“In life and in representations of life,” writes theatre director Anne Bogart, “so much has been done before and said before that they have lost their original meanings and been transmuted into stereotype.” We’ve heard everything there is to hear, seen everything there is to see, and probably read the A.V. Club recap while we were still watching it. Bogart’s work is in the theatre — primarily the avant-garde theatre — but her lament rings just as truly for comedians. There are seven basic stories and probably a few more basic jokes and everything else is a valiant struggle to exist within, yet in defiance of stereotype. “I used to think my job was to invent something new,” Bogart has said. “Now I think it is to reinvent stereotype with a question mark on it.”
I suspect comedy is slightly better equipped than drama to reinvent stereotype, if only because we approach comedy with the expectation that it will undermine our expectations. We are naturally less trusting that the work actually means what it says; more likely, we trust it means something else entirely. In some cases — say, Louie, or the slow-moving gut punch BoJack Horseman — a thing’s true anatomy is quiet, unacknowledged. In others it is gloriously and violently on the surface.
Such is the case with this week’s Live on Broadgay, a genre-bending performance produced by Sam Taggart and Bowen Yang, starring some of New York’s finest young comics. The conceit is simple — it’s a live staging of an episode of Sex and the City by a cast of gay male comedians and one straight woman. It’s half-tribute, half-critique, subversive less in its gender-bending approach than in its jubilant embrace of the source material. Here is Sex and the City in all its glorious camp, awkward self-consciousness, ludicrous plotting, and depravity that no longer seems so depraved. The mostly-empty stage serves as a vacuum, stripping away the series’ bourgeois extravagance until all that remains are the words — now delivered by voices frustratingly marginalized in the original.
Taggart and Yang chose Sex and the City for their recurring show because it straddles an unusual line between culturally beloved and broadly ridiculed. “It’s a very gay show,” Taggart said, “but there’s only two gay characters. For being such a gay show, it’s almost homophobic.”
“They’re terrible,” Yang agreed. “They haven’t aged well. So we wanted to pay homage to the show but also to skewer it in some way, to comment on how silly and funny and slightly homophobic it is, as much as we still love it.”
The episode emblazoned in this week’s performance, season 3’s “Escape from New York,” is particularly skewerable. Samantha and Miranda accompany Carrie to Los Angeles, where she has a meeting with a film studio interested in optioning her column. Meanwhile Charlotte lingers behind to deal with her husband’s impotence, which turns out to be emotional rather than physical. Samantha hits it off with Canada’s top dildo model while Miranda struggles to hit it off with anyone; Carrie meets with a totally off-his-rocker Matthew McConaughey (rendered in Broadgay by a delightfully unhinged Jo Firestone) and discovers that though she can escape New York, she simply cannot escape herself. Oh, also there’s a mechanical bull, and a running joke about how crazy it is that no one smokes in Hollywood.
Though Taggart and Yang maintain that they never set out to be subversive — “we just wanted it to be a funny show,” said Yang — Broadgay has its fair share of subversions. Some are simply acts of intelligent direction, like casting against type: Taggart, an affable and relaxing presence, plays Charlotte, who is, well, not. Julio Torres casts a refreshingly dark cloud over Miranda, while Brandon Scott Jones brings Carrie an exuberant energy that is totally wrong for her and thus, somehow, totally right. The performances, especially Joel Kim Booster’s delicious take on Samantha, tend toward caricature, but so does Sex and the City. The point of Broadgay is to memorialize these caricatures as well as what they ignored — or, at least, what they sidelined.
As Sex and the City wound to a close in 2004, cultural critic and UC Davis professor Cristy Turner criticized its normative politics:
Despite the necessary presence of gay male characters to buttress the fabulousness of straight female characters, heterosexual relationships and heteronormativity still take center stage. Gay men are useful only for their color swatches, fashion tips, and cheeky one-liners, as audiences are encouraged to ignore the sexual and gender politics deeply embedded in these social relations… Sex and the City’s gay characters exist as accessories for increasing the cultural capital and “cool” of the female characters… Just as well-adjusted and non-threatening interracial buddy characters serve as mediators for larger racial tensions in society, desexualized, fun-and-fruity gay characters stand as envoys of homosexual culture in a heteronormative society.
The problem with this — one of many problems with this — is that one queer person represents all queer people no more than one straight person represents all straight people. Write one or two “envoys” and stereotype becomes all but unavoidable. “The buddy,” writes Turner, “perpetuates a strategy of containment, delimiting ‘safe’ space around a non-normative character in order to neutralize possible alienation of dominant audiences.” In other words: don’t scare the straight folks into changing the channel!
