Because we haven’t figured out how to actually solve the various things happening in our country, for now we’re relying pretty heavily on humor. Contemporary political humor has many forms, but it’s the takedowns that get far and way the most attention. This has created an odd climate in which people assume that for comedy to have any political or cultural value it has to be mean. A lot of comedians fall back on the assumption that the shortest path to funny is through picking the lowest-hanging target. But Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, a pair of much-beloved drag queens whose show premiered on November 15 on Viceland, have found a way of landing jokes without aiming at anything at all. They’re able to show, consistently, that being wholesome is not mutually exclusive with being absolutely fucking filthy, and that a firm grasp of one’s own brand doesn’t mean acting like an asshole. Earlier this month, I sat down to talk with them.
KATYA: Yeah, I don’t, I’m not like a very good actor.
TRIXIE: Me neither, bitch! I’m not good at anything! I can do, like, two voices. We do the white-girl voice…
KATYA [white-girl voice]: I’m like, so excited to be here, so grateful…
Katya and Trixie met on season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where they both became fan favorites. They then went on to host an award-losing YouTube show, UNHhhh, and were later cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2 (Katya) and the upcoming All Stars 3 (Trixie). Their new cable show has the potential to introduce their brand of humor to an entirely new demographic of viewers and to upend the franchise of white men talking over each other on TV. Though bigger and shinier than their original web series, The Trixie & Katya Show retains the same premise, which is to say that it has none.
TRIXIE: Something I think that’s special about the comedy that we do is that there’s a presentation to it. The candy bar is the comedy, the candy-bar wrapper is the drag. And nowadays I think comedy has gotten so … it’s just a dude in a button-down shirt being like, Traffic, right? There’s some showmanship that I think has been lost. With our show you, get a lot of fun stuff to look at.
KATYA: It’s a very well-written horoscope section of the newspaper…
TRIXIE: Our show? AAAHH!
KATYA: Whether it’s any good, or whether it’s useful, that’s up to you.
TRIXIE: And—plot twist—every week, no matter what sign, you die.
KATYA [Maureen voice]: There’s always a friend waiting for you at the end of this long journey.
Over time, UNHhhh evolved to consist almost entirely of inside jokes, of which voices like Maureen (origin and reference debated among fans) and “white girl” make up maybe one percent. The Trixie & Katya Show won’t carry many of those over, but, given its longer format and bigger budget, it will introduce new features. A standout among the new segments is “Men on the Street,” where the two are out of drag and using their given names (they are both named Brian). They ask passersby whether random phrases (MLS, ballcuzzi) are things they’ve made up or are actual terms for sex acts or diseases. In another, “Trixie and Katya Give a Guy Heads,” they reel a participant into the studio using a dating app. The guy arrives thinking he is about to have sex, and instead finds himself asked to be on TV, alongside Trixie and Katya as (green-screened) floating heads. You’d think this would be so cringe-inducing as to be unwatchable, but it manages not only to be funny but to be funny without the jokes coming at the unsuspecting guy’s expense.
TRIXIE: That really happened.
KATYA: We could only get one guy.
TRIXIE: A real person. He was cute.
KATYA: Oh, I would have fucked him.
TRIXIE: He was very cute.
KATYA: And he didn’t know about us! That was the real kicker.
I guess there are people who enjoy being humiliated, and there are fans who want to feel like they’re part of the joke even if that means they are the joke, but I’ve never understood the popularity of stand-up comedians singling out members of their audience to embarrass or laying gotcha traps for strangers. Trixie and Katya never exploit the power imbalance of these dynamics to make their participants look stupid, and the genius is that their basic decency makes for funnier scenes than if they’d just decided to be assholes.
Each episode of the show gets its own topic, though in UNHhhh those usually worked more as jumping-off points. They also tended to be good indicators of how things were going emotionally for them; besides the seasonal “Halloweiner,” the six other episodes of UNHhhh were “Crying,” “Time,” “Drugs,” “Drinking,” “Death,” and “Death (again)”.
KATYA: I actually proposed “Suicide,” but it was shot down.
TRIXIE: Yeah, we do get to a place where it’s like, maybe there’s not a safe way for us to joke about something.
KATYA: I disagree. I think you can safely joke about anything. Mostly. Like, except … well, we would never do an episode on racism.
TRIXIE: We have things we say that we know darn well won’t make it [into the final cut].
KATYA: We rely on the editors. But once, there was a very bad joke that was left in because they didn’t understand…
TRIXIE: We’re not gonna mention what it is.
INTERVIEWER: The Anne Frank one?
TRIXIE: No, we left a very bad joke in, and the editors, being heterosexual, didn’t really get why it was a joke, and we watched it and we were like, AAAHH!
KATYA: I don’t think anybody caught it?
TRIXIE: I caught it.
KATYA: I didn’t catch it the first time!
TRIXIE: But we’re not perfect.
KATYA: I know we look like we are.
TRIXIE: We only make jokes based on our own observations and experiences, which are somewhat limited.
KATYA: Speak for yourself. I’m older. As you mention all the time.
