Talk Rodeo

That was in SoHo and the Lower East Side, right?
Who were your contemporaries there?

Well, I knew [performance artist-actress-singer] Ann Magnuson and I knew Willem Dafoe and I knew Spalding Gray. But we were all sort of fringe. If anybody had ever said at that time that any of us would be nationally known, it would have seemed crazy.

And now you have two major movies under your belt, not to mention the printed collections of your monologues and a soundtrack recording of Sex, Drugs,

Rock & Roll. Do you think that as you saturate the market, people understand your work better? Or do they still have a hard time classifying you? For instance, when you go into record stores -- assuming that you do -- you'll see that the soundtrack album is filed strangely. Occasionally it's with other spoken-word records, Olivier monologues and War of the Worlds reissues. In a lot of places, it's under comedy. Sometimes it's even with regular rock records.

That's good, I like that. The rock section.
You could put a sticker on it: "File Under Rock." Do you think it's wrong to categorize what you do as comedy?

There's something in the performance ethic of comedy. Like Richard Pryor, for instance. His first live film was very influential -- the sheer energy of what he was doing, how totally involved he was. Lenny Bruce I feel the same way about. I've been around a long time, but I've been around a long time in front of live audiences, and those live audiences have shaped and given me a sense of what works and doesn't work on-stage. In the old days all a performer did was spend quite some time in front of live audiences. Doing that, you get a point of view, and I think that's necessary to keep your work from ringing hollow.

When you started, did you make a conscious decision about how you wanted your characters to be received, how much you wanted audiences to be fascinated by their story telling, or manipulated by their irony, or frightened by their rage?

At first it was pretty naked, pretty in-your-face. Well, not the very first piece, Men Inside. That was just a bunch of guys, just snapshots. But Funhouse was very enraged. I was in a very crazy time in my life. I was incredibly broke, we had rats in the apartment, and I was just freaking. Also, I was not in a good place with my personal history of drugs and all that stuff, and my heroes were a very punk style of music, very aggressive. I liked James Chance and the Contortions, other bands that were like, I dare you to like this. I was mainly speaking to my own crowd downtowm.

Have you mellowed? Are you more interested now in giving the characters pathos? Or do you still want to make audiences uneasy?

I always had a rule for myself that the performance itself should be an event, a phenomenon. Even if you don't like it. Even if you don't laugh. Even if you don't get it, you don't forget it. But I have sort of mellowed out, given the characters more dimension, which is actually something I was not interested in originally. The idea of each character being a little playlet didn't appeal to me.

You felt it would slow it down?
Yeah, that's right. I wanted it to be one gesture after the next gesture, to keep it on its feet. But as each gestural piece sends out a little message, I get tired of those messages. I did a piece about a guy torturing someone for the CIA ["The Specialist," from Funhouse] and took the audience through the whole description of how you put the electrodes here and there. It was good. It was funny. It pissed people off. But I'm not going to move from that to a piece about a guy cleaning a steer in a slaughterhouse. How many pieces of the same type can you do without getting bored? For my own fun I decide to go deeper, to flirt around with the characters a little more.

What unites all the characters is a certain theatricality. When you play a businessman on the phone intimidating one of his co-workers or a British rock star on a talk show whining about his drug problem, that's one thing -- you're lampooning their egotism and puffery. But you use homeless people often in your pieces. There are good reasons, I'm sure -- there's a free flow of words and an outcast status that gives you tremendous freedom. But does that ever trouble you? Do you ever think that you're exploiting the theatricality of the homeless?

That is a concern of mine. It's not fair to suddenly say this is just an amusement. That's why I don't do the show on Broadway. That's why I'm not doing the homeless man as a comedy character on David Letterman. When Whoopi was doing Comic Relief, the organizers called me and wanted me to participate. I said, "What am I gonna do?" and they said, "Do that guy." I'm not gonna do that guy. Great. You're doing a show about the homeless and I'm gonna come out doing the piece about the guy who complains about pollution, mumbling, "Shit fuck piss shit rah rah rah." That's not the way we should be perceiving them. In the context of my show, in the way that I think the show touches on guilt and responsibility, I think I have found a place for those characters that is respectable. They act as a chorus. They point the way. And I'm fully aware that I'm performing mainly for a white middle-class audience, and I'm fully aware of the feelings they're gonna have.

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