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Lady Bunny’s comedy special slays sacred COVID-19 cows

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Lady Bunny’s COVID-19-themed digital comedy special, “C#ntagias,” becomes available for download on June 5. (Photo by Santiago Felipe)

At a time where nothing seems certain, legendary drag queen Lady Bunny’s ignorance is our bliss.

“Oh, I’ve never seen it,” says Bunny, when the RuPaul Netflix vehicle “AJ and the Queen” came up as a topic during our interview.

Lack of first-hand knowledge didn’t stop the NYC-based DJ, actress, singer/songwriter, upcoming comedy special star, and creator of Wigstock from skewering “AJ” mercilessly, while co-hosting two recent Voss Events-presented digital drag benefits that raised funds for queens out of work because of COIVD-19.

“Listen,” says Bunny, “I make jokes about ‘Drag Race,’ and I don’t watch that either. Honey, I don’t watch anything… I know Miss Vanjie said, ‘Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie, Miss Vanjie’ on her way out, in a way that was odd, but I don’t really know what else happened in that episode, or why she was eliminated, or why she said that.”

Bunny, whose television has not been hooked up for 10 months, admits, “Whenever you see me make a joke about pop culture, that is based on what I see other people talking about… I will run it by friends who are more keyed into that kind of thing.”

With no boob tube at home and no burning desire to binge online (her flirtation with Netflix didn’t last past the free trial period), Bunny’s been spending her COVID-19 isolation “trying to catch up on things I said I didn’t have time for before the quarantine, like filing taxes; and exercising, and dieting, so I don’t have that excuse, ‘Oh, I have to run here or run there.’ ”

Bunny is also buckling down on long-planned personal projects, including a book she’s penning in partnership with her mother, and an autobiography. (“Just my life, before I forget it,” she says.)

And in a moment in time when there’s never been more spare time to sit around the house, hit a few keystrokes, press a button, and share your opinion on anything, everything, and often, nothing, with the world. That’s part of why Bunny says she’s “trying to stay off of social media a bit more, because I was hitting it hard during the first few months of COVID-19. But now, things seem to have turned sour, and it’s disconcerting.”

Known to those who follow her online as a steadfast supporter of Bernie Sanders (Bianca Del Rio often referred to Sanders as her “boyfriend” during the two Voss Events digital drag benefits they co-hosted), Bunny cited the trigger topics of social distancing and mask-wearing as among her reasons for dialing back on the sheer volume of postings and tweets. (She remains a presence on Facebook and Twitter—but these days, she’s just as likely to be writing about work from fellow artists as she is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

“I realize people are scared, and I realize people are broke,” she says, of the COVID-19 tensions. “But I don’t understand the desire to lash out at people that aren’t observing the precautions that they decide to observe. It’s almost like they’re trying to prove they’re a better Democrat, because they dip their vegetables in Clorox water, and they wear masks everywhere. It’s just, like, I don’t understand what it is about a frightening, deadly pandemic that makes people want to scold others. If I walk down to the [NYC West Side] piers, as I do, almost every day, and I see people who don’t have masks on, and they’re coughing? Well then, I walk away from them. I don’t yell at them… At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own self-preservation. I mean, if someone who weighs 90 pounds and has a syringe sticking out of each eye tells me he wants to screw me without a condom, well, that situation may arise—but it’s up to me to say, ‘No,’ to protect myself.”

Asked how COVID-19 has impacted her creative output, Bunny noted, “All of my work involves dance floors and audiences—and we’re not gonna have either of those for many, many months. So basically, my paychecks have stopped, but my bills have not. So I’m in the same position that, you know, most drag queens or club employees are in.”

With little hope of audience flocking to her bread and butter public gathering places any time soon, Bunny turned to what she does best: Parody songs, groovy dance segments, sketches, satire, insult humor, and raunchy jokes.

That brings us to the June 5 VossEvents.com debut of her downloadable ($9.99) comedy special, “C#ntagias,” in which, press material note, “Demented drag diva Lady Bunny shamelessly interrupts your isolation in an attempt to give what may be your last laugh before the apocalypse.”

COVID-19-themed humor is front and center. Along with four signature sky-high wigs and 12 costume changes over the course of the 35-minute show, the press release further promises “brand new song parodies from artists as varied as Lizzo, Justin Bieber, and Madonna.” Gender-blending provocateur Christeene duets with Bunny on a pandemically updated version of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” and Bunny will perform her timely parody of the RuPaul song, “Sissy That Walk.”

