Road to Beijing: Featuring Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye
"Apples and caramel apples are in season!”
A statement of seasonal relevance to the fall harvest and cultural practice of coating fruit with an oh-so-delicious gooey bath of melted sugar and cream was used as an analogy for gender and sexual identity by Kyle June Williams. The American stand-up comedian recounts her personal experience of coming out to her mother in her 30s with self-deprecating humour. Her act was one of the two performances included in Jonathan Van Ness’s Road To Beijing at the Eventim Apollo. The Eventim Apollo, formerly known as the Hammersmith Apollo, has hosted The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald with Duke Ellington’s band, The Who, Elton John, Queen, Pink Floyd, and now, Jonathan Van Ness. JVN has quickly risen to prominence as the grooming expert and large persona of the Fab Five in the Netflix series Queer Eye or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy featuring Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, and Bobby Berk. The LGBTQ+ icon and activist, TV star, host of the Emmy nominated podcast Gay of Thrones, budding gymnast, and aspiring figure skater has brought his comedy all over the United States and the UK.
The title of the show, Road To Beijing, was inspired by his dream of becoming a comedian and his attempts to represent the USA in the 2022 Winter Olympics. The show was more of a podcast/interview with a sprinkle of humour intermixed with various costume changes and routines. After three dress changes and a gymnastics routine with a standing back tuck — an ode to being the first male cheerleader in his high school — I had to question whether or not JVN succeeded in establishing himself apart from his TV personality. Much of the discussion was orientated towards reflections on pre and post Queer Eye with tidbits about his cast members. There were moments throughout the show when JVN’s humour fell flat. Often JVN would perform a dance move like kicking his leg over a stool or name drop one of the members from the TV show in order to get energy from the crowd.
You might ask, why does the global response to Queer Eye differ from JVN’s show? Well, that’s a good question. The heartfelt transformations of individuals through the intervention of the Fab Five is a highly edited TV show. Acting in front of a live audience is very different from the filming and highly shaped narrative of a TV show. Humour is dependent on popular culture, historical and geographical development, education, age, and societal context. There is no single universal or national definition of what constitutes as ‘funny’. However, for the sake of comparison, you can identify popular trends within national humour (I’m not claiming that these definitions are fixed). British humour often consists of tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating comments, or highly exaggerated sarcasm, otherwise known as ‘taking the piss’. While American comedy is often slapstick or physical, and presents critiques on popular cultural and less emotionally entrenched topics. This difference between British and American humour was apparent from my observations of the audience’s reaction to JKN.
Jonathan Van Ness has provided a platform to uplift voices from the LGBTQ+ community by featuring Kyle June Williams and Mawaan Rizwan. The two acts were a hilarious additions that took up a larger percentage of the show. Rizwan joked about the derogatory name for the one and only dance move, the ‘slut drop’. His anecdote of his love for ‘slut dropping' in the club resulted in a knee injury and an embarrassing visit to the hospital. The doctor prescribed him to minimise the dance move or wear knee pads. Instead, Kyle June Williams noted her experience at the National Gallery and the lack of male genitalia visible in the current collection on display. Breast. Breast. Butt. Vagina. Women are highly learned in the visual nature of their sex while men lack any visual examples of their penis. She cried, ‘Ohh poor men!’ These two comedians fit well with the overall mood of the night.
Although Jonathan Van Ness might not have succeeded on stage that night in Hammersmith, he still challenges gender barriers and use uneasy memories as lessons on positivity and resilience. He continues to be activist for the Queer community on stage, social media, and television while giving us tips on how to better care for our skin and hair. This body positive queen teaches to not only love oneself, but everyone for their unique qualities.