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Are drag queens modern-day shamans? Alaska takes us to the church of drag comedy.

By  April 14, 2021 at 2:04pm

The first thing we notice about Alaska is her eyes: cool blue and shining. The second: her Elvira, Mistress of the Dark tank top.

Somehow we never noticed the eyes before, possibly because we’re usually transfixed by her outfits. Alaska, of course, rose to fame as a contestant on Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since then, she has gone on to win Season 2 of Drag Race All-Stars, started her own podcast, “Race Chaser” with fellow Drag Race alum Willam, and even launched her own podcast network, Moguls of Media. 

In other words, she likes to keep busy.

Alaska’s latest endeavor, The Alaska Thunderf**k Extra Special Comedy Special, finds her combining her love of drag with her love of comedy. Part drag show, part stand-up comedy special, part behind-the-scenes documentary, the show finds Alaska performing her own brand of stand-up in front of a live audience. She also takes on the role of judge, as three very different drag queens compete to win her affection and a bouquet of flowers. Filmed before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the show also features interviews with Margaret Cho and Jackie Beat musing on the importance of comedy in dark times. The special premieres on OUTTv April 15.

We snagged time with Alaska to talk about the special, her brand of comedy-as-performance-art, and the changing cult of Drag Race. The Alaska Thunderf**k Extra Special Comedy Special premieres on OUTTv April 15.

Hiiieeeeee.

You must hear that a lot. Does it ever get old for you? Do you get tired of saying it?

ou know, there’s a reason it stuck around so long. It’s catchy, it’s nice. I never get tired of hearing it.

That’s interesting. Dan Levy is someone who talks about how “Ew, David,” has become all anybody says to him. When you have a catchphrase that follows you everywhere, does that become something you can’t get away from?

I haven’t wanted to get away from it yet. I don’t mind it; I love it. Every time I hear it, it makes me happy.

That’s wonderful. Watching the show, I was getting a Joan Rivers vibe for sure, but also Sandra Bernhard and her sort of performance art cabaret. Who are your comedy influences?

Sherry Vine calls it “Phyllis Rivers.” It’s a mixture of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. I love both of them. I love Rodney Dangerfield. I love Paula Poundstone. It’s sort of like that Molly Shannon stand-up character: Am I right ladies, don’t even get me started! It’s kind of like that. That makes me laugh; it’s my kind of humor.

What’s the appeal of doing a show like this as opposed to a standard drag show? What excites you creatively about it?

I’m excited about it now because I see the value in laughter and comedy and how important that is. I think about this last year, and how it’s been so awful for so many people. So without those things that take us out of it for a little bit, that make us laugh and a little less scared of the world—without those things I wouldn’t have gotten through. It makes me feel sane and connected at a time when everyone feels disconnected.

Fantastic. We also see you out of drag in the special, and you talk about Alaska as a character, which is quite interesting. You point out that Jessica Rabbit never changes her clothes. Do you think of your drag ego-Alaska the character—as a cartoon in some ways? How does that affect your approach to drag?

I mean, it’s definitely not a strictly delineated character in the way that some people come at drag. It’s not like oh, Alaska is a carefully crafted character.

[Laughter]

Alaska came out of me as an extension of me, and an explosion of my embracing wanting to be as queer and gay as possible. That’s where it started. It has sort of taken on a life of its own, but it’s not separate from me. That’s something I love about drag: there’s not a strict delineation of this is the theatre and you take your costume off and go home. When you go to a drag show, the drag queen does something on stage, then she saddles up next to you at the bar, and you see her walking to her car later. Drag is real in a way that acting isn’t. It can go out into the world and exist. It breaks boundaries. So I love that about it. And Alaska is me, but with the volume turned up.

You say in the special that drag queens are bad liars. This is something that had not occurred to me. Why is that?

Well, because ultimately drag queens are truth-tellers. My best friend Jeremey’s philosophy is that drag queens are modern-day shamans.

Ok…

They go through a transformation. There’s a lot of tradition and culture that goes into that. Then, on stage, they have an ability to reflect back at you your truth and truths about society we don’t want to think about. So ultimately, everything is fake: the hair, the body, the fingernails—but in that fakeness something real is able to be exposed. That isn’t why I got into drag. I got into drag because it was cool. But learning about why drag was cool is something that I love that came later.

In terms of your comedy look, I noticed that you wear dark contact lenses. Why? How does that affect your performance?

When I think of Alaska, or if I was to draw a picture of Alaska, she would have blond hair and dark eyes. I don’t know why—it’s just what she looks like. She’s an alien, so I think when I started out in drag I wanted her to have big black eyes. I like it because it’s kind of like a deer, kind of like Judy Garland. These are all things that fascinate me, and I just love blond hair with black eyes. I think it’s so pretty.

That’s interesting. I don’t know that people realize how carefully crafted drag personas are, in the same way actors create a character. It’s instinctual.

You and Jackie beat have a very provocative conversation at one point in the special about how drag has become almost too acceptable. Whereas it used to be very subversive and edgy, now we have story hour. I mention this because it’s a subject that has come up with some other performers in the past couple of years: the idea that some queer people liked being a freak. It was part of queer identity on some level. What’s the power of being a freak for you?

Well, that’s exactly what it was when I first started drag. That’s why I was interested. Now it’s an acceptable career path, which is so wild and hilarious to me. When I first started it was like, what are you doing? People didn’t know what it was, and like you said, people were scared of it. I liked it because it was saying “f*ck you” to convention. It was the queerest form of expression I could imagine. So it’s been interesting watching that change, and watching the audience change. My audience now is predominantly young women. That was not the case when I started. I see that as a lovely thing though. Ultimately, drag is a powerful and beautiful thing. The more eyeballs that we can get on it, the more people we can share it with, I don’t see as bad. I see that as great.

Do we lose something when we lose the freak status?

Well, we’re acceptable to a lot of people now. Drag has become much more acceptable than it once was. But let’s not get it twisted: if you turned up in full drag in certain parts of America or certain countries, it would be freakish. It would freak people out and blow their minds. So there is a level of that, but we have more people who understand and accept what it is. I don’t see that as bad.

The kind of jokes you tell are sort of anti-comedy…something so deadpan and weird and deliberately unfunny that they’re hilarious. Margaret Cho calls it a Bergman film.

I don’t know why, but that type of humor tickles me. That kind of sh*t makes me laugh and is funny to me. The jokes where you don’t want to laugh—groaners. I love a good groaner. I love cheesy, horrible, dumb humor.

It’s funny, I’ll say that much. So what is the first thing you’re going to do when you are able to perform again? Are you plotting a big return act?

No, but that would have been really smart. I should have. I should have been taking the last year to put together the ultimate, excessive, fabulous drag show. I can’t say I have. It’s also strange because so much of the humor that came out of quarantine life was making fun of the absurdity and horribleness of the pandemic. Having to wear a mask, vaccines, hand sanitizer, viruses. But it’s like we’re over that. It’s not funny anymore. So I don’t know what it’s going to look like when I finally get back into a room with people. That’s why I thank God for RuPaul’s Drag Race. I feel in many ways like I’m a commentator on Drag Race. We have our podcast. But with drag, I like to take sh*t that everyone knows from Drag Race and twist it and make it my own. So I’m not sure what drag is going to look like, but I’m sure it will be fun.

Anything else you want to add?

I’m really bitter that we didn’t win Best Podcast at the Queerties. I want to air my grievances with you personally. I want a recount. I think it was a stolen election.

There’s always next year.

 

The Alaska Thunderf**k Extra Special Comedy Special premieres on OUTTv April 15.