Currently available on YouTube inteaser form, which can be seen by clicking here (the full song premieres as part of the June 5 show) channel, the video for “Sissy That Cough” finds our quarantined gal noting, ‘’

If I forget to use Lysol

I’ll end up in the hospital

I’m climbing up my fu**ing walls

Those walls aren’t a problem, at least not in the video, which sees Bunny singing and dancing around an empty white space that is occasionally populated by, right on cue when the lyric comes in, bats she’s worried will

Fly, fly, fly,

Uh-oh

From Wuhan Chi, Chi, Chi

Photo by Santiago Felipe

Bunny claims sole responsibility for crafting the lyrics to “Cough”—but overall writing credit for “C#ntagias” is shared with Beryl Mendelbaum, the Facebook drag persona of Bruce Jope, described by Bunny as “a fascinating character who hung out with everyone from Divine to Holly Woodlawn to Cher, back in the day.”

There’s a reason for that. Long before Mendelbaum burst onto the scene, Jope and his late partner, Francis Toohey founded the magazine Hit Parade (1978-1983, first based in Boston, then NYC). It chronicled, with gusto, the sort culture and mind frame that drew people like RuPaul and Lady Bunny to NYC.

Michael Musto is a longtime nightlife chronicler and pop culture commentator whose contributions to Hit Parade are among his earliest career credits. Musto launched his weekly “La Dolce Musto” column in the Village Voice in 1984. It became essential reading until his 2013 layoff. Later, with the Voice under new ownership, Musto was brought back as a freelance writer, with “Dolce” making a Sept. 2017 return for the publication’s final print edition.

Writing for Paper Magazine in 2015, Jope and Toohey’s legacy earned them a place in Musto’s “10 Gay Club Legends Who Lit Up the NYC Nightlife.”

Noting Hit Parade’s pages were filled with “colorful chatter, gossip, interviews, travel reports, and photos from then-hot clubs” such as the Red Parrot and Interferon, Musto recalled, “They [Jope and Toohey] let me do virtually all of the above for them, and I adored sharing my innermost attempts at witticisms with their readers. It was all so glam, back when gay was a lot more fringe-y and different.”

Times sure have changed, but not everything is gone: Jope is still channeling that era’s eccentricity, and rebel spirit—online, as Mendelbaum, and via co-writing credits on “C#ntagias” as well as past Lady Bunny stage shows (including “Clowns Syndrome” and “Trans-Jester!”)

Those two worlds, and personas, pleasantly collide, says Bunny, who praises Jope/Mendelbaum’s ability “to write as an older, Jewish retiree kleptomaniac, which is her online [Facebook] character. And I thought, if she can write in the voice of someone who she is not, maybe she can write for me, a pottymouthed, Southern, over-the-hill Showgirl!”

In addition to several new songs, the Bunny/Mendelbaum collaboration for “C#ntagias” content yielded some new skits. One of them, notes, Bunny, “was inspired by three emails I got claiming they had activated my computer’s camera when I was on a porn site, and I needed to send them $2,000 via Bitcoin or they were going to send this footage to all of my email contacts. So I started writing a reply, not that I even thought they were a real person, because I’m not the biggest porn fan, and so I came up with some stuff that was pretty funny. I sent it off to Beryl and we finished off the skit… She has a way of either pulling back or taking things in a different direction if I become too preachy, too vulgar, too whatever. She’s kind of like half writer, half director.”

 

For more information on Lady Bunny’s comedy special, available for digital download as of June 5, visit vossevents.com/digital. For Bunny and Mendelbaum, see ladybunny.net and @BERYLMENDELBAUMFANS, respectively.

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Television

‘Modern Family’ creator returns to form with hilarious ‘Reboot’

Show about a show ditches tired mockumentary format

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The cast of ‘Reboot’ on Hulu. (Photo courtesy Hulu)

TV veteran Steven Levitan already had a lot of success as a writer, showrunner, and producer before the premiere of “Modern Family” – a series he co-created with Christopher Lloyd – in 2009. That show turned out to be a cultural phenomenon, helping to redefine and normalize the representation of LGBTQ relationships on TV by including a gay couple within its ensemble of central characters while also becoming a long-running fan-favorite, winning scores of awards (including nine primetime Emmys) and being nominated for scores more before airing its final season in 2020. Even with a resume that includes shows like “Wings,” “Frasier,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Just Shoot Me,” that’s got to be considered a career-topping triumph.

Now, Levitan is back with a new show, “Reboot,” which premiered on Hulu Sept. 20, and from its very first pre-credit sequence it signals a welcome return to the same rapid-fire comedic style that kept “Modern Family” on everybody’s weekly watchlist for 11 years – still inclusive, with prominent queer characters and storylines, but thankfully without the mockumentary format.

