DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. This week, we've been featuring interviews with performers and writers who are up for Emmy Awards at next month's ceremonies. Today we're spending time with two of the nominees in the category of Outstanding Short Form Variety Series.
Randy Rainbow is the star and creator of YouTube's "The Randy Rainbow Show," which features brilliant song parodies about President Trump and members of his administration. Randy Rainbow borrows the melodies of showtunes and pop hits and writes original lyrics. For instance, he took the melody of the Mary Poppins song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and turned it into a Trump song titled "Super Callous Fragile Egocentric Braggadocious." Rainbow performs each song within a video, one that typically also includes him interviewing Trump, a trick Rainbow accomplishes by re-editing videos of Trump interviews and inserting himself asking the questions and reacting to the answers.
These YouTube videos go viral, a tribute to Rainbow's clever lyrics, strong singing voice and hilarious reaction shots. Terry began the interview by playing one of his songs, which borrows the melody from "My Favorite Things." This is "Trump's Favorite Things," recorded last December when Special Counsel Robert Mueller was about to file memos about Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. This starts with Randy Rainbow interviewing President Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "TRUMP'S FAVORITE THINGS! - A RANDY RAINBOW SONG PARODY")
RANDY RAINBOW: Thank you so much for joining me, Mr. President. I hope you have been enjoying the holiday season so far.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will tell you, I'm extremely upbeat. The White House is running like a...
RAINBOW: Defenseless young child being tear gassed at the Mexican border?
TRUMP: ...Well-oiled machine.
RAINBOW: Oh. Mine was just an expression.
TRUMP: It's doing really well. I have great people.
RAINBOW: Speaking of criminals, this is a very big week for the Russia investigation. Memos about Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, three high-profile defendants, are scheduled to be filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
TRUMP: It's a scam. There was no collusion whatsoever, and the whole thing is a scam.
RAINBOW: Really? Because word on the street is that you're getting pretty scared. Well, when anything bothers me or my entire family is about to be charged with treason, I try to think of nice things. I mean, there are so many things that make you happy.
TRUMP: And there are certain things that I don't like.
RAINBOW: Oh, let me think - raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, destroying the First Amendment, white nationalists?
TRUMP: Is that enough?
RAINBOW: Brutal dictators and cold-hearted liars, (singing) tyrants and traitors and climate deniers, $5 spray tans with undereye rings - these are a few of your favorite things. Burying tax returns after you file them, tear-gassing migrants for seeking asylum, big fat-ass buckets of fried chicken wings - these are a few of your favorite things.
TRUMP: I did nothing wrong.
RAINBOW: (Singing) Blue-collar workers all backwoods and beefy, giant hamburgers with extra covfefe (ph), siding with Saudi Arabian kings - these are a few of your favorite things. When your friends flip, when your day sucks and your hair looks bad, like right now, just blame all the victims and praise all the schmucks and then you won't feel so sad.
TRUMP: How long has this witch hunt gone on? It's gone on for - what?
RAINBOW: (Singing) KGB playdates and absolute power, porn stars and Playmates who charge by the hour, puppets at Fox News who dance on his strings - these are a few of his favorite things.
TRUMP: I did nothing wrong.
RAINBOW: (Singing) Long-winded tweets with no spell check corrections...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Randy Rainbow, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think you are so funny and so much fun to watch. Thank you for being on our show.
RAINBOW: Thank you. It's my honor to be with you.
GROSS: You have an orchestra behind you when you're singing in your videos. Are those kind of like karaoke versions of the showtunes?
RAINBOW: They are, yes. They are ripped karaoke versions that I play with and sort of fine-tune and adjust to be, you know, unique to my videos.
GROSS: And are you going to be sued by any of the estates...
RAINBOW: Well, now that...
GROSS: ...Of composers' work you're using?
RAINBOW: Can we go to the next question? No, I do have a very fancy lawyer now, and what I do falls pretty safely under fair use, you know...
GROSS: Oh, good.
RAINBOW: ...With parody and all of that.
GROSS: Good. Please do not deny us these.
RAINBOW: So far, so good.
