Exclusive Interview: Drew Droege on his new one man show Happy Birthday Doug “I think we’re afraid as queer people to write flawed gay characters”

The Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade alum Drew Droege is a much-beloved fixture of Los Angeles’ comedy theatre scene. Outside of LA he’s best known for setting the Internet alight with his hilarious Chloë Sevigny videos, which give Schitt’s Creek Moira Rose a run for her money on how to pronounce the simplest of words in weird and wonderful ways. Ever since Drew’s Chloë announced that “it has recently come to her attention that she’s loves toe-ast” it’s been part of the daily breakfast conversation in my household. And I’m sure his absurb and hysterical take on Chloë has similarly influenced many a queer American on how to speak this particular queen’s English.

Chloe “Toast”

But there’s far more to Mr Droege than his hit YouTube videos. He recently wrote an episode of the RuPaul starring Netflix show AJ and the Queen, had a scene-stealing recurring role as Mr Dennis on the Paramount show Heathers and had an extended Off-Broadway run of his one man show Bright Colors and Bold Patterns. That show was filmed by Broadway HD winning Droege an Oustanding Performance award from Outfest Los Angeles in 2018.

With Drew Droege currently back Off-Broadway at the SoHo Playhouse with his new one man show, Happy Birthday Doug, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann caught up him to talk what makes good comedy, writing himself flawed gay men to play, why The Golden Girls is still funny and what he loves about Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy.

Drew Droege in Happy Birthday Doug. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Happy Birthday Doug. Before we get on to that, I just wanted to take you back a little. How did the performer in you first manifest itself, were you performing one man, or one boy, shows for your family as a kid?

“I was actually always the quiet kid that was upstairs in my room reading, living in a fantasy world. I had a wonderful upbringing in North Carolina in the 1980s and 90s. I didn’t start doing theatre until High School. Then I realised that I could be someone else and I just could express so much of myself through playing someone else and at least trick myself into thinking ‘oh, I’m such a different person when I’m up here.’ That gave me so much confidence. But I was also really obnoxious in school and made my friends laugh! I was always well-behaved at home and then I would get to school and just do anything I could do to make my friends laugh. So that was always kind of in me. I wanted to be a serious actor, I always wanted to do drama, but I would get laughs and I was really mad about it because I didn’t want to make people laugh then. It took me a while to come around to doing comedy. I was so reluctant because I didn’t trust that it was real acting, I thought ‘I want to make people sob, that’ll mean I’m good!’ I try to remind people of that when I teach, you can sling over the other way and try too hard to be funny and then you’re not. I think it’s a good lesson in not trying to be funny, just play the truth and really try to mean what you say and then hopefully other people will laugh, but you have to be committed. So I learnt all of that in sort of a weird backwards way.”

I was going to ask about that, being the class clown. I’d wondered when you first realised that you had the ability to make people laugh. So as with a lot of people that started in the classroom for you?

“It’s a weird survival technique that I wasn’t even really aware of. You don’t get bullied if you’re making people laugh and also in the South I used to make people think that I was possessed! So that kept people away, because I knew that if they thought that I had the Devil in me they wouldn’t bother me, they’d steer clear! And I really did it mainly to make my friends laugh. I was very lucky in that I had lots of friends. Once I got over the hump of seventh grade, which is just so horrible, you get through those rough periods and then you think ‘oh, if people are laughing then they like me.’ I get to have some control over them laughing at me as oppose to me just trying to exist and them laughing at me.”

Drew Droege in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

Yes, I can relate to that myself at my all boys senior school. Making them laugh diffused things a bit! So I saw your last show when it was in New York, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, which was another hit in the city – one thing I love about both shows is how they really engage our imagination as audience members. We’re not just sitting there and receiving the show, we’re picturing so much of it and we’re right there with you as perform and more invested than perhaps shows where you get a full cast. Bright Colors you performed a lot over several years, so what were you thinking about as you set about writing this new show Happy Birthday Doug and eventually you knew you’d be performing it too?