“Reboot” is a good-naturedly irreverent send-up of the Hollywood entertainment machine featuring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom as Hannah, a TV writer who gets greenlighted on her pitch for a revival of “Step Right Up,” a beloved sitcom from the early 2000s. She manages to convince the original cast to reprise their roles as the show’s “wacky family” – despite their complicated offscreen history – by promising to adapt the show for a contemporary audience, eliminating the corny, outdated humor and shifting toward a more sophisticated, realistic tone. At the first table read, however, Hannah’s plan for a reimagined series is met with a significant obstacle – the unexpected presence of the original sitcom’s creator, Gordon Gelman (Paul Reiser), who has wielded his industry clout to insert himself into the mix as a showrunner and ensure that “woke” ideas about comedy don’t get in the way of the laughs.

Obviously, this scenario provides a ripe field for jokes about the cultural conflicts that have become a fact of life in 2022 – mostly around the differing attitudes between older and younger generations, always a sure-fire bet for relatable comedy. The “OK Boomer” sparring at its core is common fodder these days, but Levitan and his creative team know comedy well enough to make it feel fresh – and their secret is to make sure that the characters are always the main attraction.

In this case, they’ve given us plenty of them to choose from. Besides Hannah and Gordon, whose rivalry for the reins quickly becomes just one of many thorns in their relationship dynamic, we also get the leading players of “Step Right Up”: Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), a Yale-trained thespian who ditched the show’s first run to pursue a movie career that never materialized; Bree Marie Johnson (Judy Greer), a once-popular star who left showbiz for a now-failed marriage to an obscure Scandinavian Duke; Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a “bad boy” stand-up comic known less for his talent than for being a train wreck; and Zack Jackson (Calum Worthy), a former child star who seems to have reached his mid-20s without actually growing up. Rounding out the main ensemble is Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a young production exec transplanted from the tech industry whose fish-out-of-water incongruity provides a necessary outsider perspective amid the show-biz histrionics that surround her.

There’s a host of supporting characters, too – a roomful of writers, for instance, hilariously bridging the generation gap with their common love of comedy even as they clash over cultural values. Drawn in broad strokes, all of them could easily be dismissed as generic tropes, stock figures updated to fit the latest cultural zeitgeist; that they come off as fully realized human beings instead of lazy stereotypes is a testament to Levitan and the real-life writers’ room responsible for bringing them to life.

It’s also a testament to the actors who play them. Key and Greer have the biggest challenge, in many ways; their characters, cut from the same egocentric cloth as so many other parodies of vain and pretentious Hollywood stars and clearly designed to be adorably insufferable, come off in early episodes as simply insufferable. As the season progresses, fortunately, their skill as performers permits them (and their characters) to rise above the flaws and foibles and win us over. The ever-reliable Knoxville does what he does best – sending up his own wild-man persona – and occasionally reminds us that he’s not a bad actor, when he gets the chance; Worthy, an ex-Disney-kid also spoofing his own real-life image, likewise injects surprising doses of winning humanity as the show goes on.

As for Bloom, essentially the main character though surrounded by an ensemble of zanies, she holds her own with all the juggernaut talent she used to make “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” a wildly popular cult hit; required to be a grounding force while dealing with her own whirlwind of personal and professional dysfunction, she succeeds more than well enough to anchor the show. Finally, Reiser brings his status as a venerable sitcom legend to give his old-school character an appropriate presence, while making him much more layered and likable than the Archie Bunker-ish throwback we expect him to be.

With such a solid cast doing the heavy lifting onscreen, “Reboot” is able to cast its satirical net wide enough to poke fun at our rapidly changing culture without losing the important human connection that keeps its never-ending bombardment of one-liners – something for which Levitan’s previous shows have been widely known and admired – from feeling hollow. That doesn’t mean the comedy ever lulls; on the contrary, even the show’s most tender and meaningful moments – which often take us by pleasant surprise – are punctuated by zingers. And while the series leans hard into the kind of uncomplicated vibe that usually marks popular mainstream sitcoms, it also lets itself play at more complex levels, getting a lot of comedic mileage out of the inescapable “meta” quality of being a show about a show – for example, the fictional series, like the real one, is produced by Hulu, just one such cheeky touch among many that make it feel more subversive and iconoclastic than perhaps it really is.

What might work even more to the benefit of “Reboot” than the considerable lineup of talent it boasts both on and behind the screen is its format – and we’re not just talking about its choice to eschew the mockumentary thing, a masterfully innovative tactic that has now become tired from overuse, even on Emmy-favored “Abbot Elementary.” In the new era of streaming content, the 23-episode season feels like an increasingly outmoded way of doing things; with only eight episodes to undertake, there’s far less chance of stretching the material (and our patience for it) thin, or of running out of ideas and undermining the show’s integrity with sub-par writing just to pad things out.