The early episodes of UNHhhh were comparatively low stakes, and the lack of supervision was part of what made it great: you couldn’t see the wires because there were no wires. The two stars were free to get to ten minutes of usable footage however they liked. They regularly walked out of a sentence or a subject or the actual frame and picked up whatever new thing they decided was funnier. Episodes routinely contained takes that cut to green screen or showed the queens asking off-camera producers for a do-over. Since there was no continuity to begin with, there could be no interruptions to the show. Comedians don’t tend to laugh at their own material while they’re delivering it, but extended sequences of UNHhhh are devoted to Trixie and Katya reacting to each other’s jokes. Trixie’s “AAAHH!” could almost be the soundtrack to the show, along with her signature “Oh honey.” When Trixie lands a deadpan or even an above-average pun, Katya is physically overcome by a sort of silent fit: she swats at the air in front of her and wheezes until she recovers. Anyone else might be afraid of testing viewers’ patience or giving them time to wonder if she’s putting it on, but Katya seems utterly lacking in agenda. We can believe she really is just that delighted, and this is one of many reasons the whole thing works for her and does not for Taylor Swift.
KATYA: Did you know that I am an unconscious predictor of future events? Speaking of horoscopes. That potted plant–Harvey Weinstein scandal? I randomly had a joke maybe a year ago where I just photographed a potted plant and said, It’s a potted plant … and then I had a dream that it was the driver of a car. And then Harvey Weinstein jizzed on a potted plant. And if you can’t follow the logic there, well, then, you’re probably a sane person.
Arguably, in that I am arguing it, Katya should have won season 7 of Drag Race. But around the halfway point, her narrative arc took a hard left into the panic she’d been trying to contain inside her head. Before she was eliminated, she said some very agendaless things about sobriety and self-doubt.The reason we feel empathy when she talks about her struggles with anxiety and grand larceny isn’t that she seems relatable or unfiltered, it’s simply that she seems nice. She’s insecure but also publicly uninhibited, and that’s what actually makes her the complex female character you can feel good rooting for.
TRIXIE: It doesn’t matter who you sleep with, because our show is funny regardless of who we sleep with. This isn’t gay comedy. It’s not drag comedy. It’s barely even a drag show. If we were a podcast, you would like it. The visuals keep it interesting, but if anything—if you’re really that insecure—you should think that us being in drag should make you feel more, like, up your own ass about your manhood.
Initially, Trixie stood out on Drag Race for her distinctive makeup, but before her elimination in an unfortunate lipsyncing accident (she was later brought back to compete in two more episodes) what she’d really wanted to show people was her comedy. The queens on Drag Race are basically competing in a decathlon, and Katya and Trixie each have considerable talents that don’t even really make it into their comedy (singing/guitar, accents/impressions, gymnastics/disconcerting flexibility). But comedy is pretty clearly where Trixie wants to spend most of her time, and when she’s doing it she seems completely at home. Neither ever reveals much of a need to punch down. Aside from some other Drag Race alums, like season 6 winner Bianca del Rio, the only people they really make fun of are each other.
TRIXIE: Do you think you’re a comedian?
KATYA [white-girl voice]: I’m just a girl…
TRIXIE: I do.
KATYA: No. I don’t do standup.
TRIXIE: Oh. I think we’re comedians.
KATYA: But you can be funny and not be a comedian. Also, there’s 25 percent of me that doesn’t trust people who call themselves comedians.
TRIXIE: Oh, because … well, here’s part of—
KATYA: Ahm a comic! Get with it!
TRIXIE: Leave Bianca alone. Part of what makes our show—
KATYA: She doesn’t consider herself a comedian.
KATYA: She’s a drag queen first.
TRIXIE: Oh, I fully believe I’m like John Candy.
For a remarkably long time on UNHhhh, everyone managed to carry on as though they didn’t know anyone was watching, even as the series climbed above fifteen-million views. Because The Trixie & Katya Show has a bigger budget and is airing on television, it comes with what feels like a slight pressure to keep things moving that wasn’t detectable when the two of them were filming for the web—as if perhaps more people were standing just off-screen. I suspect this won’t deter most of the fans. Katya and Trixie have more than enough chemistry between them to survive losing a little of the the charm imparted by lack of structure.
The Trixie & Katya Show is the first drag-themed program picked up by a TV network since Drag Race premiered in 2009. RuPaul has done a lot to move drag into the mainstream, but until now he’s remained the only queen whose reach extends beyond his show. The potential Trixie and Katya now have to transcend niche categorization will be worth whatever inside jokes like white-girl voice and Maureen get archived so the show can stand on its own. They’ll make new ones.
TRIXIE: What I anticipate is, people who watch Viceland who might be heterosexual, who might know nothing about drag, might flip through and stare at us in, like, confusion, but then actually laugh at the jokes.
KATYA: That’s why God invented marijuana. Get stoned, Marty, and watch it! Bong appetit!
Kastalia Medrano is a New York–based journalist.
Watch the trailer for The Trixie & Katya show: