RuPaul’s Drag Race finds common ground between drag and stand-up

RuPaul’s Drag Race finds common ground between drag and stand-up

It may be TV’s best reality show

RuPaul’s Drag Race, “Ru Ha Ha” (season three, episode seven; originally aired 3/7/2011)

In which the laughs don’t come easily…

(Available on Hulu.)

Genevieve Koski: When it comes to reality competitions, drama is easy—it’s comedy that’s hard. Intentional comedy, anyway: While most reality-TV competitors come armed with at least a vague knowledge of how to manipulate the genre’s conventions to create interpersonal drama, and to reap the attendant screen time, most of the humor on reality-competition shows is of the unintentional variety: moments of extreme un-self-awareness or ironic juxtaposition stitched together in the editing room to create laughing-at-them-not-with-them moments. Except on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which easily snatches the crown of Funniest Reality Competition Series On Television.

Not that such moments of unintentional humor aren’t used liberally in the show; the Drag Race editors are reliably brilliant at stitching together hilarious scenes of the queens caught off guard in moments of embarrassing humanity. But being intentionally funny is programmed into the DNA of drag performance—at least the strain of it that’s practiced by RuPaul and her protégés—and Drag Race follows suit, in its relentless punnery, in its gleeful pop culture appropriation, in its shameless approach to sponsorship and product placement, and especially in its devilishly clever challenges, which are frequently designed with utmost humiliation in mind—because if a queen can’t face potential embarrassment head-on and rise above, she has no right to the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. And of all the things Mama Ru has had her girls do, few have been more terrifyingly, cringingly brutal than when she made them perform stand-up comedy.

I admit, the first time I watched “Ru Ha Ha,” I had to leave the room at certain parts. Few things make me more viscerally uneasy than bad stand-up comedy, and “Ru Ha Ha” is lousy with it, particularly in the early going, when the queens are workshopping their routines with special guest judge Rita Rudner. Stand-up is such a hard thing to teach, and to learn: Being naturally charismatic isn’t the same thing as being able to write a joke, and being able to write a joke isn’t the same as being able to sell a joke onstage. Drag performance places a high premium on banter, and on “throwing shade,” or insults—which we get a glimpse of in this episode’s lackluster “reading is fundamental” mini-challenge—but turning that into a three-minute stand-up routine is not a skill most queens possess. This places season-three underdog and budding stand-up comedian Shangela at an advantage, but really, the only queens who emerge from “Ru Ha Ha” with their dignity intact are those who are willing to cast it aside for this challenge, as when body-conscious Carmen Carrera dons a fat suit, or Puerto Rican queen Yara Sofia does… whatever the hell she does here. Conversely, those who get too into their own heads, or hide behind protective walls of shtick—Manila Luzon and her tired Sesame Street routine, Delta Work and her “sad fat girl” tragedy—flounder. (Fish pun most certainly intended.)

Perversely, much of “Ru Ha Ha” just isn’t that funny, thanks in part to the annoying group dynamics that had taken hold at this point in the season. (Shangela describes the two warring factions as “Team Talent and Team Look,” while those on “Team Look” call themselves the “Heathers” to the other group’s “Boogers.”) But it’s more because most of these queens are all so out of their element with this challenge, and it obviously scares the shit out of them. Never has comedy been so dramatic.  

And that’s ultimately what I find so compelling about this episode: It’s not the funniest Drag Race (though I still laugh at Shangela’s “I said WHAT” every time), but it is a fascinating dissection of the serious business of comedy, of the work that goes into creating laughter. It’s something we tend not to think about as audience members, reaping the rewards of the effort put in by those who seek to make us laugh; “Ru Ha Ha” puts us on the other side of the mic, and the view is absolutely terrifying.

Zack, did “Ru Ha Ha” give you the same empathetic anxiety it gave me? And more importantly, did any of the queens’ routines provide the cathartic release of genuine laughter?

