Sundance 2021: New Frontier’s Weirdo Night is spicy, bracing, delightfully naughty underground experience

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No Sundance experience should ever go without visiting the festival’s New Frontier programming. One of the best options is Weirdo Night, a filmed version of a popular underground show that has attracted a solid following in Los Angeles.

The 42-minute episode, which was filmed last summer and was discovered online by a Sundance programmer, is now a pilot for what will become a series, created and hosted by Jibz Cameron (whose alter ego is Dynasty Handbag) and directed by Mariah Garnett. With in-person shows still a no-go during the pandemic, the Sundance presentation of Weirdo Night is ideal for satisfying the craving of the show’s most ardent followers while attracting newcomers.

A still from Weirdo Night by Jibz Cameron and Mariah Garnett, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

It is a spicy, bracing, naughty cocktail of a variety show with bands, comedians, videos and performances featuring its host Dynasty Handbag, who also performs monologues. Among the highlights is an appearance by Patti Harrison who performed with Sasami, in a song about how Harrison, wearing masks that obscure her face almost totally, is not gay but her mother is a lesbian. Drag artist BiBi Discoteca’s dance is sensuously lurid with the skilled movement technique of their professional training. Sarah Squirm takes the stand-up genre of Rodney Dangerfield to a devilish, macabre level of dark comedy. There are appearances by familiar Weirdo Night collaborators including Morgan Bassichis, a brilliant comic writer, as well as Hedia Maron and Smiling Beth. The musicians and bands featured in the film are superb. Sasami Ashworth, for example, is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, has cultivated a diverse portfolio of work in music since moving to Los Angeles.

Cameron brought the performance art vibes of Dynasty Handbag from New York City to Los Angeles, which was introduced to an upgraded version of the queer variety show bringing in fresh hybrids of drag, comedy, burlesque, dance, music and performance art. The pastiche comes together nicely with the assortment of seemingly misfit performers, proving that even random spontaneity can be deftly managed with rigorous production and performance standards of excellence while convincing audiences just how genuine the show’s unrestrained character can be.

A still from Weirdo Night by Jibz Cameron and Mariah Garnett, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Just as the pandemic shutdowns cascaded around the country last year, Cameron had sold a television show with four episodes titled Garbage Castle to the FX network but then, as with so many other projects that had been greenlit by networks or studios, moving forward on it came to a halt. Based on its general description, the forthcoming show sounds like an ultra-edgy, adult homage to Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch.

The Sundance pickup could not have come at a better time for keeping up Weirdo Night’s visibility during the prolonged lockdown in live entertainment. The Weirdo Night pilot being screened at Sundance was filmed last summer with a four-camera set up at Zebulon Café in Los Angeles.  

In an interview with The Utah Review, Cameron, who has been one of the most prominent performers in the avant-garde scene for more than two decades, says that when she moved to Los Angeles from New York City, there were few venues available for shows such as Weirdo Night. “I wanted to make a freer space for queer performance art that did not have to be in an art gallery or comedy club,” she explains.

When the pandemic occurred, Cameron and Garnett thought about how to offer safely an option for those yearning for their Weirdo Night fix. “Many clubs had stepped it up producing podcasts and videos shot with multiple cameras and offered on live streams to generate some income,” Garnett explains. However, the club which regularly hosted Weirdo Night did not have WiFi available in the space. Hence, Zebulon Café, which also was open for outdoor dining, agreed to provide the production set for the filming.

As for assembling performers, Cameron and Garnett had to contend with two major issues. They involved performers, many of whom agreed to perform because they were quarantining in the same ‘pod’ with their colleagues, who would be comfortable in presenting their music and material without an audience present. With Sarah Squirm, whose immunocompromised partner was among the higher risks group for COVID-19, the comedian decided to make her own video instead which then was edited into the show. Each act was given a separate slot for filming and a scaled down crew was used. Everything fell into place with the tight one-day schedule. The café’s outdoor dining space also became a sort of green room for waiting performers.

A still from Weirdo Night by Jibz Cameron and Mariah Garnett, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Having the live band performances on film enhances the documentary look and value of Weirdo Night, a pleasant advantage. Likewise, the production values also compensated significantly for the absence of the kinetic energy that would occur with a live audience. For example, dance can be such an ephemeral experience but BiBi discoteca’s dance performance really popped on film, thanks to the angles used to capture the movement.

Cameron says the concept of Weirdo Night thrives in Los Angeles, as the experimental range expandes beyond the realms of queer comedy and drag performers, particularly as the underground scene becomes more animated by the contributions of queer kids of color and Latinx community members, for example. Past Weirdo Night shows also are available for rent at the Dynasty Handbag website. For more information about the festival programming remaining, see the Sundance website.

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