My favorite episode – ‘Drunk History’ – “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” / “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.

For this entry of “My favorite episode” I fudged a bit with the format with my choice of Drunk History. Each episode has a short film, and I cherry picked two segments from two different episodes for this “My favorite episode”entry.

In light of Tuesday’s election, both “Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” and “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” take on extra poignancy  – and frankly, sadness. Both tell the story of people of color who must survive and thrive in systems of oppression. It feels strange to write about sadness and poignancy when writing about Drunk History, because it’s a Comedy Central show which boasts an insane premise: get somebody plastered and have that person recount an historical event, while famous actors act out the event (often lip syncing to the drunken recount of the tale).

marsha-johnson

But some of the best comedy can have tinges of sad. In “Marsha P.Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots” comic/writer Crissle West tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, the trans queer activist who is believed to have instigated the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern Gay Rights Movement. The story isn’t without controversy because there are people who tried to minimize Johnson’s role – or in Roland Emmerich’s case, completely erase it – but that call can be chalked up to a larger erasure of black contribution to American history.

Emmerich is an important reference because the director could’ve done something really good with his 2015 film about the riots, but instead chose to create a fictional avatar of white gay malehood. West’s recounting of the story – in about six minutes – gets at the heart of why the Stonewall Riots were so important, in a much more truthful way than Emmerich managed in his two-hour movie.

Another bonus of this episode is that – yay! – the folks at Drunk History actually hired trans actresses to play the lead parts. Alexandra Grey stars as Johnson and Trace Lysette portrays queer rights activist Sylvia Rivera. The two give wonderful performances in the short time allotted to them. And Grey in particular has some fun with miming West’s slurred account of the events.

What’s so great about West’s retelling of the story is that it brings up the importance of intersectionality, something that often gets ignored when telling the history of queer rights. West pinpoints just how important it is to remember that these aren’t just queer folks, these are queer folks of color.

So, in West’s recount, the cops raid the Stonewall Inn (West was shaky on the dates –  it was either June 18th or June 28 – one of the “eights”…It was June 28th), and are rounding up the patrons, and Marsha P. Johnson has enough. And when she throws a shot glass across the bar, shattering a mirror, and then shouting “I got my civil rights!” it prompts other patrons to fight back, keeping the abusive police officers at bay. West calls it the “Shot glass heard around the world.” The follow up is great because West links the riots to a larger movement in the queer community – one that included support for homeless queer folks.

Once she finished the story, she and show creator Derek Waters are in the kitchen next to her fridge, and West ends her segment with some powerful, important words: “But truly, Black people deserve to be on all this shit. Black people and Sacagawea, who needs to get off the goddamn coin, and onto some paper money. Because this is our shit.”

marilyn-ella-cc

The other segment “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” doesn’t have the high stakes of the Stonewall Riots story but is equally important (and hilarious). This time comedienne Tymberlee Hill tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald (Gabourey Sidibe), who is aided by Marilyn Monroe (Juno Temple) after facing discrimination. Like West’s segment, Hill’s segment is helped immeasurably by the impassioned storytelling which is not hurt at all by Hill’s growing drunkenness.

The story – some may argue it’s apocryphal, thought Fitzgerald herself was the one who told it originally – takes place in the 1950s and Fitzgerald is kept out of the famed New York City nightclub, the Mocambo, because the owners didn’t want a black singer performing there. Monroe – a fan of Fitzgerald’s music – calls the manager and promises to attend every evening of Fitzgerald’s engagement there, ensuring that her heavy press following would be great publicity for the club.

Hill’s story is more about female friendship and solidarity, but in the context of pre-Civil Rights America, and some ten years before the Civil Rights Act. Marilyn Monroe’s commitment to social justice is instructional to a lot of white female celebrity feminists today because it was a practical way of the legendary actress to use her privilege and power for social betterment.

Like West’s segment, Hill’s is more poignant and heartfelt than the average segment on Drunk History where the gimmick of having a comic slur her way through an historical event while some famous movie stars goof around in powdered wigs and costumes is what’s normally expected. But in “Ella Fitzgerald’s Big Break” Hill, Sidibe, and Temple imbue their roles with touching sentimentality. In fact, Sidibe and Temple give quite powerful performances, despite the schticky premise and trapping of the show.

The centerpiece of this segment is the meeting of Monroe and Fitzgerald in the latter’s dressing room. It’s here that we get to see the beautiful friendship between these two iconic women. It’s here that the two women share their struggles with the entertainment industry: they bond because both women have been abused by show business (though Fitzgerald’s life as a woman of color has unexplored difficulties). We also get a tiny peak into their difficult personal lives too (though the sheer wretchedness of Monroe’s life get developed – which is okay, as it’s so widely retold it’s almost become a cliche). When they hug, and Hill chokes through emotion to tell the story, the show transcends its silly, yet smart, trappings.

But as touching as this episode is, it’s also high-larious. Hill tells the story with such enthusiasm and joy that her mouth sometimes runs before her brain – she loses her breath and hiccups (which Sidibe mimes perfectly). The best, though is when it’s time to watch Fitzgerald perform, and Hill does some great sloshed scatting that Sidibe mimics exactly – and when Hill stumbled through Fitzgerald’s name, Sidibe has a great bit of lip syncing to that, too.

But the comedy is merely a side effect of a great story told by a great story teller. When Monroe and Fitzgerald hug after bonding, Hill stresses, “And these two women, they literally need each other…Because in this moment when Marilyn helps Ella, she frees them both…The fact is sometimes sisters have to hook each other up.” It’s a great message about the uplifting nature of social justice – both those who help and those who are helped are better because of it. And Hill’s final thought on the story is important because she reminds Derek Waters that her story is about two women who forge a friendship when she says through tears, “Ella loved that lady.”

Both of these segments were aired weeks ago, but I can’t help getting emotional when watching them now, given what’s happened this past week. It’s a scary time for a lot of people, particularly queer people and people of color, and these segments show the healing nature of comedy, but also the important direction of progress: forward.

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Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, Nonfiction, politics, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

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