Sydney’s drag performers are renowned for their on-stage bitchy banter and bad-taste jokes. It’s one reason why people go along in droves to see them. But where is the line between being funny and being offensive?
Patrons at an Oxford Street venue recently complained that a drag performer, who was collecting money for an HIV charity, overstepped that line by telling a racist and sexist joke. It was about the death of three human foetuses from different racial backgrounds and the discriminatory way they were treated by God when they arrived in heaven. The performer, Cruella DeVille, told the Star last week she didn’t intend to offend anyone and was just trying to entertain the crowd. While it wasn’t the first bad taste joke told by a drag performer, it was enough for the charity in question to publicly distance itself from DeVille.
It sounded to me like she just opened her mouth without thinking, drag queen Mitzi Macintosh said. I think we can be funny, but I think racist, sexist humour just isn’t necessary.
Macintosh said she had never come close to crossing that line on stage. I’m a real pansy on the microphone. I guess we all partake in off-colour humour privately, but when I’m on a microphone 10 things go through my head and I tend to pick the most PC thing to say. Personally, I think if I’m out watching a show, there is no need for me to be the butt of a drag queen’s joke. I would offend myself or somebody I’m working with rather than someone in the audience.
Other performers agree it’s safer to pick on themselves than risk offending someone else. At first anyway, says Candy Box, who won the DIVA for Bitch Of The Year at this year’s awards ceremony. If you’re able to make bitchy remarks about yourself, then people don’t mind you being nasty to them, she said. They think that’s funnier that way.
It is a fine line that we do step over now and again, but there are things that are just totally inappropriate that I wouldn’t even go near.
Vanessa Wagner has always believed self-deprecation is the safest bet in her performances. The one time she thought she’d try telling a mildly offensive joke at a festival, things got messy. I told the crowd I was about to tell a tacky Irish joke, she recalled. Having Irish heritage and the fact it was about an Irish cat, I thought it was pretty inoffensive.
Afterwards this irate middle-aged Irish couple came backstage and threw their multi-cultural takeaway food all over my faux fur and I had to get the police to calm them down. That was the first and the last time I told an offensive joke, Vanessa said.
I think it’s a fine line between having a fun poke at something and offending people.
Another performer who learnt this lesson the hard way is drag king Sexy Galexy. When she did a show dressed up as a black man a couple of years ago she admitted, I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing.
It did not go down well with the crowd. I had people in the audience, who didn’t know me, find it really offensive. They didn’t know where I was coming from. I had to apologise profusely and explain that basically I was ignorant and will never do it again. It’s made me always really think about what I’m doing on stage.
As a minority group ourselves we should be really careful and treat people really gently, and realise some people are in so much pain and dealing with so much stuff, Galexy said. You have to respect the audience.
Portia Turbo, too, has learnt that some jokes should be deemed inappropriate. She has been booed off stage twice in her long career, once after telling a Princess Diana joke the day after her death. The other time was when she went on stage and laughed at an Aboriginal joke performed by male dancer/porn star Puppy.
PC wasn’t so important back then. But even we were in shock when Puppy did it, said Turbo. He didn’t just cross the line of bad taste, he took a running jump.
There was also the time she told a skinny girl in the audience to go eat something, only to find out later the woman was struggling with anorexia.
Turbo said she only PC’ed herself after dating an Indian man and saw first-hand how racist jokes can affect someone. But Turbo reveals she’s still not entirely sure where the line between funny and offensive lies. You can tell any joke and be hideous and vile, and it’s all about your delivery, she said. There is a line, but I don’t know if I’m as conscious of it as I should be. Oh, that’s a horrible thing to say. That’s an Anglo, white man’s point of view. Shocking. I’m going to go have a good long hard look at myself.
But Maxi Shield believes there’s no fine line at all.
Working on stage with a microphone you’ve got a responsibility. If something doesn’t sound right, don’t say it on stage. Especially racist or bad taste jokes. You just don’t do it, especially for a charity event.
Macintosh said that while being mildly offensive gets good reactions from the audience, once you start to step over that precipice you’ve got to have the ability to be careful and take a step back.
And I think that comes with time and talent and microphone experience. There’s only a few girls who work well on a microphone. It’s a very select breed.