I can finally say I've seen Kiki & Herb. I caught their Alive On Broadway show around the corner from where I work as part of a benefit for The Ali Forney Center, which helps homeless queer youth. It's a good cause, though I wonder if perhaps the queer youth could have stuck it out and remained homeless for a few extra days if it meant sparing me this experience.
My joke is, of course, totally inappropriate, but it's in keeping with the shtick that Justin Bond does as Kiki, a has-been chanteuse who gets steadily drunker on stage and more politically incorrect as she goes along—at one point, she acknowledges the 1997 murder of Forney by saying it's always good to get involved in causes, even if all it may get you is dead.
When will artists realize you can't be hilariously un-PC on purpose? The opposite of PC is not un-PC, it's truly not caring what you say and what people will think. Don't they get it?
Actually, this reminds me of my first thought when I realized I was gonna write about this show. It was that this duo (Kenny Mellman plays "gay Jewtard" Herb as well as the piano) has rabid fans who would probably react to any negative commentary with an incensed, "You don't get it! You don't get it!" or the always final, "You have no sense of humor!" I get it—I just don't want it. And I don't have a sense of humor—I know exactly what humor is. And—at least to me—this ain't it.
Some shows inspire you to get off your ass and get creative when you see them because they're so brilliant and amazing. Others inspire you to get off your ass and get creative because, "If this makes it to Broadway, I need to stop watching Seinfeld reruns and take a stab at it myself."
I have to back up and say that I went into this with a murky but positive backlog of expectations. I'd always heard great things about Kiki & Herb, to the point where I felt like I had seriously missed out in seeing them "die" at Carnegie Hall. The concept has so much potential! I believed the show would consist of two richly observed caricatures, wonderfully offbeat musical selections and amazing performances. The New York Times review was so beautifully written and so descriptive of what I might expect—it added to my wish list poignancy and cutting-edge insight. So yes, I went in wanting to be wowed.
But from the moment I saw the stage and heard Kiki sing out, I realized this was not just going to be a let-down, it was lead-on, one of those cases where you think you know exactly what you're getting only to find out it's not that at all. I know Kiki & Herb are frequently branded an acquired taste, but I strongly disagree. This ain't sushi. Kiki & Herb are a case where if you're not on board immediately, you're simply on a different plane (higher or lower—you pick!) and never the twain shall meet.
For me, Kiki & Herb are just loud and broad. Those two things alone can inspire peals of laughter from a lot of people. Especially drunk people. It's why I'm so frequently disappointed by drag-themed acts—too many drag acts pin all their hopes on the utter hilarity of a guy in a dress making noise. Drag that works for me would include Varla Jean Merman and Lypsinka. I'm not a huge fan of Dame Edna, but I certainly admire his rapier wit, his ability to read his audience and react to it and the overwhelming polish he's given his character. Actually, all three of those characters (Edna, Varla, Lypsinka) have a wonderfully weird depth, they have elaborately developed personal stories that unfold when they're on stage. This is what I feel is completely off about Kiki & Herb. Their story is that they're washed-up lounge singers who were at the birth of Christ, along with a stuffed-animal (a cow). And also that they were born in the 1930s. Neither of these conceits is grounded in anything funny—nor is most of Kiki's stage banter, which feels like the improvised ramblings of a mediocre drag queen who's just been told to kill some time before the arrival of the star attraction.
Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer as singing teachers on Saturday Night Live compare favorably.
Kiki & Herb's humor doesn't work for me because it's lazy. Kiki says "Mel Hezbollah Gibson" and gets laughs, but I'm not sure how. Gibson has earned any bashing he receives, but is that as creative as it gets? Leno would've rejected that. Other late-night also-rans include numbingly familiar rants about the Pope and gay marriage. The show isn't without some laugh lines, such as, 'I always say if you weren't abused as a child, you must've been an ugly kid,' or Kiki's assertion that parenting is always about running—into the water, into the street, anything to save that baby...even if you don't always make it in time. "I have two surviving children..." she continues, and it's a welcome glimmer of hope that more ha! and less huh? is on the way. But the very funny one-liners are lost because the timing is so off. After a while, you realize a zinger is coming because Kikii is rushing through the set-up.
I think what Bond and Mellman must do best is choose material. For the most part (with the exception of an almost unbearable "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and similarly trying stab at the Scissor Sisters), the songs are unexpected and anything but well-worn. In particular, Mark Eitzel's song "Patriot's Heart" comes across in spite of the annoying reading it's given. Like the evening's most successful numbers, it's a story as much as a song, and veers unexpectedly between schmaltzy and genuinely affecting. I feel Bond (not Kiki) sort of misses its point, immediately announcing that the song's message is that the experience of going to a gay stripper bar on 9/11 is about freedom and self-expression and having fun—the song is a lot more complex than that. I was also very involved in "Same Old Lang Syne," a Dan Fogelberg tune that is to strangulated father/daughter relationships what "Cat's In The Cradle" is to father/son. I think "Same Old Lang Syne" is Kiki's high point—it allows for a genuinely funny and well thought out comedic intro, turns melancholy and does not involve endless braying and foot-stamping.
Ending on a positive note, I have to say I really like the smart comment Kiki makes regarding international relations (relative to Mideast tensions). In general, her thought is that if you don't like someone's religion, do your own thing, be right, but then hang out with them without resorting to violence or proselytizing. 'I don't care what you say behind my back...but at least be nice to my face! Be nice!' Well put. The show left me disappointed and disconnected from some of the people around me who gave it a standing O (it should be noted that not all of them did, and I overheard one couple bitterly assessing what they were being subjected to), but a lot of seemingly smart cookies find it to be hilarious performance art—getting a pan from boyculture.typepad.com isn't so bad when Variety, The Village Voice, New York, The New Yorker and others are tossing raves.
I will say I found a few memorable moments. But if you're not already a fan, I can't imagine a Broadway venue is the best place to see them for the first time—unless $87.50 truly means nothing to you.
"The Helen Hayes is dry. Bring a flask." This is the advice of Kiki & Herb's official Web site. I think that line is hysterical. And though I don't drink so I don't know, I think it might be a good idea.