GROSS: Yeah. OK.
RAINBOW: Yeah. We'll see after this interview airs. Thanks a lot.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. I don't think Sondheim is going to be suing you...
RAINBOW: No, thankfully.
GROSS: ...Because he is a fan of your work. Yeah.
RAINBOW: Can you believe it? You mentioned Sondheim, but I have, I'm happy to say, heard from most of the composers that I have parodied - everyone from Sondheim to Stephen Schwartz to Andrew Lloyd Webber. So everyone is pretty much on board, so I have that in my corner, too.
GROSS: That's great that the songwriters really love your work.
GROSS: Have you learned a lot about writing lyrics from doing this? What I mean is, like, you're patterning your lyrics on some of, like, the best lyricists who've ever written for the stage, and you're frequently following their rhyme schemes, which are sometimes pretty complicated depending on whose work you're doing. But have you learned a lot from using the greatest lyricists' work as your template to write your own lyrics?
RAINBOW: Yeah, absolutely. I have, and I've pushed myself to do so because I always considered song parody kind of cheap, and I've always been, part of me, a little embarrassed that I do it and that I'm, you know, kind of ripping off other people's work. But it's only now that I've been doing it and that I've gotten response from others, including the actual artists who originated the work, that I'm appreciating it as an art form. But I think that I've pushed myself because I think that if I'm not going to write the original music to go with the lyrics, I better step it up and bring something special and strong to the table.
GROSS: So I know Sondheim, one of your favorite lyricists, loves puzzles, but you loved puzzles, too, as a kid, right?
RAINBOW: I did have a thing for mazes. When I was a kid, I remember drawing little mazes constantly and puzzles. I loved that. And I remember, to sort of tie it together, I - when I started listening to Sondheim's music, I always envisioned - I always pictured a puzzle because that's sort of how his lyric-writing is. It's, you know, very carefully and masterfully putting a puzzle together. And so when I got to know him and was invited to his home and I saw that he's a collector of puzzles, it was quite a full-circle moment. And since then, he's become something of a mentor and a great support.
GROSS: Does he ever give you advice on lyrics?
RAINBOW: He knows better than that, Terry. No, he...
GROSS: He knows who the master is.
RAINBOW: He does. He's very generous. He's extremely generous. And he will compliment me all the time and say, your lyrics are so strong. And, you know, how do you do it? To which I say, Steve, you know, you wouldn't get it.
RAINBOW: I have a gift. I'm not about to explain it to you.
GROSS: (Laughter) Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Randy Rainbow. And he does really funny song parodies about, typically, President Trump or sometimes Mike Pence.
We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Randy Rainbow. And he writes and records song parodies, usually taking Broadway melodies and setting his own satirical lyrics to them. Typically, the songs are about President Trump or politics. And he posts them on YouTube. They get a gazillion views.
So, you know, you've mentioned that a lot of songwriters like your work. I know a lot of Broadway people love your work. What about President Trump and Vice President Pence? Have they...
RAINBOW: They're big fans.
GROSS: They're big fans.
RAINBOW: We're all having brunch next Sunday.
GROSS: And they brought pink eyeglasses in honor of yours as a tribute to you...
RAINBOW: ...You know? I haven't heard from anyone in the administration. You know, I've heard through the grapevine that people in the administration are fans, but no one has directly reached out to me. I'm trying every day to, you know, at least be blocked by him on Twitter. But there has been no connection.
GROSS: (Laughter) Haven't gotten that far yet.
RAINBOW: No, but I'm working on it.
GROSS: OK. OK. So let's hear another song. And this is to the tune of "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" from "The Sound Of Music." And the song is about President Trump's endorsement of Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. And this is when Moore was running for the Senate against Democrat Doug Jones. And Trump endorsed Moore in spite of the fact that several women had come forward and accused Moore of sexual misconduct with them when they were underage girls. So the song is about those girls, and it starts off with a verse about the girl who became his wife. And the setup is that Randy Rainbow is interviewing Kellyanne Conway, who is defending Trump's endorsement of Moore. So it - we're going to start by hearing Kellyanne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE WAS SIXTEEN GOING ON SEVENTEEN (ROY MOORE WAS 32)")
KELLYANNE CONWAY: So the president has said the allegations are troubling. They're also 40 years old. Nobody came forward before. The guy's been on the ballot many times. Doug Jones is a liberal Democrat, the president has said, and he doesn't want a liberal Democrat representing Alabama in the United States Senate.
