A storyteller and sketch comedian who is genuinely part of New York nightlife history, Nora Burns continues to be a force on stage — whether it’s via her nostalgic stage show “David’s Friend,” hosting “New York Stories,” or joining forces with other sketch comedy dynamos like her Unitard co-stars. You can catch Unitard at Joe’s Pub this week!
Thotyssey: Thank you for talking to us today, Nora! I’m sure you’re busy prepping for the upcoming Joe’s Pub show. As writers and performers, do you and your fellow Unitarders find yourselves making constant changes up until showtime, or does the time definitively come when you all say “okay, this is the show, let’s get this down?”
Nora Burns: We’ll tweak and update, but it’s usually pretty set a few days before we open. Though if something happens, like a new celebrity death, we’ll pop that in — sorry Olivia, you’re going in the show.
You recently did a reading at one of Linda Simpson’s events for her My Comrade magazine exhibit. Was this an article you’d written for the zine’s original run, or was it something for the new edition?
I did an interview with Slave Dale for one of the last original issues (it was under glass at the exhibit), but Linda had me read a piece from the lesbian “Sister Sister” section. I am a huge My Comrade fan! I have all the original issues, including one that was on the wall with photo illustrations of RuPaul and my friend David.
Your stage shows are mostly comedic storytelling and sketches and characters, but not really what we think of as standup (traditional joke telling). How did you find your lane doing that, and did other people in the biz encourage you to just do straight standup?
When I was little, my friend and I were obsessed with The Carol Burnett Show and Our Show of Shows, and we did sketch comedy for my parents and the poor neighbors all the time. But there was no Groundlings or Second City in NYC, and I hated the idea of being an auditioning actress… so for years I gave up on the idea of performing, and just got drunk and went to clubs and parties.
Then in 1990, I saw a sign at the Gay and Lesbian Center (as it was called then) for a queer comedy group called Planet Q. So I auditioned and got in, and then realized that was what I loved doing: writing and performing crazy characters. Before I did my solo show David’s Friend, I wrote a stand-uppy show called Honey, I’m Home. It was fun, but I’m not quick enough to do actual standup and deal with hecklers or have a snappy reply if someone says they’re from Phoenix.
Where’s your original hometown, and what brought you to NYC in the 70s?
I grew up in Cambridge, and went to a public hippie high school (with Bill de Blasio, who was great, don’t judge). Senior year I got into an experimental play at Harvard being done by all these fun gay guys, who totally took me under their wing and brought me to all the Boston gay bars. I was already obsessed with NYC and planning to move there, and they were all going there after graduating, too. So it was a natural progression.
You’re well-known for the David’s Friend, the acclaimed stage show you created which documents your wild and wonderful friendship with David, a gay man you met in the disco-and-coke-fueled 70s NYC, and who sadly past away of AIDS in the 90s. David’s Friend was funny and moving and musical and nostalgic, and had many performances in many venues in recent years. Did that show with it’s rawness and layers take a lot out of you, as far as time and emotion and creativity?
OMG, it was insane. My poor director Adrienne [Truscott] and co-star Billy [Hough] had to watch me sob non-stop for three years. After the Times review came out we extended the run at LaMama, and probably could have continued much longer — but I was about to collapse, and needed a break. The experience was so bizarre because I was so much more emotional 25 years after his death than I was when it happened. I think I was just too young, and everyone around me had died… it took until now, being old, to realize how much I’d lost.
But thank you for saying it’s funny, because the show is not maudlin or self-pitying — because I hate that. It’s about love and music, and New York City, and having fun. We filmed it in March 2020, and now that it’s played festivals and I can’t release it commercially (because it’s a non-stop disco soundtrack that would cost $5M in music rights), I’m going to share the link for it on my Vimeo and website.
You also had a long-running storytelling series at Stonewall called “New York Stories,” where yourself and guests talked about that very particular and unrepeatable NYC of the 70s: dirty, porny, punk, dangerous, artistic and fun. You even maintained a livestream version of that during Covid! Will “New York Stories” return in any capacity, do you think?
I don’t know; people have asked. I loved doing it at Stonewall, so maybe when this damn pandemic finally ends… because I still have friends who aren’t comfortable going to small spaces.
What are your general thoughts on New York in 2022? It’s not comparable to 70s New York, of course. But does it seem less possible for young artists and partygoers to make it here and afford any aspect of life here?
I still think New York City is the most amazing place in the world, and I love seeing all the young people coming. And yes, they’re having to live four to a room, but we did, too — though that room cost $200, not $20,000. But it still seems like you can’t swing a cat without hitting a creative kid… probably because they’re on their phone and don’t see the cat coming. Kidding! I wouldn’t swing a cat.
What about nightlife? We do have a lot of it, and there’s been a boom of new spots and nights since lockdown ended. But is it “fun” in the same way as punk dives and discos? And are there too many drag queens now, lol?
Haha, never! I so don’t want to be one of those “things were so much better in my day” people, because I honestly don’t know! I’m happy to go to the tea dance at the Monster and be home by 9. But one thing that sucks in not letting kids under 21 in to places; it’s so stupid. My kids are 18 and 20, and they just want to go dancing or to hear music –but they get carded. I went everywhere at 17, 18… and it wasn’t about drinking, but just to be out.
It’s more common now for queer and straight people to party in the same spaces, which is great social progress… but did something special get lost in the process, do you think?
I think it’s great! It’s a different time — and with the apps now, guys don’t go out like they used to anyway. But I was at the Eagle recently, and it’s hopping — full of leather queens! — which made me so happy to see. And there are still bars that are predominantly gay. I recently posted on IG about how fun the 90’s dyke scene was, and so many people commented how much they miss that.
Does “woke” culture make comedy harder to do now and add stress to writing material, or is that all a myth?
We’ve always been known for pushing the envelope, so people expect us to be wrong. Though, it’s interesting: we realize there are things we were doing just a few years ago that we can’t do anymore. But honestly, I think it makes us more creative to have to work within the confines of not being offensive but still being edgy. We pre-cancel ourselves at the beginning of the show.
I was in The Nellie Olesons, the comedy group I formed with Terrence Michael and John Cantwell (talk about un-PC!) and we had a gig in LA that neither of them could do, but I wanted to do it anyway. I’d been writing more monologue-y stuff, so I asked Mike Albo, who I’d seen do a show of solo pieces, if he’d do it with me — which he did, and it was fun. Then I did a monologue show with David Ilku who I also knew from his crazy solo character work. And finally I was like, why don’t the three of us do a show together, and Voila! Over the years we’ve done more and more group pieces, and what I love about us is we’re each very different… but share a sensibility and similar humor, and love to make fun of awful people.
What was the craziest moment you can remember during a Unitard show?
It was actually probably after a show at Fez, where we didn’t have a bathroom backstage and after the show. I was putting costumes away and took a giant swig from a Perrier bottle, and it turned out to be pee. So I went charging out and said ‘Who peed in a Perrier bottle?!” and Mike said ‘I did, why?’ I was pregnant at the time, and to this day Mike says his DNA is in my daughter.
Unitard returns to one of their favorite venues, Joe’s Pub on Thursday, August 18, for Dangerous Adult Comedy! What’s this show gonna be like?
It’s the same one we did in May, which was our first post pandemic show (in NYC — we did Ptown), so it was really fun to come up with new stuff and also pull out some old favorites. We have about 19 pieces, from musical numbers about millionaires returning to NYC and evil Republican cunts, to the return of favorite characters like Isaac Issacson and the Underminer, to the “How Big is that Dick on Grindr” game show.
What else is coming up for Nora and / or Unitard?
Unitard will be at Hudson Hall in Hudson in November. I’m working on the show I wrote that was supposed to open in 2020 called The Village, A Disco Musical, which is opening at Dixon Place in October. I’ve never done a big production before, so it’s crazy.
And finally: if we were gonna run into you hanging out and living it up in the city somewhere, where might that be?
Tea Dance at the Monster!