When it comes to the nine characters in Happy Birthday Doug (at Soho Playhouse, New York City, to March 28), the comedian and writer Drew Droege says he is “kind of all of them”: the obnoxious drunk, the nervous waiter, the mean ex, the nightmare couple, and the beguiling older gay man who has lived more than any of them.
Droege (pronounced like “hoagie”) plays all these characters in the 60-minute one-man show, as well as the title character, Doug, whose birthday party this group of very different gay men are attending—and whom Droege says he is most like. His play has become an off-Broadway hit to match the popularity of his 2013 comedy, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, in which he played Gerry, the nightmare wedding guest, serving up—just like Doug’s birthday guests—equal parts raucous shade and truth.
Where Gerry was a mess, Doug is more confident and happy. Both show, Droege hopes, that being single is OK, that in a marriage-equality world, some remain happily not-the-marrying kind. Droege would say the same thing about himself; he would also, he admits, like to meet someone.
In person, the tall and handsome 43-year-old comedian—who became famous for his videos impersonating Chloë Sevigny—is nothing like the motormouth nightmares he plays on stage. He speaks quickly and is very funny as he speaks, but his characters’ heavily serrated edges are absent.
Part of Droege’s theatrical mission is to show those gay extremes are parts of our world, parts of ourselves, often ignored in a pop-culture universe that majors in “positive images.” Bad gays are in short supply. Droege is here to return the spotlight to them.
Jason, the most obnoxious guest, is based on those “who make a beeline for you at parties to exhaust you, and they weren’t even invited.” Christopher, on the other hand, was not meant to be the waspish older queen we are used to seeing. He was inspired instead by those older gay men “who have amazing stories involving celebrities from yesteryear. I know them, and I want to know more about them. We lost so many to AIDS. I don’t know what it would be like to be 70 now, living in Los Angeles, having lived that kind of life, and having younger gay kids saying, ‘Get out of my way, queen.’ They must have complicated feelings too: survivors’ guilt.”
Droege has “definitely” been like the young waiter, trying desperately to be woke. He respects younger and older generations most; it’s the hypocrisies of his own generation he is keener to skewer.
The play is ultimately sympathetic, even to its monsters. “Gay men learn how to create personas to survive. They are just as insecure as everyone else. I’m constantly dealing with where I am emotionally.” Droege laughed. He recalled making excuses for past boyfriends, “like, ‘He’s not great around other people.’ Then later you think, ‘Is he?’ Maybe you just wanted that person to be great, or you were just putting up certain things.”
When it comes to his horrible characters, Droege said, “We have bitchiness, insecurity, trauma, all of it, within us. I play a lot of hateful, unlikable, awful gay people—and I love it. We’re afraid of showing those people, or those sides to people. People want to write idealized gay men. They’re frightened of femininity. There is a lot of internalized misogyny and homophobia.
“We’re fighting to show that we can get married and have children. These are important things, but we are also fighting anything that might be considered negative about us. But we have to allow ourselves that space, and we have to be able to laugh at ourselves and those parts of ourselves. I don’t want to put us on blast, but I want to say: ‘Remember we can be this way.’ Our bitchiness can be useful, as well as mean and awful.”
It’s fun to play all these people. Droege sees the fear on the part of the audience that he might suddenly start interacting with them, and their embrace of some characters and not others. He played it at New York City’s Pride last year, and the crowd was so drunk “it felt like puppies jumping all over me. I could have read the phone book to them. It was a lovely but not a fair audience.”
Every performance is different, all the energy comes from him. He has no scene partners. “I’ve learned to enjoy the ride. It might be a bad show, but there’s always another one tomorrow.” (At least Pride revelers will have prepared Droege for the booze-embracing attendees of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he will perform Happy Birthday Doug in August.)
The problem, Droege laughed, is that a lot of people think he must be monstrous himself, or appreciate others behaving like that—and so he gets lots of really appalling approaches from people. Instead, “I go deep really fast with people. I don’t enjoy people constantly throwing jokes at me. I just want people to be kind to each other. I write monsters for comedy.”
When that comedy is an hour long, rather than a sketch, he wants to burrow into characters and show their complexities. Happy Birthday Doug’s ultimate message is not to be vile but to hold on to one another, appreciate one another’s oddnesses, and let go of the things that don’t matter.
For Droege, aging has bought some confidence in how to handle parties (not as frenziedly as when he was younger). It has also deepened his knowledge of shared gay insecurities, like “the need to be the -est in the room, whether that’s funniest, sexiest, saddest, and if you’re not you’ve failed. How do you fit in? From my sketch background, I know the comedy of a character comes from their ignorance. The thing they do not know about themselves is what makes them funny.”
