Randy Rainbow sits on a regal throne as a modern-day clown prince of parody; a cross between a Broadway diva like Patti LuPone (whom he’s collaborated with) and an eccentric satirist à la “Weird Al” Yankovic.
It’s that uniqueness that elevated Rainbow from viral internet oddity to acclaimed artist, evidenced by his very first Grammy nomination for his debut studio album, A Little Brains, A Little Talent. It’s another recognition for the comedian that extends his rise as a political satirist, whether roasting the circus that was the Trump presidency or the misadventures of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Along with earning a nomination for best comedy album, Rainbow is also co-hosting the Grammys Premiere Ceremony, the ancillary awards show taking place Sunday (Feb. 5) before the main primetime component — or, as Rainbow calls it, “The Beyoncé Show.”
Featuring appearances from artists like Babyface, DOMi & JD BECK, Arooj Aftab and Madison Cunningham, Rainbow says he’s excited to lead the pack. “I was already over the moon to even be going to the Grammys as a nominee, but to be participating at this level is insane,” he says.
Billboard spoke to Rainbow ahead of the ceremony about hosting, earning his first nomination and how he manages to pull off his near-constant spoof videos.
Congratulations on hosting the big Grammy Premiere Ceremony. How’d that come about?
My head is spinning as I have 40 deadlines for everything at once, so forgive me if I don’t form actual sentences. They just asked me! I’m excited to say that I’m nominated, so I think they saw that, and from what I hear, I have a few fans at the Recording Academy. They had this kooky idea, and I jumped at the opportunity.
Can we expect a song parody about the year in music, maybe?
Well, it’s not going to be quite that extensive. They told me, as they tell me everywhere I go, not to get political. I said, “I at least must have a show tune.” So they agreed to half of a show tune.
Asking you not to get political is like asking Ronald McDonald not to promote hamburgers. Is that even possible?
It’s funny, because people do think that, and they come to me with their knees knocking: “We’re sorry but you can’t get political!” Maybe it’s just because I can’t be objective about it, but I think I tackle politics in the most innocuous, non-offensive way — through show tunes. I’m just saying what everybody else is saying … or at least half of the people.
When I tackle these topics and produce a video, the first thing I’m thinking of is song choice, how I’m going to put on a production. That’s the fun in it for me and that’s why it’s not a turn-off to a lot of people who might otherwise not be interested. The first ingredient in this recipe is the musicality of it and playing dress up and the fun of it.
This is your first Grammy nomination for best comedy album. How’d you go about compiling the tracks for A Little Brains, A Little Talent, and picking how many originals to include? By now you must have piled up a huge library of them.
Well, only a portion of it is parody stuff. You have to be really meticulous about clearances when you’re putting things on an album versus the internet, which is the Wild West. So there’s only three or four parodies from the videos on the album. Other than that, I took the opportunity to do songs that didn’t really have anything to do with politics; they were songs from musical theater that I just loved and wanted to put my little Randy Rainbow spin on.
This was my first studio album and I’ve had ideas cooking for years, so it was very easy to make selections. When I put out my feelers for who might join us on the parodies and Tituss Burgess said yes, Bernadette Peters said yes, and then Sean Hayes and Josh Gad, that got my wheels turning. One of my favorite tracks on the album is the trio of me, Sean Hayes and Josh Gad doing a parody of “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” from Gypsy. It’s a little gender-bent moment.
What’s more difficult: creating an original song or the perfect parody?
I have very limited experience with writing songs from scratch. The first one was for my Christmas album and Marc Shaiman wrote the title track, “Hey Gurl, It’s Christmas.” He’s the best and he’s always game for everything I want. For my recent album, he wrote the song “Randy Rainbow for President” which I’ve been closing my live show with for the last year. And I got to work with Alan Menken on this; he wrote “Pink Glasses” with me. So, to answer your question, those were easy because I had two legendary songwriters holding my hand through it. It was really just a lot of fun.
Speaking of people like Marc and Alan, brushing up against these accomplished icons has been a trend in your career, like your relationship with Stephen Sondheim. How did you two get to know each other?