Unsaddled from that burden, “Reboot” manages to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout each episode of its first season. That alone is enough for us to look forward to season two.

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Books

‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

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Movies

Surviving Voices: The Black Community & AIDS

“When white people get a cold, black people get pneumonia.’ …if white people are getting the plague, what in the hell are we going to get?”

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Phill Wilson, Founder of the Black AIDS Institute (Screenshot/YouTube)

SAN FRANCISCO – The National AIDS Memorial has released its latest mini-documentary, “The Black Community & AIDS,” the seventh film in its oral history project.  

The Black Community & AIDS” chronicles the personal stories of nearly two dozen survivors and advocates from across the U.S. who are thriving, sharing their hopes and struggles about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and its disproportionate impact on the Black community.

The film opens with powerful words from Phill Wilson, Founder of the Black AIDS Institute, who says, “My grandmother used to say, ‘When white people get a cold, black people get pneumonia.’ And so I thought…if white people are getting the plague, what in the hell are we going to get?”

In addition to the mini-documentary, viewers can watch individual interview segments which provide candid, deeper conversations with the film participants.

Advocate Tori Cooper says, “To talk about HIV in the Black community in present day, you have to really look at the history of HIV and Black people. Black people have been villainized and stigmatized around not just having an HIV diagnosis but as being pushers of the virus. That stigma that was perpetuated 40 years ago still exists and still impacts the way society thinks about people who are living with HIV.”

Dr. Dázon Dixon Diallo, Founder and President of SisterLove, the first women’s HIV, Sexual Reproductive Justice organization in the southern U.S., “For this epidemic, men opened the door…on the advocacy, on the activism. But what I’m clear about is that it will be the women who close the door on this epidemic. Because once women own it, we change things, and when we change things, we change things for everybody.”

Sharing her truth and powerful story, advocate Sharron Chatman emotionally says, “My mother made me eat off of paper plates and forks and that was hurtful because it was my Mom. Mothers aren’t supposed to reject or feel that way towards their child. Through SisterLove, I began to understand that me being HIV positive was no longer fearful in my life.  I wasn’t afraid anymore. I became a warrior.”

These powerful stories are just a few of the important topics the film addresses with interviewees who openly discuss the stigma, shame, and the complex, intersecting and multilayered prejudices that persist today and how so many survivors are thriving, living with pride, dignity and advocating for justice, equal access to care, and an end to the epidemic.

“The Black Community & AIDS” was produced and directed by Jörg Fockele. Chevron, a long-standing partner of the National AIDS Memorial, is the presenting partner, providing major funding annually during the past five years for the program.

“These films really bring to the forefront the power of storytelling and the lessons that can be taught for current and future generations,” said Huma Abbasi, General Manager, Health & Medical at Chevron. “Our long-time support for this program is part of our commitment to sharing the very human experiences that have shaped four decades of the AIDS epidemic. These stories demonstrate the devastating impact that continues today, the hope and the work that still lies ahead.”

Community partners include the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Black Brothers Esteem, the New York City LGBT Community Center, Oasis Florida, W.O.M.E.N. Inc., GLAAD, MOBI, GMHC, Frontline Legal Services, Native Son, SisterLove, AIDS Project of the East Bay, Positive Women’s Network and Thrive SS.

“This mini-documentary speaks to the work of the National AIDS Memorial in addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS in the Black community and the issues of stigma, discrimination and otherism that still exist today, four decades into this epidemic,” said Chief Executive John Cunningham. “We are so appreciative to the survivors and advocates featured in this film who shared their stories and whose work is helping make a difference in changing the statistics and helping to finally curb the disproportionate impact of this epidemic in the Black community.”

Prior to its official release, “The Black Community & AIDS” was exclusively featured at several major film festivals and HIV/AIDS events throughout the country, including Frameline, SF Queer Film Fest, New York City Black Pride, Positive Living Conference, and Atlanta Black Pride. The film was recognized for its powerful storytelling, including being honored with the prestigious Jury Award at SF Queer Film Fest. The film will also be shown as part of the National AIDS Memorial Change the Pattern initiative that is partnering with Southern AIDS Coalition and Gilead Sciences to bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt to the South as a teaching tool with Quilt displays and programming to reimagine the fight to end HIV.

Created in 2015, this multi-year AIDS oral history project helps ensure that stories and lessons of the epidemic are captured, curated, and retained for future generations.  Additional featured films include Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS”, “The Transgender Community & AIDS,” “The A&PI Community & AIDS,” “Women & AIDS,” “The National Hemophilia Community & AIDS,” and “The San Francisco Leather Community & AIDS.”

The 17-minute film can be viewed on the National AIDS Memorial website and its YouTube channel.

Surviving Voices 2022 – The Black Community & AIDS:

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