Thursday, March 25, 2010

Notes on the Grotesque: Kiki and Herb and Absolutely Fabulous

At first glance, a discussion of the musical performance duo of Kiki DuRane (Justin Bond) and Herb (Kenny Melman) and the comedy couple of Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) from Absolutely Fabulous seems incongruous and perhaps an odd comparison.  Yet, both of these biting cultural representations/deconstructions display and deploy the grotesque body in its baseness of aging, obesity, disease and private somatic functions in order to shatter notions of contemporary femininity which is constructed through fashion, advertising and celebrity.  Furthermore, although Kiki and Herb and Absolutely Fabulous are hysterically funny, and satirical, they are also simultaneously frightening and bizarre through this exhibition of the grotesque feminine body.  Within this oscillation between humorous and terrifying, this body disrupts and ultimately destroys the culturally sanctioned definition of femininity.

Kiki and Herb

The incomparable Justin Bond created and performs the character of Kiki DuRane , an aging, over the hill, boozy lounge singer with a rasping, yet powerful voice.  She is a chanteuse who sings songs like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Kiki and Herb, Running Up That Hill, 2006

Her covering of these songs goes beyond parody; Kiki makes them her own and brings new humor, pathos and feeling to them. 

She is accompanied on keyboards by Herb played by the deft Kenny Melman.  The musical pair has constructed an elaborate back-story for Kiki and Herb who were friends since childhood, growing up in an institution where they both were labeled “retards”.  The duo has even suggested that this back-story is a meta-fiction and that Kiki and Herb have fantastically existed for all time, meeting famous and infamous personages like Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler.

But beyond this history, it is the performances of Kiki and Herb which are so riveting and magical.  These performances are raw, visceral, tragic, poignant, funny and even horrific.  Kiki’s singular appearance imbues and heightens the performance.  It also serves to  transform her singing and the songs chosen. 

Kiki displays the grotesque body of an aging drunk.  She slurs her words.  Her singing is deep and grating.  Sometimes she screams the lyrics, instead of singing them.  Her hair is tussled and teased in a tangled mess with a bit of gray; it is usually accented with a large black bow or flower.  Her wrinkles are emphasized by dark black lines drawn on Justin Bond’s face.  The chanteuse wears a dress that proudly displays her sagging tits. 

It is an image of a woman who has survived show business and femininity while simultaneously recalling its musty glamour of bygone days.  She has experienced the horrors of life, succumbed to drink, but ultimately she endures.  Kiki is a tragic and pathetic figure on one hand, a washed-up singer in the midst of a celebrity obsessed culture.  But while her appearance and drunken demeanor suggests tragedy, pathos and rejection, she is simultaneously a Phallic Mother who wields the symbolic Phallus through the sheer rawness and physicality of her performance and the embracing of her outcast status.

Kiki and Herb, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Smells Like Teen Spirit, 2004

A 2004 performance of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer which then segue ways into Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is a good illustration of the visceral power of Kiki’s performance as well as a celebration of the notion of the outcast and of the grotesque.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is himself an “other” in the reindeer community because of his strange red glowing nose.  He is not allowed to join in reindeer games with the other animals, but is shunned, just as Kiki and Herb were shunned as children because they were labeled “retards”.  And now in their adult lives the otherness of Kiki and Herb continues.  Herb is a gay Jew and Kiki is an old drunk.

The segue way into Smells Like Teen Spirit makes perfect sense.  The teenager is often an outcast.  It is a period of life when belonging and resisting are central to one’s life and bodily changes are unnerving and strange.  Also, the use of the words “mulatto” and “albino” in the Nirvana song is a further illustration of the other and the outcast.  All of these images, Rudolph, teenager, mulatto, albino are all representations of the grotesque body.  These representations are displayed and presented by the grotesque body of Kiki herself.

In this performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit and countless others, Kiki undergoes a catharsis becoming more than she is (her back-st0ry), more than an aging drunk chanteuse.  She becomes a fantastical, magical and grotesque creature.  Indeed, where does the performance end?  In other words, where does Justin Bond end and Kiki begin?  What happens offstage before and after the show?  Justin Bond himself suggests this notion of catharsis.  He states that when it is a good performance, he has no recollection of it after the finale.  He is totally transformed into Kiki and totally immersed in her narrative.

The audience sees and feels this cathartic transformation as well.  The performance is in part funny- a old boozer sings Nirvana, but also terrifying as we experience this metamorphic change of Kiki before our eyes.  Witness Kiki doing a Charleston-like dance step while singing the refrain, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid contagious/Here we are now, entertain us.”  It is frightening, funny and seemingly out of control, but transformative not only for Justin Bond, but for the audience too.  This oscillation between the scary and the humorous is a central element of the grotesque.

Kiki on Ass Cancer, 2006

Also, for example, is Kiki’s short monologue on “ass cancer” and her deconstruction of celebrity culture is which fact and fiction are combined with great wit and satire in a discussion of a disease as unsettling as cancer.  Kiki expounds on how every celebrity needs to undergo a life threatening illness and cites how Ryan O’Neal was once all about leukemia because of Ali McGraw and Love Story, but now he has given that all up for ass cancer and taking care of Farrah Fawcett.  Kiki ends her critique with the frightening line, “Breast cancer is just a drop in the bucket now I guess” and “No publicity is bad publicity.”  The deployment of cancer in this monologue suggests the decay of the body, its eventual death and putrefaction all of which are elements of the grotesque.

