There’s a lot of space between landing a good joke and hearing it thud lifelessly on the floor. “RuPaul Roast” gets a lot of mileage out of exploring it.
What makes a joke work? Can anyone deliver a good joke if it’s crafted well enough, or does the person have to have some panache? How blue is too blue? How direct is too direct? How can two comedians deliver the exact same joke with different results?
Those questions are beyond the scope of this review. Take an improv class or something. This episode makes you think about them, though. This week, the queens have to write jokes for a roast of Michelle Visage, and while some earn laughs without breaking a sweat, others flatline.
It’s easiest to understand why the failures failed. Farrah Moan and Alexis Michelle bomb their way into the bottom this week, and in both cases, it’s because their jokes land wildly off the mark. Farrah’s jokes are mean, which is fine — this is a roast. But mean jokes only work if there’s some kind of twist, some way to find humor in the insult. With Farrah, it’s all insult. She calls guest judge Tamar Braxton “Toni Braxton’s less talented, more annoying sister.” When going after Michelle’s sidekick status, she just says that it’s a “[g]ood thing she’s been sucking RuPaul’s dick for so long.” And that’s the joke. Michelle is a parasite.
During her portion, Peppermint gets at the exact same thing, but crafts the joke way more carefully. “Not since Destiny’s Child has a Michelle become so famous for riding somebody else’s coattails.” That’s a fun little joke. You need to think about the reference to get it, but you don’t need to think too hard, and Peppermint delivers it with a confidence forged while working the bar scene for the last decade and change. She’s instantly engaging — she even gets a laugh out of a sarcastic “Thank you, Farrah” at the top of the act. Where Farrah was evasive and tended to look down at her notes, Peppermint catches Michelle’s eye and makes clear that this is all in good fun, even as she congratulates Michelle on her 90th birthday.
And it helps that Peppermint looks like 5 million dollars in a sparkling gown and huge wavy hair that would have won Best-in-Show on a pageant-themed runway. She scores a well-deserved win.
Alexis dons an elaborate getup for the occasion, too, although her green body paint doesn’t do her any favors. I’ll be honest: I didn’t understand why the judges read her for it as much as they did. Sure, it was a lot of setup for very little payoff (Michelle doesn’t like green, y’all), but it’s not like her act revolved around it. Alexis’ main problem was that her jokes made little to no sense. A sample: “I have to congratulate you on really being able to take the piss. Just ask the UK Men’s Water Polo team.” What does that even mean?
At the end of the episode, Alexis and Farrah lip sync to Dolly Parton’s “Baby I’m Burning.” It’s a so-so lip sync that justifies itself for two reasons: 1) Alexis does a sliding split towards the end of it; and 2) It’s a Dolly Parton song on RuPaul’s Drag Race! Do you realize we’ve never had one before?
In the end, Farrah goes home, as I think we all knew she would. The judges are probably right that, at 22, she really hasn’t figured out who her drag character is yet, or even who she is yet. She never excelled during the competition because she didn’t have anything truly interesting to offer, and she’ll only become interesting with time. I did grow strangely fond of her baby-voiced whining, though, and it happens a lot in this episode. “It’s been nice, LA, but now it’s time for me to go cook in Vegas. Aw!” It’s basically the sound a puppy makes when begging for scraps under a table. Spread it around, Farrah.
I’d thought for a while that Alexis’ number was coming up, but now that all the remaining queens have won at least one challenge, it’s harder to tell who’ll sashay away next. But Alexis, as strong as she’s been in places, is definitely a contender for elimination. In addition to bombing the roast, she also got a diva edit tonight, something that’s been simmering under the surface for weeks. She gets particularly teed off after the reading mini-challenge, where one too many girls went after her few extra pounds. (Farrah: “Pillsbury called. They want their rolls back.”) Farrah apologizes for her joke, which ticks me off a bit. It’s part and parcel with how I felt a few weeks back when Sasha called out Eureka for making a joke about eating disorders. I don’t think there should be restrictions on jokes, particularly on a boundary-pushing show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and particularly during the bit where they’re all supposed to insult each other. RuPaul puts it best when talking to Alexis in the workroom: “So you feel like it’s okay for you to make fun of someone else but not [for] someone else to make fun of you.” With all that weighing her down, Alexis may not last much longer. But then again, it’s hard to say anything for sure.
