jersey. My dad was an alcoholic, and my mother was abusive. I always thought what was wrong with me was connected to my parents, but I had to realize who I really am and embrace it.”

Scotti, who is now an in-demand comic, was performing in Bellingham and Olympia when the pandemic started. “I played two theaters in Washington when everything changed thanks to COVID,” Scotti said. “I’ve never been to Spokane, but I would love to perform there and see the city. During the beginning of my career, comics back in the 1980s stayed on their coast.

“There was plenty of work here for me, but I’m up for going out to Spokane. I’m up for anything now. I’m a perfect example of better late than never. I couldn’t be happier. I went through a lot, but I had to go through it. I just hope people who see the movie and read this article know that you can be who you truly are. A lot of entertainers were closeted throughout their careers, and it’s just not right.”

For Pride month, Scotti is writing on her Facebook page about a gay celebrity who never came out. “Today, I’m focusing on Raymond Burr,” Scotti said. “But I wrote one about Robert Reed. He never let anyone know of his orientation when he played the father on ‘The Brady Bunch,’ but I’ll never forget that Reed did a two-part ‘Medical Center,’ that old show with Chad Everett.

“He played a man who was transgender, and that was very courageous in 1975. So many legendary entertainers from Moms Mabley to Cary Grant felt that they couldn’t come out. But today is a different day. Hopefully, everyone can be themselves now.”

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