“With the last one I played one character talking to multiple people, and I wrote my dream character with Bright Colors because I just wanted to write a big, loud gay mess who we love, hopefully by the end. And I wasn’t seeing that in anything, and I still don’t see that. I think we’re afraid as queer people to write flawed gay characters and characters who may not always win. I think it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, it’s not the fairy tale that we want. I get why we don’t do it, but I think we should do it more. When I was going into writing Happy Birthday Doug I wanted to play a variety of gay men, and I wanted a lead this time with Doug that was different from the lead in Bright Colors. I wanted him to be a lot more confident and successful and pleasant, and I think he has to be because when you flip it you have to play the more interesting character. When you’re doing a show where you’re imagining that there’s another person on the other side in the audience, or there’s another person there, the person you’re talking to has to be less interesting than the thing you’re doing because otherwise we get really confused as an audience, like ‘wait, what’s happening that we don’t see?’ So I had to flip that and make the people in Doug’s life all more colourful than he is, and then I come out at the end as Doug, because I feel like it would be really unsatisfying if you didn’t get to see him at all.”

“I really wanted to highlight friendships and relationships, and our dynamic as gay men at parties, how we can be so nervous of each other and we can be caustic, we can be so excited around each other. Like Oscar Wilde says, we are all just trembling collections of nerves and desire, and I do feel like that’s kind of us as gay men at parties. It occurred to me when I was writing this that I was at a party one time and looking around and I thought every gay man here thinks that he’s Oscar Wilde and none of us are! So I wanted to bring Oscar Wilde to the party and have him say ‘I’m Oscar Wilde, and I’m not even Oscar Wilde, so calm down, let’s relax!’ Happy Birthday Doug was more about learning how to just be in the moment and calm down and love each other, love ourselves and because of what I do let’s laugh at ourselves too; let’s point out what’s really ridiculous and needy and sad and everything about who we are, let’s blow it up in an hour!”

Drew Droege in Happy Birthday Doug. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

Talking about writing slightly different gay characters to ones we’re used to seeing, how conscious are you when you’re writing that the eventual audience is likely to be a certain demographic? You’re not necessarily writing for a very mainstream, mainly straight audience. The night I was at Happy Birthday Doug it was largely gay men.

“Right, right! You know, as long as I am lucky enough to get to write whatever I want to write it’s probably going to target that demographic and it will be for gay men. Obviously I love it when straight people come to the show and I think they see it differently. You know, to speak on behalf of straight people…how dare I?! I think they find a lot of it even funnier because they don’t have to look at it in the mirror maybe as much. I’ve gotten some really lovely compliments, but then maybe there is some other stuff that they don’t pick up on that we all know as queer people. So it’s just a different lens to view the show through. When I get hired to write it’s different. I’ve written for TV shows, award shows and on people’s movies. Then I have to go through their lens, like if I’m writing for a network, or a younger or a more mainstream audience, I write in a different style.”

“My manager always laughs at me because he’ll ask me what I’m thbinking about writing and I’ll say ‘well, I want to write about this group of gay friends’ and that’s all I really want to write about when I’m given the freedom to do that. I also really enjoy the challenge as an actor and as writer when I have to change and go into another style, because it’s like you’re working another muscle.”

And it’s not like we’re oversaturated with a diverse variety of fully fleshed out gay characters on stage, film and TV is it?

“No, not at all. I hope we swing back. We’ve finally figured out that we need to write more three dimensional female characters. So we have really been focusing on that and we’ve been focusing on people of colour and trans people, which obviously we need so much more of in everything. But I do think with gay men we haven’t really explored that as much and I think it’s really interesting that as gay men, as creators, a lot of us are still sort of hesitant to do that. I see a lot of things where they’ve written either heteronormative gay characters who seem very straight – they just happen to live with each other, dude. Or really jokey, completely not dangerous gay people in things. To me, I look at it and instead of being really bummed about it, I think ‘oh, wow, we have a lot of work to do and how exciting that is. Let’s do it!’ Maybe that’s on me and my contemporaries and other people who are creating right now to fill in those blanks.”

Drew Droege in Happy Birthday Doug. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

And in terms of the characters you play in Happy Birthday Doug, there’s a great range and I love the differentiation between them in your performances. One thing that I think they have in common is that they are not particularly self-aware which is good because it’s an interesting thing to watch.