Zack Handlen: I was incredibly uncomfortable during that segment, and I can’t really assess anyone’s individual routines, as I spent most of the time going between my bedroom (which has my TV in it) and the kitchen (which does not). Humiliation is never an easy watch for me, even when it’s just the potential for humiliation like it was here; I can remember many evenings as a kid having to rush out of the room before the climax of any given Three’s Company episode, because I just couldn’t handle the stress of it. Reality TV makes it worse, because these are actual people going through hell, and… gah. What I did manage to watch wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, and viewed from a more objective perspective, the whole thing was pretty low-key and, oddly I want to say, sweet? Or fundamentally good-natured, at least, with everyone playing to win, yet still sad at the fact that someone definitely had to lose. But whatever part of my lizard brain that takes over during this stuff could not take it. I tried though. I swear I did.

I’ve never seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race before (I don’t watch reality or competition television regularly), but I’d heard enough about it to know that it was well regarded. While I don’t have much to compare it to, I think I can see why. Given their essentially performative nature, drag queens are a natural fit for this kind of program; the reality TV I’ve seen tends to both exaggerate and flatten out human emotion into easily understandable arcs, and part of being a drag queen is taking deeply personal desires and passions and transforming them into flashy, striking spectacle. 

Much of this episode has the various competitors throwing shade at one another (including a mini-competition which is literally just that), making big pronouncements about their plans, and doing their best to project an air of absolute confidence even while acknowledging their understandable fear about the week’s big challenge. Everything has an air of showmanship to it, an intentionality, which, while standard for reality TV, also feels deeply rooted to the individual personas. There’s a moment when Gabriel Villarreal (who performs as Delta Work, the only queen to get cut this week) privately despairs, and the camera catches him with his hands against the sides of his face, clearly worried; it’s a gesture so obvious and demonstrative that it wouldn’t be out of place in silent film, but at the same time there’s something personal and undeniably honest about it. With the other reality TV I’ve seen, there’s this constant cognitive dissonance as you try and catch the “real” person underneath the layers of editing and contrivance. Here, the editing, contrivance, and performance all combine into a special sort of theatrical authenticity. It’s very cool.

Also cool: that fundamental good-naturedness I mentioned before. The main challenge is utterly terrifying, and I was expecting the judge’s critiques at the end to be, if not harsh, at least brutal about the various queens’ failings. While there was definitely effective criticism, the sessions were almost uniformly welcoming and encouraging, and the show walks a neat line between “this is definitely a competition” and “we’re honestly delighted everyone showed up and did their best.” Maybe I’m just a sap, and maybe there are darker undercurrents that I’m missing. The queens themselves were definitely out for blood, no question. But even between them, I really believed that their sadness at losing Delta at the end was legitimate; it was at least partially defined by relief that they themselves didn’t get booted, but still. And RuPaul is just fantastic. I want her as my life coach. 

But man, those comedy routines were hard to get through. They weren’t even that terrible, to be honest. I just kept flashing back to college, and having to sit through bad theater, which is the absolute worst. You can see the people right there, dying on stage, and you feel so incredibly uncomfortable that you can’t even laugh at them, which just makes them flounder even more. I liked the lip-synching competition a lot, though. Carrie, what did you think of the final duel between Delta Work and Manila Luzon? And what did you think of Rita Rudner’s appearance?

Carrie Raisler: So here’s the thing: I don’t really “get” stand-up comedy. That’s an exaggeration, sure, but not much of one; obviously I understand what stand-up comedy is, how it’s structured, and its purpose. I just don’t think it’s all that funny, most of the time, and as a consequence of this disinterest I don’t know much about the art form or its history. (Zack asked about Rita Rudner—I actually don’t know anything about her other than the ads you see for her show when walking down the Las Vegas strip. Sad, but true.) 

I especially don’t think it’s all that funny to watch stand-up comedy on television. In person you can sort of get wrapped up in the energy of the audience, get swept away in the mass joviality of the scene, and have a decent time. On television it feels like this inanimate thing, sitting there and daring you to force a smile. A very talented comedian can work through this barrier and make a connection enough to make me laugh. This episode, for obvious reasons, did not feature any of those moments, which made it tough for me to get through. What Genevieve and Zack read as awkward to me felt tiresome, not as a fault of the show or the episode, but simply as a symptom of my larger disdain for the subject matter of the main challenge of the episode. I found myself paying attention to the costumes and makeup far more than the actual comedy, simply to get through it all.