‘My dad was the star of the show. He walked into every room and was a magnet’
Droege was born and raised in small-town North Carolina. His dad, Al, who died at 54 from a rare form of cancer 16 years ago, sold furniture; his mother, Candy, is an interior designer. He has a younger brother, Garrett.
“It was rough when my father died. It definitely marks a shift, when one of your parents dies. You immediately grow up a lot. There’s no easy age for it to happen. I’m only a little over 10 years away from 54 now, and have friends older than that.”
His father was the first performer Droege saw command an audience, and father and son’s comedy correspond markedly.
“My dad was the star of the show. He walked into every room and was a magnet: very funny, also very opinionated, very difficult, very emotional. He was a big presence. My mom did lot of damage control. She balanced him in that way.”
Droege was “the quiet kid up in his room reading,” his brother more outgoing. On Saturday mornings, his dad would make them both breakfast, while voicing different characters, which the boys loved. “He was such a frustrated performer. He never took me outside with a football and insisted I play with it. He was inherently not competitive. He didn’t care about winning. That helped me.”
There was, instead, a lot of emphasis on having manners and “what you could and couldn’t say. This was the South.” It was Droege who put pressure on himself to get straight As at school.
His first memory is of being 3 and playing a child in a local theatrical production of The Nutcracker. His parents and he played townspeople, with his dad pretending to be mad at him. “I remember laughing all the time, and how delighted I was to be playing and pretending.” On vacations, his dad would share his observations of people. “See that businessman. The bottom of his pants is scuffed. He’s not had a job for a while. He’s going for an interview.” Al’s customers told Droege that his father would make them laugh at his impressions.
Droege’s family were not immediately supportive of his own acting ambitions and hoped he would—as he himself first wanted—become an English professor. But the bug had bit. He directed high school plays in Lincolnton, North Carolina, where the family moved when he was in sixth grade. “But the feeling was you can either be Tom Cruise or failure. There’s no in between. You don’t consider all the other paths you can have.”
Growing up, Droege’s TV inspirations included Carol Burnett, whose humility struck him as much as her humor. “At 3, I didn’t understand her jokes. Her face me laugh.” He also watched In Living Color, John Waters’ movies, the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises (“They were so over the top”), and Saturday Night Live. “Jan Hooks was everything to me. Our neighbors would tape it, and we would go ’round and watch it after church on Sunday.”
Making people laugh at school was a “survival strategy” to divert homophobic bullies. “It was, ‘If I do this, if I make them laugh, they will forget.’ I was also a fat kid.” He laughed. “I was gayer than I was fat. I got good grades. When I got to high school, I got drunk and high—and still got good grades. I needed to be a bit of a bad boy.”
It was a “pretty lovely, stable childhood,” which Droege resented for its lack of adventure. “I was a happy kid. But I measured every day of seventh grade if I was called ‘Faggot’ that day. I look back now and feel sad, but I didn’t feel that way at the time. I learned to act funny. I pretended to be the devil. In the South, that was an easy way to get people to stay away from you. I growled, pet myself.”
How bad was the bullying?
“It was almost something I was unaware of myself. I lived inside of myself for so long, they were calling me something I was unaware of. I just swallowed it and dealt with it. I was never physically attacked.”
The worst incident happened in tenth grade, when Droege was 15, after a friend of his opined how terrible it would be to find out your doctor was gay. The young Droege said it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest.
The friend told one of Droege’s favorite teachers, who in front of a whole class said, “So, Drew, hanging out with the faggots now?” It was so hurtful, and Droege’s worship of the teacher evaporated, curdling immediately to hate. “It was mourning. I was so in love with teachers. It’s why I loved Elizabeth Warren as a candidate.”
At 18, Droege went to Wake Forest University, did more acting, and dreamed of doing theater in New York or Los Angeles. “I questioned why were studying so many dead white guys, reading 400 pages of something, then writing a 20-page paper about it. It didn’t seem creative to me. I wanted to know how any of us could end up in one of these books.” One of Droege’s teachers was another of his heroes, Maya Angelou, who also proved a disappointment through her “constant name-dropping. This was all an early lesson to worship from afar.”
While at Wake Forest, he was part of a group of gay men who—apart from three of them—did not come out. “We had each other as a protective wall. I didn't realize how much fear we had in saying the words. We scoffed at how that word would define us, that we were above it. But it was our own fear in a way. I was definitely doing very gay things, but not putting a label on it.”