“Yes, I learnt at The Groundlings that comedy with a lot of characters comes from their lack of self-awareness. The thing that they think they are presenting is the opposite of what we are actually getting, so we laugh at them because they are unaware of that thing. You know if they are aware of their flaw then they can become even more tragic!”

I imagine that they are all based on elements of people that you’ve encountered as well as aspects of yourself?

“Oh, yeah, they all have pieces of me in them and they are all amalgamations of people that I know and have known over the years. With each character I kind of developed it differently. Some of them I knew right away what their hook would be. With my younger waiter character, at first I had written him as being really nice and he was just kind of boring, so I thought ‘what’s his hook?’ I sort of slide out a bit more subtly with him, that he’s a really nice guy, but he’s way too woke and he’s a little bit condescending in his need to explain how PC he is and that sort of came in later after I’d written him. But I really wanted him to be genuine and kind and I also wanted the older man to be genuine and kind too, but also to funny and talk about sex. I feel like we don’t have enough older gay male characters who are fun guys to be around, who we’d want to have at the party. You know, when you do see older gay characters they’re usually these imperious queens in the corner and who are like ‘girl, in my day…’. That’s great and I love those people too, but there are so many more kinds of men who I party with. I want to talk to the really fun 70 year-old who’s got these great stories, who’s not afraid to talk about sex and laugh and talk about his days doing drugs and all those celebs he knew. These are the guys I know and love and want to hear about. They’re getting older and they are dying out, so we have to respect that and listen to them. So that was something I wanted in there. I had the opportunity with this show to play a wide range of different gay men, so they don’t all have to be horrible! With that very first character I really want to hit a punch and it’s like ‘oh my God, you’re going to be assaulted at this party, this guy is going to drive you crazy!’ But you have to have different levels and space for all of it.”

What about when it comes to the direction of it, at the SoHo Playhouse it’s not a very big stage and it’s quite a simple set but I thought that the direction really helped define the characters.

“Tom DeTrinis is directing, he’s brilliant, we work together a lot in LA. Tom was so great at helping me develop the show. It was fairly written by the time I had a first rehearsal with him, but there were so many little things that he helped me with and threads that he helped me to connect. I wanted some of the characters to say some of the same things and have some of the same themes running through, like when you’re at a party and you overhear a phrase and someone else picks it up, I wanted that in there. Tom also helped me with my character work and he was really good in terms of staging it, where we put each of the characters and why. We came up together with the idea of the drinks signifying who the characters were. I didn’t want to do wigs and I didn’t want to do hats or anything like that, but I knew there had to be something to differentiate them and he was just really great in those kinds of conversations. But he was also really good at saying ‘OK, this character is bleeding over into this character, so we want to make this choice’ and that kind of thing. He just has such a good eye about keeping it clean.”

Drew Droege in Happy Birthday Doug. Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

Is it quite hard to move from one character to another so quickly?

“It’s not anymore, it’s choreography once it’s in your body to get into that position. And for me I’m so outside in as a performer. I was always the kid in college who needed my shoes right away because once I could feel the shoes the character was in I felt ‘OK, I get this’. So I had the drinks, or the waiter has a notepad, or with the couple I always imagine that they are holding on to each other, so their sort of prop is the other one. I had that in my mind and it helps, that’s the spine and then I hope that the rest of it’s there when the lines come up, because you don’t have much time to get into it!”

And Michael Urie who directed Bright Colors is producing this time isn’t he?

“Yes, he directed Bright Colors, and then he saw Happy Birthday Doug last summer when I did it in LA. We just wanted to have him involved. He’s such a good friend and a creative partner and we’ve done a lot of things together. He’s insanely busy, but he wanted to lend his support and so we’re super grateful for that. He came to see the show on Sunday night and he always has such great things to say afterwards, just great insight.”

How do you usually spend your own birthdays and is that something that’s changed over the years?

