Bridget Everett’s show is more than shock and awe
NEW YORK — Bridget Everett’s legs look like she has just shaved them. Forgive the intimate observation, but I know this because she has just propped up her right leg on a table a few feet from my face.
A microphone in one hand and a can of Reddi-wip in the other, she squirts out a little line of whipped cream that inches up closer and closer to . . . well, you know. She barks a command.
“Eat it, Gary, eat it!” she bellows, staring down a silver-haired man in a sweater vest and probably in his 50s. He could be the venue’s accountant for all we know, and his wife is beside him, beaming and egging him on. He eats it.
Mind you, Everett does not know Gary, and that’s not even his real name. He is one of hundreds of fans who have packed Joe’s Pub at the Public on a recent Friday night here, curious to find out what all the fuss is about within New York’s cabaret community.
Bridget Everett is not for the faint of heart, but she is perhaps the most electrifying, R-rated fun you will ever experience in a club setting. Emboldened by the two bottles of Chardonnay she carries onstage in brown paper bags, her brash mix of cabaret, comedy, and unabashed sexuality is closer in spirit to a rock ’n’ roll spectacle. No wonder she often evokes comparisons to a young Bette Midler and Janis Joplin; I would add Mae West and Peaches to that list.
After nearly a decade as one of New York’s rising stars, Everett is finally taking her act on the road, with sporadic tour stops across the country. After two performances at Cambridge’s Oberon in recent years, she returns to Boston on Thursday, this time to a rock club, Brighton Music Hall.
As her audience expands beyond the faithful to include “people who have jobs and cashmere sweaters,” as she jokes, she’s game to take on the challenge.
“It always works out, but some days I’m less in the mood for the heavy-lifting of it,” she says the day after her Joe’s Pub performance. “Then I think about it, and I remember that this is a challenge for a lot of people. It’s not your normal show. I just want the audience to trust that I’m not there to hurt anybody. And the more fun they’re willing to have, the more fun I’m willing to have. It’s like a dance.”
Her notoriety has already spread beyond her adopted hometown, even among viewers who’ve never witnessed her live. Her antics live on through YouTube clips, many of which come with disclaimers that “this video may be inappropriate for some users” and require a log-in to verify your age – the digital equivalent of a “parental advisory” warning.
There’s that particularly infamous one of Everett turning Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World)” into a fever dream, in which Everett slowly (oh, but surely) peels off layers of cold cuts and tosses chicken sausages into the crowd until she’s left onstage wearing nothing more than a bandanna, a maniacal grin, and layers of Saran Wrap.
It’s jarring, then, to meet up with Everett at a cafe near her apartment on the Upper West Side and to realize she’s maybe a little bit nervous offstage. The force she unleashed 12 hours before has been replaced with sensibility and shyness. She’s still a hoot, of course. The previous day, she had adopted a Pomeranian, her first dog, and today she was agonizing over what to name her. (A week later she wrote in an e-mail that she had decided on Louise “Poppy” Mandrell, in tribute to her favorite of the Mandrell Sisters.)
When Everett’s admirers talk about her, they toss out words like “fearless” and “free.” Indeed, it is empowering to see an artist in her prime, exuding such supreme confidence and — let’s call it what it is — swagger. She is 42 years old, which she announces as a proud milestone from the stage to prove that “dreams don’t have deadlines,” one of rapper LL Cool J’s mantras that she’s fond of repeating.
Nothing is off limits or too risqué in her performances, starting with her stage attire. While impressive and well planned, it often consists of little more than strategically placed elastic bands, swaths of lamé, and, on the night I saw her, a Barry Manilow T-shirt repurposed as sort of a onesie. Décolletage is of utmost importance, as evidenced by her signature song, whose title can’t be mentioned here. Let’s just say her salute to breasts is as thorough as a mammogram.
Celebrated for her unhinged intensity, Everett admits that she wonders how long she can live up to such a reputation.