This is unfortunate, because like Zack, this is the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race I’ve ever seen, so it probably isn’t the best first impression for the show to make. As a reality TV format, divorced from my larger issues with the stand-up comedy challenge, it seems like a fun (if formulaic) show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is a nice breath of fresh air in the land of overly serious reality-competition shows. I worked in reality television development for half a decade, thus I’ve seen a lot of awful and generic reality crap from all over the world, and Drag Race definitely stands out as having unique flair in a veritable ocean of bland shows. What I especially enjoyed was what Zack asked about, the final duel to determine who would go home. When Delta Work and Manila Luzon started performing their asses off right there on the spot—still in their challenge costumes!—it was absolutely delightful, so sudden and fun and weird, and as the makeup was running off of Manila’s face my brain shouted “Yes! This is what I wanted to be watching all along!” The idea of having the ladies lip sync for their lives on the spot, together on the stage, almost saved the episode for me by itself.

But the rest of the episode was where I struggled. When the contestants got together for the “reading is fundamental” mini-challenge at the beginning, this is where I felt uncomfortable, because I had literally no idea what was going on. Who are these people? Why are they being so mean to each other? What is up with those glasses people are passing around? I literally stared in a kind of a gap-mouthed awe, just trying to process exactly what I was seeing, and feeling awkward that I was having such a hard time following along. Once the episode switched to the far more familiar second challenge and fell into the rhythm of a typical episode of reality television, my brain re-engaged. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of “What the hell is happening here?” Luckily I had RuPaul to guide me through to the end, and she is just about the best guiding force in television. You immediately want to follow, no matter where she leads you.

I’ll stop talking about my weird personal issues with stand-up comedy now and give a more normal person a turn to weigh in. Todd, what did you think of the episode? Did it work for you as a breakdown of the process of creating stand-up comedy better than it did for me? 

Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve seen just enough Drag Race over the years to understand why it’s one of TV’s best reality competition shows and know why my wife gets so much joy out of it. The reality-competition genre is rarely my cup of tea, so I don’t watch the show very often. But I love RuPaul’s hosting work (she really is one of the best on TV), and I like how inventive the show is. From time to time, it really does feel like a deconstruction of the reality-show format, as if the series is trying to tear it down to its base level and figure out what makes it tick. It’s a meta-commentary on reality shows; at the same time, it’s this beautiful, weirdly sincere show about what it means to be true to oneself, all buried within a program that concludes with a dramatic lip-syncing competition.

I should say that I’m a little bit on Carrie’s side here. I’m not a huge stand-up devotee (or a huge sketch-comedy fan, either). I have stand-up comedians I like quite a bit, and I’ve had a good time at a handful of comedy shows over the years. But it’s not something I go out of my way to see or to examine, and the stuff I do like I try not to think about a lot. At the same time, I think it fits very well in the midst of Drag Race, which often strikes me as a program that’s all about how we attempt to find some sort of inner truth via performance in all its forms. The queens may not be very good at stand-up, but Ru is trying to expose them to a form that others use as a window into the soul as surely as the queens use drag. Now, granted, I don’t want to stretch this comparison too far. Drag queens are part of a traditionally marginalized subculture, while stand-ups have traditionally been straight white guys (though that’s changing more and more). But there’s something to the way that both drag and stand-up place some essential version of the self out there on stage, so that it might be judged. Both use humor to deflect from the sheer audacity of doing that, but the best drag queens and the best stand-up comedians also get at something very pure about what it means to express the self so fundamentally.

