Justin Sayre Keeps Gay Culture Alive (With A Little Help From His Friends)
Comedian, performing artist, playwright, and gay activist Justin Sayre was described by Michael Musto as "Oscar Wilde meets Whoopi Goldberg." So who better to undertake the task of preserving gay culture? Each month Sayre honors an artist or an iconic gay cultural work through his award winning and highly acclaimed show "The Meeting."
Presented in the format of a membership meeting of the fictitious gay organization The International Order of Sodomites (I.O.S.), Sayre, as Chairman of the Board, brings his hilarious and sardonic wit to essential business of the day through such regular features as "Letters to the Chairman" and "New Rulings from the Board" all the while using the musical and comedic talents of special guest stars to discuss the uproarious business at hand of the I.O.S. to its membership, the audience.
Past shows has paid tribute to icons such as Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Dolly Parton, and Diana Ross, and iconic films like "Valley of the Dolls" and "Beaches," to name a few.
A cult hit among a young festive and culturally aware crowd, "The Meeting," after spending 4 years in downtown New York City at The Duplex, has moved uptown to 54 Below in a six-month run that began in July.
"Our new location 54 Below approached us and it is a larger room, and a little more high profile. We wanted to make the transition because of that," Sayre has said about the move.
Produced by Dan Fortune and Adam Rosen, "The Meeting" may be an attraction to the "smart and funny homosexual" but definitely serves as an educational tool for all who have lost their way on the journey to find gay culture. And, Justin Sayre, he himself on the road to iconic status, and his cast of talented characters educationally deliver outrageous comedy, politics and culture through material written by Sayre.
With plans to test the legs of his show by taking it on the road across the country this Fall, I caught up with the quick-witted Sayre to talk about "The Meeting," its roots, its purpose, its educational value, its comedic charm, its move, and its future.
All over the map
BeBe: ’The Meeting’ has become a stable show in New York City, but there are a whole lot of other folks across the country that are not aware of what ’The Meeting’ is. Why don’t you tell us about The Meeting of International Order of Sodomites, and how did you come about creating this monthly event?
Justin Sayre: What it boils down to is every month it is a comedy-variety show with as much variety as we can pack in. There are always skits, monologues and interactive parts to this show all set around the premise of this meeting of the International Order of Sodomites, being this centuries old secret gay organization. Within this premise, we celebrate a gay icon every month, but we also talk about current events that are going on within the LGBT community and also within pop culture and our interaction with it. It is always different and varied, but at the core of it, it is lovingly kind of the ’Carol Burnett Show’ on crack! There is a lot of ’weird’ that goes on that kind of marvelous.
BeBe: Maybe it is more like ’Mama’s Family’ with a little bit of education?
Justin Sayre: Maybe that’s a nicer way of putting it. I write all the material, so the show is always new with original material. We have never repeated anything. Within that, I think this all came about because I read an article once a few years ago that said ’gay culture was over’, and I thought ’oh, God. I better get on it!" It’s over? It’s done? I felt like everybody in ’A Chorus Line,’ ’don’t tell me it’s over I just got here.’ ’The Meeting’ was a way to talk about gay icons and where we are culturally now. But, also (a way) to talk about politics. Politics are really worked into the show. We celebrated gay icons from Jackie Curtis, to Bette Davis, and ’Showgirls.’ We have been all over the map. Within that, we talk about real things.
BeBe: Can you be more specific about the types of "real" things that might be discussed I the show?
Justin Sayre: Well, in New York we have had over the past couple of months an increased amount of violence against the gay community. We have had two deaths, at least two reported deaths in the last 4 months, and about 20 beatings within that time. It is important to sit in a room with people and say what’s going on. If you don’t know these things, you need to know and be involved. There is something really important about that work, I think.
BeBe: So, this board meeting, so to speak, of the International Order of Sodomites does have meaningful content, but it’s just put into humorous context? Is that a good way to put it?
Justin Sayre: Absolutely. We really try to deal with everything. It’s never really sugar-coated. Like, we had a big thing about the VMAs in our August show, and I’m like I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t care, and neither should you care (said over laughter). And then a lot of people were taking the group Macklemore to task about co-opting the gay rights movement with it’s song ’Same Love’, but where was everybody when Lady Gaga did worse a year ago (’Born This Way’). I guess because they could dance to that, they liked it. You have to be a little more solid on where you stand.
Then and now
BeBe: You say you honor or recognize gay icons and iconic moments or events, like I know you are paying tribute to the film ’Grey Gardens’ in coming months, but these are people and things, of course, from our history and past. But, what if you look ahead? You are in your 5th season with ’The Meeting,’ and we know the gay culture is not going to end despite what may be written on that subject, so, looking ahead to the next 10 years, who or what event that may not be looked at as a gay icon now but may be thought of as one in the years to come?
Justin Sayre: I can say Beyonce will be a gay icon. I can see the writing on the wall with her already, and it’s also really solid work. But, the difficult thing is that there’s a lot of attention given to things that are so peripheral or not long standing. A lot of queens that I know are really into the ’Real Housewives of ...’ sagas. And, I’m going ’this is just trash.’ It’s not like ’Showgirls’ where you can go that maybe somebody was in on the joke, and maybe this is camp. So, it’s hard to pin (future icons) down. I do think Lady Gaga is going to have a place on the gay icons list, even though she isn’t one of my favorites. She does appeal to a lot of people.
