The Possession of Michael King Is Smarter Than Most Exorcism Movies

Eddie Murphy famously asked, “Why don’t white people leave the house when there’s a ghost?” It’s a testament to director David Jung’s smart script and Shane Johnson’s performance that Michael King’s decisions seem largely free of horror-movie logic — the stubborn refusal to acknowledge danger, an insistence on going it alone. Lost in grief, the widowed documentarian King throws himself into an exploration of black magic, wanting to prove that all spirituality is bunk. Johnson tilts at this windmill with conviction, underplaying the desperation that such tilting reveals. King’s tour of unsavory mystics includes a dying priest confessing that exorcisms are real, a funeral director who practices necromancy, and a Satanist couple, more sleazy than spooky. But when he begins behaving strangely after one of these encounters, King doesn’t retreat; he investigates … intelligently. He goes to a psychiatrist; he has his audio recordings analyzed. He’s as curious as we are, and the film is more engaging because of it. Alas, after a promising start, rote possession imagery eventually becomes the focus, culminating in a by-the-numbers ending. But even then, the film offers some new shudders — King’s demonic guest has an affinity for ants, and Jung uses them to unsettling effect.


White T Promises Not To Make Sense

When choosing to unleash seemingly any desperate comedian they could find willing to work for scale, the creators of White T ensured that almost nothing about White T would make sense. In fact, somewhere toward the end of this incompetent comedy starring two obese wannabe rappers, psychotic Kevin (Robbie Kaller) mutters to himself, “That makes no fuckin’ sense, K-Dawg.” Admittedly, K-Dawg is not the voice of reason in a film where multiple parties converge on a coveted XXL white T-shirt that entitles the owner to perform at a major concert. But he is the sanest person here because at least he admits that he’s also bewildered by the lameness of his own off-the-cuff jokes. Herb and Henry (Jerod and Jamal Mixon), aspiring to be the new Fat Boys, are the first to make fun of themselves for being naturally as fat as Eddie Murphy in any of his Klumps comedies. But just because Herb and Henry are self-conscious doesn’t mean they’re self-aware. In their search for fame and that gold-tagged white shirt, they encounter other schticky characters, like Faizon Love’s Mexican-accent-affecting landlord and Eric Roberts’ foppish, lasciviously gay would-be rapist. By the time Herb smokes weed with a goat (voiced by Tone Loc) after taking a mysterious, cocaine-like powder given to him by a strip mall gypsy psychic (ex-pro wrestler Chyna), it’s pretty apparent that inmates were allowed to take over the asylum.


Steamy Blind Items About Coke, Whoring, And Bestiality

Here are the blind items of the century, a scandalous mass of queries hand-stuffed with raunchy innuendo and drizzled with glistening insight into the way we live, love, and accessorize. These tawdry tidbits will drive you batty with desire while making you itch with tempestuous titillation. You’re welcome.

Which wife of a conservative senator said to the wife of another conservative senator, “Callista Gingrich is a whore”? …Which gay entrepreneur has been known to arbitrarily throw out blacks, women, and any other groups of people he decides are ruining his club, only to cower, coked up, in the corner when the cops come? … Which Oscar-nominated blowhard bristled when his lowbrow movie comedy was called “silly” by a reporter and became downright outraged when the same writer compared it to an Eddie Murphy film? (In actuality, even Norbit looked like Downton Abbey compared to parts of this flick.) … Which ex-boybander picked up a guy who was thrilled about it until the next morning because, as the guy relates: “He was singing show tunes in my shower! I just wanted him to fucking leave!”?

Which star recently played an evil character, only to have those who know her—as opposed to her image—squeal, “Perfect casting”? … Which daughter of a late socialite used to lube herself from head to toe in an attempt to seduce a Siberian husky? (The maid would find the daughter all scratched up and the dog traumatized, with a distended penis. She’d start frantically crossing herself.) … Which media mogul cheats a whole lot, always with younger men (big surprise)? … Which old legend, whenever she’s taken out to dinner, makes sure to order another meal to take home with her, just because it’ll be paid for? … Which writer told me he was gonna make it big, so he wouldn’t have to be a “hack” like me for the rest of his life, only to get in a brawl at a bar when the doorman had no idea who he is?

Which ’70s writer and her husband who sat next to me during a recent play had a lively conversation at full volume all throughout the performance? (“Who’s that?” “He looks old!”; “Who blackmailed him?” “The KGB!”; “This scene reminds me of the conversation we had about our vacation.” “Really?”) Why didn’t I shut them up? (Free answer: They were entertaining!) … Which daytime TV motormouth is not nice to work with, one producer never forgetting her brusque entrance into the studio? (“Where’s my fucking latte?”) … Which really old Broadway legend—not the free-dinner one—tells friends that she only got pregnant because her ex-athlete husband punctured holes in her diaphragm? (Her offspring isn’t thrilled about it, believe me.)