Kiki, therefore, exhibits the grotesque body and deploys that body in its  humor and terror in order to shatter traditional categories of femininity and how that femininity is constructed today in our culture of celebrity obsession and rampant consumerism.  Through the use of the grotesque and the raw catharsis of her performance, Kiki is transformed into a powerful and magical creature, a Phallic mother, who satirically and frighteningly undermines accepted cultural notions of woman, celebrity and the other.

Absolutely Fabulous

The focus on the more disturbing facts of the body such as disease, weight gain, addiction, aging, anorexia and other private somatic functions is a strong component of the bitterly satiric British comedy Absolutely Fabulous.  The 2 main characters, Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, are obsessed with achieving the ultimate degree of femininity and womanhood as prescribed by the consumer and celebrity-obsessed culture.  They wholeheartedly believe in the dominant fiction and seemingly seek to live by its rules and strictures.  They are fixated on the trendiest fashions in both clothing and home decor.  They strive relentlessly to look young, lose weight and party like rock stars with drink and drugs. 

In this obsession with femininity, they become grotesque.  Patsy emerges from plastic surgery with her face horribly scarred.  Edina dreams of her own cosmetic surgery and she is given huge, protruding collagen lips and a lower torso liposuctioned into almost nothing except small dangling atrophied legs.  With this grotesque transformation, there is an oscillation between humor and horror. 

In the episode “The End” from 1995, the narrative  flashes forward of 25 years. 

Absolutely Fabulous, "The End", 1995

Patsy and Edina are still partying, still drinking, still drugging and still obsessed with femininity despite their age, despite the fact that Patsy wears a colostomy bag and knee high support hose and is hard of hearing.  Edina is wrinkled with sagging tits and even more stuffed into her trendy clothes that are still too tight.  In the end of the scene, Patsy sniffs a flower and inhales a bee through her nose.  She then spits out the insect onto her hand, simultaneously dislodging  her false teeth.  The images and their narrative are piercingly satirical, yet also scary and unnerving.  They are grotesque.

This pursuit of an ultimate Cosmo-constructed femininity (Cosmo sex quiz Sweetie…) implodes in upon itself and shatters the very category of femininity, the very goal Patsy and Edina hope to achieve with pills, champagne, clothes, diets, plastic surgery, body wraps and isolation tanks.  Their rabid attempt to attain this (unattainable) gender position serves to severely critique and deconstruct that very position and reveal not only its perverse humor, but also its horror and ultimate folly.  This disruption is achieved through an exhibition of the grotesque body of Patsy and Edina throughout the series.

In the episode “Birthday” from  1992 Patsy and Edina are in the bathroom ( a place of private bodily functions) smoking a joint and avoiding the celebration of Edina’s birthday going on downstairs which has been arranged by her harried daughter, Saffron.  The 2 characters have an exchange which while within

Absolutely Fabulous, "Birthday", 1992, Bathroom scene at 5:58 mark

the episode’s story, also exists outside of this narrative and becomes a commentary and a revelation on the Absolutely Fabulous series as a whole:

Eddie: God, I hate Morgan Fairchild.
Patsy: I hate Jane bloody Fonda.
Eddie: I hope all their old skin comes back to haunt them.
Patsy: I bought that bloody woman's tapes. I paid for those plastic domes on her chest. I want them when she dies.
Eddie: You know, there must be a moment, about a week after death, when all those women finally achieve the figure they desire.
Patsy: Skeleton thin with plastic bumps.
Eddie: The flesh will rot away, but the bumps will still be there. Little coffins full of bones and bumps.
Patsy: Yes.

Here again the series invokes another image of the grotesque body:  the body rotting after death.  In this extradiegetic moment the true nature of Cosmo-inspired femininity is revealed as unnatural and constructed by artificial means.  The ultimate femininity that Patsy and Edina desire can only be really achieved after death when one becomes “skeleton thin with plastic bumps.”  This surprising moment of self-awareness of the often unconscious main characters serves to disrupt traditional notions of the feminine and expose its deadly madness.


In this post I have tried to suggest the way in which both Kiki and Herb and Absolutely Fabulous exhibit and deploy the grotesque body for critical and satirical effect particularly in a repudiation of a traditional femininity constructed within a consumer and celebrity driven culture.  Both the performances of Kiki and Herb and episodes of AbFab could be further examined to this effect.  This post is only an initial discussion of the way in which these cultural productions function on both the level of satirical humor and terrifying display as well as how they present the grotesque.


  1. God, I find Kiki's performances so incredibly moving. She's like Judy Garland or Edith Piaf or Janis Joplin. Maybe that's why the humour works so well alongside the songs. The songs are frightening, and the funny parts provide relief.

  2. Thanks for your comment punctured bicycle. I agree the performance is incredibly moving and poignant. I am often reduced to tears and then laughing and then crying again...