Be it on Comedy Bang! Bang!, Historical Roasts With Jeff Ross, or his new podcast The Underculture, James Adomian is not understated. His best-known impressions — Jesse Ventura, Bernie Sanders, Sebastian Gorka — are blustery, over-the-top, and play with hypermasculine stereotypes. Behind the big performances, however, his cultural critiques are thoughtful, nuanced, and incisive. For example, his debut album, Low Hangin’ Fruit, featured an extended bit about a trope hiding in plain sight: the gay villain. In examining everything from the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood movies to bad guys in Transformers and Masters of the Universe cartoons, Adomian ties together lazy depictions of enraged, effeminate men who groom their facial hair, threaten masculine heroes, and tie these heroes’ love interests to railroad tracks.
In this episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, Adomian revisits his gay villains bit and the impetus for telling it in the first place. Along the way, he talks about why the Autobots mean more to him than Hercules and Hera, and why a gay sex scene between Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem would have made Skyfall a much better movie. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Your affection for all of these characters is apparent in the bit. When did you start making these connections?
Watching with friends, stoned, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with the iconic Alan Rickman as Sheriff of Nottingham. That’s up there with Die Hard and Galaxy Quest. Mediocre movie, A-plus performance. I liked this character, and later on realized like, What was this thing that I was responding to? What is it when you hold up a character as a hero with certain traits, telling children and telling other adults, Be like this hero. You have to examine then, movie to movie, book to book, TV show to TV show, story to story: What are you telling us are “good guy” characteristics, and what are you telling us are “bad guy” characteristics? There are straight and/or masculine bad guys, but there are almost no feminine and/or gay male good guys.
And there’s so many examples that were tried out at early versions of the joke. People would always be like, “What about Jafar in Aladdin?” I’m like, “I know he’s one. He didn’t make the cut for the album, but he was in an early version.” Scar from the Lion King too.
How do you feel when The Jungle Book comes on now, and you see Kaa the python?
I can watch The Jungle Book on an airplane and cry and laugh and sing along with it. Kaa I believe is that classic Disney actor Sterling Holloway. What a great performance. And then you look back on it and you’re like, Why is that story always being told to me? If there’s an effeminate character, he’s trying to devour a child. If there’s a gay character, he’s got ulterior motives, and he’s treacherous. A lot of it’s done as an homage to some earlier gay villain. You go, Well, we need a bad guy. I like that he’s flamboyant. A lot of it’s done just because no one’s gonna argue with you — until recently. I think there’s very little actual malice; it was mostly laziness. Or somewhere between homage and lazy, which is what a trope is.
How did the Transformers come into it?
I had to do Transformers. I was the generation that cried when Optimus Prime died in The Transformers: The Movie. Transformers was like probably the most important thing from the age of 5 to 8. They’re like gods to me. They’re almost like minor deities in a religion that I have. I know more about them than I know about actual Greek mythological characters.
For a while, part of the bit was about the Council of America’s Dads, as if all American dads got together and were like, “All right, we got this dude toy cartoon engine from Japan. Are we going to do some voice-overs? Make the bad guys sound like drag queens. Good guys, they’re going to sound like baseball players. Okay, dads are done.” It is a gross exaggeration to say that America’s dads would get together and do that, but it does feel that way.
There’s so much joy in your impression of Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid. Did you model her on someone specific?
Everyone I know has a theory. The most compelling one was that it was a reference to Rebecca Trent, the owner of the Creek and the Cave, who was a great friend of mine. I was hanging out a lot there when Ursula entered the gay villains bit in New York. I don’t want to speak for Rebecca and her sexuality. I don’t know if she comfortably falls into the gay villains milieu. And it was also pointed out to me that Ursula was not modeled after a lesbian, but after Divine from John Waters movies. Ursula does have short hair. She’s her own boss, she has power without a man. But Ursula is a way of saying, like, Watch out for this kind of woman as you grow up.
You record the album and then I imagine you’re thinking, Okay, maybe the joke is done, and then Skyfall comes out.
Skyfall was a great James Bond movie, but, like most or all James Bond movies, it had weird, bad politics. There is a story-writing traffic jam that often happens with gay villains because they “need” to establish the villain is gay and they also “need” to have the villain threaten the hero getting the girl because that’s always the other story. So they have to have a gay villain who is somehow a terrible husband forcing himself on this poor princess or threats to James Bond’s love interest. That’s why they have to make these characters like bisexual predators: “You understand, Mr. Bond, I am largely gay. I enjoy seducing women to deprive you and heroes like you because I am — let’s face it — gay and bad.”
The character Raoul Silva is gay Julian Assange. And that was my bit — they’re trying to turn WikiLeaks into Spectre and turn Julian Assange to a Bond villain. To accomplish that, they made him gay. Raoul Silva hits on Bond, and who wouldn’t love to see Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig? What a fuck that would be. Why did they have to tease it? James Bond is tied up. “Oh, do you know it would be my first time?” Fuck him, fuck him right there! And if he unties him, that’s a better movie. If Javier Bardem was like, “I want to make sure that you’re enjoying this too, Mr. Bond. We have our differences politically, but I’m going to untie you and I just hope we can at least respect each other on a physical level.” And then they report back to M16, like, “We’re going to have to figure this out.”
What changes have you noticed in the comedy community’s relationship with gay comics, and how do you think that translates to the culture at large?
People have said that we’re living in a golden age of gay stand-up comedy, which is true. It’s impossible to do a a great festival without great gay stand-up acts that are doing as good, if not better, than straight acts on the same shows. It’s broken through in podcasts and you’re starting to see it break through in to television and movies, but my God, it’s slow. So many things that are just happening for the first time that could have happened 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago. The industry still punishes gay people for being gay, and it punishes gay people and other queer people for being out. It’s desensitized me in a way I might never get over.
I want to talk about gay men specifically. The patriarchy is uniquely threatened by male homosexuality. Where are the stand-up specials, the castings, the romantic comedies? Why are straight people such babies that it’s taken them this long to be able to sit through a gay love story? We have broken through a lot of barriers. I think we’re entering the phase now where it’s time to run up the scoreboard, and it’s time to cash in.