Which overnight TV star has gone a bit cuckoo from the attention and is being referred to as “the new [Glee star]?” … Which perky Broadway type is partly so perky because she simply adores the coke when it’s offered? (And it’s offered!) … Which theater star happens to be the girl who once sued an actor for having sex with a minor? (I don’t take this one lightly. It’s a serious mess, and my lips are matted and sealed.) … Which faded-icon-turned-hatemonger should stop promoting family values, seeing as insiders remember his extramarital flings with every female flight attendant with wings? … Which married star’s first boyfriend, pre-fame, was a cute Mexican guy he shared a place with in California? (The Mexican now owns a gallery way out west, where he’s enjoying his anonymity.)

Which Best Actress Oscar winner was known to yell at her assistant, when the gal was innocently taking dictation: “Why are you looking at me? Look at the wall! Look elsewhere! Stop looking at me!”? (Funny, that lady usually loves people looking at her.) … Which Tony nominee is such a diva she wouldn’t even put her own fingers down her throat to vomit? (She’d have her dresser do it. Talk about outsourcing.) … Which married movie star works out with a gay cop in the West Village and has been seen with the guy quite a bit elsewhere, too?

Which gym has been deserted by those who feel it has become rundown, with equipment not kept up properly, the steam room closed off for too long, and occasionally just cold water shooting out of the shower nozzles? … Which new hotel that I toured in the evening had no one in the gym, no one in the sauna, and only one apparent customer walking around?

Could that dog-whisperer guy really be straight? … Which once-trendy designer has burned so many bridges that a recent press request was greeted with silence? (Coincidentally, he was recently spotted pulling a hot dog out of a garbage pail and eating it! So not chic!)

And now for a glimpse at the three faces of evil: Which singer/rapper/diva stood up a magazine’s crew who’d gone all the way to Middle America to photograph her? Which national magazine did she stiff by sitting for about six photos, then saying, “I’m not feeling it,” and sailing through the exit? (She later rescheduled but changed her mind about the stylist at practically the last minute, thereby scuttling the whole thing one more time.) Which other magazine did she screw by grabbing the film out of the photographer’s hands when she decided the photos that had been taken weren’t to her liking? And which up-and-coming version of the same lady is acting every bit the nightmare herself lately?

Finally, which gossip-columnist-slash-blogger isn’t the least bit surprised by any of this? Now where’s my fucking latte?


Tower Heist: Stealing From the Rich to. . . Make a Funny Movie

A revenge of the have-nots playing on the clear class stratification of the luxury high-rise, Tower Heist pits lobby against penthouse. Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) is the manager of The Tower, an exclusive apartment building on Columbus Circle (the Trump International, in fact). Josh’s job is to know every peccadillo and predict every whim of his building’s pampered residents, none of whose happiness is more important than that of the man on the top floor, number 138 on the Forbes 400, investor Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who keeps Steve McQueen’s Ferrari in his living room.

One day, bringing charges of financial malfeasance, the FBI comes for Shaw. The staff’s astonishment turns to horror when Josh tells them that Shaw, a board member at The Tower, was managing all of their pensions, which have now evaporated along with his fortune. Outraged and guilty, Josh confronts Shaw, only to get himself canned along with two co-workers: the unqualified concierge Charlie (Casey Affleck), and a new hire, Dev’reaux (Michael Peña). Josh’s guts impress one of the agents assigned to Shaw’s case (Téa Leoni), who gives Josh the idea that Shaw must have an emergency flight fund stashed somewhere. So with his newly unemployed friends, as well as Chase Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a depressed ex-financier recently evicted from The Tower, and Slide (Eddie Murphy), a thug childhood acquaintance whom Josh bails out of Rikers to act as a kind of criminal consultant, Josh outlines a plan to break into the penthouse, where Shaw has been put on house arrest, and liberate the cash.

The ripped-from-the-headlines service economy payback aspect of Tower Heist doesn’t warrant too much thought. Director Brett Ratner is a student of ’80s action-comedy blockbusters, with their easy abandonment of plausible character whenever it stands in the way of a big scene—there is a bit here where a kindly old man plows a truck into the Macy’s Day Parade that makes no sense whatsoever—and their topically hiss-worthy villainy. The Russians are out of season; Wall Street will do just as nicely.

As a heist movie, Tower Heist is as amateur as its crooks: The audience isn’t even fully aware of who’s in on the job when it kicks off, while other threads are left dangling—the intimate knowledge that Josh boasts of The Tower’s residents never actually comes into play. (There is, however, a well-handled, process-oriented sequence that occurs during the heist, which involves improvising a way to get a large, crazy-unwieldy piece of loot from the penthouse to the street, which makes striking use of the building’s vertiginous height.) The heist film is traditionally the most craftsmanlike, director’s-movie genre, much given to blueprints, precise planning, and stopwatch-timed rehearsal, coaching the viewer on what’s to be done at every stage. Here, the scenes where you’d usually be getting drilled on the plan of action are all about round-table riffing, not architectural filmmaking. This slapdash gang can’t even stay on topic—Josh’s PowerPoint slideshow digresses into a bull session about female anatomy with inspired contributions from Murphy.

More than the marquee names, the second bananas keep the movie bobbing along: Broderick’s pharmaceutically vague hangdog act is perfect (“If you need me, I’ll be living in this box”), while Peña turns out to be a fine comedian, an enthusiastically yipping dumb puppy here. Scene-for-scene, though, Leoni is the best thing going: Her blue-collar deadpan rings truer than Stiller’s; they have a boozing scene together that she ends by flipping a spray of bills onto the tabletop, straightening from a drunken totter to do a neat little girlish hop over a step-down on her way toward the door. Tower Heist earns a viewer’s goodwill with these little comic flicks of the wrist when signing out of scenes, accents that tend to go over bigger than the bolded punchlines. (The script, credited to Ted Griffin and frequent Ratner collaborator Jeff Nathanson, has lived through a hundred rewrites, including an alleged Noah Baumbach polish.)

An affable, crowd-pleasing director with his hugely successful Rush Hour franchise, Ratner is at times near to crowd-pandering here. But Tower Heist deserves credit as a clean, well-turned job, fleet and funny and inconsequential. It gets in and gets out quickly. . . . and leaves no trace once it’s gone.


Waddle Waddle, Mug, Repeat: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

The path of post-superstardom is a treacherous one for big-screen comedians, paved as it is with second-rate opportunities for dramedy schmaltz (See: Robin Williams in Patch Adams), wretched remakes (Steve Martin’s Pink Panther retreads), and talking-animal kiddie crap (Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle do-overs). Mr. Popper’s Penguins finds Jim Carrey choosing option number three for his latest misbegotten bid to rediscover his king-of-the-box-office mojo, a film that pairs the rubber-faced actor with a gaggle of penguins so cutely anthropomorphized that they’d make his iconic pet detective Ace Ventura giggle with glee.

Headlining such conventional dreck is a fall from grace of a familiar sort. And yet that makes it no less embarrassing to behold this disreputable slide into pratfalling with cuddly CG creatures, as Mr. Popper’s Penguins fervently panders to an under-10 audience with Carrey’s main requirement only to mug in a variety of reaction shots to his beaked sidekicks’ mischievous hijinks and—more crucially still—to provide name-brand legitimacy to a dim and unfunny project.

Loosely based on Richard and Florence Atwater’s children’s novel, Mark Waters’s film centers on Mr. Popper (Carrey), a Manhattan real estate shark who treats his own offspring with the same career-over-brood detachment that his own globe-trotting father did to him. Bequeathed a live penguin by his deceased dad, and shortly thereafter receiving five more, Popper initially bristles, but, when his featureless son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), and boy-trouble-plagued daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), warm to the tuxedoed creatures, he embraces them as a way to mend fences with his progeny—and, wouldn’t you know, they also help him reconnect with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and thaw his frozen heart! This process involves being kicked in both the crotch and the head with a soccer ball, as well as having a penguin poop white-liquid nastiness in his face. The sole saving grace to the ensuing slapsticky action is that, after discovering how to manually control the animals’ defecation, Popper doesn’t use the birds’ squirting skills as a weapon against the villainous zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who wants to confiscate them.

The saddest thing about Popper is that, aside from a Jimmy Stewart impersonation and a pretending-to-be-in-slow-motion gag, it exploits so little of Carrey’s trademark uninhibited zaniness. The movie could have been headlined by anyone; Tim Allen would have been perfect. Waters’s bland aesthetics do nothing to elevate Carrey’s hammy performance, which is neutered by a formula that has him first infuriated by the penguins—which are given names like “Stinky” and “Nimrod,” and behave like children who understand English—and then maudlin and heroic when one of their eggs won’t hatch and he learns what’s really important.

Seemingly driven by a lucrative tax-credit production deal, Popper goes overboard advertising New York City, pivoting its plot around jaunts to Central Park and the Guggenheim, references to the Yankees and the Giants, and Popper’s attempts to purchase Tavern on the Green from an owner (a wasted Angela Lansbury) who prizes noble character over greed. Illogicality is a guiding principle throughout, including with regards to why this winter-set heart-warmer is receiving a June theatrical release. Yet truly fatal is the air of desperation clinging to the story’s every element, from Popper repeatedly using his septuagenarian boss (Philip Baker Hall) as a punching bag for “You’re old” jokes, to a dance routine with his avian sextet, to his British assistant, Pippy (Ophelia Lovibond), speaking only in P-word alliterative sentences. In fact, the only faint upside to this excruciating dud is that, in its movie clips of Charlie Chaplin—who the mesmerized birds view as a kindred waddling spirit—the film might hopefully function for some kids as a gateway to superior comedy cinema.


Shrek Forever After, Fourth and Final in the Series

In this fourth and final installation in the Shrek franchise, our green hero feels emasculated by the grind of domesticity (marriage, fatherhood) and worn down by the demands of celebrity. His failure to realize that his is, indeed, a wonderful life leads him to utter a wish for just one day to cavort in his old life of swampy bachelorhood. The wish is granted by the conniving Rumpelstiltskin, whose enforcement of contractual fine-print lands Shrek in a brutal parallel universe in which Rumpelstiltskin rules the kingdom of Far, Far Away with an army of witches as his muscle. There, Fiona (in Xena mode) leads an underground resistance movement, Donkey has no memory of Shrek but still steals almost every scene he’s in, and an obese Puss walks away with whatever scenes Donkey doesn’t. It takes the film a deadly long time to kick in, and when it does, it largely retreads formula: ironic use of pop standards, musical numbers with contemporary choreography played for maximum laughs, risque one-liners. By the middle of the second act, Forever After finally finds its groove, becoming mildly amusing (the actors—Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas—are in fine form) but never rising to the inspired heights of the original. And the 3-D effects are so weak as to bring nothing to the table.


Imagine That Survives Off Eddie Murphy and Poop Jokes

Eddie Murphy is a Denver investment consultant, Evan, with a workaholic schedule that leaves little space for his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Adding to his pressures is the meteoric rise of a co-worker, shtick Native American “Whitefeather,” whose financial consultations come couched in pseudo-mysticism and PowerPoint razzle-dazzle (played by Thomas Haden Church, fitfully amusing, with characterization and makeup owing much to Phil Hartman’s SNL Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer). Evan’s interest in parent-child bonding spikes when Olivia becomes a medium for clairvoyant insights into international business trends via her imaginary friends. On the surface, the idea of combining Bloomberg Terminals, market jargon, and childish fancy seems counterintuitive. That’s because it is. But Imagine That does manage to get a crowd tearing up on cue for its emotional climax; as much as it works, it’s through the personal charm of Murphy and Shahidi. Strikes against include god-awful Beatles covers, over-reliance on the hilarity of grown-ups in suits saying “poop,” and obtrusive Red Bull product placement—the beverage company may as well start producing films itself after this and Yes Man. If memory serves, kiddies like whatever movie you drop them off at but, for the record, Drop Dead Fred remains the vastly superior film.


White Like Me

April 9 began early for Victor Varnado at a Brooklyn warehouse where he was scheduled to perform in a black comedy about a suicide hotline. He walked onto the Star Trek–looking set of End of the Line and noticed a horde of extras dressed in lab coats. He, too, was wearing a lab coat. It dawned on him that he had been hired as just another extra. “My lines were like, ‘Copy that,’ and ‘Yes sir, chief, I’ve got one on the line,’ ” he says, describing his decision that morning to turn around and walk off the set. “They were going to be paying me about $1,000 a day,” he says. “I have no idea why they would spend that much money, for lines they could just give to another extra. I think the only reason I was there was for something visual—to be a set piece.”

Calls to the set from the Voice were not returned. But it’s not hard to see why Varnado might land jobs more for the way he looks than the way he delivers a line. “I don’t just want to be in a movie because I’m weird-looking,” he says. “I want to be perceived as a person before I’m perceived as a black albino.”

Varnado’s weird looks, however, have helped him land the roles of a demonic-looking homeless man in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s vehicle End of Days and a villain in Eddie Murphy’s
The Adventures of Pluto Nash. When the Brooklyn comedian performs his stand-up routine on shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Comedy Central’s
Premium Blend
, much of his material savagely mocks his condition. Recently, he directed a $3 million comedy, Twisted Fortune, starring Charlie Murphy and Carol Alt (its fate will be decided by Warner Bros. in June). All told, alongside Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali, Varnado’s perhaps the country’s most famous entertainer with albinism. (All due respect to Edgar Winter and his brother Johnny.)

Though he’s a gifted writer and performer, Varnado’s fame rests largely on the rare genetic condition that in his case gives an African-American man pale white skin. Still, he says, he doesn’t want to play the freak. But can a guy whose website is really have it both ways?

“Hi, everybody. My name is Victor Varnado, and I’m a black albino. Anybody else? C’mon, where my black albinos at?” Varnado asks, kicking off his performance last year on Late Night.

“You guys are probably saying, ‘Victor, you’re a black albino. How come you don’t eat babies?’ Whoa, no, I don’t eat babies! That’s a myth and a stereotype,” he says. “I don’t eat babies, and I don’t have red eyes—except for when I’m feeding.

“I am a black albino, though, ladies. You know what I’m talking about: All the benefits of being black without the disappointed looks from your parents,” he continues.

Another perk: “I can catch as many cabs as I want, and the drivers don’t even know I’m black until I hop in the back and I’m like, ‘To Compton!’ ‘But that’s all the way across the country!’ ‘I know. And we’re robbing stores on the way!’ ”

When he’s offstage, Varnado’s patter about race doesn’t stop.

“Most black people at one time in their lives have been called ‘nigger,’ ” he says on a March day at a Chelsea pub. “I’ve never been called that. I hear somebody yell it on the street, I don’t associate it with myself.”

Between tapings of the NBC reality show Last Comic Standing—filming down the block at Gotham Comedy Club—Varnado nurses a soft drink and recounts the hassles of growing up different.

His skin has little pigmentation and his hair appears bleached-blond. He’s not tall, but has an athletic build. He’s got a lazy eye, and limited vision requires him to use a magnifying glass to read small print. His eyesight makes him ineligible for a New York State driver’s license. When Varnado gets excited, his pupils dart back and forth like pinballs.

“I recently found out that I have 13 siblings,” he says, explaining that he thought he only had 12. I was at home at Christmas buying presents for everybody, and at one point someone started talking about Quincy. I was like, ‘Who’s Quincy?’ They were like, ‘Quincy, he’s your new brother.’ I said, ‘New? He’s eight!’ ”

photo: Rafael Fuchs

Varnado was born in Gary, Indiana, and spent his formative years in Huntsville, Alabama, with his older brother Phillip and sister Cynthia, who also has albinism, and their mother, who worked in a weapons systems program at Redstone Arsenal. His parents divorced when he was a toddler.


