What better way to describe Lady Bunny than with the words of David Rooney of the New York Times, who in 2011 said her 90-minute set made him “weep with laugher, often while groaning with disgust.” With glowing endorsements like the aforementioned, along with “sewer-mouthed” and “authentically scary,” the show-stopping Lady Bunny keeps on kicking as a fixture of gay nightlife in New York City and beyond. Fresh from the gutter this month is Lady Bunny’s raunchy new stand-up show, “Trans-Jester,” upstairs at the legendary The Stonewall Inn. Now, it’s the battlegrounds for a different sort of riot, waged over trigger words, political correctness, and the rumblings of a new normal in LGBT politics. Be warned that this isn’t your mother’s safe space, and Lady Bunny takes no prisoners—Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby, included. It’s what we love her for, isn’t it? We sat down with the man, the myth, and the lady of the hour to talk status quos, heavy flows, and one Ms. Caitlyn Jenner.
In an interview last year with Pollo Del Mar, you said, ‘There are the jesters and there are the leaders, and I am the fool.’ How does that mantra play into your new show, ‘Trans-Jester’?
When I was growing up here in New York and activists like Larry Kramer were demanding that the government get these AIDS drugs on the market, because our friends were dropping, I was young and silly and drunk. I felt that my role in this grim landscape was to provide the comic relief, to be the jester. I have become a little bit more serious as I’ve grown up, as I’m known to constantly rant about politics on Facebook…I like Bernie Sanders so much they call me Lady Bernie! Hopefully not because of any physical resemblance.
Your new show at The Stonewall Inn takes a jab at us queers for admittedly, taking ourselves too seriously sometimes. What do you think about the shift in our community toward so-called political correctness?
One thing that’s interesting for me, as someone who does live primarily as a clown of great beauty, is that we are obsessed with political correctness now and words are tools that comedians use. I went to this one festival in Austin, Texas and the promoter told me, ‘The girls here don’t like to be called lesbians.’ And I said: ‘Is that because they’re bisexual?’ And he said no, they just don’t like the word. And I said: ‘Well, do they eat pussy?’ And he said yes. ‘Then they’re lesbians!’ I go to Portland, and they said I shouldn’t make any jokes about the homeless. I told them, ‘Well, there goes the whole set of jokes about my love life!’
What other words are you not supposed to say, and what keeps them in your set?
You know, we’re told never to use the word ‘tranny,’ which is an abbreviation for transvestite…
…and a real term of endearment in London drag, British subculture…
Right! Well that’s where I learned the word, as an abbreviation for both transvestite and transsexual. But there’s a difference when it comes to context, because if I run up to a transsexual friend and say, ‘Oh hey, tranny girl,’ that’s not transphobic. But it is if I see a nervous trans woman, trying to pass with a five o’ clock shadow, and say, ‘Look everyone, she’s a tranny, get her!’ It’s all about context.
You touch on Ms. Caitlyn Jenner in your new set. What’s your take on her latest political endorsements?
People are falling all over themselves to praise Caitlyn Jenner and be supportive of her transition, and I’m supportive of anyone’s transition! I just wish she would transition out of the Republican party, which seeks to destroy LGBT rights and don’t even acknowledge her right to use the bathroom! Like, after Caitlyn reached out to Ted Cruz’s campaign to be an ‘ambassador,’ she became the punch line. Glamour says she’s ‘Woman of the Year,’ but she hasn’t even been a woman for a year!
Lady Bunny is drag’s leading comedy queen, beloved by all, and to epic proportions. What marks your style as a stand-up comedian?
To me, the funniest things are the things we’re not supposed to laugh about. I mean, the funniest moments of my life were while sitting in church, just dying not to burst out laughing! And maybe it’s a generational question, but the younger generation is very PC, and we’re thinking, ‘C’mon kids,’ say something really shocking and horrible, and then make me have to shake my head and remember that I was that awful, too. Now I’ve got these primp kids making me feel like an overgrown frat boy, with their safe spaces and their trigger warnings.
Do trigger warnings have a rightful place in schools, or in comedy?
