Political satirist, Randy Rainbow, on life beyond his parodies

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The political satirist talks about life beyond its parodies and what it’s like to offer levity during intense times

There are clearly far worse things going on in the world, but political parody sensation Randy Rainbow has a bone to pick with some people. And this time it’s not with Marjorie Taylor Greene. Not even with Donald Trump.
“I’m throwing my team under the bus,” he joked on camera, after hopping on Zoom at the last minute when he recalled our interview, which was “on everyone’s calendar. except mine.”
“I was about to take a bubble bath,” he said, “but I’m glad to be with you.”
At the time of our interview in April, Rainbow was on her press tour to discuss her debut memoir, “Playing with Myself.” The humanizing book chronicles his life growing up as an imaginative and misunderstood boy, before he became known for his playful research into right-wing figures, reworking famous Broadway songs to pique the sheer madness of those who make decisions really terrible policies. We meet Nanny, his beloved late grandmother; we go back to the video that launched his viral career, when he pretended to be Mel Gibson; we learn more about her comedy and Broadway origins and how it grew into a career in its own right, earning her three Emmy nominations and celebrity fans such as Patti LuPone and even, yes, Carol Burnett.

I was talking to a friend about interviewing you and he said, “Is he going to sing?”
Why would I just sing? You see, this is the fake news about me. Everyone thinks I’m a madman bursting into song.

Why would you just sing? Maybe because you built a career on it, I don’t know.
True. If we were out having a few drinks, I’d probably be singing constantly and you’d tell me to shut up. But not always.

In addition to LGBTQ+ fans, you have a lot of mom fans.
They hit me. It’s inappropriate.

They didn’t learn about consent, apparently.
Mothers don’t know about consent. I take it as a compliment. I see it as a Barry Manilow/Liberace kind of thing.

So the book: You’re extremely vulnerable to it, and I just want to tell you that I appreciate you sharing intimate parts of your life with us. I really appreciate that you’ve been to some intricate and convoluted places. Especially with family.
I’m glad to be on Zoom today, because it’s really nice to hear and I appreciate that. I went to vulnerable places. I was certainly rawer than I’ve ever been publicly.

Was there a time when you decided that “if I’m going to write a book, I have to tell this part of the story to tell my whole story”? And if so, when was that point in the process for you?
From the start, I intended to be as vulnerable and as real as possible. People have been so generous with their praise – mothers across the country. And everyone who’s written to me over the years, especially the last five years, and come to my show and my meetings, they’re so generous with their praise and…gratitude is the word.
They thank me for passing them on. Take them through Trump, take them through the pandemic, take them through their own personal struggles, and they offer their emotional selves to me, and in such a real way. And I realized that was so nice, but it’s not really a two-way street right now, because these people only know the two-dimensional personality that they’ve come to know, which is definitely part of of me.
But they don’t really know that I’m a complicated person who has her own insecurities, flaws and heartaches, and who’s faced her own adversities in life. So I really wanted to seize the moment and, as a gift for these followers who have been with me for years and for myself, to really come out and put it on the table.

What do mothers of LGBTQ+ children tell you?
I meet so many mothers. A lot of them come to my live shows, and a lot of them bring their little kids who sometimes dress like me and look like Liza Minnelli, and they have the bows and the rose-colored glasses. And they say a variety of things, one of which is adorable: “Thank you for being a role model for my child as someone who is shameless himself.”
And then sometimes, during the meetings, they ask: “My son behaves this way and I want to support him. What’s your advice?” I’m not an expert on this, but I do know that I had a mother who I think did the perfect thing, which was to create a safe environment for me to be this that I wanted to be. she didn’t push [me] somehow she didn’t make it her thing. She simply provided a safe space, and to me, that’s the best advice I can offer a mother with a little boy or girl like me. I hope some of these mothers will read this and take away something valuable from it.