For years Varnado didn’t speak to his dad, upset with him for fathering children with eight different women. “There was a big chunk of time when I was angry,” Varnado says, noting that his father didn’t treat him any differently because of his albinism. “Now I talk to him often because—he’s my dad. He’s at the point, now, where he’s done everything he’s going to do, and he’s not going to change.”

Before their children were born, Varnado’s folks knew little about albinism, which strikes one in four children of parents who both carry the recessive gene that causes it. It occurs in about one in 20,000 people overall.

“The most common name we’d ever be called [in grade school] was ‘albino,’ ” Varnado notes. “It’s not really creative at all, but it still hurts. When the song ‘Elvira’ came out, it went, ‘El-vi-ra.’ It caught on like wildfire to tease people with albinism, saying ‘Al-bi-no’ instead.”

Varnado says he heard similar stories from other kids at national conventions organized by the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH). “Every single kid across the country who has albinism was teased for that song,” he says.

“Growing up, Victor was more of an introvert, and I was more of the protector,” says his sister Cynthia. “Victor always says that when we walked past and people would look at us, I’d say, ‘What are you looking at?’ ”

Albinos are still shunned in some parts of the world where fair-complexioned people are uncommon—even treated like demons in places like Zimbabwe. African Americans, however, are kinder to albinos than white people are, at least according to Brother Ali.

“I definitely had some serious self-esteem issues growing up, and it was really black folks that made me feel like a person,” says Ali, a Caucasian albino. “I think it was [their] understanding of being an outsider, of being apart from white society.”

Varnado spent most of his preteen days at the local Radio Shack, writing BASIC code for video games. In high school he moved in with his father in Minneapolis, fighting his shyness through successful performances in school plays like The Wiz, in which he played the Scarecrow. “If I was a confident performer, people responded really well to that, and I would do more of it. It changed the way I dealt with life in general.”

As a high school senior living in Minneapolis, he nearly lost his white prom date when she “found out” he was black. Says Varnado: “Somebody told her I was black. She didn’t know, apparently. She wanted to go with me, but her parents were extremely racist.” On prom night, Varnado and a friend pulled a switch: The friend showed up at the racist folks’ house pretending to be their daughter’s date. Once the two pals got to the event they traded dates, and the parents never knew.

“Race and racism is so arbitrary,” he says. “Sometimes people see me and they think I’m ‘acting black.’ Once, I was in a secondhand clothing store with one of my friends and commenting on the fashion, joking: ‘I need baggy pants and long T-shirts—what rappers might wear.’ And this white woman came up to me and said: ‘I really find what you’re saying offensive.’ And then I said, ‘I’m black,’ and she was like, ‘OK. It’s fine.’ Then she walked away.”

Varnado’s gold lamé costume features crotchless hot pants, knee-high white go-go boots, a cape, and a gym sock hanging from his unit. He is playing a cybervillain in a pilot called
Fat Guy Stuck in Internet. He abducts the fat guy and forces him to transfer files recklessly.

“Victor was hilarious” during the taping, says Curtis Gwinn, who co-created the show along with John Gemberling. “He was always willing to go the extra mile to be funny. It was his idea to wear the sock. At first he wanted to be completely naked. We thought, since he was working with female actors, he should wear clothes.”

“Since I couldn’t be naked, the sock just seemed like the next logical step,” explains Varnado. “Everyone else was in leotards.”

Living in Lower East Side rat-infested squalor and working open-mic nights a decade ago during his first year in town, Varnado scored his first break when an assistant casting director—seeking fair-skinned types—asked him to play an angel in an Elton John video.

Clad in wings and a tunic, Varnado concocted improvisations on the set of “Recover Your Soul” that so delighted the video’s director, Marcus Nispel, that he brought him on board for End of Days. Though Nispel was dropped as director of the Arnold Schwarzenegger apocalyptic thriller, Varnado’s role survived, and that year he also played a rapper in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy. Three years later, he won a substantial speaking role in The Adventures of Pluto Nash.


The uninspired Eddie Murphy comedy tanked, but Varnado’s connection with actor Joe Pantoliano eventually enabled him to co-write a superhero film with comic-books legend Stan Lee, as well as direct Twisted Fortune, which Varnado co-wrote as well.

Twisted Fortune stars Murphy’s brother Charlie as a bumbling crook who wins $1 million from a contest on a bottle cap in the middle of a convenience-store robbery. Carol Alt and Dave Attell also star, and Warner Bros. has picked it up for distribution. Varnado says the film may get a theatrical release in June or else go straight to DVD. (The Stan Lee project is on hiatus while a distribution deal is negotiated, he says.)

photo: Rafael Fuchs

Varnado also hosts the First Sundays Comedy Film Festival at the Pioneer Theater. Unreleased projects include a sitcom-style video game for PlayStation 3, a series of short films for HBO, and a role as a stuttering homosexual in Permanent Vacation, which stars David Carradine and recently premiered at the Garden State Film Festival.

