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Forgive My Laughter: Vera Drew on The People’s Joker

A woman in a green wig and tights dances down a stairwell.Vera Drew in The People's Joker

The following interview with The People’s Joker writer, director and star, Vera Drew, appears in Filmmaker issue #126 and now appears online as the film receives its U.S. theatrical release from Altered Innocence. 

Just as The People’s Joker was preparing to premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, a “strongly worded letter” arrived that threatened immediate legal action if Vera Drew’s scrappy, bold feature debut went ahead with its multiple planned screenings. Warner Bros. was less than pleased that Drew and co-writer Bri LeRose based their film on a trademarked DC franchise, and it likely didn’t help that the film reimagines many of these characters as a largely queer troupe of “anti-comedians” who regularly talk shit about very powerful forces in the contemporary comedy landscape—Saturday Night Live creator-producer Lorne Michaels appears as a 3D-rendered buffoon, the live comedy show he presides over renamed UCB Live (a jab at improv behemoth Upright Citizens Brigade, where many current and former SNL cast members got their start). While TIFF stood behind the film’s right to exist under parody and fair use laws, the threat posed by Warner Bros. caused Drew to voluntarily withdraw the film following its inaugural screening. 

15 months later, distribution company Altered Innocence—famed for its roster of queer, edgy genre offerings—finally announced that they would step up to, per an online rallying cry, “free The People’s Joker.” Arguably, Warner Bros.’ attempt to suppress Drew’s film gave it more publicity as a wrongly targeted underdog than it could have initially hoped for. Then again, the film boasts credits from comedian darlings Tim Heidecker, Maria Bamford, Scott Aukerman, (a very briefly appearing) Bob Odenkirk and David Liebe Hart, connections Drew formed while working as an editor, VFX artist and director for a slew of Adult Swim programs. 

The People’s Joker weaves together recognizable fragments of Batman lore with Drew’s (loosely) autobiographical experiences to create an allegory of the trans coming-of-age experience. Considering Drew’s career origins in comedy, however, a major focus of the film is what she perceives to be the ongoing creative downfall of professional comedy. Drew plays Vera, a trans woman from Smallville, Ohio, who hopes to make it big in Gotham City. Upon arriving in the metropolis, she befriends another aspiring comedian called The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn). They desperately want to be cast on the next season of UCB Live, controlled by Lorne Michaels (voiced by Maria Bamford) and the only legal comedy offering in Gotham, where the medium is otherwise banned. As a result, the duo create an underground platform for rebellious “anti-comedy,” finally allowing Vera to embody her ultra-femme stage persona Joker the Harlequin. Through this illicit operation, she meets her boyfriend Mr. J (Kane Distler), a trans guy who quickly becomes obsessive and abusive; it is hilariously intentional that he is a bargain bin replica of Jared Leto’s turn as The Joker, complete with the cursive forehead tattoo reading “damaged.” (Don’t worry, the film also “queers” Batman himself.) While navigating the intricacies of her newfound freedom as a queer, trans adult, Vera also traverses a mixed-media landscape that incorporates animation, Lego, live action, paintings, miniature sets and Barbie dolls (surely a nod to Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) to create an ambitious yet refreshingly homespun feature debut. 

I spoke to the LA-based Drew via Zoom two months ahead of her film’s April 5 theatrical premiere at New York City’s IFC Center. We discussed the meme-ish origin of the project, how crowdsourcing animation and artwork propelled the film forward and the sinister aura that permeates SNL as a comedic institution. 

Filmmaker: We obviously have to discuss The People’s Joker finally hitting theaters more than a year and a half after you withdrew it from TIFF. I know the cease and desist letter you received pressured you into that decision, but you’ve never faltered in your belief that the film would find the perfect distributor and reach audiences. What was this process like, and how did you settle on Altered Innocence? 