RAINBOW: (Singing) You wait, Kellyanne, with your ashy knees. It's time that you surrender. You're backing a man who admits that he's a bona fide sex offender.
CONWAY: I mean, but wait - did we...
RAINBOW: (Singing) Offender.
CONWAY: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Excuse me. Excuse me.
RAINBOW: In Roy Moore's memoir, "I Like Big Butts," he recounts romantically the first time he laid eyes on his wife Kayla, writing, quote, "I attended a dance recital and remember one of the special dances performed by a young woman whose first and last names began with the letter K. I always remembered her initials, K.K., because they were just one K short of being awesome." I'm paraphrasing that last part.
CONWAY: Go ahead.
RAINBOW: Well, there's just one troubling part about that timeline. And it's that...
CONWAY: Hurry, I have a meeting.
RAINBOW: (Singing) She was 16 going on 17. Roy Moore was 32, flagrantly lusting. He's just disgusting, and, frankly, so are you. She was 17 going on 18 when she went out with Moore. Think it's a smear? Look. He signed her yearbook when he was 34. Here comes Steve Bannon, Trump and Pence, McConnell, Mike and Ben fashioning false equivalence, protecting gross old men.
That's so funny. What a surprise. (Singing) He was the Republican candidate even though he may be criminal, deplorable, immoral, illegitimate. That's 'cause so is he.
TRUMP: Get out and vote for Roy Moore.
RAINBOW: (Singing) She was...
GROSS: So that's Randy Rainbow, and if you want to see more of his videos, they're all on YouTube. And that was recorded December 11, 2017. So "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" seems like an obvious song choice to use for the Roy Moore story. But how did you make that connection in your mind? It seems obvious after somebody makes the connection for you, but how did you think of using that melody?
RAINBOW: You know what? I think that one was a request. Now I have this nice following, so sometimes, I will take requests from my fans online. And I think that was one of them.
GROSS: Have you heard from Roy Moore?
RAINBOW: No, surprisingly.
RAINBOW: Hasn't been to one of my meet and greets.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Sensibility-wise, you are, like, the opposite of Donald Trump. But in spite of being so different from Trump, you've said that Trump reminds you of your father.
RAINBOW: Yeah. Trump is absolutely a carbon copy of my father.
RAINBOW: And - well, just behaviorally. And so much so that my father, who's no longer with us - he actually died shortly after Trump's election - but his campaign was going on, you know, at the end of his life. And even he said that he couldn't watch Trump on TV because it reminded him so much of himself. So these conversations that the world is now having about Trump's behavior - conversations that were had within my family about my dad constantly. So I think that's kind of why I really have his number.
GROSS: So what were the similarities?
RAINBOW: Just that kind of phony, you know, bravado - and there's just like a - you know, I hate to put down any group of people, but there's just a generation of, like, New York guy that - he just came from that stock. And it was just - there was nothing genuine, nothing introspective. It was just textbook narcissism. And I think there are there - there's a large group of men who are like that.
GROSS: Was there this feeling in the house that unless your father was pleased that there would be, like, a dark cloud hanging over the family?
RAINBOW: Absolutely, yeah. And it was a full-time job to sort of, you know, try to brush the cloud away. And, you know, that's why I was really happy, at 21, to leave the house. And that's kind of where - when my life really began, and I kind of came out of my shell.
GROSS: How - what was his reaction to you being gay?
RAINBOW: He was - you know, for as negative a force he was in my life, he was also - he was not the worst. He was very tolerant and did not mind at all that I was gay. He also claims to have had no idea growing up, so that shows you sort of how, you know, trapped in his own brain he was. He had - you know, it was a total shock to him when I came out, which was kind of absurd.
