When YouTube was just five years old, Randy Rainbow was an artist in need of an outlet. Blogging and then creating topical videos for the platform, Rainbow hit on his first viral video in 2010, moving on in 2016 to skewer President Donald Trump with show tunes.
Rewriting classic numbers with a political bent, and inserting himself into sourced news clips to give POTUS and those in his inner circle a piece of his mind, Rainbow couldn’t have foreseen all the incredible things that have happened, resulting from short-form comedic content, made on a shoestring budget, in a tiny apartment in Queens.
Becoming a viral sensation, with 1 million subscribers on Facebook, more than 303,000 on YouTube, and diehard fans from Hollywood, to Broadway, to Washington, D.C., Rainbow received his first Emmy nomination last month for The Randy Rainbow Show, breaking into the entertainment mainstream, while on tour with a live show.
Incredibly resourceful and self-taught in video production, Rainbow hopes to grow his brand and continue creating engaging, resonant content, even though covering the Trump administration is an endlessly exhausting task. “They’re going to have to give me a TV show. Otherwise, I’m getting buried over here,” he says. “I hope the next time we talk, I’ll be promoting that show on HBO or Netflix—if they’re listening.”
How exactly did you come to this point in your unique career as a performer?
If you want to go all the way back, I started in musical theater as a kid, so I always had a thing for musical comedy. I’m from a funny family as well, and there’s a lot of musical genes going around, so that was always a part of me. I guess to long story short it, I was really just working day jobs when I moved to New York and trying to pay the bills, working in restaurants and as a receptionist, and at one of those reception jobs, I just got so bored, I started a blog, honing my writing skills a little bit. That eventually got a little bit of a following, especially within the Broadway and gay communities, because it was Seinfeld-y observations, with kind of a show queen spin.
So eventually, the ham in me kicked in, and I noticed I had an audience. I said, “Well, let me jump on camera and experiment with that.” Just me in front of camera, talking and doing little monologues that I prepared. Then, I decided one day to go and tackle hot topics a little bit more. That was around 2010, when the whole Mel Gibson thing happened, [with] those crazy voicemails of his rants, so the idea popped into my head to do a sketch where I was dating him, and use those sound bites. So, I had a little bit of a viral hit with “Randy Rainbow is Dating Mel Gibson,” and I kind of stuck with that, because that had some success.
I stuck with that gimmick of inserting myself into the hot topics, into the headlines of the day. But then of course, 2016 rolls around, and the natural progression was to follow that, because that obviously was what everyone was talking about, and of course still is. And it kind of just took it to the next level.
Today, it seems like YouTube is overflowing with influencers, but back in 2010, the video-sharing site was still fairly new. When you started creating content, were there any creators you were able to look to for inspiration?
No, not really. I know that a lot of people, especially kids coming up now, have these YouTube stars that they aspire to. But I’m like the oldest millennial. I have one foot in the YouTube era and one foot in the old school comedy and musical world, so I never did. I was always focused on emulating comedy stars that I had looked up to, and musical stars, too. So, I was just using the tools that had started becoming available to me technically, and hopped on YouTube.
As far as inspiration, the most I got from YouTube was that I’m kind of self-taught by watching YouTube tutorials on how to use Adobe After Effects and Final Cut Pro. I just taught myself enough to produce the content that I had in my head.
What other tools do you use to produce your videos?
I always feel kind of embarrassed when I give this answer because people are, I’m happy to say, impressed by some of the production value, and there’s really not much. It’s about a $10 production going on here [laughs]. It’s really just a green screen and a Canon camcorder that I still use—and like I said, Adobe After Effects and Final Cut Pro.
I think if the final product looks good, I can attribute that just to the fact that I think I have a good ear. That’s where the comedy comes in, and a good eye. I know how I want it to sound and move and look in my head, so I just use these programs to make that happen. But it’s really a very DIY, humble kind of production. There’s no budget as of now. Hopefully, we’re moving into a place, though, where we’ll get some networks behind this, and maybe I’ll have a team soon. That’d be nice.
I imagine your innate sense of timing, in music and in comedy, has been a great gift, when it comes to cutting your videos together.
Absolutely. Well, it’s all math. Comedy is math, music is math, and editing is, so I think those all work together. My musicality and comedic timing, if I have any, is all from just from those beats that I hear in my head, and that translates in the editing, I think.
How did you land on a format for The Randy Rainbow Show? What informed your decision to insert yourself physically into sourced clips, juxtaposing these bits with political rewrites of show tunes?
As far as inserting myself, again, we really have Mel Gibson to thank for my whole career, which I’m sure most people can say. You know, me and Jodie Foster. But I think I noticed that that works. I guess the business person in me kicked in and realized that I would have more success [that way]. Instead of just doing comedy about myself and my family, I’ve always believed you’ve got to get a gimmick. I thought that by utilizing pop culture and what everyone was talking about on their feeds, that would get more eyes on me, so that’s how I decided to incorporate the pop culture thing.
