Grand Rapids, our pious un-neighborly neighbors to the west, is known for strict conservatism and hard-line religion. It’s not necessarily the obvious birthing place for a troupe like Super Happy Funtime Burlesque.
Then again, perhaps it’s a natural fit. After all, didn’t we want to drink alcohol all the more when our parents forbade it? Didn’t we want to get a mohawk when Mom was insisting on a short back and sides? If a region intrinsically screams conformity, there will always be a subset of people determined to push back. Super Happy Funtime Burlesque is pushing, and it’s pushing hard.
The group came together seven years ago when Corey Ruffin, aka Mr. Happy Pants, returned to his hometown of Grand Rapids after a long stint as an amusement park caricaturist, drawing cartoon portraits for people. “At the time, there was a poetry reading going on once a week where all the freaks hung out,” Ruffin says. “We really all just gravitated toward each other there. At the time, we were all doing different things with our art, and we all plopped together and we formed a little performance collective. One month, we were going to do a short film, the next month we’d do a play, the next a burlesque show. No one came to see any except for the burlesque show — that one sold out. It was pretty clear what to do at that point.”
This isn’t a burlesque show in the Dita Von Teese, impeccably glamorous tradition. Sometimes, the Super Happy guys get ugly. Always, it’s satirical and very funny. Joe the Cabdriver for example, is a 350-pound cab driver. “He was driving a cab and reading poetry about driving a cab and his addiction to prostitution,” Ruffin says. “We thought he was pretty cool, and when we asked him to do the show he said, ‘OK, I’ll do it but only if you dump a bucket of pig intestines over my head on stage.’ The show was pretty extreme back then. He also gives lap dances.”
Perhaps unusually, the group is still made up of the original members. The Vivacious Miss Audacious is a hula-hoop artist. (“When she joined the group, she was a feminist bisexual who didn’t shave her legs and armpits,” Ruffin says. “She did a total U-turn and now she’s a glamour bomb.”) Velveeta the Cheetah is the bookish girl-next-door type, Florence of Alabia is a cartoon mermaid, and Lala Vulvaria (Ruffin’s girlfriend, Rachel Finan) is a dancer and acrobat.
Also unusual is the fact that the group includes a live band. Many, if not most, burlesque troupes dance to prerecorded music, but not these guys. Ruffin wouldn’t have it any other way. “Performance is only so legitimate if you’re dancing to somebody else’s act,” he says. “A lot of us have musical theater in our history, so it became very natural for me to write songs around whatever the dancers’ ideas were. We have really cool songs because of it. Joe plays his stomach in one act and sings a song that’s sung from the point of view of an anorexic’s stomach. I told them at the start that I wouldn’t do it unless we do it this way. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Ah, yes, the Jesus song. That one was always going to raise a few eyebrows in Grand Rapids, never mind any of the other out-of-the-way joints they perform in. “I play Jesus to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and then I have an 8-foot metal bar, which I use to spin around and do aerial acrobatics, as Jesus,” Finan says. “It blows people’s minds, to have a female Jesus in general. I’ve had people threaten me violently. I’ve had a lot of flack from family members telling me that I shouldn’t do this. People think everything is funny — racist humor, sexist humor, rape jokes. But the Jesus stuff is like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ We cross a lot of lines.”
They sure do and, frankly, thank God for them. The world, and Grand Rapids, needs a group of like-minded crazies to shake things up and challenge some tightly held sensibilities. Mind you, the most fucked-up gig experience so far was in Inkster, of all places, when the guys found themselves booked at Stilettos, a lesbian bar. “That was just stupid of me to book,” Ruffin says. “We drive down to Inkster, and all the lesbians in the club are 7-foot-tall with tattoos and shaved heads, leather chaps and coats, chains and spikes. They’re angry that a man is in their bar — that was the first red flag. About 60 or 70 lesbians come out fully expecting basically the Christina Aguilera movie Burlesque. The boos begin. People are hating it and walking out. I’m feeling like we’re gonna get killed. We’re near the end of the first act, and my merch girl comes up to me while I’m on stage performing and says, ‘The cops are here — it’s illegal to do striptease in this venue,’ so we just grabbed our shit and ran out of the door.”
Still, that experience kind of pales next to a raid that they endured in their hometown. “A testament to Grand Rapids’ ignorance, the police thought that burlesque (and this was out of the cop’s mouth to me) was a live sex show with caged animals,” Ruffin says. “He was one thick motherfucker to be even thinking that. First, my jaw’s on the floor, thinking, ‘How could someone even imagine these things?’ And then the fact that they thought it was going on in a nice bar or restaurant with a good reputation. It was crazy. Fourteen cop cars descended on the show and blocked off all the exits. They were interviewing cast members and audience members.”
In fairness, it was probably worth going through those things so that they have these outrageously funny anecdotes to whip out now. And in truth, a group that sets out to incite controversy in the manner that these guys inarguably do is going to be on the receiving end of some gnarly abuse from time to time. Still, the fact that, in 2014, someone might think that burlesque involves live sex and animals is staggering.
Of course, the flip side is that they have some super-loyal fans. “The fans that stick out are the sort of middle-aged men who are really socially awkward and haven’t really figured out how to talk to women, and the burlesque show became their gateway to talk to half-naked girls,” Finan says. “It doesn’t have the stigma that going to a strip club has, so there’s a little bit of a safety net because we’re in a regular bar with regular people and it’s not based on the sex industry; it’s based on the theater comedy world.”
This Saturday, the group will bring its all-new “Ass, Tits, Brains and Vag” show to the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. “It’s about the four best qualities of a woman,” Ruffin says. “Each of the girls plays one of those characters. Vag has a giant vagina costume. It’s this feminist thing about women in the workplace, because ass, tits, brain and vag are the team, but when they break up they can only get jobs working as a secretary, as a stripper, etc.”
So look out, Ann Arbor — the giant vag is coming.
Super Happy Funtime Burlesque performs at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Blind Pig; 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555; $10-$13.