Could you give me a clue as to what these trigger words are? Because, for example, if someone says they were raped, which is an awful, horrible violation of somebody, they say that warrants a trigger warning. Then I guess they’re not studying about history, they’re not studying psychology, sociology, you know, maybe even literature. I mean, you don’t tell a teacher what to teach, you go to be exposed to a broad range of topics. It’s like, somebody jumped down my throat once because I made a Bill Cosby joke. They said rape is never funny, and I said, ‘Unless you’re being raped by a clown!’ But, you can make a joke about Bill Cosby without saying you like rape, or you condone rape. All of these nighttime and even daytime comedians do their jokes about Michael Jackson, but they aren’t condoning pedophilia! I feel as a drag performer who cut their teeth in gay clubs with a largely drunk male audience, that the more outrageous and dirty I am, the more they like it! So I’m a little confused as to why this behavior is now frowned upon, even by other drag queens.
Does that have to do with the mainstreaming of drag via shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race?
I know Drag Race has made drag very mainstream. We do a show, Drag Queens of Comedy, every year at the Castro Theatre…
…with Bianca Del Rio, and the lovely Coco Peru, who I love dearly…
As do I! But there’s two shows, they both sold out last year, and they say, ‘Don’t say anything too dirty, because Drag Race’s appeal is so wide that kids are coming to the show…’
Shocking, isn’t it?
Tell me about it! I mean, it’s great to have as many fans as you can, but at the same time, if the only drag you know is from Drag Race, and you’re not an adult in the gay community, you don’t know any of the subtext. To his credit, Ru does bring that to the show. He was telling me that he sees his role as one to educate the children, like bringing light to Paris is Burning. When the new season just rolled, he said that some queens knew who Diana Ross was, but couldn’t name one of her songs!
The travesty! What other artists inspire you?
Diana Ross, especially to Ru, is everything. Joan Rivers, she passed away, and you know, she was rough. That humor was raw! Howard Stern read a joke of hers at her funeral, one that said: “’My pussy is so dry that if Whitney Houston had as dry a pussy, she would still be alive.’” I mean, this was said at the woman’s funeral! What a talent.
What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.
I know, I know. I did a version of the show a few months ago and I made a joke about Syrian refugees, which of course is the international crisis involving all the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and a lady from Syria came up to me after the show and said, ‘You know, I’m from Syria.’ And I thought, here it comes, but she said, ‘We have a saying that goes, the best humor comes from the worst tragedy.’ She hugged me, and it really touched me to be able to make light of a situation that is so awful, and needs making light of.
Do you find that audiences in different cities perceive certain jokes in new or unexpected ways?
It can be challenging, because different audiences want different things. New York City, where people know me best, is my favorite audience because not only is New York not very politically correct, but they don’t mind a few jokes about Caitlyn Jenner. So if I say that I’m not concerned with the trans bathroom bill in North Carolina because my heavy-flow Depends mean that I can go anywhere in private, or even now while we were chatting, it won’t be perceived as transphobic.
Would you say that the question of labels in the gay community is something relatively new?
I’m told it’s a generational thing, and to that I say, wisdom. Something that strikes me is that older generations just fought for the right to be out of the closet, and then, you know, AIDS hit, and it was the right to stay alive. What an elegant problem to sit around and fight about sensitivities like, ‘Hello, I’m gender queer, and gender fluid, and non-binary, and you have to call me this or something else that you have to know, or I’ll have to go into my safe space.’
How would you say that you fall on that spectrum?
I’m one of those people! I’ve worn a wig for 30 years and even my mother calls me Bunny. Or if I have a cold, and my voice is the lowest that it gets, the operator will still address me as ma’am. They’ll call me ma’am when I’m out at the airport, not in drag! And I’m like, what kind of woman do you think that I’m passing for, or are you just humoring me? And why do I wear all these wigs and makeup if I’m passing as a woman already? Are they thinking, how did that woman with no tits get pregnant at her age?
I feel like I am one of those gender-queer people, but I don’t feel the need to police people over the names. If you treat people with respect, the importance of labels diminishes entirely. Now that we do have this string of bathroom bills (North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee) I think we’ve seen that there’s an enemy against our whole LGBT community. I wish we could pull together and unite against them, because this sort of legislation is taking our rights away. We’ve had a nice couple years of conversation about what the right terminology is, but we should bond together and fight our real common enemy here, because the bastard that’s going to bash a trans person is also going to bash a drag queen, or a gay man. We have the same enemies, so why make enemies of each other?
“Trans-Jester” runs in an extended engagement at The Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher St., Tel: 212-488-2705) through May. Tickets may be purchased online in advance here, or at the door.