Anyone can be a bad cabaret artist; all it takes is no talent. You see it all the time, I’m afraid-often enough to notice, anyway. “That’s a shame,” you think with pitying eyes as you wonder what compels them to do it. What makes the ungifted performer get up onstage and perform?
I haven’t a clue, except misplaced ego. In the darkest, cringe-making essentials, I can’t imagine why anyone would put themselves through it, including myself. The only occasion I’ve ever performed onstage, I was flattered into it at college. I performed for one disastrous night only in a cabaret with a friend who wanted to be a professional comic. I can feel this sickening sensation rising in the pit of my stomach at the memory. It was the worst night, apparently, in the history of Oxford cabaret. We were so bad the audience kept calling us back for an encore. I tell you, good friends were in that audience. The louses. What did they know? Why, they wouldn’t know God-given talent if they saw it.
Not that I’m bitter. Je ne regrette rien , as we say in showbiz. I soon got over it as I edged out of hiding. I had no professional ambitions, unlike my co-performer, whom I recently met again in London after all these years. He’s a High Court judge now. “Well, somebody’s got to do it,” he said with a wink. I was glad to see he hasn’t lost the patter.
As a general rule, if you’ve no talent as a performer, it’s best not to be one. The tiny tot on Star Search impersonating Britney Spears for a shot at fame, the desperate comic who’s dead behind the eyes, the crooner of a certain age segueing into “Feelings,” the overconfident, beaming best man rising from his seat to the reverberating champagne glass at the wedding, exist in a twilight zone of denial. They don’t mean to embarrass us, but they do. The reluctant, awful truth is that they have no talent.
On the other hand, it takes real talent to perform badly on purpose; to do it well takes perverse genius. Which brings me to the strange, unsettling downtown duo known as Kiki and Herb, currently having a successful run in Kiki & Herb: Coup de Theatre , directed by Scott Elliott, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Kiki, the cabaret performer-the description “drag artist” devalues the goods-is a failed cruise-ship lounge act accompanied by the modest, obliging Herb at the piano. A “boozy chanteusie,” as she puts it in her elegant way, the alcoholic, kitschy Kiki must be about 60 and hasn’t necessarily seen better days. It might not dawn on you for a while, so good are they both at what they do, that the compellingly weird Kiki and Herb are a wicked send-up of confessional, second-rate showbiz.
Kiki is the creation of the much younger Justin Bond, who wrote the show’s book with its autobiographical interludes between a surprising repertoire of songs by Eminem, Kate Bush, Radiohead and more. The foundling Herb is the pianist and accomplished musician Kenny Mellman-a modest, long-suffering young man, it seems, who can become engagingly manic during such inspirational numbers as “I’m Ugly and I Don’t Know Why.”
Kiki’s humor is dark, maudlin, sick even, and absolutely straight-faced. “A lot of people jumped out of windows when the stock market collapsed in 1929,” Kiki confides about her deprived childhood. “But not all of them died. My father was such a man …. ” She’s uninhibited, in her way: “I’ve always said if you weren’t molested as a child, you must have been an ugly kid.” She’s quite wise, too: “People die. That’s all you need to know.” Among Kiki’s own children, her beloved Coco, age 7, fell overboard during a cruise while Mom was below-deck indulging in wanton carnal desire. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the bereft Kiki appeals to us, haunted by Coco’s tragic death, “where the hell can a kid go on the deck of a boat?”
Kiki and Herb are new to me, I must confess, though they’ve had their own cult following for years on the downtown circuit. I avoided them in the horribly mistaken belief that they’re a nostalgic throwback to the tired cabaret days of camp in the Village. They’re much cleverer than that, edgier and dangerous, threatening manic mayhem. Kiki suggests a faux, elderly 1950′s mother-performer mixed in with the new blood of furious neopunk-no simple thing to be. (No simple thing to want to be.) The musical numbers are Kiki’s pathetic attempt to update an act in permanent decline. If you haven’t heard her take-no-prisoners rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings. It isn’t a pretty sound, though.
“Kiki singing Eminem is ridiculous,” Alex Ross of The New Yorker noted shrewdly, taking one example of Kiki’s sly art. “But no less ridiculous than Eminem, a white kid, mimicking black culture, or the Talking Heads incorporating African beats into their SoHo art rock. Every singer, even Gil Scott-Heron, is pretending in one way or another-putting on drag-and Kiki does the service of bulldozing all the facades of authenticity.”
From the start, I was struck that both Kiki and Herb had drawn age lines on their faces-deliberately letting them show. I’d never seen anything like it before, as if they were wearing face masks crudely drawn by children. Why let the lines show? They’re letting us know that appearances are fake. They’re telling us they themselves aren’t real.
Well, they’re performers. We know they’re not for real. But how sure can we be? The line between the authentic and the fake is never certain with Kiki and Herb. “Kiki loves you, sweetie,” she says to us lovingly. You’d be crazy to believe her. Her radical kitsch comes from a plastered, dysfunctional world of false promises and fake emotion where nothing is real.
At certain moments, she has a way of tapping her temple with a finger, as if to say: “Kiki knows !” She punctuates the knowing gesture with a clicking sound. But the reassuring sign is simultaneously alarming, as if she’s holding an imaginary gun to her temple. The world is out of control. Kiki knows!
There’s more to the lady than meets the androgynous façade, that’s for sure. The act unravels in an alcoholic haze of regret about the duo’s late-1960′s comeback album, Kiki & Herb: It’s Not Unusual . But the bizarre act itself can be uneven. For me-but not for Kiki-a couple of songs less and a few minutes more of her sick comic vignettes would have been just swell. But you never know with Kiki and Herb (and never knowing is the name of the game). They’re gifted and unique performers. After all, nobody does it badly better.