All in all, not bad for someone told by Lucien Hold, Comic Strip Live’s legendary talent coordinator, that he would never make it.

“I auditioned for him, and he said, ‘You have stage presence, but I really don’t know if the jokes are there, and, frankly, I really don’t know how black you are,’ ” recalls Varnado, who estimates he was 29 at the time. “I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘I just don’t think there’s a place for a black albino in the industry.’ To his credit, he finally said, ‘I stand corrected.’ And then I was upset, because I couldn’t be mad at him anymore.” Hold, who helped discover Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, passed away in 2004.

“I’ve actually heard other comics say, ‘Damn, I wish I was a black albino,’ ” says Varnado’s friend and fellow comedian Michelle Buteau, who is also competing on Last Comic Standing. “They’re like, ‘It’s so marketable; it’s so unique.’ Everyone’s trying to find their own unique place in comedy. It’s so hard if you’re a white guy.”

Says Varnado: “Other comedians say that to me too, but they should just exploit what
they already have. I think, because I’m funny and a good writer, I can exploit [my albinism], but if I wasn’t, then it wouldn’t matter at all.”

Varnado’s jokes range from profane meditations on his love life (“I am single, which I find very odd, because my cock is delicious”) to impromptu madness. During a recent performance at the Bowery Poetry Club, he joked: “A lot of you out there are probably looking at me and thinking, ‘Look at that skinny little guy. After he’s done onstage, I think I’m going to beat him up.’ But, understand, I may be skinny, but I will kick your girlfriend’s ass.”

A female audience member audibly objected to the gag, so Varnado took her up on he
r request to wrestle onstage. “I went easy on her until she started to talk shit, and then I destroyed her,” quips Varnado, who wrestled in high school
and is also a black belt in tae kwon do.

Spontaneity combined with a sober-minded work ethic have ensured Varnado’s longevity, despite a relatively late-peaking career. Though he ultimately failed to make the cut on
Last Comic Standing, he can pretty much write his own comedy ticket locally. A regular at some half-dozen clubs—including the Laugh Factory and Stand-Up NY—he can call ahead and get on their bills almost any night.

Varnado is sitting in his apartment playing Gears of War via an Xbox console that allows him to talk trash in real time with far-flung competitors. “When I get chopped in half, I hear a 10-year-old from France laughing, ‘Ha ha, I killed you!’ ” he says, cackling.

Varnado is set to move out of his cramped one-bedroom near the Bushwick-Williamsburg
divide to a new place nearby, which is big enough for a small film studio. The new digs are more expensive, so he could have used the grand-per-day salary that End of the Line was paying him. But he says he’s used to sacrificing cash for principles.

“I’m definitely exploiting my albinism in the entertainment industry as much as I can to move forward, but I also am aware that I don’t want to be perceived as just ‘the albino guy.’ ”


Varnado acknowledges that he landed his breakthrough role in End of Days at least partly because of his condition. But he says there’s been an evolution in the type of part he’s willing to take, and sees nothing hypocritical about walking off a movie where the producers picked him, presumably, because of his looks.

End of Days was at the very beginning of my career, and it was a real role in the movie, where I had an impact on the story. [ End of the Line] was later in my career, and not even a real role.”

Some members of the albinism community accused Varnado of selling out in
Pluto Nash
. Soon after the film’s release, a poster on the NOAH message board called “fyreraven” described it as “just another movie with a villain being an albino,” adding, “we really do have to do something about this especially with Matrix 2 coming out.” ( The Matrix Reloaded
features a pair of evil albino twins played by Neil and Adrian Rayment.)

Mike McGowan, president of NOAH, says that since 1960 there have been at least 68 films depicting albino characters as supernatural or evil.

“To give the devil his due—if you’re looking to make a character visually stimulating, giving a character albinism is a quick and easy way to do it,” he says. “But I think it is an overused literary device, by lazy writers. Research shows that if you look at the ’80s, ’90s, and first years of 2000, the use of this hackneyed device increases exponentially. What that suggests to me is that the supposedly creative people in Hollywood are just looking at what other people are doing.”

NOAH publicly—and unsuccessfully— petitioned the Da Vinci Code filmmakers not to make the movie’s villainous monk character an albino, as he is in the book. Varnado tried out for
the part, which went to non-albino actor Paul Bettany. Varnado says he never saw the entire film script, but had he been offered the part and found it degrading, he wouldn’t have taken it.

“I don’t think there’s anything I can do that will not offend somebody in the albinism community,” he says. “I even get hate mail because of the name of my website,—which is a joke.

“People want me to speak on their behalf, which I would, if I really felt strongly about some
thing. But the people who usually reach out to you are the people who are kind of overboard.”

Nonetheless, he says he hopes to improve the way both blacks and albinos are perceived in the media. “I’m trying to be intelligent, to be funny and do more than what people expect,” he says.

photo: Rafael Fuchs

Varnado’s stage presence has evolved. On Premium Blend
in 2003 he rocked spectacles, gym shoes, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, slowly and awkwardly shuffling around the stage. For Conan last year he lost the glasses and sported a trendy green jacket. Now he wears whatever the hell he wants, and swaggers through joke after cringe-worthy joke.