In movies, I see ’Death Becomes Her’ with a huge gay following, and movies that are come out with this sort of nostalgia for the 80s and 90s are making their ways as real stables into culture. There are a lot of queens into ’Saved By The Bell,’ and I’ve been asked whether I’m ever going to do that in the show. It kind of develops slowly. I grew up around old queens who go ’Here’s a Maria Callas record. Welcome to the club.’ That is what I came to New York for. So, sitting around and saying are we going to be doing the ’Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ is not on my radar.
BeBe: Well, you definitely have an interest in the Hollywood’s Studio period, specifically MGM, during the 30s and 40s, which were difficult and tumultuous times for our nation. Was the need to escape through movies what makes that period iconic for you? I mean, things were done over the top and bigger than life back then to dispel this notion of despair over the things that were really happening in life. In comparison, we haven’t really had another period like that where external things overshadowed what was really going on. As you say, we have been paying attention to the ruffles around the collar, as opposed to paying attention to the collar itself, to use a metaphor.
Justin Sayre: I think there is something very valid in what you are saying. When you listen how they (those of the 30s and 40s era) spoke about things and the arts, yes, it was over the top; but they wanted to make something in contrast to the world that they saw. They wanted to create something beautiful because the world wasn’t beautiful. Like the Fred Astaire movies, of course were all in Venice dancing to the music of Irving Berlin, they were real hopeful. We are going to give you the world they way we would love for you to see it. There was such care, and delicacy, and artistry done with that. To me, that’s something to be admired. Within the modern context there’s a mentality that these are just a guilty pleasures that don’t really matter.
There is a lot of great art today, I don’t want to decry that either. But, the things that get a lot of play or have a lot of sway with people is just not really great. And with all that, it is still an amazing time. There’s people like Justin Vivian Bond who’s shaking this up on the lines of gender, Jackie Beat is doing amazing things and pushing the envelope. I love the drag scene that is developing out of ’RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ There’s so much LGBT art and books now. I think that is all fantastic. It’s kind of a dichotomy. I think there are great things going on, and not so great things. I had a big conversation about pop music recently, and I said why does everybody need such self-esteem all of a sudden? Every pop song is telling you ’you own the night,’ and ’nobody’s better than you’, and ’you’re a firework,’ and ’you’re this and that.’ What happen to ’I think you’re a pretty girl, and I want to go out on a date with you’? Remember those songs? Or, remember songs about waitresses? I loved a good song about a waitress.
A big mix
BeBe: Yeah, ’She Works Hard for the Money,’ right?
Justin Sayre: Or even ’Living on a Prayer.’ That was about a waitress.
BeBe: I know you spent the better part of 4 years with ’The Meeting’ in the West Village, but now you have moved uptown to 54 Below. Why the location move?
Justin Sayre: Well we started 4 years ago at The Duplex downtown, and it was great. We had a lovely time there. I can’t say enough about how we loved the staff there. But, our new location 54 Below approached us and it is a larger room, and a little more high profile. We wanted to make the transition because of that. Hell’s Kitchen has become a pretty gay neighborhood, so we are still in a gay space. There are still, of course, differences. But, the show has always allowed me to bridge those differences. When we were downtown, we tried to vary it up with our musical and skit guests by bringing people from all over New York, and all over the kind of spectrum of performing that happens. So, we have people from Broadway, and people from legit uptown cabaret, and we have had really downtown edgy performers as well. That’s what is really great about the show. I think the gay life is that in New York, just a big mix.
For the smart, funny homosexual
BeBe: One of the tag lines for ’The Meeting’ says the show is ’for the smart, funny homosexual.’ And, I’m thinking that probably the smart, funny homosexual already knows that the gay culture hasn’t died. What I see you and your show doing is making sure that gay culture continues and survives. So, is this, in sort of a tongue and cheek way, an educational tool for those gay people out there who have lost sense of our history and the things that have really made things iconic in the first place? There are so many young people that I come across that don’t even know who Harvey Milk was, I kid you not. I’m thinking where in the hell have we gone wrong. Maybe gay culture has died.
Justin Sayre: I heard a young man in a bar say that ’MILK’ the movie was about Sean Penn playing a retarded man who wanted to become President (we roar with laughter). I said, "No, that’s wrong!"
BeBe: And, then you gave him a flier to ’The Meeting,’ right?
Justin Sayre: Of course I did. I mean, I do see it as an educational tool. I see it as a way to name the names and talk about people. It is an educational tool in the sense that even in the naming of the names, people come to ’The Meeting’ and not knowing the icon (or a particular reference); but the show is accessible to them, that they don’t need to really know anything. What is really interesting about our show that I don’t see in a lot of LGBT entertainment, is that it is really cross-generational. We get a lot of younger people, and we get a lot of older people. Because we are using icons and this gay platform, all people can come see the show because they know something about that (gay issue) or like the performer... there is a lot of entry ways into the show. And once they are there they can be in on the joke long enough to pay attention in a sense. I’ve seen people make connection in that way.
BeBe: You only do this comedic variety show once a month which gives you some opportunity to take it elsewhere and still maintain its base in New York. It seems a shame that ’The Meeting’ is left to only the enjoyment of New Yorkers. Are there plans to travel with the show?
Justin Sayre: We are looking to travel this Fall. We are going to Philadelphia, Boston and D.C., and possibly, Los Angeles.
"The Meeting" celebrates "Carrie" for Halloween at 54 Below on Wednesday, Oct. 30. For more information and tickets contact www.54Below.com
Remaining 2013 "The Meeting" shows to complete the six-month run at 54 Below include the following tributes:
Nov. 20 - Grey Gardens
Dec. 18 - Annual Holiday Spectacular
Watch this special Highlight reel of The Meeting’s first four years: