Before Saturday night, I hadn’t seen Lady Bunny perform in nearly 20 years.
It may be another 20 before I willingly see her again.
It’s hard to criticize Bunny, who’s been a loudmouth for the LGBT community since the Reagan administration (and if ever we needed loudmouths, it was then). But…well, let’s just say that her current Trans Jester show is not the best example of a revered performer aging gracefully.
Even if you’ve never seen Lady Bunny in action, you’ve seen many, many drag queens of her ilk. She’s a vulgar, hyper-sexual, self-effacing comic with a tendency to lipsynch, but she isn’t afraid to belt out a few tunes now and then. (Her voice may not be One for the Ages, but she can definitely carry a tune.)
The trouble with Trans Jester is that it’s a dramatic departure from what Bunny does best.
Bunny shines when she’s getting a crowd excited. When she’s making them laugh with a goofy song and poking fun at herself. When she’s being trashy. It’s telling that the most effective bits of Trans Jester are Bunny’s jokes about incest and pedophilia.
Unfortunately, those jokes are about Jerry Sandusky, which…well, let’s just say that if she’s trying to be topical, that’s not the best way to go about it.
The Lady Bunny Lecture Series: the okay…
The problems with Trans Jester begin about 20 minutes into the show, when Bunny veers into an awkward TED Talk about political correctness.
In fairness, she makes some valid points. She expresses frustration with things like “trigger warnings” and “cultural appropriation”. Frankly, I feel those, too. If I’m reading a novel or watching a movie, I want it to hit those triggers, I don’t need to be warned. Shock me, for chrissakes.
And as for cultural appropriation, well, I’m of the opinion that most of culture is appropriated. Back in the 1980s, people argued that Madonna was appropriating black gay culture by mainstreaming vogueing, but of course, vogueing was itself an appropriation of mainstream, middle-class, straight white culture by working-class, black gays. (And as eagerly as some people attacked Madonna, few seemed inclined to level such charges at Malcolm McLaren.)
There are some cases where that sort of thing can be offensive, and it’s worth evaluating on a case-by-case basis. When problems do arise, it usually has less to do with appropriation than with cashflow. Have Macklemore and Eminem appropriated black culture by rapping? Given the huge, mainstream popularity of rap, I find that a weak argument. Did Mark Jacobs appropriate black culture by sending models down a recent runway in dreadlocks? To be honest, many of the people I know who wear dreads–legit dreads, not braids–are white.
However, you can make the argument that white acts like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis get more attention from the mainstream press because they’re white. You could argue, too, that Mark Jacobs might want to diversify his line-up of models if he’s going to use a traditionally black hairstyle. Hell, he should probably diversify it even when his models sport WASPy chignons and bobs.
Bottom line: topics like this are complicated. And I get Bunny’s frustration. Unfortunately, the way she expresses those frustrations in Trans Jester doesn’t evoke much sympathy.
…and the not-so-okay
Bunny’s act probably falls flattest when she goes off on the changing acronyms for the LGBT community. Of course, that’s a common target of ridicule from both within and without the community. Like Bunny herself, though, the people making the jokes don’t usually fall into any of the add-on categories, like I (intersex), A (asexual), or Q (questioning).
It doesn’t help that Bunny’s making her jokes in the wake of a Trump victory and what appears to be a national(ist) lurch to the right. Criticizing the diversity of the LGBT+ community isn’t as funny as it was a few weeks ago.
But to be perfectly honest, it’s not even Bunny’s conservative arguments that make Trans Jester a failure. It’s the fact that her performance is neither clever nor compelling.
People don’t come to see Bunny for her lectures–especially not long, drawn-out ones like the one smack in the middle of Trans Jester. The show wouldn’t be nearly as awkward if she’d make her points succinctly. My unsolicited advice? Cut each of those 10-minute tirades into a 15-second joke. Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of a good drag show”.
Comedy is all in the timing
I feel a bit bad for Bunny. When the club scene was hot in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, drag queens like her were in huge demand. Every bar needed an emcee who could host a show, banter with the audience, vamp when needed, and turn out a good number to cap off the night.
Today, clubs are closing. Drag is transitioning away from bars and into big theatres. The performers who get all the attention nowadays are those like Bianca del Rio, Varla Jean Merman, and Jinkx Monsoon who can hold their own in a full-length show. (They’re not the first to manage that feat, but they’re the best of the lot nowadays.)
Sadly, the full-length show just isn’t Bunny’s format–or at least it’s fair to say that this full-length show isn’t. She’s a talented performer, so maybe with a stronger director and better writing it could get there. But as it is, Trans Jester does a disservice to the LGBT community and to Bunny’s hard-won reputation as a fearless fighter for our rights.