Drew: I was definitely intimidated by Warner Bros. I think the only reason we got to have that TIFF premiere was because the festival advocated for us. We didn’t actually get a real cease and desist; their internal lawyers just sent a strongly worded letter that basically said that they didn’t agree that the film falls under parody and fair use. I was pretty freaked out by that, and my team was, too. They sent us this letter the night before we were supposed to premiere, and they already knew about the project. I worked for Warner Bros. for almost 10 years because I was an editor on Adult Swim shows. While we were working on the movie, I was taking meetings at Warner Bros., and I never hid the fact that we were making this movie. I just always assumed the suits would ignore us. I mean, it’s very clearly the kind of movie that DC Comics and Warner Bros. would never make. 

Thankfully, [TIFF CEO] Cameron Bailey and [international programmer, Midnight Madness] Peter Kuplowsky really advocated for the film. They negotiated with the head of Warner Bros. in Canada and were basically like, “Look, we’ve got 800 tickets sold for this theater, and you guys waited until the night before. This film can be screened; it’s a parody.” Thank God they did that because that’s really what kept my momentum going. If we had to pull the movie from TIFF completely, I probably would have retreated into the darkness and hid for years. 

That experience guided me through the year that we were trying to find a distributor. I just held out hope that we’d find somebody like Altered Innocence. Seeing how enthusiastic the indie film scene was about this movie, somebody had to be out there that would help it get the theatrical run it deserves. When Frank Jaffe from Altered Innocence reached out to me, I knew it was the only place the film could ever thrive: among a catalog of very weird, very queer but genre-focused films. I feel like that’s like a perfect trifecta that just doesn’t really exist with a lot of distributors, especially queer distributors.

Filmmaker: I’d like to ask a bit more about how you and co-writer Bri LeRose shaped the narrative of the film, particularly when your initial collaboration on the project stems from Bri commissioning you to make an edit of Todd Phillips’s Joker. How did it expand from that point? 

Drew: Long before we really knew about the legal challenges we were going to face, we knew we couldn’t just make, like, a Batman fan film. The way we were able to really accomplish that was because of Bri not giving a shit about superhero movies. She still hasn’t seen Todd Phillips’s Joker. The only superhero movie I told her to watch when we were writing was Suicide Squad (2016), mostly just to understand the aesthetic and fantastical wiggle room we had. But yeah, having a co-writer who didn’t really give a shit about any of these characters was really helpful. 

The germ of the idea came in late 2019. I had just finished producing and directing a handful of episodes of this Adult Swim show called Beef House; it was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot. I walked away from that feeling like, “OK, it’s time for me to make my own thing.” I’d been helping all my friends and these fucking amazing geniuses—Nathan Fielder, Eric Andre, Scott Aukerman, Sacha Baron Cohen, etc.—but I needed to finally do something with my voice. I started writing this body horror movie about a drag queen who was physically addicted to irony that was coming together slowly. Then, Bri commissioned that edit of Joker, which came about because, around that time, Todd Phillips was in the press talking about how hard it was to make comedies now because of “woke culture.” I mean, I love Todd Phillips. His GG Allin documentary [Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies] is fucking amazing. Old School is amazing. I really do think he’s one of the best directors we have right now. But I also think the conversation around “woke culture,” pronouns or whatever as being an inhibitor to comedy, is just bonkers. This whole idea that you need to misgender people, be sexist, racist or homophobic to tell a joke, is like the lamest conversation ever. 

Filmmaker: You briefly touched on your previous experience directing for TV, but how did you approach directing yourself for your debut feature? 

Drew: I started doing comedy when I was 13, and I don’t recommend ever letting your child do comedy that young [laughs]. Doing improv and sketch comedy in high school and college was the only outlet where I could express my queerness in a way that felt safe. I’m from the Midwest and grew up in the ’90s. I remember thinking in 2018, right when I started hormones, “Thank God I had comedy,” because it was healing, but it also kept me trapped in this cycle of self-deprecation and thinking of myself as a monster. I would always portray my femininity as very monstrous. I knew my first film needed to be about that.

