Cole’s ‘Buddy’ comedy burns forever bright

Still flinging stingers after all these years: Buddy Cole’s look, and attitude, remains intact. See for yourself April 1 and 3 at Joe’s Pub. | Photo by Bruce Smith

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | That chatty, witty, ascot-wearing flamer perched on a stool at your friendly neighborhood gay bar has seen and done it all, since his arrival via the first generation of video camera confessors — and if he came onto the scene a few decades too early for YouTube personality status, hindsight has made his bygone takes on everything from social acceptance (“Respectability is for five-star hotels, not people.”) to vice (“Moderation — within reason.”) seem less the products of another era than contemporary declarations of forward-thinking pride and defiance. So show him some love when he comes to NYC April 1-3 for two shows and a book signing. After 30+ years, Charles Butterick “Buddy” Cole is still a source of highly quotable comedic monologues delivered, with a polarizing lisp (“Such a fuss over a few extra S’s!”) and the lubricating power of an omnipresent cocktail.

“The truth is,” said Scott Thompson, Canadian-born writer/comedian and openly gay inhibitor of the uncompromisingly out Buddy, “a lot of people thought I was making fun of ‘that kind’ of a character, and they were offended by it. Other people thought that I was ‘sticking it to the fags,’ and they loved it for that. Almost no one thought that I was an actual gay man doing this character.”

Although the “Acknowledgments” section of Buddy’s recently rereleased autobiography cites the character’s “humble beginnings in Paul’s basement,” that’s not technically accurate. “He lived in the basement,” Thompson clarified, of longtime friend and creative partner Paul Bellini. “So when someone lives in a basement, you still call it ‘the basement.’ Paul got a video camera in the mid-1980s, one of the first video cameras, and so we would go to his place and record stuff. And one day, he had his whole room painted blue, and all the paintings were blue, so I just started saying, ‘This is my blue phase.’ And I started talking like Buddy Cole, and I stared pretending that I was a vampire… so the original idea for Buddy Cole was that he was a 1,000-year-old gay vampire who’d lived through everything.”

Death, however, would assert itself when it came to crafting Buddy. “It was the first time I’d ever done that kind of voice, or that kind of character. And I was really just imitating a guy that I’d met,” Thompson said, of that pivotal recording session in Bellini’s basement. “I had this affair with this guy, and I had really fallen for him. He was quite effeminate. I had never really fallen for a really effeminate guy before. Not that I was butch.”

They knew each other only briefly, Thompson noted. “He was a very powerful guy; not the nicest person on earth, but very, um, a very fascinating person… I remember, very clearly, it was like the second time we were together — he had a fever and he was very ill; and then, I guess, in many ways, it was probably the virus, you know, manifesting. But that was a long time ago. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. And then he died very quickly. So that was the beginning of it. It was sort of an homage to him.”

From that flash point, Buddy was further developed through more video sessions. “We would spend all day with Paul Bellini’s camera,” Thompson recalled. “We’d smoke pot and we’d go to places and we’d improvise… We’d all have this little ongoing story that we were doing for the camera. Everybody kind of had an alter ego. These were mostly gay men. And we would improvise for hours and hours, making these little movies. And I had never really done that,” Thompson said, of the on-camera creative process. “I found it interesting, because I was always afraid that if I started talking like that [Buddy], I would never be able to stop… I was still ashamed. I didn’t want to appear ‘gay.’ I think most of my life has been, you know, in many ways, an attempt to appear straight. And Buddy Cole was going, ‘I can’t pass!’ And he became a real voice for me, because in those days, you couldn’t really… You know, I’d probably be a stand-up comedian today if I was young.” (He’s actually done so lately, to critical acclaim.) “But back in those days, you could not [if you were gay], not if you were a male.”

