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Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka on Their Special Relationship With Drag Queens

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka on Their Special Relationship With Drag Queens

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka

Their latest project is further proof of their love for drag, and both offer words of support and encouragement during a difficult time for the community.

Several years ago, David Burtka had a launch party for his book Life Is a Party, and I was lucky enough to go. The venue was packed, but what lit up the room were drag queens, dressed in an array of bright colors. It was magical. I met so many drag queens that night that the next day when I went through my photo roll, it was wall-to-wall images of me posing with drag queens. I proudly put them all over my social media.
They added so much pizazz, fun, and excitement to the event, and it was the first time I had interacted so closely with drag queens, so it was a special night.

David and his husband, Neil Patrick Harris, have a very special relationship with the drag community. David helped me with one of my first columns four years ago about whether drag queens were appropriate for kids. Little did we know at the time how this issue would explode, and not in a good way.

The dynamic duo has a long history of supporting drag queens. Neil played one on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (Hedwig could also be considered transgender, having had gender-confirmation surgery that went wrong.) They have produced and hosted the annual drag festival Wigstock, even making a documentary, Wig, about the drag community.

I had the opportunity to catch up with David and Neil, at a time when the drag community is under attack in red state legislatures all of the country. Both are currently working in theater, and as we reported, they have launched a Hulu show, Drag Me to Dinner – another project supporting the drag community. It premiered today.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

First, congratulations are in order. You both have dueling theater shows going on? How did that all work out, and have you ever thought about doing a show — theater, that is — together?

David: Thank you! We’ve worked together in many different capacities for a number of years. Neil just finished a Broadway show last week, and I just finished God of Carnage at Theatre Row. We are each other’s biggest support, and we love bouncing ideas off of each other all the time.

Neil: We came up with the idea for Drag Me to Dinner a while ago — it is the show we really wanted to do together, and we can’t wait for people to finally see it. It’s a whole lot of fun, and it’s a different way into the drag community. A community that we have loved and always been huge fans of. Not only does it mix two of our favorite things: food and entertaining but also drag queens! In this day and age, we all need a laugh and we all need to escape. That is what this show does. We made this show to make people smile and laugh.

Speaking of shows, tell us about how the idea for Drag Me to Dinner came about?

Neil: David and I have both been judges on various shows. He has been a judge on Chopped, on Bobby Flay’s shows. There is a structure to these shows. There is an authority. I like the archetypes. I also like when comedy is anti-structural. I thought it would be fun to take a rule-based show and then break the rules. So they don’t have to complete the entire decor in 60 minutes. There is no budget. We play around the tropes. We break the fourth wall. You will see in episodes where the lights don’t work and we have to go back and try again. I think that is funny. And I think those who love watching drag performers love the shows. They are very enthusiastic fans. They go to see them in concert. They sell out arenas around the world. Their fans know everything about them. I didn’t want to do a show with drag performers where they were treated as if we don’t know who they are. This is a show where you know who they are and this is inside baseball. Even though only a few of them probably play baseball.

There was something innately funny about the title, Drag Me to Dinner, and the concept of queens who are polished and professional having to struggle in an arena that is fairly unknown to them. Watching a drag queen trying to dice an onion with their nails and a sharp knife in their hands, that is innately comedy. I am friends with a lot of drag queens and I know a lot of drag queens, and we got a gaggle of them together and let the pot of stew boil over.

I know that the drag community is a very important part of your lives. When I attended David's book launch party, they really added so much to the party. Can you explain how it's all personal for you guys?

David: Drag is near and dear to both of our hearts. In my 20s, I lived in the East Village. The drag scene at that time was amazing. I got to know them and follow their careers. I love the community and what they bring to the table. Neil comes to it from a different angle. He did Hedwig on Broadway and won a Tony for that.

We looked into the community and picked the funniest girls. They are the funniest, top-notch, cream of the crop. Bianca Del Rio is the most celebrated drag queen of our time. She will sell out Wembley Stadium and all around the world. She is an absolute delight. All of the queens on the show are amazing. We are shedding light on the established ones and on some new ones.

