Comedian Randy Rainbow came under fire this week after a series of decade-old racist and transphobic tweets surfaced.
Best known for publishing satirical videos on YouTube, Rainbow broke into the comedy scene in the 2010s when he staged comedic conversations with celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Dr. Laura, Kanye West, and Mel Gibson from preexisting audio clips. Rainbow, who is gay and Jewish, earned crossover fame during the 2016 presidential campaign when he started producing musical parodies roasting politicians and the election process. Donald Trump, among other Republican legislators, is often the primary subject of his songs, which are typically reworked Broadway classics.
In a recent sit down with The Advocate, Rainbow, who is nominated for his second Emmy for Best Short Form Variety Series for The Randy Rainbow Show, took a moment to speak about the tweets.
“Twitter has recently reminded me about 10 years ago, in my maiden quest to be funny, I tweeted some jokes that were completely offensive and insensitive to look back on them now, especially with no context or nuance and through the prism of where we are in 2020 with racial inequality and the fight for social justice, which I'm proudly a part of,” he begins. “In light of issues that are now at the forefront, which I'm passionate about and have spoken up about over the years, these tweets just sound racist and awful. I'm embarrassed by them. They make me sick to my stomach, in fact, and I deeply apologize to anyone I offended.”
The aforementioned tweets, some of which have been deleted, span from 2010 to 2011 and reference racist tropes.
“My parents said that had I been a girl, my name would’ve been Randi with an ‘i.’ And had I been black, it would’ve been ‘MISS JENKINS!!!’” read one tweet dated March 24, 2010.
Another tweet from February 2010, reads, “Why is it OK to call it a ‘white noise’ machine, yet offensive to say that I bought it to drown out all the ‘black noise’ in my building?”
That same month, Rainbow also wrote, “Black & White cookies R a delicious metaphor for racial harmony :) But they taste better if U keep both halves segregated. I mean separated!”
Rainbow explains that at the time, he was in the early stages of crafting the “character” he’s now known for.
“The comedy landscape was completely different back then,” he argues. “This kind of edgy shock comedy was not only acceptable but a prevalent style. I was an aspiring comedian in my 20s working the stages in gay nightclubs where we said the most outlandish, raunchy things we could think of. I was searching for my comedy voice, my persona, and I was emulating styles and jokes of people that I was seeing in the mainstream.”
Personalities like Howard Stern, Joan Rivers, and Sarah Silverman “had become iconic for being artfully inappropriate,” says Rainbow, whose first viral video satirized a romantic phone conversation with Mel Gibson.
“I had this sort of character in my head and there were different ingredients I was throwing into the pot. There was some Karen Walker from Will & Grace, there was some Joan Rivers, there was some this, some that. I was regurgitating what was accepted then as edgy, which in the light of today is totally unacceptable.
“Any jokes that I tweeted out around this time were meant to be read in the voice of this character I created, and the intention was always that my forced ignorance would be the butt of the joke,” he says. “Now, comedy is not evergreen. Jokes have timestamps and reflect the times you're in when you wrote them. Our world has shifted dramatically over the past 10 years and it's moving even quicker.
“I am incredibly sorry. I would never intentionally do anything to hurt anyone,” he continues. “I learned many years ago, over the last decade, that there are things that you must be sensitive about. There are issues that I was not aware of back then. In 2010, we weren't anywhere near where we are now. Right now, systemic racism is killing people, anti-Semitism is on the rise, Black trans women are being murdered at a horrifying rate. And the insensitive words of those actually in power are actually killing people. I continue to educate myself, I continue to listen and learn.
“I am in no way a racist. I am in no way transphobic,” he adds. “I’m a gay Jew who was brought up in a very open, accepting family. There is not a racist or intolerant bone in my body. When I say that I have evolved with the times, I mean that my comedy has. I did not need to be taught not to be racist or transphobic because I never was.”