“Sometimes it takes me awhile to realize that something is actually racist. I used to love the show Super Friends when I was little, and they had this character named Black Lightning. Black Lightning was a black superhero with ‘black’ at the front of his name—which I think is a little wrong,” he told a small crowd of open-minded-looking hipsters congregating at Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction last month.

“I’m sure when he showed up he probably said, ‘Hey, Superman, you got some super powers; they call you Superman. That guy looks like a bat; they call him Batman. I can shoot lightning out of my hands—I should be Lightning Man!’ Superman responds, ‘You’ve got a choice: You can be Black Lightning—or Niggatron. Take your pick. Anything you want, kid!’ ”

The hipsters ate it up. Who knows why some jokes work and some fail—in Varnado’s case, one thing is clear, however: Racism is an absolute gas.

“Recently, somebody told me this horrible stereotype, that all Chinese people know kung fu,” started a joke he told on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend. “And I disempower stereotypes whenever I get the chance, so for the past six weeks I’ve been fighting the Chinese. And what I’ve found is that not all Chinese people know kung fu. But most of them will hit you anyway, because, let’s face it, Chinese people are very irritable. Irritable people!

“Some people hear that joke and say, ‘Victor, I’m disappointed in you, because you said you hate stereotypes, but you made this horrible stereotype.’ That’s what people have said, but most of those people are Haitians, so whatever! C’mon. Who listens to Haitians, right?”


And then he puts his hand to his forehead and raises two fingers, forming demonic horns, and laughs like Satan. And the audience nearly falls out of their chairs.



Two Nutty Professor movies and Eddie Murphy still hasn’t gotten the split- personality shtick out of his system. Original nut Jerry Lewis would say that comedy is at least half rage, and Norbit, wherein Murphy plays a psychotic, gargantuan wife and the meek, battered husband of the title, is one mean movie. Bigger than Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma, the violent, bitchy, absurdly abrasive Rasputia floods the bathtub, breaks the marital bed, empties the kiddie pool, etc. In a movie where everything has its extreme opposite, Norbit’s childhood sweetie and true love is Kate (Thandie Newton), an upsettingly thin doll of a woman who may be powerless to prevent her and Norbit’s beloved orphanage from being turned by her scheming fiancé (Cuba Gooding Jr.) into a “titty bar” called Nipplopolis. (It’s PG-13! Bring the kids!) Aside from the bevy of fat jokes, there are fart jokes, talking-dog jokes, and Baptist church jokes. It’s an astonishingly crass and vulgar film: crudely directed on a cut-rate budget by Brian Robbins, never more than almost funny or less than disturbing.


NY Mirror

Recent trips have confirmed that the West Village is apparently still there, a bracing antidote to the unmitigated fabulousness of New York at its most sophisticated. That old standby the Monster remains the perfect place to take people you meet on the street when you need a closer inspection. (You can always leave them passed out in the corner by the potted plant. Trust me.) I’ve become re-hooked on the place’s doomsday-bright lighting and the pianist playing “You’ve Got a Friend” as oddballs gather round to share near-miss high notes over deafeningly clinking cubes. It’s like a gay
Cheers, with everyone laughing/crying into his gay beer. Downstairs it’s darker, except for the tinsel curtains and shiny drag queen JESSE VOLT MC’ing a contest whereby customers are asked to spell designers’ names for amazing prizes (and trips to Chicago). Two Wednesdays ago, it was inspiring to see a fresh-faced clubbie correctly spell Ungaro despite Ms. Volt’s charmingly Noo Yawk-y pronunciation of it (“Ungerrowah”) and gleefully nab a TORI AMOS CD!

Over at Pieces—one step closer to the great beyond—the show-tune videos are watched with the hushed reverence one usually accords fisting porn. In between numbers, the sparse crowd was so casually chummy that I thought nothing of giving my number to a hot piece of work I’d been chatting with. But the second I got home, I web-searched the gentleman and learned that he had just gotten out of jail after a 10-year sentence for armed robbery! Now I want him more than ever!

Further toward the pier, at the frisky hangout-of-color Chi-Chiz, I resented the fact that there were already two white folks there—annoyingly playing Yahtzee, no less. Yes, it was the owner and her friend, but it weakened my big entrance line: “Hey, everybody, I’m white! But I’d like some black in me!” That may not have been the proudest society moment of all time, but it did draw lots of attention.

Also on that immortal strip of Christopher Street, the legendary Boots & Saddle—which leather queens used to fondly call Bras & Girdle—is being renamed Climaxx, complete with an extra x for extra drag karaoke and bingo. Don’t have enough of that in your life? Now you do.

And that’s it for the West Village, which has ripped out a little piece of my soul that’ll probably never grow back. Swishing up north a little, one enters the Hiro ballroom’s Sunday-night Cuckoo Club, which still has high ceilings—and customers—making for a reliably trippy experience in head-to-toe Ungaro. Two weeks ago, all eye jobs were fixed on JOSH, a JUSTIN THEROUX look-alike working his go-go box with just the right moderately sleazy attitude. A sunglassed stud with even less self-consciousness than he had clothes on, the guy (normally a DJ-model) dripped raw sexuality like sweat beads, and it didn’t matter whether he was the most rhythmic go-go boy in history. His whole package, as it were, added up to sheer, unmitigated hotness, and every person there responded by either gawking, groping, taking photos, or frantically trying to memorize his visage. I haven’t seen the entire gay community so unified since the first preview of Grey Gardens.