It’s your first book. So how was it? Did you get up in the middle of the night with a thought and write an entire chapter at 3am? And how does that compare to writing your musical parodies?
Yes to all that. I don’t have to tell you: as a writer, you walk around with these things that come to mind. So yeah, there was a lot of jumping at 2 or 3 in the morning and taking notes. I found the experience to be many things. It was much more moving than I thought; I cried a lot through the good and the bad.
These are the memories that have lit up the corners of my mind, to quote Barbra, for many years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to really root them out and put them on paper. So it was very cathartic, very moving, fun, I loved it, and different in that it was my first time doing real autobiographical writing. So it was a pleasure.
Again, one of the most satisfying things about it is that I can tell if you love me…because some people love me, some people hate me, and my first thought when someone says something positive or negative thing on social media or elsewhere is that it’s interesting because you don’t know me yet. In fact, you don’t know me. So here’s a bit of the real me, and then decide. Now you can really hate me. Or love me. Picking out. But if you’re judging, again, this two-dimensional, scripted, campy character, then you don’t know the whole story yet.

And there’s a whole chapter for those who still hate you because of the tweets you sent in 2010 and 2011 that were deemed racist and homophobic, for which you apologized.
There’s a lot of sunshine and Santa Claus in this book, which means I’m talking about a lot of happy, joyful, excited, fun and positive things, but it wasn’t that fun or positive as I lived. And I wanted to talk about it because it’s a subject that interests me. I am interested in this conversation, and I now have a personal perspective that I did not have before. So I wanted to add that to the public conversation. It’s not a 15-page mea culpa, it’s not a full apology, because I apologized for what I wanted to apologize for.
It was a lesson in humility, I learned a lot, but as I say at the end, I cannot conclude properly. It’s a very nuanced discussion, especially coming from someone who’s an actor and doesn’t like to put restrictions on the art.

Considering what happened the night Will Smith attacked Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars after Chris’ prank, does that have you worried about the state of comedy? It was Kathy Griffin who recently expressed concerns that others are following in Will’s footsteps when a joke is made that someone doesn’t like.
It’s one of my concerns, but I don’t know if it started that night. I think we’re in a very strange place, and people are angry and taking out aggression in places that really don’t belong.
We’re in such a horrible place in the world and there are wars and pandemics, and it’s just a really tough time. And I felt bad for a country that plugged in to get some levity and get away for a few hours, and had to see this hero, this person they idolize… I’m definitely a Will Smith fan. They were to see him attack another idol and another hero of ours. It was so sad for me. It was just sad that we couldn’t get that little escape we wanted so badly.

You said you were scared before it even happened to play your own political comedy.
People ask me all the time, “Are you worried about it?” I am satirical and I parody. My satire certainly leans in one direction. But that’s something I try not to think too much about, because what can you do?

I wonder if it’s easier for people to digest your comedy since it’s filtered through an almost cartoonish lens.
I think I hope so. In my opinion, I approach these subjects in the most innocuous way possible with show tunes. So I’m interested when people are really shocked by one of my works. I have to question their intentions because it’s like, “Are you really that mad about a song from ‘The Music Man’?” People are really interested in being angry these days.

Going back to the book, what was the most moving subject for you to write about?
Certainly, everything about my grandmother, my nanny, was very moving.

She is a lot in the book. It’s not just a beautiful tribute to her, but to unconditional love and what that can mean to someone.
You must write the foreword to the paperback edition. You say such nice things and things that I was hoping to see come to fruition, and it’s so nice. And she appears in the book, these cosmic entrances that she makes. Things I hadn’t even thought about until I wrote about emotional things.
When I talk about the death of my cat at the start of the pandemic, Nanny made her presence known, I believe, in times like these too. That chapter about cats – I think there should be a pet disclaimer for my audience.
I’ve heard a lot of readers who love cats or pets say it’s brutal and tough to get through, which I love. It means to me that I did it well. Because it was a brutal experience because we locked ourselves in, and then my cat, the only other soul I shared that experience with, got sick two days later. So it was tough. But the happy ending is that I have a new cat and she’s just sitting there judging me like a female dog.

Chris Azzopardi is the editorial director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ news service. He’s interviewed a slew of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Contact him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography