Images courtesy of Bomanizer and Benny Drama

How queer comedy became the Internet’s favourite quarantine content

From Benny Drama to Bomanizer, LGBTQ+ creators have emerged the entertainers of a generation.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
27 October 2020, 11:44am

Images courtesy of Bomanizer and Benny Drama

In the early stages of quarantine, the world grappled with global devastation. Between the thousands of deaths, mass layoffs and mental health degradation, a Twitter thread emerged. “Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about,” wrote comedian Kevin T. Porter, before offering food bank donations in exchange for tales of the talk show host’s rumoured “meanness”.

Among the thousands of replies elicited, several recalled a notoriously awkward Dakota Johnson appearance on The Ellen Show, where Ellen criticised Dakota for not inviting her to her recent birthday party. The actress revealed that Ellen had, in fact, been invited and just chose not to attend. In the following weeks, this interview recirculated in a new format: a newly out-of-work musical theatre performer, reciting Johnson’s dialogue while displaying the clip on a laptop.

The video, captioned “The collapse!” is Crawford Millham Horton’s most popular post. It quickly reached four million views on TikTok, where Crawford is known by the moniker “Broiled Crawfish”. Perfectly mimicking inflection, tone and pace, performing voiceovers to memorable television moments quickly became the actor’s trademark. Then came the accolades: Jeremy O. Harris included Crawford in his “Coronavirus Mixtapes” series; he was endorsed by Jane Lynch and Nick Offerman; Lily Collins acknowledged his Emily In Paris content. Since then, nurses and other first responders have direct messaged the actor to express gratitude for “30 seconds of escapism”. It, in part, makes up for the demise of Crawford’s Broadway career, which had just begun when coronavirus hit.

“When everyone is stuck at home, social media is the one universal place we can all go to laugh,” says Crawford, who has since moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. “The era of quarantine scrolling has introduced me to some of my favourite queer comedians. Social media is driven by the youth, and the youth want more queer content.”

Queerness, once only represented on screen as a prop for hetero protagonists, has found room to flourish online in a myriad of entertainment dimensions. Crawford names Benito Skinner or “Benny Drama” — an actor-comedian, who has accrued a one million-strong fanbase by both leaning into and satirising his own sexuality — as his primary inspiration. Amid monthly zodiac sketches and unrivalled celebrity impersonations, Benny Drama comically addresses issues of internalised homophobia with a “therapist” (his baby nephew), imagines himself as a hyper-femme parent in a same-sex relationship and even parodies his life as a closeted football player in high school. Gay, straight, or anywhere in between, there’s something to relate to in his comedy.

“My time in the closet truly formulated so much of my comedy because I hid my obsession with pop culture and just observed,” Benito explained. “I think the feeling of being different and overcoming that, or maybe failing at times, is what hits for all audiences. While those feel like such queer experiences, I do think they are universal, especially in the times we are living in.”

While Benito has managed to successfully translate his comedy to the stage with nationwide tours, the comedian stipulates that without social media his entertainment career was unlikely to gain traction. In the early days, he says, it was a grind of wig purchases and failed experiments. Eventually a certain Kim Kardashian impression struck a chord, but it wasn’t until his first live show that Skinner realised he’d inadvertently become a ‘real’ comedian.

“Yes, it’s comedy, but it’s also hard fucking work!” he says. “Coming up on the Internet, you can get imposter syndrome frequently, thinking maybe you just got lucky with that one vid. But that show gave me so much confidence in the space and really helped me grow as a comedian and actor, both on and off the Internet.”

Then there are those whose star rocketed almost overnight. Benito’s “zaddy” Jordan Firstman, an LA-based writer whose work Benito has long admired, began his “impressions” series in the early days of quarantine. Jordan presents satirical personifications of everyone and everything from an indifferent mosquito to autumn leaves, all in easily digestible Gen Z vernacular. When lockdown hit, successful TV show writer Jordan felt professionally stagnant. His seminal short film, Call Your Father, had been optioned by a major studio to develop into a series. After two years of back-and-forth, the project was dropped with no explanation.

“I think it’s impossible to say you like the Internet or don’t like the Internet because it’s only an extension of us — a complete extension of humanity,” Firstman said in a recent interview. “I started to see it as this expansive opportunity, and I was in the stage of the real fun part of the Internet that feels like a circus. And the energy that I was receiving was kind of in me, I was just letting it out through more impressions.”

After posting his “season” of impressions in early April, he’s gained hundreds of thousands of followers — among them, superstars like Ariana Grande, Sarah Jessica Parker and Chrissy Teigen. “It feels so fucking right that now so many more people can see how genius [Jordan] is,” Benito says. Jordan frequently shares queer comedians he appreciates with newfound fans. One of them is Tommy Do, a figure skater-writer-producer, now known as much for his tours with Disney on Ice as his brutal takedowns of ludicrous (often queer) influencer posts and TikTok trends. He’ll share a range of said posts in a gallery, so that the viewer is forced to scroll until they reach Tommy’s own comedic take.