As far as inserting myself into this scenario, I always say that that’s really like my grandmother, because I always have my grandmother’s voice. She was the funniest woman in the whole world. I would spend time at her house, and the news would be on in the background, and she would just have conversations. Like, if there was an interview going on with a political figure, she would talk back to the subject of the interview, as though she were conducting the interview herself.
So, I always had that rhythm, and essentially, I’m just a crazy, old lady talking back to her television set. But I just found a way to produce that a little bit better and make it actually look like something.
What informs your choice of songs to spoof on The Randy Rainbow Show?
I have a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater and just music in general, so that’s always the easiest part. Music in general, but really musical theater has always been a real coping mechanism for me. At a young age, [when] I was little, gay drama nerd getting bullied on the playground, I think it always brought order to chaos, and that was always a comfort. So, I’ve always, in any situation—whether it be a personal issue or something happening on the world stage—gone right to the musical theater parallel to that situation. So, that part comes naturally to me.
People ask, “How did you know that politics set to show tunes would work?” I didn’t. I don’t know how that happened. The short, funny answer is that I was doing a web series for a Broadway website. After my Mel Gibson fame, they found me and said, “We would like you to do a weekly thing where you talk about headlines in the theater world.” I figured that would be a good way to incorporate my musical theater background and show off my musical chops a little bit, and so I would do that, using show tunes to deliver the news of Broadway, all the while doing my own YouTube series, where I would just talk about more mainstream stuff. Then one day, I think I just put the two together, and it ended up working.
How would you describe your sensibility when it comes to lyrics, and the way in which you come to lyrics for your songs on the show?
Well, I’ve always been a big fan of Sondheim. Lyrically, that was always really impressive to me, and I’ve always loved patter songs. The fact that that he could pack a whole three-act show into one song was always, to me, the perfect communication system, because it delivered a message. It was succinct and clever, and I just noticed that it got people. I mean, my mother really was a fan of musicals, and she kind of opened my mind. She opened the door to that world, and I just saw how she would respond to lyrics like Sondheim’s, how it really made her stand at attention. And I thought, There’s something there that people really respond to, when you can deliver a message to pithy rhyme, and package it in a song.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m really just trying to emulate those icons and heroes of mine in the musical theater world, like Sondheim, and that’s it. I don’t write music. I didn’t know that I had any sort of talent for writing lyrics until people told me I did. I just wanted to deliver musical comedy and be a performer, and out up necessity, I started doing the parody thing, because I don’t write music myself.
Over the years, you’ve gathered a lot of high-profile admirers, including Hillary Clinton…
She sent me fan mail.
After working from your apartment for years as that “crazy, old lady talking to her television set,” what has it been like to see politicians, celebrities, Broadway stars and media pundits raving over the series? In a sense, you’ve become a part of the worlds you once were simply satirizing from afar.
It’s amazing, and it certainly was a surprise to me. I hoped that maybe some Broadway people would notice me and plug me into a show, or I’d get an agent or something. [But] I’ve heard from just about every hero I’ve ever had in show business, so the fact that it has transcended that original expectation and led to me hearing from these people, it’s been very surprising. But I think it just is a testament to how unifying comedy can be.
In your videos, you’re very clear about your feelings toward Trump, tackling in each the latest bit of chaos swirling within the White House. Has it been cathartic for you to make these videos?
Absolutely. People thank me all the time for giving them some relief in this madness, and I thank them right back because it is extremely cathartic. That’s the word. When crazy sh*t goes down on the news, I can just make jokes and sing songs about it. Because otherwise, I would just be drinking all the time.
What has it meant for you to break into the entertainment mainstream this year, with your first Emmy nomination? Surely, this achievement will be the gateway to bigger and better things.
It’s very exciting. It is that mainstream recognition that I’ve been working for since 2010, really. To be included with people like James Corden and Billy Eichner, these are people who I not only admire and aspire to sort of be one day, but they have networks behind them, they have production behind them. So, I am most proud of the fact that I was able to do this, just from my humble, little studio. To get that mainstream recognition makes me very hopeful for what’s coming next.
Recently, you’ve taken your show on the road; you’ll be headlining the New York Comedy Festival on November 9th. What has the live tour been like?
Touring has been amazing because most people who do the kind of content that I’m doing will tell you that it’s a very isolated experience, creatively. I have nobody to bounce ideas [off of], and part of that is a choice. I don’t have a producer; I don’t have a co-writer or anything like that. When I make these videos, it’s just me and my cat in my apartment, so to then go out on the road, and go to these strange cities I’ve never been to, and be welcomed by a big audience of people, and be able to have that connection and hear the response—to be able to show a clip from one of the videos and actually hear the laughter—that’s been the most exciting thing.
To take a look at “BARR!”—the episode Rainbow submitted for Emmys consideration this year—click below.