The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: having fun at holiday time.
RuPaul is a lot of things—supermodel, drag icon, de facto motivational speaker—but more than anything, RuPaul is fun—and not necessarily meaningless, fluffy fun. RuPaul’s message has always been to love oneself first and to speak one’s own truth, and when done right, that kind of personal freedom produces some downright liberating joy. Drag, to RuPaul, is a celebration of the grand joke of life. As Ru recently told The A.V. Club, “It’s so important to mock all of these things that our culture takes so seriously,” going on to say that she, like many bohemians, has come to believe that society has played a cruel prank on them, and only by finding “comfort in the irreverence and making fun of it, and in duty and joy and music, color, laughter, and dancing,” can she really recover from being duped.
It’s some heavy stuff, but it’s that kind of side-eyed glance that makes RuPaul’s Christmas Ball, a special that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in 1993, really work. Christmas can have a kind of joy to it, but it’s frequently a somber joy tempered in religion and forced love for family. RuPaul’s Christmas Ball, on the other hand, celebrates life at its most fleeting, joy at its most bawdy, and the family you choose for yourself rather than the family you’re assigned. In essence, it’s a very New York club Christmas.
Filmed for Channel 4’s oddly themed Christmas In New York week, RuPaul’s Christmas Ball is part vintage Christmas special, complete with crooned carols and blankets of fake snow, and part downtown drag show. It incorporates the catcalling and quickness of Laugh In with the bawdiness present in the lives of a bunch of early-’90s New York club kids. Though RuPaul is joined by a number of celebrity guests (Elton John, La Toya Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Boy George, Nirvana), the real stars of the show (besides Ru herself) are the Downtown Drag Time Players, a motley crew of drag queens and nightlife icons like Flloyd and Sherry Vine.
The hour-long special opens with the Drag Time Players clad in elf costumes, making wire-hanger jokes. It only gets wilder from there. After a deliciously over-the-top Ru monologue about how, if you can’t love yourself, “How the hell you going to love somebody else?” (something Ru’s still on to this day on Drag Race), the show devolves into kitschy takes on Susan Powter infomercials and the Home Shopping Network. In “Start The Insanity,” Ru advocates the Tushy Terminator, which is “guaranteed to give you the tush of a 12-year-old.” She also advises a faux-Liza Minnelli to go on the Tic Tac Diet, a plan that includes one Tic Tac for breakfast, one for lunch, and a nice glass of water for dinner.
Later, former SNL player Laura Kightlinger comes up to mess around with La Toya Jackson who, as RuPauline, insists she’s RuPaul’s “younger, prettier” sister. RuPaul also hosts the Queen Of England (or a fairly poor drag version thereof), whom she calls Betty. The Queen proceeds to help her move goods on the Home Shopping Network. One of the items the two are selling is a watercolor supposedly done by Prince Charles, titled “Flaming Queen.” Pictured is a burning Windsor Castle, which went up in very real flames in 1992.
While the Home Shopping sketch is a smart nod to the show’s U.K. viewers, most of the special is more a vehicle for RuPaul than it is for holiday cheer. A Madea-like skit about “Hattie Ruth’s Country Kitchen” is more about fake boobs and Courvoisier than it is about holiday cheer. The same goes for a sketch that casts RuPaul as a sassy flight attendant who’s just full of one-liners. And while Elton John comes on to sing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and play dress-up with Ru, the visuals make it look more like Valentine’s Day than Christmas. Boy George sort of makes up for it with his soulful rendition of Bread’s “Everything I Own,” which could conceivably be a song about forgiving and friendship at Christmas. Nirvana’s brief version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and Taylor Dayne’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (complete with blowjob gestures!) also help.
What really makes RuPaul’s Christmas Ball a solid holiday special is its loony set design. A giant, cartoonish cabin is covered in snow and serves as the set for the show’s Laugh In-blackout-style play. Drag Time players pop out of chimneys and windows to whip corny jokes at each other, the vast majority of which are more campy than festive. (“Did you hear about the gay German? He ate off Hitler!” or “How do you like your coffee?” “The same way I like my men.” “We don’t have any gay coffee here.”) In one sketch alone, there are three jokes about gay tennis player Martina Navratilova. Still, because it’s cloaked in this kind of Christmas cheer, with performers wearing elf ears and leaning on shoddy-looking cardboard painted with fake snow, it all works. They’re having fun, and it’s obvious. They’re friends who love each other, who have made lives with each other. This is their Christmas, and they’ve invited us.
What really brings that message home is the slightly campy but surprisingly soulful take on “Little Drummer Boy” RuPaul performs at the end of the show. While Grace Jones’ performance on 1988’s Christmas At Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is hard to beat, RuPaul does an admirable job. Joined by the Downtown Drag Time players outfitted as Wise Men, drummer boys, and even Mary and Joseph, the whole thing could be very tongue in cheek. Rather than bringing the show to a loving, reverent close, it could come off as a jab at anyone who might actually believe in the whole birth-of-Jesus thing. Instead, the song and the performance become a celebration of spirituality and of life. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and RuPaul are all in the same room together, and they’re all celebrating Christmas. It might sound weird in theory, but in practice, it’s an image that’s charmingly pure. If we love ourselves, and we love each other, we’ll get through Christmas just fine, no matter who we’re with.
Tomorrow: The first Christmas classic in a relatively new musical genre.