Randy Rainbow, staging musical parody in the age of Trump
In the age of Trump, in the land of Trumpistan, it can be easy to get lost in the gloom and doom of the current political climate. For LGBT people, very real threats are growing in most places, not diminishing. But one man has made it his profession to place Der Trumper in a context that brings a little light to the situation—lampoon and parody—and now he’s taking his antics one the road, LIVE!
That’s right, we’re talking about Randy Rainbow, the gay YouTube sensation who has produced so many viral videos over the last eight years. Most of his career has been spent covering the hot topics of the hour, often popular culture, though he made occasional forays into politics. These videos were boosted by some major LGBT blogs and websites, fueling their viral reach.
The 2016 presidential campaign, however, and its aftermath, has left us in a world where politics remains the hot topic and given Rainbow a never-ending dumpster fire to set to parodies of the world’s greatest musical numbers! These videos raised Rainbow’s profile to a whole new level and provided him the audience, and thus the opportunity, to support a road show, so to speak.
As a minority, Rainbow is a two-fer: the gay son of a liberal Jewish family. While this means that a certain segment of Trump’s America sees him as having two targets painted on his back, this background provided him a healthy and nurturing environment—he’ll joke perhaps overly so.
“I was born on Long Island and raised in South Florida,” Rainbow said. “As far as being gay, I come from a very liberal Jewish family. My mother is super into musical theatre, and to put me to sleep she used to play the soundtracks of Oklahoma and The Music Man, so … she seriously wanted a gay kid. She certainly did everything in her power to make sure I turned out this way!”
“My coming out story,” he continued, “isn’t a very noble one because … I was around seventeen years old when mom sat me down and said, ‘Look, I worked really hard to make you this gay, so…’ Not really, but she sat me down and said she knew, and it was easy… I was very fortunate, I'm one of the too-few people who have such an easy time with that.”
His family also encouraged him as an entertainer. “My father was a musician and my grandfather on my mother’s side was a musician. I come from a long line of musical, theatrical, and very funny people. Although no one in my family was a professional comedian, it was always like Last Comic Standing at the dinner table or Thanksgiving.”
“Oh, they also put me in ballet when I was 8,” he added, “to make sure that I was really, super gay. So that kind of started my theatrical career: my first time on stage was as a ballet dancer. And then, from there, I went through theatrical summer camps in Hollywood, Florida, and that really hooked me on the musical theatre and performance aspect of my life.”
Rainbow moved to New York to follow his dreams. After a brief stint in school to study theatre, however, he opted for a non-traditional approach to getting into the business. “I didn’t have the natural trajectory most musical theatre majors do—move to New York and start pounding the pavement. Honestly, I just didn’t have the guts to do it right away … so I just worked in restaurants and eventually started working for a music producer as a receptionist.”
As a receptionist, he would discover his niche. “I kind of wound up hanging with these Broadway types,” he explained. “People like Patti Lupone and Elaine Stritch would come into the office on a daily basis. I mean it was heaven to me … but all of these interesting things were happening. That’s why I started blogging—I wanted a record, an outlet to express all of these funny things… That’s really how it all started for me. From there I got a gig on BroadwayWorld.com and that’s where I really started...”
Once he’d developed a following, however, Rainbow decided to take it a step further. “Once the blog started getting a following, the musical theatre ham and performer in me kind of kicked in and thought, ‘I have a little bit of an audience now, maybe this would be a fun time to step back into the performance aspect.’ Everyone was starting to make videos for YouTube, and I thought, ‘Why not me?’ So the first sort of ‘hot topic’ video I did was ‘Randy Rainbow is Dating Mel Gibson.’ I was thrilled that that kind of went viral and kind of kept going from there.”
Rainbow isn’t shy about admitting he chased the topic of the hour and rode the wave of conversation. “There was a lot more pop culture… That’s what everyone was talking about and I just went to whatever was trending, whatever was arguing about on their Facebook pages… I always did whatever everyone was talking about. After Mel Gibson I stuck with the ‘hot topic’ thing… You know, that was a tried-and-true gimmick.”
“So from there on, for years, I would just insert myself into whatever was the hot topic of the day. It was Charlie Sheen for a minute, Robert Downey Jr., Beyoncé... For Obama’s reelection, with Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and that cast of characters—that was the first time I really got into politics. That in a way kind of prepared me for what I’m doing now.”
After years of chasing the topic of the hour, usually pop culture, 2016 was both a radical change, but also very much in the same pattern. There was really no question for Rainbow that politics, the battle between Trump and … everyone, was what was trending, and continues to trend to this day.