Intentional or not, one of Live on Broadgay’s more exciting effects is its erasure of this containment zone. Though television and film have made notable strides since Sex and the City went off the air, live comedy still has a dearth of high-profile gay performers. Guy Branum recently speculated why this might be, speaking to the damage of historical representations:
I think gay guys are less present in comedy clubs because they’re hostile environments. There’s also a bit of — we’re not used to being represented in media, and there’s a little bit of difficulty there, of looking at some gay guy who’s not a super hot go-go boy and not a drag queen, and being able to say, “Oh, he’s like me,” without that reflecting on some aspect of yourself you find terrifying. I think most of it is nobody’s seen it happen before, so the intermediate people in the industry just don’t understand how it could happen.
One of the more confusing demands of comedy — probably any art form — is our expectation that comedians be relatable enough for us to care about them, yet distinct enough, package-able enough, themselves enough that we should choose their show over any other on a Friday night. So we end up with frustrating terms like alt comedy, black comedy, gay comedy — descriptors that tell us little more than why a person might alienate this or that dominant audience. These adjectives are uselessly broad. Understanding what is “alt” about Jo Firestone brings me no closer to reckoning with Julio Torres; that I like Kate Berlant does not guarantee I will like Maria Bamford (disclaimer: I do). Worse, they encourage stereotype. Does gay comedy require the gay comic to talk about his gayness, or does he fall under the umbrella simply by being gay? If it’s the latter — well, so what? If it’s the former — must we reject him if he doesn’t mention it? Or if he does mention it, but doesn’t conform to our particular notions of queerness? And, hey, by the by, oughtn’t we then have a subgenre for straight comics who talk about being straight?
The irritating truth is that as soon as a thing has a tangible aesthetic, as soon as it is anything other than homogenous, our cultural impulse is to cordon it off into one of Turner’s containment zones, to gently but firmly explain why it will never be mainstream. The dominant aesthetic — itself an absence of aesthetic — ensures its longevity by marginalizing unusual talent and Othering unfamiliar voices.
Of course, when you throw a bunch of heterogenous artists together, they don’t get any less heterogeneous. “Adjective” Comedy is dangerous for the reason Stanford and Anthony are dangerous — it unfairly designates individuals as envoys. This is a hefty burden. “I don’t want to feel like I’m representing our entire community,” said Joel Kim Booster:
I think, because there aren’t a lot of gay comics working in the mainstream yet, when you get up onstage you automatically become something of a standard bearer in some people’s eyes. I think some gay men like to monitor representation in such a way that they watch and wonder, ‘oh god, I hope the straight people in here don’t think I’m like that too.’ I’ve had gay people actually tell me things like, ‘how can you expect them to take us seriously if all you talk about is butt sex?’ But who is them? My shit doesn’t have anything to do with us — it has to do with me.
Even among the cast of Live on Broadgay — thirteen gay men and one straight woman — there is great disagreement about what it is to be a gay comedian. “I don’t think there is or should be ‘gay comedy,’” said Torres. “It’s a matter of sensibility more than identity… I don’t think a gay person is more prone to like what I do than any other person.” Others feel a more palpable relation between their sexual identity and their comedy. “I think there is gay comedy,” said Yang, “because I think most gay comics are very very very in touch with that identity. I think any gay comedian will acknowledge the fact that he or she is gay — it’s not a coincidence, it’s deeply who they are.” This might just be the name of the game, though. Most comedians inevitably speak to their experiences and identities; most great comedy requires an excavation of self. We only give prefixes to the selves that occupy fewer key demographics.
As much as it is simply a funny show put on by funny comedians, Live on Broadgay is also a reaction against the homogenizing scourge of quote-unquote mainstream comedy. Sex and the City is a thing of the past, its politics rapidly solidifying into fossils, its stereotypes left to be resurrected and transformed by the stereotyped. And yet, across the river, the comedy clubs of Manhattan and beyond remain just as empty of marginalized voices. Across the country, Hollywood still tiptoes around queer characters, confining them to the edges, keeping them sanitized, non-threatening, fun. Broadgay is a sign of progress but also a warning. “Look at where we were,” it says. “Maybe let’s never go back.”
“Live on Broadgay” will take place on August 27th at 8:30pm at Littlefield. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door.
Photo by Elyssa Goodman.