“You know, it’s definitely changed over the years. I used to invite everyone I’d ever met to my birthdays, they were massive. I set the show on a Wednesday night, and I usually get laughs both times I say ‘it’s Wednesday!’ It’s so LA, no one has birthday celebrations on the weekends because none of us have day jobs and you can take over an entire bar during the week and really have it to yourself. So my birthday celebrations would be during the week and I’d invite like 200 people! The people that I love would give me my space and hang out in the corner and they wouldn’t bother me. Meanwhile the people that I didn’t really like would drive me crazy! And it took me so long to change it, but every year I would sort of whittle it down. The older you get the better it is for so many reasons. No one will be upset if they’re not invited to a birthday party. I did have someone come up to me and say, like the character Jason does at the beginning of the show, ‘I know I wasn’t invited, but I’ll always show up, you never have to invite me!’ That was actually said to me and it was like a threat, like you have no choice, like I’m I your life forever! So I was exhausted at my own parties, I would barely finish one drink because I was talking to people the entire night. My parties get smaller and smaller every year and they get better in a way. If I go out for dinner with six friends that’s great. Maybe there’s a whole other group of friends that didn’t go m, and that doesn’t mean that they are any less of a friend, and we can go and do something else. This year I did my show here in New York on my birthday and it was on Oscar Sunday. So it was a treat. I got to perform, have a birthday celebration on stage, have a little birthday celebration off-stage and then watch the Oscars at a freind’s place. It was a perfect day for me!”

What kind of guest are you would you say at birthday parties?

“I’ve gotten to be very lowkey. I don’t usually take over a party, especially if I’ve performed. I love being quiet and observant. I used to feel like I had run around and talk to everyone I knew. I used to feel the mania of ‘Oh, God! I have to see these people and then these people…’ and then I realised how that’s just not good for me. No one cares if they see you across the room and they don’t get to talk to you. They might send you a message later and say ‘let’s get together, because I saw you at that thing and we didn’t get to talk’. So I’ve definitely learnt to just go into parties and plant my feet and talk to whoever I talk to and I’m so much happier that way. I still naturally go up and talk to people, but I realise for all that I do on stage I sort of don’t have a lot of reserve for when I go out to run around and be the butterfly that I thought I was. So I don’t know what that makes me now, but there’s an expectation I think that I’m going to go in and tear the party down and I’m so usually never that person, I mean I was!”

And people can come up to you if they want to can’t they?

“Right, that’s the thing too. Especially in LA when you see everybody all the time anyway. Sometimes people will go crazy and say ‘Oh my God, what are you doing here?!’ And I think, ‘well, I’m a gay man in LA, that’s why we are both here, I’ll see you tomorrow at the next thing!’ That’s also part of it.”

Latrice Royale in Episode 7 of Netflix’s AJ & the Queen written by Drew Droege.
Courtesy of Netflix.

You mentioned writing TV for earlier, I was excited when I saw your name pop up at the beginning of an episode of the Netflix show AJ and the Queen earlier this year. What was it like writing for those characters?

“It was a blast, but it was also hard because it goes very fast. You don’t have a lot of time to workshop, you have to make big swings and hope that things work. I had an amazing boss in Michael Patrick King, who was just an incredible mentor and a genius. RuPaul is delightful and just so kind and so present. Getting to work with those people and Jhoni Marchinko all day long was just such a treat. I got to write the episode with Latrice Royale and Monique Heart, Kevin Daniels, all these amazing guest stars. It’s a different tone than my own work. There’s a ten year-old girl Izzy G., who’s amazing and you have a continuing plot and a tone that’s laid out before you, so you have to live in that world. Michael Patrick King is so amazing about that, going through your script and making sure there’s consistency in the show and saying things like, this is how this character needs to talk and this is what needs to happen plot wise. I’m not that great with plot and structure, and I’ll own it, in Happy Birthday Doug not a lot happens. I’m way more into exploring a character than I am writing something like there’s a bomb that goes off or whatever, I don’t usually think in terms of that so much, but I had to for the show because we had to set things up for later.”