That said, I don’t know if “Ru Ha Ha” was my favorite episode I’ve ever seen of this show. It probably struggles a bit for a casual viewer for having come in the middle of a season (when reality is so reliant on viewers getting to know contestants over time), but once we got to the segment where Rudner helps the queens come up with material that might be fitting for their personae, the whole thing starts to come together for me. I was taken with the way that Rudner kept trying to push them not to the same place, but to a place that was fitting for each queen. One would focus on the personal; another would skew toward social commentary; another would do a weird routine about little people that bordered on the line of the tasteless. “How are you going to be you?” That is the central question of every good Drag Race episode, and Rudner was great at bringing this out in the queens.

Genevieve, what is it about this program that makes it a cut above other reality shows, do you think? Try and sell the three of us on becoming full-time viewers. I’m certainly game!

GK: I think you all, in your efforts to tactfully say, “Sorry, Genevieve, I really didn’t dig this episode very much,” have done a good job explicating what I love about Drag Race. Zack homed in on its essential good-naturedness, which stems from the idea of sisterhood that’s integral to drag culture; with the exception of the occasional incident of genuine nastiness, most of the “drama” on Drag Race is at least 50 percent performative, and is generally overridden in the end by the bond these contestants share, due not only to their experience on this show, but their experience as drag queens. Carrie seemed to respond to the show’s over-the-top sensibility and theatricality, which culminates at the end of every episode with the “Lip Synch For Your Life” duel to determine which of the bottom two contestants will go home. And Todd makes the point about how it regularly comments on identity, on the idea that we all essentially “perform” who we are; drag just takes that to an extreme, creating an entirely separate persona to reflect a side of these queens that they may not express in their day-to-day lives. (Or, to use one of RuPaul’s oft-repeated mantras, “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”) All of those responses feed into why I love Drag Race so much, and why it’s practically the only reality-competition show I not only watch religiously, but can talk about forever with fellow fans. 

Which, I admit, I didn’t realize none of you were. If I had realized you all were more or less Drag Race neophytes, I probably would have picked something a little more “fun.” Not that “Ru Ha Ha” isn’t fun, but it’s a very specific kind of fun, one that’s predicated on an art form that I have a lot of appreciation for and interest in, but that’s not a universal opinion. This is not the episode I would pick to introduce newbies to the show, even though it has some series-high moments—the “MacArthur Park” lip-synch in particular, which stands among the show’s all-time best thanks to Manila’s all-in performance. It’s not even my favorite episode of the show; I’d be hard-pressed to name one, actually, since my love of Drag Race is really more of a sum-of-many-parts kind of thing. (Part of that is just the nature of reality programming, too, which rarely works as stand-alone episodes, as Todd alludes to.) But as I said before, I find “Ru Ha Ha” fascinating, and it’s stuck with me over the years. That could be because stand-up is one of those things I’ve always fantasized about trying myself, but my shyness and stage fright won’t allow it. I find it incredible that these people, who all perform in front of crowds regularly, are so petrified to do this thing that seems only a couple small steps removed from what they do as drag queens. But as regular Drag Race viewers or drag-culture connoisseurs (or participants) know, there are many strains of drag: You have your pageant queens, your club queens, your theater queens, your comedy queens, and on and on; it all plays into the idea of creating identity. When these queens are asked to work both inside and outside of their established identity, they sort of short-circuit (except Shangela, who’s comfortably in her wheelhouse). 

Zack, there are a lot of different kinds of performance going on in “Ru Ha Ha,” both on stage and behind the scenes. Was there one aspect or performance that struck you as particularly interesting? Or even just one particular queen you found more interesting than the others?

ZH: Well, performance-wise, I was impressed by Raja’s Carrie-inspired routine. During their consultation session, Rudner advised Sutan (Raja) that building an entire performance around a movie that the audience may or may not have even seen was a very risky approach, but Sutan stuck to his guns, and as Raja, made it work to a degree I wasn’t expecting. While I had a hard time watching the performances, I agree with Genevieve that this sort of closer look at a specific kind of creative process is fascinating; it reminded me of acting class and various assignments that forced you to think differently about performance and what sort of “self” you were putting out on stage. It was all too easy to imagine how terrified I’d be in those queens’ shoes, the whole process of being initially excited about writing something, feeling proud of it, and then, as the time to perform got closer and closer, losing the enthusiasm and feeling the inevitable panic set in. So I liked Raja’s turn because I was expecting a disaster, and she owned that shit. She had her bit, and she made it work, and that’s inspiring to watch, even if I was running in and out of the room at the time.

