Cole Escola on Performance, Gender and Fluidity

A recent episode of the Slate podcast Working— which showcases interviews with different creative types about their work— features comedy writer and performer Cole Escola. I first noticed Escola in his role in Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner’s too short lived series Difficult People, and he has gotten more recognition since then but is still something of an underground/alternative comedian. He just released Help! I’m Stuck!, a full-length comedy special on YouTube, and is a singular voice in comedy right now.

There are three really rich elements that emerge from Escola’s discussion with host Rumaan Alam. First, Escola’s description of himself as a writer first and variably a performer offers a lot of insight into creative pursuits and digital media culture. They talk about finding different ways to create across content types and platforms. Escola says that he and his writing partner Jeff Self began with ideas about setting a very absurd character work and then looked for ways to tell stories about those characters and create a specific tone that they wanted. He so adeptly weaves together his own formative, media experiences with an understanding of how they shaped him. It reminds me of the Media Memoir assignment in my Introduction to Mass Media course where I ask students to reflect on early experiences and use social theory from our course to help understand their personal narratives. Sitcoms were an early influence and favorite media for Escola, and he is now cognizant of the way that as a young, queer person, you can connect with a piece of media and enjoy it, while also seeing its limitations. Recognizing the prescriptive norms in a piece of media— even intuitively— can inspire people to figure out how to identify those norms and then to question them or in, academic terms, queer them.

Escola discusses his early interactions with media, how those experiences shaped his own self perceptions, and the way this fluid expression of identity is present in his performances now. He talks about being a fluid young person before he (or mainstream culture, really) had the vocabulary to describe non-binary or genderqueer people; he shares that he and a childhood friend named themselves “The Its”. Alam asks about Escola’s many female characters, and they have a dialogue about drag. Escola says he doesn’t particularly consider what he does as drag, and this is something I’ve thought about a lot.

“I don’t consider what I do drag. I’m a big drag fan, but I feel more like an actress.”

As both an actor and a researcher who studies drag communities, this distinction is fascinating. In addition to the art, craft, and culture of drag that Escola points out as being absent here, does portraying a character of a different gender constitute “drag”? (I’m thinking here, for example, about my early comedy heroes Kids in the Hall and about Louie Anderson’s incredible, Emmy-winning performance as Christine in Baskets.) And what about for fluid or genderqueer actors? Is it even possible for us to “do drag”?

I also appreciate Escola’s perspective about creating queer content, telling queer stories. He mentions the difference between kind of queer content and gay-themed, which is very much align with Alex Doty’s foundational work in queer theory. He uses the oft-cited example of the recent young adult, romantic comedy Love, Simon— often described as a movie with gay characters seen through the lens of straightness. The interviewer brings up the work of John Waters several times and wants to compare Escola’s work to Waters. While there are some parallels, I think it is also indicative of the fact that there is still so little truly radical queer content that anything wildly (or even mildly) subversive tends to go into the John Waters category. Escola’s comedy and characters are grounded in a sense of reality that is not as true for most of Waters’ films, as he tends toward the fantastic, but they both deal with the absurd and the grotesque (though Escola perhaps less so). I highly recommend this interview and anything Escola has done for a very unique, comedic perspective.

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