Fighting the ‘War on Nuance’ through queer culture

Dynasty Handbag’s variety show makes its Sundance debut

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Photos Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

It’s all in the name. “Weirdo Night” is a variety show comprising stand-up, music, performance art and the straight-up bizarre that the Los Angeles community has been returning to night after night since it started four years ago. The gritty, sometimes gory and often raucously funny production is the work of performance artist Jibz Cameron, who curates the event’s performers and hosts as her alter ego, Dynasty Handbag. This year, a filmed version of the show made its Sundance Film Festival debut. 

To create this self-described “radical and weird” expression of queer culture, Cameron worked with her partner, award-winning filmmaker Mariah Garnett, to create a pilot episode of “Weirdo Night” for a possible serial version of the show. Despite COVID-19 restrictions that made filming a live version impossible, the duo called upon the best and brightest of recent acts to create a Sundance-worthy selection.

“We needed to get the pros only,” says Cameron, laughing.

Or, as she calls them, the “real freaks” who don’t care to hide their unusual talents and proclivities for the sake of saving face in a social media-obsessed world.

“I feel like it’s very easy for people to maybe look the part, or present a certain way or co-opt another person’s look or talent — and you see this all the time with everything,” she says. “But I know that (the real freaks) are out there.”

No stranger to the world of weird, Cameron’s Dynasty Handbag persona has been in development for over 15 years. She has been called a “crackpot genius” by the Village Voice, “outrageously smart, grotesque and innovative” by The New Yorker, and has performed as Dynasty Handbag at prestigious art venues like The New Museum of Contemporary Art and MOCA LA, among others. She has also worked as a theater performance and comedy professor at NYU Tisch Performance Studies. 

In the pilot, Cameron is joined by fellow artists Hedia Maron, Smiling Beth, Patti Harrison, Vagabon, Sasami, BiBi Discoteca, Morgan Bassichis and Sarah Squirm. The opening band The Dildo Police, fronted by Harrison, sets the tone for the evening with an electronic-inspired musical number, vividly outlining the lifestyle and the favorite meal of “not gay” people — which, incidentally, is pre-packaged Black Forest ham. 

“When (Harrison) said, ‘I’m going to do a song,’ I said, ‘Fine, I don’t care what it is,’” Cameron says. “And then when they said, ‘We’re going to play computers,’ they hit them with a drumstick.”

That level of creative freedom is the essence of “Weirdo Night,” where a potentially off-putting punchline that would play for shock value at a mainstream comedy show will, according to Cameron, get a response like, “We’re gay! We’ve all been pissed on!” And in its filmed version, the atmosphere stays true to its roots by bringing underground queer culture to the fore. But beyond its ongoing aesthetic of “weird,” on purpose and as a means of fighting the “war on nuance,” Cameron shies away from giving the long-running show, and subsequent film, a truly distinct categorization.

“By saying, ‘This is a queer show that centers marginalized voices,’ that’s using language for people who might not want to use that language about themselves. And it’s also not totally true. It’s somewhat true,” Cameron says.

In many ways, it’s about letting the audience stay in a space that “contains multitudes.”

“I want it to feel like a place you can go and not just feel like you’re waiting for them to make some fat joke, or race joke or gay joke, which is how I feel when I go to a comedy show. I definitely don’t want that. But I also can’t totally control it,” Cameron says. “There has to be room for people to like things and be curious about things and turned off by things … or room to be surprised. And even if there’s things that don’t really work, every time someone will say, ‘That was a weird one.’ But you bought the ticket and it says ‘Weirdo Night’ on it.”

Garnett agrees.

“Yeah. It isn’t always a commodity. Because when something comes out of the underground and becomes mainstream, the context shifts and things become complicated,” Garnett says. “And it’s good to have queer visibility on a show like ‘Drag Race,’ which is trying to win money and be a big star. That’s great. But it’s also coming from a super underground space. So, I think people are trying to inhabit that in-between a little bit more. Because right now with the internet, it seems like maybe there aren’t any underground spaces because every space has a camera in it.”

Live or on screen, “Weirdo Night” performances serve as celebrations of the existing and often unseen facets of LGBTQ+ performance. It’s an exploration of what’s new, innovative and subversive. That’s why Cameron, along with Dynasty, is always expanding her reach.

“There’s just so far and wide that I would like to explore just personally, and then kind of put it all together. But without the idea of spectacle variety, more the spirit of someone just doing what drives them — and then whatever I like,” Cameron says, laughing.

Because, in the end, while “Weirdo Night” is a well-curated queer variety show, it’s much more than that too.

“I love that stuff, but it’s not exactly what I’m going for either,” she says. “I want to be entertained and moved in many ways all at the same time.”

Learn more about the film and Dynasty Handbag online at dynastyhandbag.com/weirdo-night and sundance.org/.