“It’s crossed my mind a lot lately,” she says. “It’s a lot to sustain for me and for the audience. Granted, my core audience will come back every single month. But I also feel like I can’t do it forever. I have to challenge myself and learn something else. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I’m going to try to do something that I wouldn’t normally do. I mean, what do you do after you sit on somebody’s face and motorboat people?”
From the time she was growing up in Manhattan, Kan., Everett knew her path to stardom would be crooked. She had no aspirations to be your standard cabaret act or a Broadway chorus girl. She arrived in New York about 15 years ago with no job, but began to find kindred spirits in the world of underground cabaret luminaries such as drag king Murray Hill and Kiki & Herb (the psycho-pop duo of Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman). Gigging around town, Everett eventually joined their ranks and thinks New York cabaret is now in a golden age, of which she is grateful to be a part.
She’s not a cult artist, though. She has high-profile fans in Broadway royalty such as Patti LuPone, whom Everett calls a fellow “broad.”
“My first and lasting impression of Bridget is her bravery and her power,” LuPone writes in an e-mail. “I haven’t seen such abandon and joy in that freedom since [playwright-actor] Jeff Weiss in an East Village storefront. Bridget Everett is the perfect definition of shock and awe.”
Amy Schumer, the popular comedian who stars in the Comedy Central series “Inside Amy Schumer,” has also been among Everett’s most vocal supporters. She has taken Everett on the road as an opening act, and featured the singer on her TV show. Like the consensus first impression of Everett, Schumer’s was one of disbelief.
“She blew me away. I had never seen anyone so free and unapologetic like that. I just loved her,” Schumer says, adding that gradually they became close friends. “I say to people, she’s the most amazing live performer I’ve ever seen, and has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. But then I just usually show them a few pictures of her being airplaned or sitting on some guy’s face in her bra and underwear.”
To see Everett only for her prurient behavior would miss the fine print of her performances. Yes, there is vulgarity, but it’s often in service of exposing a deeper vulnerability in the artist. When she enlists an audience member, it’s usually to explore Everett’s own melancholy and insecurities, to suggest we’re all in this together. She’s projecting, like a storyteller whose anecdotes have the ring of someone who says, “Does anyone know how to mend a broken heart? I’m asking for a friend.”
For all the genitalia jokes and dildo sight gags — and there are plenty — there’s even more heart and humanity at the core of Everett’s work. When she tells a poignant story about her fractured relationship with her dying father, she then sings an eloquent ballad about letting go, her voice full of resonance and brittle emotion.
“My only concern in the beginning was that people wouldn’t consider me a singer, and that’s my background,” Everett says, having studied music at Arizona State University. “I didn’t really care what was the most important part of the night to them, as long as they had a good time. I know that I’m a singer, and I work hardest on trying to make the songs make sense.”
Everett performs in various iterations, from her current “Rock Bottom” show with a full band and backup singers to a group she calls the Tender Moments (which includes Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys). In Boston, she’ll perform alone to backing tracks. Don’t worry: That’ll be enough.
Her shows are exhausting, physically and emotionally, and Everett acknowledges it’s a feat to pull off what seems so spontaneous and effortless onstage. “All day long my body is shoring up energy to get through it,” she says. “Even right before I go on, I’m saving it all up.”
She can’t help herself. All the years of desperately wanting to be a singer for a living built a powder keg of pent-up aggression, feeling, and momentum. “And I just can’t stop it,” Everett says.
“Once people see her, they’re coming back,” says Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, which has been hosting Everett’s shows on a regular monthly basis for the past few years and awarded her a grant to support her work. “You see her wide open in every way, telling these deep dark secrets and talking to you like you’re her best friend. By the time she goes into the audience, you’ve really bought in to the idea that, ‘This is my girl Bridget.’”
“Every place I’ve played has been fantastic. Occasionally someone will walk out, but I don’t mind that. I kind of like it,” Everett says. “I was playing a comedy club in, I won’t say where, and when I got there, the box-office person was telling a customer, ‘Now, you know this show is a lot different, right? It’s fun, but it’s wild.’ I’ll take that.”