Stand-up comedy has always seemed the most terrifying sort of live performance to me (apart from acts that put you in actual physical danger), if only because the demands are so specific, and so immediate. Doing a play, you have the structure of someone else’s script to protect you, and the story and character to hide behind; stand-up requires you to build a persona, but that persona is a part of yourself, and you know immediately if your act isn’t working. If you aren’t getting laughs, you just aren’t getting laughs, and it would take an incredibly resilient ego to handle that. So while I enjoyed Raja’s routine the most, the queen I related to was Delta Work, who decided on a self-lacerating approach that had me flashing back to all the horrible shit I used to say about myself in school, because I thought that would be the only way I could get people to like me. There was something embarrassingly human and sad and frustrating about Delta’s performance, made all the more moving by the fact that she ended up going home. There wasn’t any real redemption moment for her, and that final lip-synch battle made it obvious that she just wasn’t up to par—if I had been one of the judges, I would’ve made the same choice. I like that a lot; not because it’s cruel, but because it makes sense that trying to turn your fears and self-loathing into an appeal for pity isn’t an approach that can work long-term.

I don’t think I’ll be watching this show again, because reality competitions just aren’t something I inherently enjoy; but I’m really grateful I got a chance to see this, because I have a much better sense of why people love this show so much. It’s a lovable show. Carrie, did you feel the same, and is this something you think you’ll check out again?

CR: I’m definitely glad I watched the episode so I could experience the show and understand why people like it so much, even if it’s not something I’ll likely check out again in the future. This is mostly for personal reasons; I’ve watched so much reality television in my lifetime by necessity that it takes an awful lot to get me to pick up a new reality show (with the ones I still watch limited to shows I’ve been a faithful viewer of since the beginning, like Survivor and Big Brother). But this is a lovable show, and it’s obvious the producers have a great eye for casting, which to me is the key element to making a great reality show. One episode isn’t enough time to truly connect to any of the contestants, but the sheer force of the personalities involved here shines through even in that short period of time, which is really impressive.

The one thing that could get me to check out another episode was what Genevieve mentioned about Drag Race often deconstructing the reality genre in a cheeky way. That’s something truly interesting to me, and something I didn’t get much from this episode in particular. One of my favorite seasons of a reality show of all time is the first season of The Joe Schmo Show, which was basically an entire show about deconstructing the genre, so if this episode had leaned toward that aim more than the stand-up comedy challenge I definitely think my interest would have been more piqued. But that’s the thing with reality: More than in scripted genres, beyond the few big, loud formats that remain on the broadcast networks, much of reality television feels compartmentalized to appeal to a very specific subset of viewers. Hell, entire network lineups have been built around this concept. Drag Race as it’s presented in this episode might not fit my specific compartment, but who knows? A different episode just might.

TV: I’m sure I’ll be keeping at least one eye on Drag Race for as long as it runs, just because of that joy we’ve all felt somewhere in it and because it’s one of my wife’s favorite shows. But I also love something Genevieve mentioned: The queens are usually just performing at being in a reality show. Underneath it all, they form bonds and connections as powerful as any on scripted TV, and those bonds end up informing so much of the drama as their numbers dwindle. While that describes a lot of reality competition shows, the world that Drag Race is set in is so specific and insular that it can’t help but seem as if it forms even stronger bonds than usual. So many of the best television shows offer the feeling of eavesdropping on some other world you might never get to visit, and Drag Race offers that in spades.

And as someone who did a very small amount of stand-up a long time ago, I’ll say this: Do it, Genevieve! At the very least, you’ll learn exactly how little you wanted to do it in the first place, and at best, you’ll find a new calling. And isn’t that kind of what Drag Race is all about? Or, as RuPaul would have it, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?”

Next time: Ryan McGee and his group travel back to the Island with Lost’s “Man Behind The Curtain.”

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