Droege came out when he moved to Los Angeles at 22. His family was very supportive. “I’ve never brought anyone home to the family, and one day I would like to. I wonder if I should have therapy to figure that part of it out. From day one, I have been very individual. I was a very ill baby for two years, a fighter, me against the world. Theater was good for me, because I could be someone else on stage. And then, moving to Los Angeles, no one goes there to meet other people, for love. You go there for yourself. It’s full of selfish people, like myself.”
His opposition to therapy is rooted in a childhood notion that only “insane, pariah people did it, if they’re chewing leaves off a fence. It’s my own problem, but all I do produced a certain level of narcissism. The three hours when I’m teaching students is three hours when I’m not talking about myself. Encouraging me to speak for another hour about myself feels unnecessary. Also, I tell a lot of my friends that just by saying that something is OK—when it is clearly not OK!—their therapists are encouraging all the wrong behavior.”
Droege is good at making friends with people, but his life in L.A.—performing and writing—does not make a relationship viable, although he would like one.
“In both plays, I am saying it’s OK to be happy, gay, and single. I am very much those things. I get offended by people saying, ‘We have to find you someone.’ I’m not that sad. Marriage equality was great and necessary, but I have always loved that element of being queer that meant you could live outside certain rules. The single should not be pitied.” He laughed. “However, I know I am eccentric in certain ways, and being single emboldens that. It wouldn’t hurt for me to be house-broken in some ways.”
Droege admires the swagger of Devon, the most sexually motivated character in Happy Birthday Doug, his honest carnality. Droege himself is more used to being flirted with in Los Angeles, heading out on the date, and finding that the other guy wants contacts, advice, or something business-related.
“He told me to get to know weirdos and write them down”
Droege trained, and now occasionally teaches, at The Groundlings improvisational and sketch comedy school. Heroes of his like Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Coolidge, and Melissa McCarthy are fellow alums. His training there “gave me an awareness of people,” in the many exercises he had to do, “like being told to talk about the Mafia, when you know nothing about the Mafia.”
His friend, fellow Groundling alum actor Patrick Bristow, told Droege to accept jury duty, to answer the door to anyone. “He told me to get to know weirdos and write them down. I would observe people, and still do.” He was recently in a Pret A Manger in New York, trying to eat a salad, but the voice of a female customer, “louder than anyone else’s, which always annoys me in public space, was saying how she knew someone who had overdosed after injecting fentanyl. Then she talked about the link, as she saw it, between people who are adopted and drug use, to all for us—this captive audience she had.
“I wanted to say, ‘You’re being horribly reductive, superior, and obnoxious.’ But if I said anything I would seem like the crazy person. But also, I couldn’t enjoy my salad.” Droege’s innate desire to observe—shared with his father—is both “blessing and curse.”
Now a teacher at Groundlings, he tells students to go to a newsstand and pick up a magazine they would never buy, and create a character who would buy it.
Droege first won national attention with a series of satirical videos, in which he dressed as Chloë Sevigny, namedropping all the obscure, brilliant things she loved in a commanding, deep voice, such as “to-aast”—with such sidenotes as “being seated next to Tinsley Mortimer and her plus-one,” “the air of countenance,” and many cutting-edge fashion styles (lucite heels, invisible hats) and labels (“by Alexis Bittar”).
Droege’s videos—hilarious, arch recitations of names and other names by “Clo-eh”—were inspired by a post-9/11 video Sevigny filmed to attract visitors to New York City, “where she was name-dropping so many wild references, as if we should all know what she was talking about. It was all so hyper-specific about undergrounds of undergrounds.”
The videos became popular, which surprised Droege, who did not consider himself a drag queen. “There were no jokes, no emotions, or human experiences. I didn’t think it would be a big hit.”
Sevigny has seen the videos too, Droege told me in a 2016 interview. He ran into her at a party, “and she was really nice about it. It was an awkward moment. She doesn’t really get it. She’s very literal about it. She said, ‘I don’t know those people,’ ‘I don’t wear those clothes,’ ‘I don’t know why you’re having me talk like that.’ That’s fine, she’s very nice about us. She goes back and forth when asked about it. Sometimes she’s the nicest, sometimes she thinks I’m not being the nicest.
“I guess some days she’s flattered, other days it’s the last thing she wants to talk about. She’s been working for 20 years consistently. The last thing she wants to talk about are these YouTube videos some guy has made.”
