Fleur de Tease “Prince Tribute Revue,” with backing band the White Beach
WHEN: Saturday (June 11), 8 p.m. and 1030 p.m., followed by dance party
WHERE: One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St.
MORE INFO: www.fleurdetease.com
“Comic Strip,” hosted by Chris Lane
WHERE: Siberia, 2227 St. Claude Ave.
While many of the attendees of this past weekend’s Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas were excited about the crowning of Miss Poison Ivory as Miss Exotic World, a lot of the action that drew attention centered around controversial comments from two male emcees at different events. (Check out 21st Century Burlesque posts on Dusty Limits and Armitage Shanks; the latter emcee is familiar to New Orleans audiences notably for “Storyville Rising” and the Snake Oil Festival.) In light of the controversy, we asked Fleur de Tease emcee Chris Lane to reflect on the challenges of and opportunities for a male emcee who presides over an increasingly diverse range of the bump and grind. Lane, a veteran New Orleans stand-up comic, also hosts and produces “Comic Strip,” an open-mic comedy show with burlesque “interludes” Mondays at Siberia. He has toured with the Pretty Things Peep Show and has hosted shows in Austin and Chicago. Fleur de Tease concludes its 10th season with a return of its ever-evolving “Prince Tribute Revue” Saturday (June 11) at One Eyed Jacks.
Fleur de Tease, New Orleans’ now firmly ensconced burlesque troupe founded and directed by Trixie Minx, had, in its first season, experimented with a few emcees before I was brought in as a host. Unbeknownst to me, a producer of the show told Trixie Minx that, if she didn’t try me out as a host, the show would fold. So, I came into our first meeting not knowing this was a coerced partnership. (I didn’t find out till the next season.) Luckily, Trixie and I appreciated each other’s work ethic and were able to hash out a strong friendship that has lasted 10 seasons and brought me around, and out of the country.
Having a monthly show that, because of the variables posed by a live, rowdy audience, has a looser format, gives me the chance to strengthen my chops in terms of working a crowd — riffing and improvising more time than what a more traditionally brief open-mic comedy set allows. Also, the themes and characters the dancers present onstage gives me ideas to work with, providing me with additional inspiration and material to mine when I’m onstage between acts.
(Learn more: Read about the “Prince Tribute Revue” on Saturday night)
Ultimately, my job as an emcee is to get off the stage; until my graceful exit, I set the tone for the show, pump up and engage the audience — ensuring the performers are stepping in front of a safe and receptive crowd. It’s fun, frivolous, and I look damn good while doing it. But like anything else, serious topics come up. I’ve been asked to address some intersections of ribaldry, glitter and social issues especially my place as a male emcee, gender, empowerment and the language around these topics. I won’t be delving in with half-assed interpretations of Michel Foucault or bell hooks, but speaking anecdotally, and with the hope that further chitchat on the topic is engendered (no pun).
It’s a sticky wicket to address, as a male host, sexuality and female empowerment in burlesque; I’m not a woman onstage disrobing for strangers, I don’t have to deal with real life and online stalking, or body shaming. There have been a lot of great essays and discussions about empowerment and the Male Gaze, presented by much greater intellects; but at the end of the day burlesque is still a mediated experience, people are still paying to see someone onstage, there are still voyeuristic and exhibitionistic elements, so issues of sex, power and commodification collide alongside boas, pasties and glove peels. To navigate that minefield as a host, I personally do lots of crowd control and make sure the audience is getting their money’s worth, but without indulging in “the customer is always right” philosophy or throwing performers under the bus.
The one thing I am conscious of is that, at most shows, I am the sole body onstage talking, a male with the only speaking role, and an amplified voice at that. I have to check myself and make sure I am giving the ladies their propers; I do this by explicitly praising the dancers performances, and when I encourage the audience to respectfully interact by catcalling and hollering, a staple of burlesque crowd work, I suggest they think of it as “subjectifying” instead of “objectifying” the performers. In doing so, I remind the audience that these are strong, sexy, creative performers onstage, that they are putting the work in, and that work should be respected.
Back at the turn of the century, I used to go see the Shim Shamettes, and I distinctly remember this one host who threw out the word “bitch” while telling a hacky street joke during his set. It was met with silence, and rightfully so. He wasn’t serving the performers or the audience, and he was using the word in a misogynistic way at a show that celebrates women. That always stuck with me and served as a cautionary tale as an emcee.