Rainbow goes on to explain it’s been “determined” that he’s being politically targeted and there's an ongoing investigation.
“I'm being threatened. I'm being harassed,” says Rainbow, who earlier this week posted a video dedicated to Kamala Harris, referencing a song from Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. “It’s no coincidence that it's happening in the midst of a very contentious election because I use my platform every day to speak truth to power and shine a light on inequities and injustices of the world, and expose truly intolerant and racist people. There are nefarious people out there who want to silence me because they don't like what I really have to say.”
“My goal is to bring light and to bring joy,” he says. “I want to be of service where I can be and, you know, I'm educating myself daily and encourage everyone to do the same. There are organizations I support, like The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline, the largest LGBTQ+ anti-violence organization in the country. These are places even a few months ago, I'm embarrassed to say, I wasn't even aware of. But I am now, and my goal is to use my platform for good. It always has been.”
This year, Rainbow is nominated for his second Emmy, sharing the category with Beeing at Home With Samantha Bee, Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, Carpool Karaoke: The Series, and Jimmy Kimmel’s Quarantine Minilogues.
For Rainbow, the fact that The Randy Rainbow Show, a series hosted by a flamboyant gay character, has been accepted by mainstream audiences is validating.
“I have been doing this all by myself in my apartment, and I'm just a one-man band. I'm kind of like a kid playing around. I don't know what I'm doing,” he quips. “To be recognized like that, in the company of people like Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden, and Samantha Bee, it’s incredibly validating and very special to me.”
The back-to-back nominations are a big leap from Rainbow’s early days of doing comedy in bars and hosting Broadway bingo and other queer-centric events. Still, he doesn’t classify his live performances as “stand up.”
When the pandemic went into full swing, Rainbow says he’s continued to remain busy — mainly due to the fact that even before lockdown, his work was always self-directed at home.
Rainbow, who wrote his first original song last year for his Christmas album alongside renowned Broadway composer Marc Shaiman, is currently working on an autobiography set to be published next year.
“[The book] will go into some stories from my childhood and it’s just, you know, some crazy things that I've gotten into over the last four years, especially on this ride that I never expected to be on,” he explains.
“It's a little scary because it's very exposing in a way that I am not used to,” he adds. “Whether people know it or not, I am behind this character. What I do in my videos is kind of a heightened reality version of myself, so this will be me letting that wall down.”
As far as where he thinks comedy is going, Rainbow says wherever it is, it needs to be imaginative and forward-thinking.
“A decade ago, there was room to be irreverent and insensitive about things because the real adults — the people in power — were not being reckless and not being irreverent and not being careless about things,” he says.
“There's a quote in Judy Gold’s book, Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble, I think she quotes Will Rogers, who said ‘Everything is changing in America. People are taking their comedians seriously, and their politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice-versa.' So, you know, comedy is meant to be the prick in the balloon when there's all this tension and all these things that people are incensed about and fighting for and angry about. Comedy comes along and sort of just pricks it. It says the thing that everyone is thinking or the things that no one's supposed to say out loud or whatever, and it lets the tension out.
“That is no longer the definition of comedy,” he continues, “so you have to be inventive. That's what I'm trying to do. But it's very tricky. It’s a thin line to walk.
“We're in a new world where there are written records of every thought that we have going back decades,” he concludes. “So I do think that we have to have a better system in which we don't litigate language from the past without some kind of context.
“In regards to what I'm going through now, people need to consider the source. You know, I am a comedian. I'm not a politician. I'm not a political pundit. I'm not running for office. I'm not a news anchor. I'm a comedian. This scandal I'm going through might seem a little more scandalous to some because I now have this voice in the political world. I am known as the guy who calls out bigotry and racism, which is what I want to do. That's how I want to use my platform. That’s what's really in my heart. So these recent tweets resurfacing are not skeletons in my closet; they're crappy jokes in my shoe box from a decade ago. I think we just need to be careful about considering the source.”