Sunday, August 15, 2021

Liza with a Z and the Making of a Homosexual

Will future generations of gay men understand the brilliance of Liza Minnelli at her peak?

Last night I watched Liza with a Z on PBS (OK, it was actually the second time I watched it this week) and I had to ask myself, Why was this such a formative part of my gay experience?

I’d seen the original broadcast in 1972 and I had the album. I used to sing along to the album in front of my living room mirror. I knew all the words to every song. (I still do.) Why did this show have such a great impact on me?

Of course, it’s a cliché to say that gay men like Liza Minnelli (or Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler—pick a diva). Why is that?

There’s actually a scholarly, academic book written on the subject. It’s called How to Be Gay. (I kid you not.) If I understand the book’s premise correctly, there’s something about the expressiveness of female singers and musical theater that appeals to gay men in particular. Maybe it’s because it gives them permission to be sensitive in a way that’s not normally allowed for heterosexual men.

Maybe it’s also the glamour of musicals. The costumes! The sets! Why is that a gay thing?

The book also talked about the idea of camp.

What is camp? Again, if I understand the book correctly, camp is when something that is intended to be taken seriously has the opposite effect. A perfect example of this would be the movie Mommie Dearest.

Mommie Dearest is the ur camp film of my generation. (For the previous generation, it was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) I’m sure Mommie Dearest was meant to be taken seriously. And that’s what makes it so fucking hysterical, at least to gay men. (I’ve never seen a straight man’s reaction to Mommie Dearest. Has a straight man even seen Mommie Dearest?)

There’s not a gay man of my generation, including myself, who can’t recite any number of lines from Mommie Dearest verbatim. (“No wire hangers ever!” “I am not one of your fans!” “Christina! Bring me the axe!” I could go on.) I can distinctly remember sitting inside Splash, a New York City gay bar that was popular in the ‘90s, watching clips from Mommie Dearest on their video monitors and hearing a chorus of gay men reciting these lines in unison. Why is that?

There’s another phenomenon about gay men I’ve noticed that’s touched upon in this book. Why is it that gay men identify with female characters and female-driven shows like Golden Girls? Why is it that gay men are attracted to drag queens?

As a performer who has tried (and sometimes succeeded) to get booked in gay venues, I have often asked myself this question. Why will an audience of gay men sit and watch a drag queen lip synch to a song? What is the attraction or entertainment value? Why is it that Hedda Lettuce, who I happen to think is a great writer, can reap thunderous applause in drag, but wouldn’t be given the time of day by a gay audience out of drag?

I think there’s a power dynamic at play here. I think by donning drag, gay men simultaneously make themselves more vulnerable and give themselves permission to say things they’d never be allowed to say out of drag. I think the dynamic can be summed as: “You (drag queen) may be making fun of me (gay male audience member), but at least I’m not a drag queen (i.e., undesirable to other gay men).”

Which brings me back to Liza Minnelli.

Liza Minnelli is, in some ways, a drag queen. (And, God knows, millions of drag queens have impersonated Liza Minnelli, as well as other divas.) Her exaggerated features and makeup practically scream “drag queen.” (I think she was wearing two sets of fake eyelashes in Liza with a Z.)

But one thing that Liza Minnelli and other great performers (especially female performers) have in common is that they “leave everything on the stage.” There’s a sense that they cannot even exist without performing.

And, yes, there were other things about Liza with a Z

that made it the award-winning show that’s still being shown 50 years later: Bob Fosse’s choreography, Halston’s costumes, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s (the songwriters behind Cabaret and Chicago) music and lyrics. And just the whole louche, sexual ’70s vibe.

And that is (part of) what has made me the gay man I am today.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

This Is 60: A Meditation on Fire Island and Other Matters of Great Importance

My original plan was to do a major think piece on the occasion of my 60th birthday. But a birthday trip to Fire Island changed all that, as a trip to Fire Island often does.

Nevertheless, as I enter my seventh decade, I’ve been taking stock.