When asked about his favorite parody videos, Rainbow reflected, “Well I like the ones that go really viral! I’ll always have a special place in my heart for ‘BRAGGADOCIOUS!’ That was the first presidential debate—the Mary Poppins parody I did—and that really kinda took me to the next level because it got 28 million views in a day… The last one I put out, ‘A Very Stable Genius,’ did really well, so that was a fun one. Desperate Cheeto was a big one for me… We open the ‘LIVE’ show with that one actually.”
The turn to political and his utilization of musical numbers was a game changer in terms of audience, but also in terms of the feedback he got from fans. “The responses I started getting from people were more than just, ‘Oh, this is really funny!’ They went beyond just the humor of it. First of all, every day the thing I hear most of all from people is ‘Thank you!’ People are grateful that in a time when we are in crisis and everything is so doom and gloom I think people are so happy to have an outlet, to kind of poke fun at it a little bit and find some humor in it. That really is the main impetus for carrying on down this path—that people are getting something from it, that people are getting some relief.”
“Other than that,” Rainbow added, unable to remain too serious for too long, “it’s just a gold mine in terms of comedy, but I don’t have to tell you that! Every day it’s handed to me—it’s kinda easy as far as research is concerned.”
The broader audience has brought him a higher profile than he had previously enjoyed. “It’s crazy—I get stopped on the street now. I haven’t been stopped once since I’ve been on the phone with you walking down the streets of New York, which is terribly embarrassing. I hope you’ll edit this to look like I was stopped every three minutes.”
“But yeah, I walk down the street and I get noticed: I got recognized walking out of my apartment the other day. Anyone who creates internet content will tell you that it can be a very isolating experience. For me this is especially true since I work literally by myself. I don’t have a team or anybody, from coming up with the ideas to coming up with the video to editing and recording—everything is just me.”
Given the content of his video and the virulence of Trump’s most active fans, one would expect Rainbow to be drowning in hate. He said, however, “I always say you’d be surprised by how much hate mail I don’t get! I think that I kind of figured out a way to attack it that is palatable to even people who don’t agree with me politically. While I do inject my opinion—and I do point out how ridiculous Donald Trump is and his administration is and his behavior is—I try to make myself the joke at the end of the day, and that may come across in the videos so that it’s not too polarizing.”
“I hear a lot from people who say, ‘We don’t agree politically, it has nothing to do with you, I hate gay people, and I’m a racist and a bad person, but I love your videos…’ I’m exaggerating slightly for comedic purposes … but not by much. I think it’s a testament to how unifying humor can be…”
“While touring, I do Q&As and meet-and-greets with people who tell me that what I’m doing is having a more profound impact on them or their families,” Rainbow said, “I hear from parents of children who say that they use my videos as kind of a teaching tool, and I hear from teachers sometimes who play my videos in class [for students to analyze] which is interesting… Knowing that has made me more aware of the potential impact when making the videos, that this does have the ability to have a greater effect…”
Given how linked his rise in popularity has been to the Trump phenomenon, he said, “People ask me, ‘What are you going to do when you don’t have him?’ Like I said, I’ve been doing this for seven or eight years now, mostly without Donald Trump… I am not defined by one man! You know, there will always be some asshole doing some crazy bullshit that needs a song parody, so I don’t think my well will ever run dry, thankfully!”
So what can you expect from his show? “This first incarnation of Randy Rainbow LIVE as we’re calling it is all about the music. I’m so happy that most of the viral videos are song parodies because I’m a show queen. I really didn’t expect it to be that way—most of the early videos weren’t musical at all. So now that I have this kind of musical platform, it’s really about the music. I have a live band, and we’re doing all the hits. There’s a big giant screen behind me with interactive videos, and then we do them all live right before your eyes. There’s a little stand up woven in, and a Q&A…”
“I have a pretty standard set. I thought when we started touring a year ago that I’d have to change it up much more frequently because I figured my songs are so topical that I’d have to change them … but it turns out we’re still talking about a lot of the crap we were talking about a year ago, so a lot of them are a little more evergreen than I imagined. We might change a few things based on what Wolf Blitzer is talking about before I go on stage, but I guess we’ll have to see what *he* does next!”
Randy Rainbow LIVE will be staged in Nashville at TPAC’s Polk Theatre for one night only, on September 29, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. For information about the show, or to purchase tickets, visit tpac.org.