I came out as trans while I was working on I Love David for Abso Lutely Productions/Tim and Eric. Everybody there was very supportive, and it was still an environment full of boys that are also irony-poisoned. Many of them had never met a trans person at that point in their lives.

It was very intense, and that coincided with processing things about my childhood, my parents and a pretty intense relationship that I had been in. Therapy wasn’t enough [laughs]. I needed to mythologize my life, I guess, to parse out where to go from there. The experience of directing myself felt like I was just doing therapeutic play. There are conversations in the movie that are conversations that I’ve had with my mom or my ex-fiancé or Nate Faustyn, who plays The Penguin. So, the movie was always this weird, magical psychological playground for me to figure out my life. It was pretty traumatizing, too, if I’m being honest. I think that’s why the movie has resonated with so many people. Even if you don’t relate to everything, there’s a lot that feels very real and authentic—things that you wouldn’t normally see in a comic book movie.

Filmmaker: The People’s Joker was literally made by the people, for the people via extensive crowdfunding and hundreds of artists who volunteered to make visual backdrops, animations and other visual contributions to the film. I’m so curious about the nitty-gritty of this process, but more than anything, I’d like to know more about how you ensured that all of these artists were executing your vision. Did you end up giving notes, explicit directives or otherwise editing this mixed-media component to better serve the film? 

Drew: What you just described was maybe the most challenging component [of making the film] from a technical standpoint. I used to have this web series called Hot Topics with Vera Drew, which is the only web series with the express purpose of getting Vera Drew sponsored by Hot Topic [laughs]. I really was just trying to get sponsored by Hot Topic because most of my clothes are from Hot Topic, but I was also looking for my identity in pieces of Hot Topic culture. I’m not a rep for Hot Topic, but their clothes are very trans-friendly. Their sizing is very friendly to trans bodies. Aesthetically, it’s cool that as a 34-year-old I can go to Hot Topic and find things that help me tap into the high school emo girl phase I never had.

When I was making that web series, it connected me to a lot of other trans people online who make art. [In 2020,] I announced on the web series that my friend and I were making this Joker parody, and I wanted to open up the process to anybody [who was interested]. I thought we’d get maybe 20 people responding—Hot Topics had what I would describe as “a very minor cult following”—but hundreds of people responded. I’ve worked on so many cool things, but any time I would really try to strike out on my own, it always got a tepid or “minor cult following” response. So, waking up that next morning to an inbox full of people that were like, “We want to help you make your first movie,” made me feel like, “Fuck, I guess I’m doing this now.” 

We wrote the script, and I always had this vision for how things would look, but there was flexibility to that vision. I’m not an auteur. I’m not going to vendors and saying, “It needs to look like this.” I’d describe my vision—here’s the color scheme, let’s throw in some references to deep-cut DC stuff—and what I got back would be the artist’s interpretation of that. I am not going to then tell them that what they made was the wrong interpretation; this person just gave themselves to me creatively and artistically. It was always about finding a way to make somebody’s voice work within this giant mixed-media aesthetic. It’s like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reality, where everyone exists in the same physical reality, but some of those people are animated, some are live-action, some are Lego. It gave us a lot of flexibility with the disparate voices we were bringing together. 

I mean, the movie is pretty anarchist. It talks about how workers are exploited, how the police suck and how trans people are getting their rights taken away. I never wanted the making of [the film] to feel exploitative. I wanted it to feel very collaborative. Coming from the world of low-budget comedy, it is very collaborative, but you’re usually working for a corporation.

I’ve been exploited as a filmmaker, editor and VFX artist, so I never wanted anybody to feel like that on this project. We were able to compensate a fair amount of people because of our crowdfunding push. I also took out a huge loan, which they say you shouldn’t do, but I wasn’t ever going to finish the movie if I didn’t. 