Nina and Trinity are similarly unpredictable. They both use the same strategy for the roast: rather than tell jokes as themselves, they deliver them as characters dreamed up especially for this occasion, although Nina is far more successful than Trinity. Nina plays a grandma-type character, and even if her act had sucked, she earns her way out of the bottom purely because she paints glasses onto her face. I swear, there’s a special effects studio out there that would be lucky to have Nina and her creativity on staff.
Happily, her jokes don’t suck. Well, they’re milquetoast, but she works the attitude, and can fill any awkward pauses with variations of “Hm mmm” and “Oh Jesus.” Nina proved during the Snatch Game that she excels at character comedy, so it was smart to lean in to it here.
Trinity’s country hick character also has attitude, but she depends more on the jokes, which is a mistake, since they kinda suck. “Michelle, every time I walk the runway you have this pungent look on your face, kinda like you gotta shit. I reckon they have some laxatives for that.” That’s not…really a joke, yet it sounds very written. Trinity is a precise kind of queen, but she could have done with some loosening up here.
Thus far, Shae and Valentina have seemed like the frontrunners, and both do a solid job here. Shae, opening the show, had some pretty standard zingers. (“If you liked my performance, my name is Shea Couleé, and if you hated it, it’s Nina Bo’Nina Brown.”) They’re not gonna set the world on fire, but she’s personable and can get away with them.
I was far more intrigued by Valentina, who got seriously loopy up on stage. “Michelle, you is such a tired-ass ho, that when you got carpal tunnel from giving out free handjobs, she just became left-handed.” That joke is fine for a roast, but the best part of it wasn’t the punchline — it was the manic windup, with Valentina’s harsh, halting voice, big eyes and bigger smile. People started laughing at “tired-ass ho,” and I was there with them. The jokes were okay, but it was Valentina herself who was truly funny here.
Valentina was also the funniest one in the reading challenge, where her jokes had more of a hand-crafted feel to them. Where many of the girls’ reads felt overlong, Valentina went in for the quick kill. She had the best read of the night: “Peppermint, you need one.” There’s something consistently different about her and her work, and that’s exciting.
Meanwhile, Sasha Velour rocked the comedy challenge by simply writing the best jokes. “Michelle is so Jersey she calls her public hair the Garden State Expressway. And let’s not even get started on the Holland Tunnel.” Or on Valentina: “And now a queen who combines all the excitement of smiling with the thrill of just standing there.” The judges made a thing of Sasha being “too smart for the room” because she used the word “edifying,” which is silly. She wasn’t too smart for the room. She was smart enough to write jokes that were actually funny, and that can take her as far as she wants. It’s hard to picture her falling into the bottom two, but we’ll see.
We’ll also see if Peppermint can take this win and run with it. If she does, we could have a real drag race on our hands. See the pun I made? I’m hilarious, too.
- I like how Nina seems to be loosening up. There were no outbursts this week, and she was funny after readings Aja’s message in the mirror. “Anybody got any windex?” She totally stole that BMW joke from Latrice Royale, though.
- RuPaul to Sasha: “Just make sure you make us laugh.” Ross Matthews: “And don’t forget: please, make us laugh.” Matthews was a great addition to the workroom in general — he had great advice for Farrah and Sasha (not that Farrah took it). When is Ru gonna sign him up as a permanent judge?
- Another fun, curt read from Valentina: “Trinity Taylor, I once told you that you’re so beautiful inside and out. I lied, you ugly stripper.”
- “Amen.” Peppermint: “Awoman.” Surprised RuPaul hasn’t used that one yet.
- So before the commercial break, they showed Nina introducing her grandma character to dead silence. Then, during the challenge, she did the exact same bit to mild laughter. It just goes to show you: Never trust the editing on this show. For all we know, the audience ate up Farrah’s act like ice cream.
- Another baffling Valentina joke: “Ross, you’re just so cute and so sweet. You just remind me of a cute hamster. I just wanna shove you up my butt!” And then she honks into the microphone. I have no idea why, but that’s funny stuff!
- Trinity about Alexis’ look: “And it don’t help that you look like She-Hulk.”
- “Nina No’Nina Brown Earl Jones” may be my favorite bastardization of Nina’s name yet.
- Has anyone made a supercut of all the times RuPaul has interrupted Michelle right before she’s about to talk? Because someone should.
- RuPaul: “Trinity Taylor, your barnyard humor did not make us go, ‘Hey, girl, hey.'” I love when Ru reaches for these.