One way I have personally addressed the empowerment/disempowerment argument was by staging a burlesque benefit, “Rights of Spring”, for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast back in 2012. Trixie Minx was my co-producer, our thinking being to have women use their bodies onstage to support women’s bodies offstage. We had a wide range of performers, erotic readings of Roe vs. Wade between acts, emcee Anne Howe, and the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling League, who set up a wrestling table where woman in the audience could challenge NOLAW wrestlers for a donation fee. I produced a similar benefit for Planned Parenthood this past year: “Stand Up, Get Down” with local comic Mary Devon Dupuy. At both of those benefits, I was an organizer, but we had women as emcees/hosts. This was done for a variety of reasons. No. 1, reproductive health issues, especially abortion access, usually are presented in the public sphere by men, and nine times out of 10, they are spiteful attacks on freedom that put women on defensive footing. As a man I could help provide a venue and platform for pro-choice voices, but my getting out of the way and not being the authoritative voice on stage was integral to the show and the overarching, pro-choice message.
Speaking of tone and language, the phrases “PC” or “un-PC” gets bandied about too much without really being examined. A lot of comedians and burlesque emcees pride themselves on bawdy and shocking language and burlesque is supposed to have a satiric and parodying component, which can include working “blue,” but what do you satirize and parody, and how? If you are punching down and making fun of people who have already been disempowered and maligned, you’re taking the easy way out, not risking anything and being a borderline bully.
I work out of New Orleans, arguably the wellspring of American burlesque and the burlesque revival. It’s also a town with a horrifying racial history, that was incredibly mobbed up, especially in the nightclub scene, where burlesque flourished mid-century. I like to satirize and parody these historical blind spots of burlesque and New Orleans. I also like to satirize the self-important, self-aggrandizing elements of burlesque, the “shock the bourgeois” acts that are really just “Hot Topic” posing, canned music, online burlesque polls/contests and pay-to-play festivals. Some of these jokes have pissed off some people, but, if you think your medium is above reproach, then you’re taking yourself too seriously, and that’s fertile ground for satire.
But again, with satire, are you punching down or punching up? And how well do you craft a joke to serve the latter? One time I did a joke about black voters being disenfranchised, which continues today, and a woman in the audience spoke to me afterwards, saying it’s placement in the show was jarring and killed the vibe for her for a few minutes. But we talked at length about the joke and where it was coming from and how it landed. I can honor her feelings and reaction, but still think of it as a valid joke, because I was indicting the state of Florida, not black voters — the takeaway being, to really craft a joke (which means writing and rewriting), see who the target is but be able to check yourself and listen to other people.
Listening to other people, serving the audience and the performers are in the forefront of burlesque this week because of two incidents at BHOF; the first was Dusty Limits’ using a “rape joke” to try and quell a rowdy audience, the second was Armitage Shanks making an analogy about Life and Art that, whatever the intent, invoked a trope of rape culture, drunk fucking implies consent.
A couple of thoughts. Limits’ comment wasn’t a joke. It doesn’t have a joke structure, if one thinks of a joke as a syllogism* — there is no “A + B therefore C.” It was just a shock line meant to insult — bush-league Howard Stern with a Brit accent. But, if we really strain to apply the algebra of comedy to what he said, it would look like this:
“The audience is rude, ergo, they were raped by their grandfathers”
It doesn’t make sense, and it’s cruel, it’s punching down. If anything good came out of the incident, it’s that people called him on it immediately and directly, and he issued a very succinct, sincere apology without any rationalization or attempt to explain away the situation. He fucked up and then he stepped up, and I think other people could learn from him when they screw up.
Social media amplified information about these incidents, and this amplification helped it to be addressed and not lost in the ether. Social media can be catty, misogynist and divisive, creating a digital Tower of Babel where conversation turns into blood sport with emojis. Or it can be used to call people in, call people out, reflect on what works, what hurts, what has overstayed its welcome and what new ideas should be welcomed in. I hope the latter is favored in burlesque. Twitter and Facebook can bring out the mob mentality and the pitchforks when a slight or injustice is perceived, sides quickly established and defended with outrage, accusations and rationalizations.
I like a good argument, but not a brawl. I am of “the more dialogue the better” school, that freedom of speech informs and creates more freedom of speech; with social media used in the service of social justice and the overlap of art and politics we see an expansion of the dialogue, especially in burlesque. I hope that this very brief article provides a glimpse of how I have dealt with just a few of these issues, and that it may add a rhinestone facet to the discussion.
* If any performer wants to use syllogism as the basis for a boylesque/ drag name (Cyl O’Jism, a naughty Irish mathematician etc. have at it).
** Though I am glad Limits stepped up, and Shanks issued a kinda/sorta apology, and continue their work as hosts, I am still the most handsome and humble host I know, and throw out haymakers every time I trod the boards, come check out “Comic Strip” at Siberia in New Orleans when you are in town.