On Sunday night, it didn’t take long for the Capitol Theatre, one of Salt Lake’s most beautiful venues, to feel like a seedy club. That is by no means an insult. But when a woman who calls herself Wendy Ho sings songs with titles like “Fuck Me” and “Poop Noodle,” you know pretty quickly that this sure as hell ain’t The Nutcracker.
Wendy Ho, a comedian and cabaret singer, was the opener for drag queen Bianca Del Rio, who performed her Unsanitized tour for her first solo performance in Utah. Ho won over the crowd immediately with her filthy, sex-positive, simultaneously trashy and clever comedy. She may not be a man in a dress, but Ho, a cis woman, still calls herself a female drag queen, and her brilliantly gross justification for this self-appointed title was one of the night’s most memorable jokes. The cherry on top: Ho is a legitimately good singer, nailing parodies, original songs and a relatively straightforward cover of Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side to Side,” which is basically made to be a drag comedy routine.
Del Rio, who won Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, did not sing at all—at her core, she is an old-school live comedian. Unlike many other Drag Race stars, she seemingly has little interest in releasing her own music or modeling at fashion shows or becoming an Instagram influencer. (Though she does have plenty of followers online.) In her performance, she stuck to stand-up, and though she looked great in a floor-length yellow sequined gown with feathers cascading down one shoulder, she understands that over-the-top fashion is not the true core of her appeal. Unsanitized allows Del Rio to do what she does best—stand on stage and tell lots of crass, rude, intentionally tasteless jokes.
Mostly because it is impossible not to bring it up, Del Rio includes material about life during COVID-19. At least at the beginning, the pandemic was somewhat of an equalizer—most of us were stuck at home, bored and anxious, unsure of how to move forward. Of course, most of us did not spend the pandemic trying to find a way to perform at a Pride Festival in Tel Aviv or touring the country for drive-in drag shows, but even when Del Rio’s life experiences are not relatable, plenty of the jokes work anyway. Throughout her routine, Del Rio kept a running joke where she repeated the phrase “a lot of people died,” a note of faux-reverence that underlined her resolutely unserious treatment of the very serious year and a half we’ve all had.
Though she did not receive mainstream recognition until winning Drag Race, Del Rio has been performing for more than two decades, and onstage she comes across as a true professional. Her punchlines are crisp, the pacing is tight and her writing is exact. Even after losing her train of thought and briefly checking her notes, Del Rio kept the crowd’s attention—in fact, she turned the moment into another joke.
Though Del Rio’s COVID material dipped into topical humor, her bread and butter is still insult comedy. Those (un)lucky enough to sit at the front of the orchestra were read for filth by Del Rio through the entire show. In these moments, she showed off her quick wit and sharp timing, striking the right tone between merciless insults and all-in-good-fun banter. (For fans with thick skin, getting publicly dragged by Del Rio is a dubious badge of honor.) Plenty of Del Rio’s victims were not in the theater at all. Here is an incomplete list of people Bianca made fun of during her set: Asian people, Holocaust victims, lesbians, fat people, Floridians, Karen Carpenter, Cass Elliott, Lizzo, Madonna, RuPaul and most other drag queens not named RuPaul. Her material about other Drag Race alumni was some of her most successful. These inside-baseball moments could have turned into pandering fan service, but Del Rio’s blunt candor made the humor feel fresh. Like most fans, she agrees the Drag Race behemoth is way past its prime and is unafraid to give unfiltered opinions about a show some devotees take way too seriously. Even her rudest material about other Drag Race stars worked, largely because she drew from drag’s tradition of reading—you can imagine every queen she made fun of clapping back in their own performances, though only a few would be able to match her wit.
Things get dicier when her attention turns to broader humor, ones targeted at celebrities or entire groups of people. These are the jokes Del Rio would probably call “politically incorrect,” though less charitable audiences might just call them, well, racist. The problems with this material is not—or at least not entirely—just because “woke” audiences are increasingly socially conscious. (Not that there’s anything wrong with criticizing the material on these grounds.) While Del Rio is clearly a talented writer, these jokes are often lazy and uninteresting. The most groan-worthy material—like the digs about Lizzo’s weight or the joke suggesting that no Asian people returned the pets they adopted during the pandemic because they ate them—is barely more clever than schoolyard taunts. In one unfunny moment, Bianca made hokey jokes about how confusing it is to keep track of all the identities in LGBTQIA. It’s hard to imagine the largely progressive crowd responding the same way to these bits if they were told by a straight dude in a comedy club instead of a famous drag queen. To borrow from a joke the drag queen Coco Peru made in her recorded pre-show intro, these jokes may be advertised as unsanitary, but sometimes they just felt unnecessary.
In her 2016 special Bianca Del Rio’s Rolodex of Hate, Del Rio went even further with racial humor, and many of the jokes were, to me anyway, indefensible. But Del Rio also got personal, discussing her childhood, coming out in a Catholic family and her career in pre-Katrina New Orleans. These vulnerable moments (still laced with plenty of acidic humor) didn’t counteract the special’s ugliest edges, exactly, but it did give a more complete portrait of who she is, both as a person and performer. Though there will always be an element of subversion whenever a man performs in a dress, Del Rio is at heart a traditional performer, and she gravitates towards old-fashioned showmanship over the vulnerable self-reflection that dominates much of contemporary stand-up. Nobody needs Del Rio to pivot to a weepy one-woman show, and there is real craft to her tightly controlled material. But when she falls back on boring jokes that rely on archaic stereotypes, I felt frustrated that she wouldn’t let us in just a little bit more and use her considerable talents to share something more original.
Surprisingly, the audience Q&A at the end of the show ultimately was one of the show’s highlights. Q&As can often be agonizing, but crowd work is a key part of Del Rio’s act and she thrives interacting with fans. She rolled her eyes at stupid questions, laughed along with (the surprisingly high amount of) genuinely funny ones and even showed a sliver—just a sliver—of humanity while learning about fans’ personal lives. After a night of mostly effective but often predictable comedy, we finally got a chance to see just a glimpse of the woman behind the clown makeup.
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