Sondheim came into my life serendipitously. I met him because I actually knew his husband when I was a receptionist at a Broadway producer’s office that his husband was an assistant at. I became friendly with him, and he was always there during every step in this trajectory I’ve been on. I’d go over, have cocktails and put on a show, so he always thought I was funny and got a kick out of me. But as I started to emerge as an artist, he began to take notice and became a great support system. He was there in the front row the first time I played the Beacon Theater, sitting next to my mother. Just his presence alone added years to my life.
As a fan of musical theater, that must have meant the world. I know you have a similar relationship with Carol Burnett, as well.
She did just reach out! I heard from her daughter first who told me she was a fan; she came to one of my live shows and sent her mother’s regrets that she couldn’t make it. I said, “Be sure to give her my phone number,” and sure enough she called me a couple days later and we’ve been friends ever since. These giants have been so incredibly generous with their support, it’s been unbelievable and very inspiring.
When it comes to parody, can anything be parodied?
Yeah, I think so. Parodies always come easy to me because I naturally think in show tunes and songs in general. I come from a family that has a Mad magazine sensibility that everything was just ripe for satire, so I just think in those terms. Plenty of times I do start off in one direction and then I have to reassess and maybe do something else. Lately, because I have a nice following now, a lot of my song choices come from the fans. So this last one I did, about the speaker of the House to the tune of “Master of the House,” I was getting everything short of death threats if I didn’t parody it. The fans were very aggressive.
When it’s not fan-curated, how do you go about choosing what song to parody? What comes first, the subject or the song?
It varies. When Trump was in office — and I’m sure there will be more Trump material in the next couple of months or years or whatever — he was always just very specific in the phrases he’d come out with. He’d speak in song titles, as did everyone in his administration, and there was really no guesswork. Nowadays, I think I have more fun with the whole thing because it’s not so specific. It’s not always so obvious and I can refer more to my running list of songs that I just wanna sing, or that might work for anybody.
You were a Broadway fan and that has carried over into your career — what led you into the world of parody as opposed to being a musical theater actor?
I was frankly just scared of my own shadow. I didn’t have the courage to do it. This strange path that I took was very organic. It started with writing a blog when I was sitting behind a reception desk, which led to doing non-musical sketches for YouTube, and then I got a gig working for Broadway World and decided to deliver the news musically because I had always been a singer and was itching to show off a little bit. I didn’t write music, so it was a means to an end to use parody to deliver the headlines for Broadway news. At some point, I started doing it for mainstream topics. I still can’t pinpoint it, but people really like this formula for some reason.
Your videos are always so extravagantly produced, from the music to elements like the graphics, hair and makeup. You’re also known for your quick turnaround whenever a big news story breaks. Are you working through the night to get them online?
I mean, I’ve done things overnight. Back in the Trump days, the news cycle was so fast, and I was trying very hard to keep up with things because I was building my brand and making myself known. Yes, I was very sleep-deprived and abusing my body in that way. But I don’t do it that way anymore, because she’s getting older, and I can’t function like that for long periods of time. I’m a fragile flower.
In the old days, I would use karaoke tracks: it was me, in a room, with songs I’d pull from the internet. Now I have a music producer and an arranger and we’re creating these tracks with actual Broadway musicians specifically for my videos. So we’re taking a little more time and as a result, I think the videos are a little more polished and they sound a little cooler. I’m allowing myself to have more fun creatively. It’s self-care.
That all led you to the big Grammys show, where you’re up against an interesting group.
It’s me, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle. All the gay icons. It’s a very strange company but I’m excited to be in the category; I’m humble and honored and thrilled that I’ve been nominated. I’ve been nominated for four Creative Arts Emmys, but that was in a category created in the past couple years. The Grammy for best comedy album, meanwhile, has been around for decades — people like George Carlin have won it. But it’ll be a long day and night on Sunday; I’m hosting the Premiere Ceremony at noon, and then we hit the red carpet, and then I’ll be at the evening show — The Beyoncé Show, as I’ll call it. Then I’ll be hitting up all the parties, doing some crashing and living my best life.
Check out the Grammy Premiere Ceremony on Sunday (Feb. 5) from 3:30 p.m. ET here.