I brought my own package to the nearby club Comix with one x
for Fresh Meat, a show about “the comedy of humiliation,” and was thrilled to get a healthy serving of it. (Waiter: “Can you do me a big favor?” Sure, an autograph? “Could you scoot in a bit?”) But the CATIE LAZARUS–hosted revue provided solidly entertaining voyeurism, from
( Fired!) describing the horror of a Hollywood Squares audition to DAVID RAKOFF, who was canned from the movie of The First Wives Club
, remembering when the book’s author was in a coma and he asked a friend, “Do you think that’ll affect her writing talent?”

In the sharper part of Hollywood, they came up with a fascinatingly gritty bunch of Oscar nominees—a far cry from the old days, when anything bloated or glamorous got the nod. (And which little gossip hag correctly predicted 92 percent of them? You’re skimming him!) What a depressing batch of movies, reflecting the impossibly anxious time we live in! In the best- director category alone, you’ve got a 9-11 movie, Iwo Jima, Lady Di’s death, some international terrorism, and
with a black dildo. For best actor, there’s a dictator, a homeless man, a drug addict, an old letch, and LEONARDO DICAPRIO with an accent. Alas, the gay crowd has been shuffling around with eyes downcast ever since Dreamgirls and Volver were not deemed heavy or topical enough for the top awards. Expect another massive riot, like after Judy Garland died. Meanwhile, excuse me, but Black Dahlia got a nomination? And it isn’t up for a single Razzie? Somebody must have switched the envelopes.

By the way, some lingering thoughts from the Golden Globes: The most bittersweet moment had to be when the Best Supporting Actor was announced as “Jeremy . . .” (Mr. Piven must have been mentally vaulting to the podium at this point) . . . “Irons!”

Another non-winner, BEYONCÉ KNOWLES, is surely convincing herself, “I’ve got the
Soul Train award! That’s the important one.” Surely it is, dear. And now that
JENNIFER HUDSON‘s solo, “Love You I Do,” is nominated for an Oscar along with the Beyoncé showcase “Listen,” they can battle it out live on the telecast, maybe in some high-powered diva medley that will also include EDDIE MURPHY. Effie, we all got pain!

In other Murphy news, the comic actor squirms whenever anyone brings up that incident where he was caught so kindly driving a trannie home. So it’s rather poetic that everywhere you turn these days there are gigantic Norbit billboards consisting of Eddie looking horrified as he lies under a giant, seductive drag queen—namely, Eddie himself in full TRAVOLTA-like garb and makeup. The tagline: “Have you ever made a really big mistake?”

Grey’s Anatomy star ISAIAH WASHINGTON certainly made a boo-boo when he screamed gay epithets at his costar T.R. KNIGHT, and that’s all anyone could think about when the show rose to FAG, I mean SAG, glory. Washington’s been rightly censured ’round the world for having done that, but I’m a little uncomfortable over the way he’s been held up, MEL GIBSON–style, as the receptacle for all our fears and the symbol of every possible hatred in the world. Isaiah simply got caught, so everyone and his mother are going after him with gloves off. But will the same incredibly righteous vigilante gang stay watchful of every single act of homophobia in the biz? Will they openly condemn producers who quietly fire (or never hire) gay actors? Pathetic gay stars who anxiously flaunt beards for the cameras? Gay-pride awards lavishly given to (or presented by) closet cases? No, I didn’t think so.

And now, to placate the gays, let’s have a little theater break. Translations is a soaring exploration of the power of language served in a lovely production, but how’s this for powerful language: The theater was fucking freezing! A Spanish Play has a higher temperature and some stimulating talk, but it’s mainly enhanced by the fact that if you sit in C110, your face will loom on the wall during a live video sequence. I’m adding it to my r ésumé as we speak.

If you can rollerskate, you might have two upcoming vehicles to add: The Little Mermaid, where they’ll wheel around to look like they’re swimming, and Xanadu, based on the roller- boogie flick that makes Grease! look like Greed. But a source swears that Disney doesn’t want Xanadu to open first and is in fact frantic about it. (My Mermaid source says he hasn’t heard that.) Maybe they can do a skate-off on the next Tonys.

Those who’ve seen Factory Girl say BOB DYLAN should get off his high rollers and send flowers, seeing as his character (or rather the, ahem, composite) is played by hunky
HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN. Besides, Warhol comes off even worse.

But stop everything! There’s one more club—and it’s not in the Village! The Box is a Lower East Side performance place courtesy of SERGE BECKER, who promises it will do for theater and nightlife what Area (which he was a creator of) did for art and nightlife. Now I need someplace to help with nightlife and nightlife.

But stop again! My book, La Dolce Musto, is still being sold! Buy it and I’ll sing “You’ve Got a Friend” till you climaxxx with three x‘s.