Droege’s TV career grew, including a role in the 2018 TV comedy version of Heathers, which he was very proud of, even if the show was canceled in the wake of controversy. As Samantha Allen wrote in The Daily Beast, here the marginalized were the bullies.
Droege defends the show. “It was smart. I hope next year when we have a new president, god willing, people can see the show for what it was meant to be. It got thrown away so quickly. Really liberal people were scared of it. I understood that. We can’t laugh at ourselves when we’re fighting to stay alive. But I’m also so annoyed by it. It was written before the 2016 election, assuming a Hillary win. We were going after liberal identity politics. I have always been fighting for mean queer people in what I write.”
Droege has also written for the just-canned RuPaul comedy AJ and the Queen (“I enjoyed the challenge of having to write more sentimentally than I’m used to”) and Nick Kroll’s Netflix comedy Big Mouth, “where you can be as filthy and juvenile as you like. And I love Nick. He’s so smart. He and John Mulaney both came to see Bright Colors.”
On screen, Droege is about to guest on both Ryan O’Connell’s series, Special, and series 3 and 4 of brilliantly off-kilter millennial comedy-drama Search Party, in which he and his friend Sam Pancake play “horrible Republican wedding planners. I wear more makeup in this than I ever did doing drag. We wear matching Mr. Turk suits, have coiffed hair, and are really vicious, stupid, and basic—but not at all clever. Just dumb.”
He would love to develop Happy Birthday Doug for TV, maybe using multiple actors to play the characters, and spinning the story off into new directions. He might also give his “baby” away to Broadway, or write a Broadway show for others to star in. Living in Los Angeles has been an effective primer in keeping his own ambition and ego in check; friends are always getting roles, “and I want to be happy for them, and them to be happy for me if I get one.”
LGBTQ representation on screen is improving, said Droege, “with a lot of poly-, non-binary, a lot of -ish and in-betweens, which is great. But there are few stories or characters about gay men. We’ve sort of skipped past them. There is no lack of gay men working in the entertainment industry, but we are not writing ourselves or wanting to see ourselves, and I wish we were.
“I think we are trained to write women really well, and we write great straight guys who we either want to sleep with, or be with, or something else in between, or based on the ideal man represented by our dads. We don’t think people would watch us. We don’t think we are interesting enough. I fight that constantly. I say that yes we are, and we are the ones to tell our stories.”
It was gay people who were toughest on Pete Buttigieg as a prospective gay presidential candidate, said Droege. “We are the first ones to say we weren’t ready for a gay president. It wasn’t straight people saying that. We have internalized issues. There is no gay man who could run for president who would make most gay men happy in this day and age. None of the candidates are perfect. No one who ever ran for president is a perfect person. They are just human beings.
“The internalized homophobia we share is: You will never accept me. That’s what is tied up in how a lot of people feel about Pete Buttigieg. He’s brilliant, and I am optimistic that he will be back. He hasn’t gone away forever. But we owe it to ourselves to relax, and give ourselves, and candidates like him, the space to win. We don’t have as many queer leaders as we should. We have to understand ourselves, and own who we are.”
If Bright Colors focused on the lead-up to a gay wedding in Palm Springs, and Doug focused on a gay birthday in Los Angeles, Droege’s next, as-yet-unwritten and untitled play will be set after a gay funeral in New York, and may have roles written for other actors. “It gets lonely being out there on my own,” laughed Droege.
The actor is enjoying his forties, and enjoying aging. Part of Droege wants to be the twinklingly charismatic older gay gentleman Christopher from Happy Birthday Doug. His worst birthday, he recalled, was when he was 22, in his final semester in college, and impatient for his adult life to begin. He made a list for all the things he wanted to happen when he turned 28.
“Almost all the things happened, and none of them did,” he said, smiling. “I spent a month in bed trying to figure out what went wrong.” On that list, he had written that he would be on SNL when he was 28. In reality, that year, he auditioned and didn’t get the job. Also that year: He didn’t get into the main Groundlings troupe, and a friend wrote a pilot for him that never got made.
“It all happened within a month. The SNL thing was a blessing. Don’t get me wrong, I would go there tomorrow if they offered me a job. But I was a nervous wreck at the audition. They went out of their way to be nice to me. I think I got so upset at the time because I had built them all up. They were mine to lose. It all worked out in the end.”
Now, with the benefit of a successful, critically hailed career, Droege tries to caution his Groundlings students not to set such specific, potentially disappointment-inducing goals. He laughed. “For myself, I never made lists after that.”