Ensemble work proved a freeing vehicle for Thompson, who was soon an out and visible artist (exceedingly rare for the time) creating a variety of characters — most notably, Buddy, for whom an early monologue was crafted with the help of Thompson’s then-roommate, Mark McKinney. Along with castmates Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald, their “The Kids in the Hall” sketch comedy show earned a loyal (and still intense) following during its 1989 to 1995 run in various incarnations on CBS, HBO, Comedy Central, and Canada’s CBC.

Grounded in the familiar worlds of work, family, and relationship dynamics, mundane premises were injected with uniquely eccentric twists (those waiting in a long line, for example, would welcome the appearance of a flying pig, purpose-driven to entertain — until he hit a power line and was baked to a crisp, thus becoming their meal). Very little of the material reflected current events — a conscious move that has kept their 1990s output accessible. Occasionally, however, Canadian attitudes on everything from flag burning to clean streets would assert themselves, leaving stateside audiences mildly perplexed. (Buddy once declared, “When I’m overseas and people mistake me for an American? I’m as outraged as when I’m mistaken for a straight.”)

“That was a group ethic,” Thompson said, of the decision to exist largely apart from the specifics of their era. “We decided very early on we would try to make our stuff universal. We rarely referenced celebrities, things that were happening in the ‘real world.’ Because I think, maybe subconsciously, we knew that human nature doesn’t really change — and that’s sort of what we were thinking about, satirizing human nature… and I think it’s really worked for us, because our stuff, now, it doesn’t seem dated… Buddy Cole was one of the few things in the show that would occasionally reference the outside world.”

And boy, did he. At the time, the particular way Thompson conducted himself as an out entertainer — let alone one playing a character who gleefully exposed the mainstream to the quirks and excesses of gay culture — was both progressive and subversive. In sketches that took him away from his signature gay bar environment, Buddy coached a lesbian softball team, leered at scantily clad muscle boys, orchestrated an affair between the Queen of England and his adopted son, Castor (a talking beaver!), and dressed down fellow desert island castaway Oscar Wilde (a foppish Dave Foley, whose appearance earned the classic Buddy burn, “Do something about your hair. It’s threatening to become more interesting than you.”).

One very of-its-time Buddy monologue took then-popular stand-up comics Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay to task for their hateful, homophobic material. Elsewhere on the contemporary TV landscape, Fox network’s “In Living Color” was garnering laughs with every quip from the flamboyant hosts of its “Men on…” segment — and on “SNL,” Dana Carvey was playing “Lyle, the Effeminate Heterosexual,” a walking punchline whose lisp and swish were the anomalies of an otherwise solid guy’s guy.

Buddy Cole’s upcoming tour features monologue work from 1995 to the present. | Tour poster image courtesy of the artist

“They got all the attention and they got all the applause,” Thompson noted, “but they were straight men mocking gay men.” He gives credit where it’s due, though: “I thought they [“Men on…”] were hilarious. But they were coming at it from an outsider point of view. Buddy Cole comes from an insider point of view. They are very different spaces.” Widespread accolades from the gay community as well as name recognition by the wider culture eluded Buddy, and that still stings. Thompson acknowledges having been the recipient of kind words from “real people” on the street, and is aware Buddy monologues were fixtures on the video screens of gay bars across America — “…and that made me feel very, very good… But in terms of attention from the media or the gay powers that be? Zero.”

Asked what he attributes that to, Thompson shot back: “I think, self-loathing; an inability for gay men to accept the way they truly are.” From porn to promiscuity, “Buddy Cole was spilling secrets that should have been kept secret… a lot of gay men are just in complete denial about the way they appear. They really want to pretend that we’re all straight-acting and that you can’t tell us apart. But it’s not true. Most gay men ‘read’ gay — and that’s the truth, that’s my experience… and it would always, inevitably, it would be a guy that was quite effeminate, telling me he was offended. And I’d go, ‘Have you ever heard your voice on a tape recorder?’ ”

Neither a victim of his time nor beholden to others, NYC is the first stop on a national tour for the eternally outspoken Buddy, whose “Après le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues” plays Joe’s Pub April 1 and 3. Referencing the tour’s name, Thompson noted, “It’s ‘After the Flood,’ and I guess the ‘Flood’ is referring to the ‘The Kids in the Hall.’ So it’s monologues Buddy has done since [1995, when “Kids” went off the air, to the present]. They’re all monologues people aren’t familiar with… I’m always writing for him; and the world around Buddy changes drastically, but Buddy doesn’t budge an inch. His look doesn’t change. He doesn’t really change, no. He doesn’t need to change. He was ‘woke’ 30 years ago.”