I realize that there is more time behind me than there is in front of me, as the saying goes. I’m not “old,” (I don’t feel old and I don’t think I look old, either), but I can no longer claim to be young, either. And that’s a serious liability in our youth-obsessed culture.

Mind you, I’m not your father’s 60. (Indeed, my father had all his teeth pulled when he was 54. I’m already 6 years ahead of him, and I have all—ok, most—of my teeth.)

I’m at an inflection point where I’ve come to realize that some of the things I had hoped to achieve may never happen. On the other hand, some things I’d never expected to achieve may happen.

Part of this is a reckoning with what our society defines as success.

I’ve always felt like our society has an unhealthy relationship with success. Success is often defined by money and fame. But when I think about the people who’ve had the most influence on my life, they are neither rich nor famous.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided that if I continue to do comedy (or write, or act, or sing), it’s going to be for the love of doing it, not for the expectation that I’ll become rich or famous.

Art is what defines me, it’s what feeds my soul, and I think it’s one of the few things that separates humans from animals.

But as much as I enjoy doing stand-up comedy, what I really enjoy is the social aspect of it. Comedians are my people. They “get” me, and I “get” them. And in a world where it’s become increasingly difficult to make connections, stand-up comedy has provided me with a community of people I never would have known otherwise. In addition to being funny, they’re also supportive and, in their own way, loving.

And here’s the thing. I personally know about 1,000 comedians just in New York City. Most of them are funny. None of them are famous and almost none of them make any money doing stand-up comedy. They do it for the same reason I do: they love doing it.

Why does success destroy so many people? Why do we take pleasure in others’ pain, particularly the pain of famous people?

Why is there an entire genre of documentary which I refer to as “grief porn” (c.f., Whitney Houston’s Why Can’t I Be Me? and the Amy Winehouse doc) that takes advantage of this peculiar aspect of human nature (and which, I’m ashamed to say, I’m addicted to)?

On the other hand, when I think of the things I’ve had to do just to pay my rent, it can make me cry, even if I sometimes try to rationalize some of my jobs as “acting exercises.”

I’ve spent my entire life working just to pay my bills. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had just been born rich.

I sometimes think that in order to go into a creative field you either have to be very rich or very poor.

I recently started a new career in real estate for two reasons. 1. Companies aren’t hiring people over 50 2. I’m tired of want ads and HR bullshit. (Ironically, companies have finally figured out, post-pandemic, that they’ve been doing things wrong, and now they’re having trouble hiring people.) Our ageist society tells people that once they hit 50 they’re no longer useful. Our president is 78 and I’d like to think that at least part of the reason he was elected because of his experience.

So far, I’ve been making poverty-level money. But just this weekend, landlords raised the fee they charge back to normal, pre-pandemic levels. And my “team” was granted exclusive rights to represent a building on the Upper East Side. Which leads me to Fire Island.

I needed a break. I had reached my limit. And I was determined not to spend my 60th birthday working.

It’s funny how we try to construct our own narrative.

I’m a creature of habit because it creates the illusion that we live in an ordered universe and that it’s not just a random series of events.

After coming to Fire Island since 1986, I’ve learned how to compress my Fire Island vacation into one day: walk on the beach, go swimming, have sex, eat out. I have it down to a science: lunch at Sand Castle, dinner at Island Breeze, breakfast at Floyd’s, Hedda Lettuce at Cherry’s.

But I can’t help thinking, how many Fire Island vacations do I have left?

My back started hurting me the day before I left for Fire Island and I started thinking, “Is this how I’m going to die?” You start having those kinds of thoughts when you get to be my age.

Andrew Holleran had a book of short stories called In September the Light Changes, which was the follow up to his Fire Island novel, Dancer from the Dance. I always thought that was a great title.

And so I choose to believe the glass is half full rather than half empty. I refuse to be a victim.

And I recognize that there will be challenges. (The Belvedere was sold out, I couldn’t charge my phone and my hotel room couldn’t get wifi.)

Happy birthday to me.