INTERVIEW: The Lady Bunny brings “Clown Syndrome” to Rebel

Lady Bunny in "Clown Syndrome" (photo: Lady Bunny archives)
Lady Bunny in "Clown Syndrome" (photo: Lady Bunny archives)

For three decades now, the inimitable Lady Bunny has been making crowds squeal with her bawdy blend of cringe-worthy humor and song parodies. You can be sure that no celebrity worth their weight in gossip rags is safe from her flawlessly (falsely?)-lashed gaze and acerbic wit. One is hard-pressed to decide which is bigger, her iconically bodacious bouffant or her mouth. Bunion cemented her status in the annals of drag history in 1985 with the founding, curating and hosting of Wigstock, an outdoor drag festival that was a Village staple for over 20 years. Since then, she’s performed tirelessly as a comedienne, DJ, singer, songwriter, and actress known the world over. Her last one queen cabaret, “That Ain’t No Lady!,” enjoyed a sold-out run at New York City’s La Escuelita back in 2011 and garnered critical acclaim across the board, including mentions in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Village Voice. Now, she brings her newest raunchy revue “Clowns Syndrome” to San Francisco this weekend when she’ll be taking the stage at Rebel to shock and awe. We had a chance to catch up with Bunn Bunn to discuss her newest show, San Francisco, taking offense, and what she really thinks about Barbara Walters.

CB: In honor of Barbara Walters’ recent retirement, I’ve got to ask you Lady Bunny: What kind of tree would you be and why?

LB: I had to google this Audrey Hepburn question as I’m not a fan of Baba and she’s off my radar. I really hated her insulting, mock concern when she asked Chris Christie about his weight being a hindrance to him running for office. I don’t like Chris Christie or any other republican politician, but I almost wished he’d said “Well, no one batted an eye when a balding jew with a lisp said she wanted to be an interviewer.”

CB: You’ve been serving up your raunchy brand of drag for decades now but only recently been honored as an icon, having appeared in HBO’s “The Out List” with the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris as well as serving as Dean on RuPaul’s Drag U. Do you think this is a testament to how drag, even being a queer person in general, is gaining more mainstream momentum in America than ever before?

LB: RuPaul’s Drag Race has brought drag into the mainstream, much as the 90s saw a drag explosion which included Ru’s Supermodel and movies like To Wong Foo, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, etc. But unlike disappearing cultural blips that are movies, the TV show continues to air with new episodes/seasons and has a rabid following. I’m pretty sure that this season’s winner has rabies, too. Drag and being gay are definitely becoming more mainstream, and I love that Bill Maher says that opponents of gay marriage are like Beach Boys fans—literally dying out. However, I’d like to have the equal rights without the assimilation because I’ve always thought that gay culture was better than straight. I don’t want to Party Rock to LMFAO. I liked it when gays had their own divas like Martha Wash, Grace Jones, Sylvester, Beth Ditto. The danger with assimilation is that you become the same. Yawn!

CB: Has there ever been a time in which you felt that you somehow crossed a line? Is there a line?

LB: If you’re getting booed at your job, you may have trouble paying your bills. So I do have an internal censor that occasionally kicks in. But almost everyone I know enjoys inappropriate humor in private—so I’d be a phony if I shied away from expressing the sick stuff which makes me laugh the hardest. I have no corporate sponsors, so I might as well do things my way.

CB: You have no qualms about being crass and bullshit-proof. What does one do or say to boil the blood of the seemingly unoffendable Lady Bunny?

LB: I make a joke about Sandy Hook in this show which raises eyebrows. Of course it was a dreadful incident. But as with 9/11, so many want to only grieve and never give any thought about how if something is so atrocious, what do we do to prevent it? I may joke about Sandy Hook, but I also actively try to spread awareness about this country’s absurd gun laws. (See: Trayvon Martin.) And it’s odd that people boohoo over 9/11 crying “Never forget!” when Bush “forgot” the warnings that terrorists would strike using planes, the TSA “forgot” to check the 9/11 pilots against the no-fly list and most of us are “forgetting” that the subsequent, baseless war in Iraq and Nobel “Peace” Prize winner Obama’s drone use is actively creating terrorists eager to launch another attack on us just like 9/11. So it offends me that people can’t put two and two together—that they don’t even care to try. Democrats are gearing up to back Hillary, but she voted for the Iraq war despite there being no evidence of WMDs. The war broke us financially, worsened the US’s reputation worldwide and killed hundreds of thousands of innocents with our tax dollars. If this strikes you as the direction you’d like the country to go in, vote for Hillary. Because she voted for that.

CB: You clearly give queens the world over serious bouffant envy. How do you reconcile the adverse effects of hairspray on the ozone layer with the need to keep your wigs from wilting?