That’s not to say Buddy and his creator don’t move with the times. Both have established themselves on various social media platforms, and, Thompson noted, “If Paul [Bellini] and I were young today, I think we’d probably have a YouTube channel.” But the unvarnished truth that was, and remains, Buddy’s bread and butter plays very differently in today’s electronic ether than it once did on the TV screen. “People are so thin-skinned today,” Thompson said, sounding more disappointed than weary. “It makes me nervous in many ways, because you’re always thinking, “Is this going to be the tweet that brings me down?’ ” No matter what the audience reaction is while performing live, Thomson said, “I don’t care. I am in control. But online, you have a person with 25 followers who can bring someone down because they are outraged. That’s why I have a Buddy Cole [Twitter] presence, because he doesn’t give a shit.”

When we spoke with Thompson on an otherwise unremarkable Ides of March, he was “working on a new piece for the encore of the shows at Joe’s Pub. It’s on the #MeToo movement.” As for his other NYC appearance, Thompson said he was “trying to get a couple of porn stars to accompany Buddy” for an April 2 date at The Stonewall Inn, where he’ll perform a monologue and sign copies of the rerelease (with new material) of his backstory-and-beyond, TV-unfriendly, 1998 tell-all memoir. “Buddy Babylon: The Autobiography of Buddy Cole” was co-written with Bellini, who not only went on to write for “The Kids in the Hall,” but figures into another upcoming project.

With a non-“Kids” place in the pop culture pantheon secured by appearances as an out gay men on episodes of “The Simpsons” (three) and “The Larry Sanders Show” (35), Thompson called the Buddy tour and what lies beyond part of his “creative renaissance.” In addition to a stand-up comedy album coming out next month (called “Not a Fan”), a documentary will be released later this year featuring Mouth Congress, the band formed by Thompson and Bellini in the early ’80s (with overlap at the same time as the “Kids”). Thompson is also optimistic his screenplay will be brought into production. “It’s based on reality,” he noted. “It’s an autobiographical movie. It’s a comedy…funny, but not ‘just funny.’ I’d call it more of a ‘Stand by Me.’ I’ve been trying to get it made for a long, long time. But I finally found a great producer that understands it, and I think we’re very close to getting it made. I want to direct it. That’s my goal.”

Asked for details on the autobiographical aspect, Thompson said, “When I was a kid, I was in a shooting [1975, Centennial Secondary School in Ontario, Canada]. It’s something that’s haunted me forever.” A related solo performance co-written with Bellini (“The Lowest Show on Earth”), scheduled for a Sept. 2001 premiere in NYC, was cancelled after 9/11. “It never got seen,” he said, “but one of the main themes in that show was the high school shooting… basically, about my relationship with violence.” Thompson has begun to address that subject matter again, most recently in his stand-up comedy. Calling March 14’s nationwide student walkout in the wake of the Parkland, FL shooting “extraordinary,” Thompson expressed hope that he, and others, could share their personal experiences and continue the conversation. “I think now,” he noted, “we’re at a time when people will listen.”

On Twitter, Scott Thompson can be found via ScottThompson_ and @mrbuddycole. The April 2 book event is free and open to the public; 7-10pm at The Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher St., btw. Seventh Ave. South & Waverly Pl.). Buddy Cole’s tour kicks off at 9:30pm on Sun., April 1 and Tues., April 3 at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St., btw. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St.). For tickets ($20), click on this link. Mouth Congress music can be found here.

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