“It was such a fun challenge to be a part of it and something I hadn’t ever done before. I wrote on Big Mouth two years ago, but I’d never written my own episode of TV until AJ and the Queen. It’s exciting to look forward to other things that I can do as a creative person, now I can say ‘I’ve done that, so I can do that again’. I think it’s really important as a creative person to not limit yourself into what you can and can’t do. In between acting jobs, or if they’re not coming in, I have to generate my own acting work or I have to do a writing job. Being a writer on set was such an interesting job, where you’re on set hanging out basically as a resource and they’ll run over to you and say ‘this line isn’t working’ and you have to come up with a new line or whatever.”

I was disappointed to hear that AJ and the Queen wouldn’t be back for a second season because I think there was a lot of potential there.

“I know. I just found out with everybody else last week. It is disappointing because I feel like we would’ve had so many other stories to tell. Ru was so wonderful and it was just such a magical team. We knew that we were doing something really special and for a lot of us it was our first time doing a show. Even for Ru it was his first time really leading a television show and we haven’t seen him perform those drag numbers in that way in such a long time, and he got to be someone other than RuPaul which I think was really exciting for him. It was exciting for us to watch too, I thought ‘wow, he’s definitely not playing himself’. I hope we all get to work together again on something else.”

Drew Droege in the pilot episode of Paramount’s Heathers

And Heathers the TV show I really enjoyed and I loved your character Mr Dennis.

“Oh God, thank you. That was the dream gig! That show was so smart and so ahead of its time. I really am still holding out hope that when we have a new President and a new climate we’re able to laugh at liberal people again, and we’re also able to laugh and have terror in our hearts at the same time! I think it’s really important to. But it was timing, it was such a difficult show to have out when we were having so many school shootings. I understood why people had such complicated feelings about it, but the show itself, if you really watched it was not endorsing any of that behaviour, it was absolutely saying look how terrible this is. It’s Heathers, everyone is horrible in this world and everyone is making the worst decisions. But that’s what comedy really is to me, it’s watching people make terrible decisions and you laugh at them because we understand it. I just think eventually the pendulum has to swing back and I’m just so hoping it will, obviously selfishly because I want the show to come back and do something, or I at least want that vibe, I want that energy back in the world. I think we’ve gotten so precious and we’ve gotten so woke in a way that like, oh God, what’s funny anymore? What can we laugh at? We are being so sanctimonious and there’s so much “clapter” happening. And I have complicated feelings about it as well because I understand why we are where we are and I don’t think we need to be callous, and I certainly don’t think we need to make fun of anyone’s pain or struggle.”

Sometimes it feels like the general reaction misses out on the nuance that’s there with satire or dark comedy. Heathers wasn’t promoting school shootings in the same way that the original movie wasn’t encouraging kids to blow up their schools.

“Exactly, but even with the movie no one would go near it. When they made that movie there were no A-list actors who wanted to do it. They thought that Christian Slater and Winona Ryder were idiots for doing that movie. Shannen Doherty said she was very religious and that her parents didn’t really know what she was signing up for. And that movie was not a hit in theatres and then it became a cult hit later. So it only makes sense that the TV show sort of followed suit thirty years later. We’re in the same place and also in scarier place too in a lot of ways, so I understand.”

Heathers. Image Entertainment.

I remember very clearly getting the VHS out with my sister when Heathers the movie first came out and because I only had it for twenty four hours I watched it three times.

“I was the same way, I would rent it so many times and make other people come over to my house and watch it. So that was the surreal thing about being on the TV show, I couldn’t believe it every time I was walking through the halls it said Westerburg or when the character names were mentioned like Veronica Sawyer, or Heather Duke; all these names that I’ve grown up with! I’ve watched that movie so many times, it was so crazy that I got to be part of it. It was beautiful.”

And I did get a t-shirt from the TV show, someone sent me a Westerburg high croquet team shirt, but I just need to shrink it. I think it’s XXXL or something, it’s like a flag!

“Oh my God that’s hilarious! Well, I got some on the show, but they are so horrifically awful that you can’t even wear them to the gym! One of them just says ‘I am suicide’ on it. Even if someone thinks it’s legit you have to tell them it’s a joke, and isn’t that horrible! But we’re not making fun of suicide, we’re making fun of someone who would wear that shirt!”

