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With his HBO special and live performances, comedian Steve Moore teaches audiences that living with HIV doesn't necessarily mean dying.

Drop Dead Funny

"Hi, I'm Steve Moore. I've ruined my career commercially."

It's an hour before Moore's first performance in more than a year of his poignant, profane and hilarious one-man show "I Never Knew Oz Was In Color," and he's rehearsing at Fieldens Cabaret Theater.


!F! View an excerpt from Steve Moore's show
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"What am I going to endorse?" he asks sarcastically. "Hi, this is Steve Moore, HIV-positive comic for Doritos. Watch out for the dip! ... Hi, this is Steve Moore for Depends. When I have a long set ...."

Taking a break, Moore, 45, sits on a stool at the bar of the gay nightclub and theater on West Broad Street, nervously chain-smoking light menthol cigarettes. They're a generic brand called GPCs. "I don't know what they stand for, but I call them Gay Pride Cigarettes," the comedian says with a laugh, flicking the ashes into a glass.

His autobiographical show about living with HIV was turned into a critically acclaimed HBO special, "Drop Dead Gorgeous," in 1997, and it still airs several times a month.

A stand-up comic for more than 20 years, he's had bit parts on "Roseanne" and "Ellen," and worked with many big names in Hollywood from Robin Williams to Dolly Parton.

The strange but true story of his life includes a 15-year marriage to a lesbian who needed a green card ("Mom, Dad, this is my wife, Lois, and her lover, Christine. How was the flight?") and their subsequent legal guardianship of comic Pauly Shore, who wanted to attend high school in Beverly Hills.

Moore's many television appearances include a 1992 Roseanne special in which he shared the stage with her, playing piano and trading barbs. "I got paid to call Roseanne a fat, tone-deaf bitch. Isn't that great?"

Photo courtesy Steve MooreMoore with Roseanne from her 1992 HBO special, "Roseanne Arnold — Live From Trump Castle."However, it took his HIV diagnosis in 1989 to turn him into a real comic talent, and arguably, a real person.

Moore, a native of Danville who attended Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 1970s, moved to Richmond last year to be close to his family and seek treatment at VCU's Medical College of Virginia. He's trying out new material at Fieldens in hopes of pitching a second special to HBO.

Due to a bout with shingles earlier this year that left his right eye slow and a corner of his face partially paralyzed, it's been four months since he's been in front of an audience, a long time for him, and he's self-conscious. "I'm tired, I'm really tired, and I'm off-kilter," he says. "I'm not even sick now, but I've been on when I've been terribly ill, and I feel better on stage because that person isn't allowed to feel ill."

In fact, just three years ago, while he was just days away from auditioning his show for HBO executives, he was suddenly hospitalized in Los Angeles with an escalating fever. "I was sick as a dog, I had diarrhea, I lost a lot of weight, I was dehydrated."

His manager told him to cancel. Moore knew if he did, the cable execs would probably withdraw their offer, thinking his health was too chancy.

"So I did it," Moore recalls. "Sweating like a pig, with diarrhea right before I went on, I got through it."

Obeying the old show-business axiom, Moore knew the show must go on, and so that has also become his mantra: Life itself must go on, despite HIV and despite the always looming threat of AIDS, and it is a message Moore now spreads to audiences everywhere.

"I decided if anyone could make being HIV-positive funny, I could," he says. "At first, I thought I'd incorporate my health status only at AIDS benefits ... but I realized I could use my status to educate people, gay and straight, about the virus, because there isn't a group anywhere that hasn't been touched by AIDS. I'm just trying to put a comic spin on a horrible, horrible disease. People have to laugh in this thing's face."

Photo by Chad HuntMoore hugs his 18-year-old niece Jessica goodbye during a visit from his parents, Skeets and Wilma. "We're all friends," Wilma says. "This ... relationship we have is more than mother and father."At the beginning of "Drop Dead Gorgeous," Steve Moore tells about his mother, Wilma, buying him a cemetery plot for Christmas. "And the saddest thing — it's the only piece of land I've ever owned."