As you know, the drag community is under assault right now, and I've heard from several about how frightened they are. How do we activate support for them at this critical time?

David: Drag queens are our muses. They are our superheroes of the community. They go out and put themselves out there and they make us laugh. They entertain us. We should treasure them, not vilify them.

Neil: The more we can try to learn and understand what this community stands for, the more acceptance we hope will exist. Watch our show. Go to shows. Maybe your mind will open.

Do you think this show will help shine a positive light on the drag community, and how so? Was this one of the goals of the show?

David: Our show celebrates drag queens. That was our goal. It’s full of laughter and joy and fun. This community is special and unique, and they deserve to be seen in a way that they really haven’t ever been. This show sheds light on acceptance. The more we can see, the more we can accept people who are different from us.

How do you encourage people to go to a drag show in this day and age? So many of those who are sponsoring bills or protesting drag reading hours have never met a drag queen or been to a drag show. Can you explain why meeting one or attending a show is crucial to understanding the community?

Neil: Unless you experience something firsthand, you don’t know what it’s really like. You have to give people a chance before you land on a judgment. We hope that everyone finds a way into Drag Me to Dinner — whether you are familiar with the drag community or not. We made this show because these people deserve to be seen and heard. And they are going to make you laugh, no matter where you come from. The joy they bring is universal.

What makes drag queens so special?

David: Drag Me to Dinner shines a light on drag queens in a way that shows them as people, as performers, as your friend. This community is exuberant and not afraid to be themselves. In a time where people from so many different backgrounds are attacked for who they are, drag queens show and tell us that it is important to persevere.

Tell us how Harper and Gideon interact with drag queens and how that exposure is crucial for encouraging acceptance.

Neil: Our children grew up around drag queens because we are friends with many people from that community. We have always been very honest and open with our kids. We are European in that way. We talk about everything with them. We chose to raise them in New York City because we want them to experience life and learn from those experiences. New York City is a melting pot of so many cultures and different types of people, and they are fortunate enough to be able to take it all in.

You worked with my friend Murray Hill. What was that like? He's a laugh a minute!

Neil: Murray Hill is an icon and a legend. Every time I see him perform, I think he should be the host of some show. So we made a show, and of course it would be Murray Hill as the host. We assumed at some point someone would say, “It’s gotta be Mario Lopez or Seacrest.” But it went up the chain and it was Murray’s destiny. He is divine.

David: He is one of those New York staples. He is a Lower East Side/East Village guy who I have known for years. After 20 years, this guy is getting his moment. As I’ve heard Murray say, “Dreams don’t have deadlines.” He has been wanting to host a show his whole life, and it is finally happening for him. He is so funny in this and so good and we are the lucky ones.

What's next for you guys?

Neil: I’m really looking forward to getting back to work on Uncoupled once the writers’ strike ends. I am in full support of the writers. The work always starts with them, and they should be paid what they deserve.

David: I have been planning a birthday party for Neil’s 50th.

Neil: Who said I’m turning 50?

David: I can’t give you any details because it’s all a surprise.

Neil: Then why are you saying something in this interview?

David: Well, that part isn’t a surprise. It is 50 days to 50. 50 days of 50 favorite things.

Neil: Your favorite things or my favorite things?

Neil, you are but a young child. I turn 59 two days before you turn 50, so your best days are ahead of you. Having said that, enjoy 49 for as long as you can!

David: You’re only getting 49 things after this. No, listen, the kids are going to camp for the first time this summer, so we will be empty nesters for a bit.

Neil: This isn’t an AARP article, David. Turning 50 and empty nest syndrome. You're depressing me. I need to watch Drag Me to Dinner.

And I need to give Murray Hill a call. OK, any last words of encouragement for the drag community?

Neil: The drag community has always welcomed us into their community with open arms and are some of the most joy-filled people we have ever known. We want others to see how special this community is, and we hope they will be welcomed into the arms of everyone who watches the show.

David: All I’d say to them: Keep living your best, most fabulous life. No matter what.

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