Activist/comic turns personal pain into laughs

Sherry Glaser loves the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat— and why shouldn’t she? Glaser lives in Albion, just a few twig-lengths from the coastal redwoods of Mendocino County.

Glaser freely admits she’s a Jewish tree-hugger of the first order. She’s also a popular performance artist/radical activist who uses humor to entertain and transform. Glaser will join the line-up at this year’s edition of Funny Girlz, the Bay Area’s annual all-woman comedy show. Funny Girlz takes place Saturday, May 19 at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

Audiences shouldn’t expect typical brick-wall-in-the-background, stand-up from Glaser. That’s not how she does it. “Stand-up is so hard,” she said. “There’s too much pressure, with people drinking and talking. I want their attention.”

That she gets, with her extended monologues and character-driven one-woman shows. One of them, “Family Secrets,” became a long-running, off-Broadway show.

And just what was that family secret? Only that her mother had a nervous breakdown when Glaser was a young girl and needed electroshock therapy and heavy medication, causing permanent kidney damage.

Cue heavy laughter.

“When she has her manic episodes, she thinks she’s Mary, the mother of Jesus,” Glaser said. “But she’s a survivor. She went to law school; she wrote a handbook on being crazy.

“She has a great sense of humor,” Glaser continued. “She was once at the counter of United Airlines, and they asked if she wanted a window seat. She said, ‘Maybe you could get a straightjacket I could wear.'”

Growing up in New York with an ardently Zionist father and mentally ill mother, Glaser forged her own path. Her first stop was San Diego State University, where she discovered the art of improv. It was there that she joined her first professional comedy troupe, the Hot Flashes, whose motto was “Out of great pain comes great comedy.”

She certainly had the pain, and, in time, the chops to take her act on the road. With her husband, Greg Howells, she had two children (now 19 and 10) and honed her approach to performance art.

Tragically, her husband disappeared in 1997 and was declared legally dead a few years later. In the wake of that catastrophe, Glaser expanded her commitment to progressive politics. She has played countless benefits, demonstrations and political forums. She also created the memorable “Breasts Not Bombs” campaign, which brings scores of topless women to key protest sites.

“I did it at the Pentagon, but it was freezing” she recalled. “I held my shirt up for 30 seconds.

“We want to show the vulnerability of humanity — that women and children are the ones suffering,” she said, taking a more serious turn. “If men want to, they can go shoot each other. Let us raise the children and have a garden. When women are safe to be topless, then the world will be safe and we’ll have peace.”

During a recent six-week performing stand in Washington, D.C., Glaser paid a visit to George Bush’s house. “I wore my ‘We Will Not Be Silent’ T-shirt,” she said. “I believe collective power is very strong. I have to believe that, otherwise I’d be lost. The power they wield — the military, the courts, the government, the corporations — those are overwhelming odds. But we we’ve got art and music and laughter and gardens and prayer and beauty.”

Now out as a lesbian, she lives with her longtime partner. When not writing, performing or protesting, Glaser spends time in her garden and the nearby redwoods. “It’s very beautiful, a very safe place to raise kids,” she said. “They’re outdoors all the time. Being in nature like that is thrilling. It keeps them healthy.”

Though she has a fashioned her own personal approach to spirituality, Glaser still reveres her Jewish background. She and her family celebrate the High Holy Days at the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community.

“When asked where you’re from, people say ‘I’m German,’ or ‘I’m Japanese,'” Glaser said. “But we say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ We identify not by geography but by culture.”

Funny Girlz, featuring Sherry Glaser, Luenell, Marga Gomez, Amy Boyd, Juanita More and host Lisa Geduldig, takes place 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness St., S.F. Tickets: $22.50-$38. Information: (415) 522-3737 or online at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.