GROSS: But your mother said she always knew. She was...
RAINBOW: Well, she made me this gay.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, because that's the way it works.
GROSS: So what were the first musicals your mother took you to?
RAINBOW: The first musicals - well, yeah. I have this thing with "Cats." No shade to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but, you know, back to Sondheim, I remember being in New York and seeing the commercial for "Into The Woods" on TV, and that was all I wanted to see. It's all I cared about. But much to my chagrin, the first show they took me to was "Cats." And so I remember having a - you know, a temper tantrum walking under the marquee for "Into The Woods." But she would put - my mother put me to bed - I mean, talking about making me gay - I joke but only half. She would put me to sleep with the cast recordings to "Oklahoma!" and "The Music Man." And I think that contributed a lot to my musicality and my love for musical theater for sure.
GROSS: You always wanted to get back to New York and try Broadway. So when you got to New York, when you were in your 20s, what did you audition for? And what were those auditions like?
RAINBOW: I came to New York, and I put the whole thing on hold because I was a terrified 21-year-old and more like, you know, 15 because I just had not at all grown up. I don't know what gave me the courage to even come here and live on my own. But I just knew this is where I belong. But I did not go right into the musical theater audition thing. I instead worked in a lot of offices and restaurants and things like that.
GROSS: Did any of the, like, food, restaurant, bar kind of jobs you have have a theatrical aspect to it - like a piano bar or anything like that?
RAINBOW: Well, the first restaurant I worked in was Hooters.
GROSS: OK. That's - you don't have what it typically takes to work there.
RAINBOW: Well, that's very rude of you to say.
RAINBOW: But no. I - when I first moved to New York, my dear friend from childhood was working at Hooters as a waitress and said the manager here is a gay guy. And if you come in, he'll probably give you a job, so I worked first at Hooters as a host. So you can imagine the look of dismay on the gentlemen's faces when they would come in after a hard day's work, and I'd be standing there with my clipboard.
RAINBOW: So that was the first thing. But that led to my working at the restaurant in Chelsea, which eventually led - because of a friend who worked there then started working at a production office, a Broadway production office where I became a receptionist. And that was...
GROSS: So what...
RAINBOW: ...Kind of where I got my foot back in show business a little bit. They were working on shows at the time like "Hairspray" and the revival of "Sweeney Todd" with Patti LuPone.
RAINBOW: So for me, it was heaven because I was sitting behind the desk. And at any given moment, Patti LuPone would call or Elaine Stritch would walk through the front door. And I couldn't get over my life.
GROSS: Did you talk with them?
RAINBOW: A little bit - I was so scared out of my wits that, you know, not much came out. But, yeah, I had some interactions.
GROSS: Do you know Patti LuPone better now?
RAINBOW: Do I know her better now? No, I don't. But I did do - before Trump came along, and I was doing those more nonpolitical videos, I did a series of videos where I would lip-sync to Patti LuPone's autobiography...
RAINBOW: ...You know, the audiobook of it.
GROSS: That's hilarious, yeah.
RAINBOW: And that was actually a fairly - at least among the gay and Broadway communities was kind of a fairly successful series for me. And I understand that she was a fan of that. I hope so.
GROSS: How did you just - how did you think of doing that?
RAINBOW: I don't know (laughter). I think I was just drunk one night and listening to her - have you heard her autobiography - the audiobook...
GROSS: No, I haven't.
RAINBOW: I highly recommend it. It's eight years of Patti LuPone just letting everyone have it and just...
RAINBOW: You know, just - it was - it just - it moved me to sort of act it out and add some drama to it and some visuals.
GROSS: My guest is Randy Rainbow. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "25 YEARS OF ROOTABAGAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Randy Rainbow. And he writes and records song parodies. Typically, the songs are about President Trump or sometimes Mike Pence. Let's close with a Sondheim melody that you used for a parody. This is "The Mueller Blues," and this was recorded in March 28, 2019. And it's to the melody of "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" from Stephen Sondheim's show "Follies." Talk about what you're doing in this song.