LB: I thought that new hairsprays no longer affected the ozone—for a few decades now. My concept of “newer” is clearly different from many! I’m actually more concerned with the hateful news that meat production advances global warming as much as cars. I’m not a vegetarian, but for climate change alone, I feel I should be. Let’s just say that there is a long list of things I’d like to give up!

CB: You’re certainly no stranger to San Francisco. What about this city keeps you coming back for more? Do you find it harder to offend in a progressive, seen-it-all kind of town such as this one?

LB: I’ve made many friends there—mostly drag queens—and I worship the food! I’ve been known to drop off my bags at my hotel and head straight to Pancho Villa in the Mission. I also adore the salad bar at Harvest. ISF is also the prettiest city in the country by far. And unlike so many US cities, it has it’s own unique flavor. I don’t drive, so I’m always drawn to places with street scenes. San Francisco is going to obviously have a large, gay audience which will get what I do. But the West Coast can be a little more politically correct. Someone booked me at a party in Portland and then insisted that I make no jokes about transsexuals or get this—the homeless. Maybe it would have been ok if I’d referred to them as apartmentally-challenged? The homeless in San Fran are so rude. They didn’t even thank me after I gave them money. The sex wasn’t that great either.

CB: Tell a little bit about your new show “Clowns Syndrome” and what we can expect when you hit the stage at Rebel this weekend.

LB: It’s fast-paced and filthy, with song parodies, Laugh-In style joke routines and new versions of what I’ve done for years. There are spoofs on a wide variety of artists from Daft Punk to Adele to Katy Perry. I sing more nowadays, and there’s material borrowed by Shirley Bassey, Bobby Gentry and musical styles from blues to hip-hop to house. Also a tribute to recently deceased DJ/producer Frankie Knuckles. And in addition to fart jokes, I’ve found my comic voice and there are several rants—about gentrification, getting lost in the internet matrix and how sick I am of the politically correct word police who are stifling creativity. I am a tranny and will use that word to describe myself and don’t view it as a slur. It’s an abbreviation for both transvestite and transsexual and I know the word as an affectionate abbreviation.

CB: What about the concept of a one-queen-show do you think made “That Ain’t No Lady!” the critically-acclaimed hit that it was?

LB: It was a combination of jokes and parodies that I’d been honing for over a decade—so in essence, it was a greatest hits revue. But I’m glad the the NY Times sent a reviewer who appreciated low-brow humor. And mentioned that while drag has become mainstream, it’s also become somewhat sanitized. But it was time for me to develop some new “hits” and Clowns Syndrome is all new. I didn’t say that it was all good or that I’d rehearsed it, but it is new!

CB: “She’s got a potty mouth and likes to whisper like a horny 16-year-old girl on the phone,” says San Francisco’s very own Juanita MORE! . This will be the first time in her party’s 10-year run that you’ll be DJing. What can we expect come Pride Sunday?

LB: Whether it’s an intimate dinner featuring her sumptuous vittles or a club night, Juanita knows how to throw a party. And her crowd is looking to be turned on to music they don’t know—whether it’s new or old. This isn’t an easy feat, since many young gays are so top 40-oriented. So it’s a pleasure to spin for people with an open ear. I’ve had an absolute blast spinning at her Booty Call on Wednesdays and it is to her credit that Juanita has cultivated a crowd with an open ear. Flats will be worn at that pool party and we are going to carry on!

CB: What’s your secret to having your hooves in so many pots and still mustering the energy to endure and stay relevant? How good does it feel to take that wig off at the end of each day?

LB: The wigs have continued to grow in proportion to the gut. So they are cumbersome and after a gig, the wig comes off right after the heels. I won’t lie—your energy subsides as you get older. But doing different things keep me interested, and it’s harder to get bored if you’re performing one day, writing a blog the next, shooting a part in a movie (we recreated Wigstock for an upcoming Heather Graham movie called My Dead Boyfriend) or writing original music. I put out a dance record called Take Me Up High last summer which went to #17 on the Billboard Dance chart—not exactly an anthem on every djs playlist, but I thought it was quality. And Juanita played it! So I’m working on a follow-up now. I’m often curious about the concept of relevance and I don’t appraise myself in those terms. I just express myself in different ways and hope that people enjoy them. If they don’t, I’ll try something new, but I’d probably do that anyway. And at the end of the day, I have yet to create that one project which “makes” me, makes me set for life financially. So that drives me as well. Resting on your laurels isn’t very comfortable unless you have a helluva lot more of them than I do!

Checkout “Clown Syndrome” today (May 24th) and Sunday (May 25th) at Rebel (1760 Market St); tickets are $20

David Rojo

David Rojo is the floor manager at Sui GENERIS (Ille) Consignment and a full-time student studying Creative Writing at CCSF. He enjoys reading, writing, red wine, conversation, and kindness.

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