Because the movie itself was so personal and I knew my dumb face was going to be on screen for the majority of it, I was never worried about my vision or voice getting lost in it. Making stuff is supposed to be fun, so don’t be a dictator about it. 

Filmmaker: Clearly, the crux of the story revolves around how the Batman comics, characters and subsequent media adaptations speak to the trans coming-of-age experience. However, the film is also certainly fixated on the current state of comedy—improv, sketch, stand-up, etc.—and how it continues to be an inhospitable creative landscape for marginalized people. I want to know how you crystallized your stance on the matter, particularly as someone who, as you mentioned, extensively worked below-the-line with some really beloved comedians. 

Drew: A lot of [the comedians I’ve worked with before] were always inspirational to me because they kind of come from this auteur filmmaker sensibility that’s rooted in craftiness. I really wanted to be an experimental filmmaker when I was in my early 20s. I was obsessed with Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, The Cremaster Cycle. The throughline with those experimental filmmakers is that there’s still humor and genre influence. [The works are] very artsy but aware of the mainstream cultural landscape [they] exist in. I really saw that in Tim and Eric, and seeing them tear down these sacred cows was very inspirational to me. I was really drawn to Tim and Eric before I got to work with them. Thank God for alternative comedy. I’m the first human to ever say that, but it’s great that it’s out there. Mainstream comedy is very rooted in this [sensibility] of like, “We are all truth-tellers and these important philosopher kings who must be listened to, and we’re always getting suppressed.” It’s just a bunch of people caught in a humiliation fetish/victim complex. Like, the idea that Dave Chappelle’s freedom of speech is somehow limited when he has multiple Netflix specials where he makes fun of marginalized people is completely backwards to me. I understand offending people. There is a character in The People’s Joker called “Suicide Cop” who kills himself at the first sign of trouble. It’s an unpleasant idea, watching somebody kill themselves multiple times on screen. But who does that joke actually hurt? The police are going to continue killing people unjustly. Every U.S. city will still be completely fucking militarized over the course of the next decade. 

I also wanted to take a very critical look at Saturday Night Live, which is mostly not funny. We can talk about that and also talk about the fact that they determine U.S. elections. Do you really think George W. Bush would have gotten elected for two terms if Will Ferrell wasn’t the best fucking impersonator ever? They are a part of our military-industrial complex; they are an arm of the state. The idea that they are somehow progressive is wrong, and the idea that they’re conservative is wrong. More than anything, they just embody the ruling class. Lorne Michaels is the perfect example that there is no “left and right” when you get to a certain economic level. One of his friends is Donald Trump! They all go to each other’s weddings, they all hang out at the same parties. Nikki Haley did the “live from New York” line last weekend.

To me, SNL epitomizes all of that in the same way that Marvel movies condition us to be cool with war propaganda. I wanted to talk about that, but I also just think it’s really funny that people are afraid to make fun of SNL and Lorne Michaels.

Filmmaker: I was very happy that an SNL takedown was a critical aspect of the project. As you said, if they’re going to enable all of these horrible systems of oppression, they could at least be funny once in a while. 

Drew: At the very least, tell a joke that’s not like something you saw on Twitter a week ago! I also don’t understand why people still think of it as counterculture. It has always been this extension of neoliberal capitalist idealism that we can somehow appeal to fascists and people who aren’t fascists. It’s despicable and a microcosm of the industry. 

I’ve been doing [professional] comedy for about eight years. [Before then,] I had never seen comedy the way it exists in the LA ecosystem. At that point, the Upright Citizens Brigade was the only fucking game in town. Hundreds of people still take classes there with the hope that it’s going to lead to getting on SNL or their own comedy special. People spend tens of thousands of dollars and ruin their lives doing that. It’s as bad as Scientology—at least with Scientology, you get spiritual principles, whereas in UCB, you just lose your money with this promise that you’re somehow gonna get discovered or be a star. It just doesn’t happen. Anytime anybody tells you that you’re “paying your dues” or “we’re all a part of a family,” run for the hills. If that person is your boss or somebody that is standing between you and some future job opportunity, they’re lying to you and manipulating you.