I’ve always wanted to make myself a Big Fun one like they wear in the movie. Just a white shirt with Big Fun written on it.

“Yes, that would be really great, Big Fun!”

Drew Droege (bottom right) as Rose in The Golden Girlz Live!

One of the regular shows you do in LA is a drag version of The Golden Girls isn’t it?

“Yes, we do it twice a year, usually January and late summer at Casita del Campo, which is this Mexican restaurant with a theatre in the basement. It’s just magical because people love The Golden Girls so much! I know a lot of drag groups do it around the country. We have a stupid good time playing those characters, we do classic episodes. It was Jacki Beats’ idea six or seven years ago and we’ve done it twice a year since then. Because it’s a small space we sell out every show, we do around fifteen to eighteen shows per run in two weeks. So sometimes we’ll do three shows a day. We exhaust ourselves doing it, with so many costume changes and so much jewellery and running around! And those ladies could talk, so it’s so many words to learn every time. Groups come, people have birthday parties there, and they’ll bring twenty or thirty people. It’s become like a local phenomenon in LA. It’s a lot of work, but we all love each other and have so much fun getting to perform it and the audience loves it so much. It’s not even about us in a lot of ways, they just really love those four characters and the writing is so good.”

Yes, that’s interesting isn’t it, with a lot of those long-running comedy series you might go to the scripts and think, ‘oh, actually this isn’t all that funny’ it was more about the familiarity and the performances, and the laughter track!

“Yes, The Golden Girls really holds up in a way almost none of the other shows have over the years. I’ve watched Cheers recently and that still holds up too, that’s still great. Those shows are character based and when you make a show about characters that survives because and I guess with The Golden Gilrs Bea Arthur said she asked the writers to write evergreen jokes, and not to write anything too current because she knew it would last, way before they thought anyone binge a whole season or there was streaming or any of that. She knew this needed to survive. I grew up watching Designing Women, I watched that more than The Golden Girls when I was a kid. My mom was an interior designer, I was in the South, my dad was in furniture, so my whole world was furniture and Southern ladies! But Designing Women does not hold up at all now, because the characters are all much more subtle, they are all really layered, they are smart and you agree with them, politically they are all very liberal. But I really liked it at the time. We also did The Facts of Life, but it’s not funny now and for those Jackie would go through the script and punch them up and make them filthy! But for The Golden Girls you really don’t have to. It still survives because those characters shine through. I’m Rose and I’ve played a lot of stupid people, but it’s the only time I get to play someone sweet. She’s so sweet and she gets her feelings hurt a lot. I think of her as a child who’s always learning and always teaching.”

When I was rewatching The Golden Girls recently I noticed in the early years there are a lot of episodes where they fall out and say to each other ‘I’m never going to talk to you ever again’, but then of course they’ve all made up by the end.

“Yes, they always have that thing where they have a huge fight for some reason, then they sort of make up and then they have an even bigger fight and they make up at the end. That’s the structure of so many of these shows.”

Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy

And finally, I always ask everyone to pick a favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, piece of music or an artwork that’s resonated with you over the years and why?

“There have been so many obviously that have influenced me over the years, but something, and I think it really comes back to my show that I’m doing, that I don’t think gets enough love is the film The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy. Greg Berlanti’s film from 2000. I saw it right when I moved to LA, I saw gay men as friends and I saw so many different kinds of gay men for the first time in my life. I haven’t watched it in forever, but I just related to it so much at the time and it was such a welcome to LA for me when I saw that movie, and seeing the multigenerational aspect of it influenced me endlessly. And Jennifer Coolidge is in it, so come on! Oh my God, she’s my favourite person on Earth! I’ve known her for years through The Groundlings, so any time I get to listen to her go off on the world is so special.”

The remainder of the March performances of Drew Droege’s hilarious one man show Happy Birthday Doug at New York’s SoHo Playhouse have now been postponed until a two-week special Pride rub in June 2020. Visit the play’s official website here. For more on Drew Droege head to his official website or follow him on instagram @drew_droege or twitter @drewdroege.

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