But the next Christmas she doesn't buy him anything. "So I said, 'Hey, Wilma, What's up with that?'"

"We—ll, hell," he says in her gravelly country drawl, wryly imitating her taking a long drag from her cigarette, "you didn't use what we gave you last year."

Through HBO, Wilma has gained a national reputation for being the queen of the malapropism. She lets the potato salad "urinate" overnight. She and Steve's father, Skeets, were driven to Steve's premiere in a "limbo." When it's cold, she wraps herself in a couple "Africans." ("I've been there, Mother," Steve Moore quips.)

Skeets and Wilma Moore are a huge part of Moore's act and "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

Skeets is a retired tobacco-factory worker with a sixth-grade education. Wilma worked at the Corning glass factory in Danville for most of her life. A gay, HIV-positive son from Hollywood is far removed from their world, but they never stopped loving him.

In the HBO special, Skeets, usually a man of few words, chokes up and with tears brimming in his eyes, says, "I think of AIDS as a disease, not a disaster, so I don't really have a problem with it, but I think that the people who think otherwise are the ones with problem." It's the first time he ever saw his father cry, Steve Moore says.

The HBO camera crew spent four days in Virginia in January 1997, shooting Skeets and Wilma. "They were terrified," Moore says. "My parents were hoping people would think they were there to fix the refrigerator."

More than just a source for material, though, his family has been with him throughout the difficult last couple years of Steve Moore's life, which have been an emotional elevator, climbing to the penthouse and plummeting to the basement with no stops in between.

Photo courtesy Steve MooreLeft, with Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche in London, 1997. "She really came through for me," he says of DeGeneres.When his HBO special aired in June 1997, People magazine, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times gave it rave reviews.

Moore started out on a national tour of gay theaters soon after. It flopped miserably. Nine people showed up to opening night in San Francisco. He had to cancel shows. College bookers told him AIDS "just wasn't popular" anymore.

"I got so angry with the gay community for not supporting me," he says, but he also understood it: People with AIDS were starting to live longer thanks to the "cocktail," a mix of prescription drugs called protease inhibitors. People wanted to hear good news about HIV. "I'm not a disco singer, I'm not a drag queen, I'm not some 19-year-old stud performing in a G-string." The last thing people wanted to see, he says, was a 45-year-old man whining "I have Aiiii — dds...'

The cocktail is what's keeping Steve Moore alive, too, but he's worried that it's making people inured to how deadly HIV is. "My whole point is to go out and forewarn people. ... With the cocktails, people think it's cured and that's just not right," he says. Though the death rate has fallen dramatically, he adds, new HIV infections continue to emerge and the cocktail doesn't work for everyone.

Moore takes nine pills a day plus two tablespoonfuls of Norvir, a noxious liquid medicine that he says "tastes worse than any tequila shooter you'd ever do. It burns all the way down." One pill, Videx, he describes as "eating fertilizer with just a hint of orange."

The pills cause a wide variety of side effects, including depression. His doctors put him on a high dosage of Prozac. "Suddenly," he says, "I'm like I've got HIV and I don't seem to care."

There's also nausea. His doctor told him to smoke marijuana to combat it, "and I'm thinking, you go, doctor," Moore recalls. He was buying it from a dealer for a while until his father found out how much he was paying — so Skeets started growing it in his basement. There's a great reenactment in "Drop Dead Gorgeous" of the Christmas when Wilma and Skeets decided to toke with Steve. ("You know, I don't like the taste of alcohol," Steve Moore says, imitating Wilma, "but I need something to relax me at night. Roll some of that s — up. I'll smoke it.")

In Richmond, Moore's found pot a little harder to come by. At first, he was having it shipped. He recalls when the delivery man brought it to his door and thanked him. "No, thank you," Moore replied.

Now, he's found a local connection, but it's a little different atmosphere. "In California, you get caught with a joint and it's a parking ticket," he says. But, here, he's covertly phoning, saying, "Hi, it's me. Is the library open? I really need to do some heavy reading."

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