Filmmaker: Speaking of SNL and Lorne Michaels, I was personally thrilled to see that Maria Bamford, one of my favorite comedians, voices the character. Maybe you’d rather not address this extensively, but I do know that in the original version of the film, future SNL cast member Sarah Sherman voiced him. Providing whatever details you feel comfortable with, what caused this shift and how did you get Maria on board after the film’s premiere? 

Drew: Yeah, this is a tricky one. Sarah is a friend. I knew her from the Tim and Eric [production company] Abso Lutely world. When we originally recorded her version of Lorne Michaels, she was not on SNL yet. I think she might have auditioned, but I don’t really know the timeline of that. After the movie went viral instead of just existing as a fun, DIY community project, I think she felt a little bit uncomfortable about being the voice of her current boss, which I totally understand, but it was disappointing. I just really wanted her in there, especially once she got on SNL. 

When it came to recasting it, I really didn’t know what to do, because I don’t think we ever thought of the character as a real person. I don’t know how to describe it, but Sarah’s portrayal of Lorne was what I would describe as a shitpost. It was very meta. I huddled up with Bri and was like, “We have to think of this guy as a character now.” Bri was the head writer for Lady Dynamite, so she knew Maria through that. I’ve been a fan of Maria’s since I was a child—which I’m sure she’d appreciate hearing [laughs]—but it was originally Bri’s idea to ask her. I was totally anticipating her saying no, just because people don’t want to upset the SNL camp. If you’re established, why would you want to burn that bridge? But she responded to the material and was like, “I’d love to do this.” She had only one adjustment she wanted to make to the script. There was this line where Lorne Michaels is convincing my character, Joker the Harlequin, to come host the show. The line as scripted was him saying like, “I don’t know why this show is so bad. Maybe it’s because of Colin Jost, maybe it’s just because comedy is subjective.” Maria read that line and was like, “I don’t want to say the show is bad. What if I say the show is uneven?” I was like, “That’s your only problem with the line?” 

Filmmaker: I do remember bursting out laughing at that line, specifically. 

Drew: It was one of the many moments that she brought to the character that moved it beyond just a joke of, like, “Oh, isn’t it so funny that like the primary villain of The People’s Joker is Lorne Michaels?” I mean, I should say this: I looked up to SNL so much as a kid. I’m sure I could sometimes get stuff out of it if I still watched it. The real criticism is that it is uneven. I love that Maria was able to bring that insight, and she’s such a talented voice actor. I don’t think we really realized it until she was in the video booth recording with us, but we really wrote Lorne Michaels as this cult leader/used car salesman, and she perfectly taps into that. She’s almost doing a Charlton Heston voice. I love Maria. I hope I can work with her again immediately. She’s just a fucking dream.

Filmmaker: Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have any other directorial projects percolating, either episodic or feature-length? Do you think you’ll continue working extensively as an editor? 

Drew: I actually just edited a feature, Alice Maio Mackay’s Carnage for Christmas. It’s the second feature film I’ve ever edited, but my first time editing somebody else’s. I think that’ll be hitting festivals this year. 

I’m also writing what I hope will be my next movie. It’s kind of taking some of the ideas I had from that irony-poisoned drag queen script and turning it into something else. I’m developing that right now with this Canadian production company called Stellar Citizens. I’ve got a couple other things percolating that I can’t really share yet, but I really want to direct now. I enjoyed editing Alice’s movie and I’d love to edit more films if I respond to the material, but I just got so much out of directing The People’s Joker and that’s really where my heart’s at right now. 

I’d love to do more acting, too. I was kind of a failed child actor. I auditioned for every kids’ movie in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Thankfully, I never got any of those parts, but that really burned me out on acting as a kid. Doing this movie made me think, “Oh my God, maybe it’s my favorite thing.”

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