As long as Cats has existed, there have been jokes about Cats, because the musical is the kind of thing that only grows more powerful the more you make fun of it. It’s a show where a bunch of humans climb into leg warmers (or CGI bodysuits) and pretend to be felines with ridiculous names who gather every year to perform a kind of ritual sacrifice; the more you learn, the funnier it becomes. But since Cats ran for 18 years on Broadway — and then came back, for some reason — I promise that every possible joke about it has been made, and then made again.
Recently, there was the Kimmy Schmidt episode about Cats, in which we learned that the performers just do poppers and come up with whatever. Of course, there’s also Six Degrees of Separation’s running plot where a scam artist convinces a rich family that he can get them roles in Cats (“He’s going to use people”), and even The Nanny’s running plot about Mr. Sheffield’s antagonism toward Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the time The Golden Girls got its characters into Cats costumes. The list goes on, and on, like memory. But the best Cats joke, I would contend, is in Angels in America, delivered by Tony Kushner’s chatty, charismatic, totally evil version Republican fixer Roy Cohn.
In the scene, which happens early in the first half of the two-part epic, we meet Cohn as he’s jumping, octopus-like, between several phone calls, arranging various power plays in front of Joe Pitt, a shocked Mormon. In one of those calls, Cohn is arranging theater tickets for a visiting, very square, Nixon-appointed judge and his wife. Cohn’s secretary tells him they can get tickets to Cats. Cohn mimes barfing, picks up the phone, and cheerily promises, “Cats! It’s about … cats, singing cats. You’ll love it!”
There has never been a more succinct description of both the appeal and lunacy of Cats than that description, especially when it’s delivered by someone like Al Pacino or Nathan Lane or Ron Leibman through a thick New York accent. It’s about cats. The cats sing. You, a rube, will probably love it. What more do you need to know?
In the brief exchange, Kushner also compress a lot of the class and taste divides at work in any conversation about Cats. Cohn, a closeted man who lived it up in New York while pushing America further and further right, tells the tourists they’d hate the gay spectacle that is La Cage aux Folles, and then switches the phone line, turns to Joe, and says La Cage is “the best thing on Broadway, maybe ever.” It’s a joke both about how tourists have no taste, and how the people who do have taste aren’t much better as people, the kind of thing that makes you laugh alongside Roy Cohn and then shudder that you’re laughing alongside Roy Cohn. It’s the rare Cats joke that successfully makes fun of Cats and also punches back at people who think they’re interesting for making fun of Cats. It’s appropriately as chaotic as Cats itself.
After booking the Cats tickets, Cohn continues his diatribe, grumbling to the the judge’s wife that, of course, the show starts at “Eight o’clock, theater’s always at eight,” and then turning again to Joe, “Fucking tourists.” Ever since the Cats movie was announced, I’ve responded to every piece of news about it by mumbling, “it’s about cats, singing cats,” and then worrying that I myself will be a fucking tourist who loves it. Eh, it’s better than being Roy Cohn.
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- We’ve Been Thinking a Lot About the Size of the Cats in Cats