Being John Travulva


Jodie Mitchell is a stand-up comedian, writer and Drag King. They’ve written on Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ and BBC Radio 4’s ‘Time of the Week’ and appeared on Comedy Central Live and Channel 4’s ‘Jokes Only A Lesbian Can Tell’. They won an Off Broadway Award with their Drag King troupe ‘Pecs’ and co-founded the queer women, trans and non-binary comedy show ‘The LOL Word’. Their debut show ‘Becoming John Travulva’ had sell-out runs at The Edinburgh Fringe and Soho Theatre.

Instagram: @jodiemitchetc
Twitter: @JodieMitchell_

Their piece is the second in a series on queer performance. Read the first piece by Zoe Paskett here.

John Travulva was born in 2015. He’s my Drag King alter-ego: a macho, feminist, queer Glaswegian who is definitely not accidentally based on a utopian reimagining of my absent father. He was also called John, but I forgot that, so it doesn’t count as daddy issues.

I was, to my shame, trying and failing to get into an improv comedy troupe. At the time I was identifying as a woman — I’m now out as nonbinary and my pronouns are they/them (I’ll also accept AsSeenOnTV/AsSeenOnTVself) — and after months of training, I kept getting told by this band of cis male improvisers that I wasn’t confident enough, so they couldn’t relax and trust me enough to find me funny. This didn’t make any sense to me. I was incredibly confident. I had a bright red mullet. Then it hit me: the issue wasn’t my confidence at all, it was that I was coming on stage as female characters. Characters that were easy to not listen to, to talk over, to project a lack of confidence on to. I decided to embody the same characters, but to do what would be seen as ‘male’ voices. I tried my deepest Glaswegian; amidst all the cries of how I had suddenly found my confidence, I was welcomed into the group. Oh — and I was never talked over in a scene again.

John Travulva got his name two years later, when my Drag King family, Pecs, recruited me straight (but in a gay way) from one of those improv shows. I’d become a stand-up comedian by this point and in Drag King nights I found everything I’d been missing from the stand-up world, where I’d had to listen to countless transphobic sets and spent evening after evening with male comics ignoring me until I did well on stage. King nights are the most celebratory, talent-filled, powerful, supportive environments out there. I’d never before been in a space where my masculinity was actively celebrated and where it didn’t need to be boxed into a toxic stereotype. Also, Drag Kings are extremely hot. When you’re a queer person, being passively accepted or neutrally tolerated doesn’t heal the harm inflicted on you by being part of a society that at best doesn’t respect you and at worst seeks to actively hurt you; only being celebrated can do that. I came out as nonbinary on stage as John Travulva and the audience went so wild that it was like being hit by a physical wall of sound. I’m very, very lucky I get to be part of something so extraordinary.

After a few years on the drag scene a new idea came to me: being John Travulva on the stand-up circuit. I decided to do exactly the same sets I would as myself, Jodie Mitchell (basically a Drag Queen name already as my family have a habit of naming people in the family almost the name of a famous person and not realising. There are no fans of Joni Mitchell in my family, we’re just fabulously uncultured). There’s no other way to say this: people found my stand-up as John exponentially funnier from the moment I stepped on stage. Let me be clear, doing stand-up as myself goes really well (ew but it’s important) — but when I perform as Jodie, I spend the first five minutes of a set winning the trust of the audience. As John, I have it immediately. When you’re a cis man doing stand-up, the comedic rule is tension. You have to build tension by making the audience think ‘will it be funny, or won’t it be funny, will it be funny, or won’t it be funny’ and then break it by saying something surprising – that’s where the laugh happens. But if you’re not a cis man and you’re doing comedy, there’s a rule before that: the rule of trust. You need trust to build tension, because without it, the audience won’t wonder ‘will it be funny, or won’t it be funny’, they’ll just think ‘it won’t be funny’. So you can’t create tension, and you can’t break it, and you can’t get a laugh.

The over-the-top, fake masculinity of John is more comfortable for many audiences than my own neutral masculinity as a nonbinary person, because he looks more like what they think a man should look like. John can be trusted. He has a nice (Snazaroo paint) beard. That really is how stupid the gender binary is. I can walk through a room as a Drag King and men move out of my way – it’s like the parting of the Red Sea, feminist edition. I really can’t recommend it enough.

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