RAINBOW: Well, this, for me, was the perfect song to kind of pinpoint the emotions that everyone was feeling that week because the Mueller report had come out, but it hadn't really. And people were happy, and they were not, and they were frustrated. It was just - everyone was sort of running the - this gamut of emotions. And so my mind immediately went to this song, which kind of encapsulates that feeling of being all over the place.
GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, it was almost having like a little nervous breakdown in "Follies..."
RAINBOW: Yeah. It's very breakdowny (ph).
GROSS: ...When he sings this, yeah. So this was recorded right after the Mueller report was released. Randy Rainbow, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. And please keep doing what you're doing and do other things too because I look forward to seeing you in a Broadway show or on TV hosting a show.
RAINBOW: Oh, well, from your mouth - thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.
GROSS: And to you. And I should say that this song starts with you being interviewed, so to speak, by Wolf Blitzer of CNN about the results of Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign coordination with the Russians. And then you start singing about the results of the investigation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MUELLER BLUES")
WOLF BLITZER: According to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. Are you ready to accept that conclusion from Robert Mueller?
RAINBOW: (Singing) A hundred percent, Wolf. This is only good news for the country. And I am here today to say that I am ready to leave this behind us and move on without some big song and dance. Excuse me.
(Singing) OMG, he's reached a conclusion. Holy - I'm sorry to curse, b****. Thankfully, there's been no collusion. So why don't I feel better yet? In fact, I feel worse.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Mueller report now turned in; Robert Mueller's work is over.
RAINBOW: (Singing) It's lasted 22 months. It's no wonder we're stressed. I wish we could just let it go. The things that we learned are not what we guessed. And as for the rest, we may never know.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: How much, if anything, will America get to see?
RAINBOW: (Singing) I've got those, yay, it's finally over. Wait; it's only just beginning blues. Those, damn you, Robert Mueller - I mean, thank you for your service feelings. Those, give me that report; now throw this trash in the bin. Congratulations, Hannity. But wait. What'd you win? Those, what about obstruction? Here comes Rudy Giuliani feelings. Those is it really over? Can we still indict Ivanka? - blues.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Robert Mueller has delivered his report, but the political fight over it is just beginning.
RAINBOW: (Singing) Repeatedly he stated...
TRUMP: No collusion.
RAINBOW: (Singing) He said - I guess that he was right.
TRUMP: Are there any Russians here tonight?
RAINBOW: (Singing) Is he exonerated?
TRUMP: Total exoneration.
RAINBOW: (Singing) Technically, not quite.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Mueller's stopping short of exonerating the president.
RAINBOW: (Singing) His comments were off-color.
TRUMP: And we kicked their a**.
RAINBOW: (Singing) He'd constantly deny...
TRUMP: No collusion. No collusion. No collusion. No collusion.
RAINBOW: (Singing) ...And slander Mr. Mueller.
TRUMP: Look. The entire thing has been a witch hunt.
RAINBOW: (Singing) Now look who's his favorite guy. I've got those, Nancy, go and get him. Never mind, girl, I'm exhausted blues - Mueller blues. Those, what the hell is Comey doing standing in a forest? - feelings. Those, bartender, we're going to need to refill my cup. And since there's no collusion, could you make something up? And why does Devin's cow have way more followers than I do? - feelings. Those, is it over? What just happened? Can't we just arrest Ivanka? Where's the rest? I got to see it. Give to me. I don't want it. Yes. No. Black. White. Red. Blue. Left. Right. Thank you, go away now. Please don't leave me, Robert Mueller - blues.
TRUMP: No collusion.
BIANCULLI: Randy Rainbow speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year - he and Billy Eichner both are among the Emmy nominees this year in the category of outstanding short form variety series. The Emmys will be awarded next month. We'll conclude our salute to Emmy nominees on Monday. We'll hear from nominee Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of the adult animated comedy series "BoJack Horseman," and from the two women who were the creators and stars of the Hulu series "PEN15" about the anxieties and embarrassments of middle school and puberty. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "CHERRY")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY CARTER'S "CHERRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.