The Vietnamese-American’s creative output revolves around society’s concept of ‘normalcy’: “I try to create odd moments that make people question why we customarily do the things that we do. Do we do them because we want to do them or do we just do them because that’s what we think is ‘normal’?”

“It’s still pretty rare these days to see LGBTQ+ people represented accurately in the media,” he continues, “so the fact that we have the power to give ourselves a platform to accurately portray our experience is pretty exciting and a good thing.”

Content consumers have come to find heterosexuality, Tommy claims, “mind-numbingly boring.” Those seeking an entertaining depiction of romance in pop culture’s favourite will-they-won’t-they couples, such as Ross and Rachel or Jim and Pam, should “bring a book”. For that reason, Tommy has created queer content in more traditional forms, like his web series Normal Gays or short film, Masc Only, that starred Matt Wilkas and SNL’s Bowen Yang. However, it’s the idea of “quietly releasing” videos online that brings him a unique joy, because “it feels less intrusive when people discover you on their own time”.

“I feel like I’m just flying by the seat of my pants everyday and just screaming,” Tommy continues. “That being said, I’ve learned a lot just by trying things and experimenting and so far the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to not be afraid to fail. You literally have nothing to lose.”

Canadian actor Boman Martinez-Reid doesn’t know much about making it in stand-up or other traditional comedic spaces, and thus credits the Internet entirely for his immense following. His comedic stylings, which he describes as “high camp drama,” revolve around reality television parodies. And as much as real reality TV shows have their own distinctive characters and formats, so too do the creations of Boman. His production value has grown immensely over time, and he frequently plays into the concept of “transmedia” — further engendering viewer trust by crafting ‘fake’ blog posts and tweets to relate his clips. In the first week of lockdown, Boman, known as Bomanizer, started to take off. Now, he’s even secured a partnership with Tinder, parodying MTV’s Catfish with the show’s hosts.

“I grew online very rapidly during the pandemic,” Boman says. “I never imagined that it would grow to this extent. Looking back on this crazy year I just had, I couldn’t tell you when it turned into a career but the truth is, it still feels like I'm just making videos for ‘for the culture,’ as they say.”

On apps like TikTok, Boman says, it’s become easier for young people to find an online niche. As such, LGBTQ+ people have been able to garner massive followings within their own community — a popularity that, more often than not, translates easily to other social media platforms like Instagram. This has allowed the perspectives and realities of marginalised communities to be easily accessed by those who haven’t been privy to them prior. While Boman’s videos are inherently queer, they’re also relatable to all walks of life.

“I enjoy poking fun at the dramatic human experiences that we all share,” he explains. “I believe my content resonates because people experience all of these minor inconveniences that I make my content about… and as diversity and inclusivity are at the forefront of the industry, I think TV and film will become a more realistic portrayal of life.”

While Crawford was working in New York as a stage actor, he was constantly ensuring he projected the heteronormative values “the industry wanted”. On the Internet, he’s found freedom. “I used to do everything I could not to be a faggot in the audition room, but the past six months have taught me to embrace my faggotry. I love being queer. I said it before and I’ll say it again: I am a gay idiot and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

To Tommy, social media is “literally everything”. “No one would see my videos if there was no social media. I just recently got off tour as a figure skater, so I was in a way isolated, and not able to tell jokes live. Having wifi has been how I’ve been able to entertain people.” Benito echoes these sentiments: “I mean, it literally is the reason I have a career. Social media helped me grow as a comedian, and gave me the confidence to even go on stage in the first place.”

As online content has become increasingly FaceTuned and filtered, sometimes beyond recognition, there has been a crescendoing outcry for sincerity. Therefore an unabashedly queer experience, presented with humour, resonates well with authenticity-starved audiences. “I think it works because queer people are underdogs,” Tommy says, '“and everyone has felt like an underdog at one point in their life — whether or not they are in a marginalised group.”

“Queer people push boundaries,” agrees Crawford. “We exist on the outside of social norms, so our perspective is fresh. It takes a great deal of fearlessness to live openly queer, and being yourself is more important than anything else in the world.”

While each online sensation experienced showbiz success to varying degrees without their social media presence, their careers will look very different from here on out. There will be no more masc cosplay in audition rooms, or cancelled projects. The near-diehard commitment fans have to these comedians have all but obliterated the industry’s entry barrier. There’s nothing that rings louder in Hollywood than high numbers — but that’s only a small part of the platter these comedians are serving.

“So many more voices, voices that need to be heard will be able to enter the comedy space while also showing an exec that they clearly hit with audiences,” Benito says. “These voices BELONG on platforms outside of the Internet. So please, stop having people tell our stories for us — kiss kiss.”

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