Randy Rainbow vies for Emmy as he brings his ‘Pink Glasses’ satire to Kansas City

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If Randy Rainbow is adored by the legendary Carol Burnett, and he is, what flimsy excuse could TV academy voters have to deny him an Emmy for his fourth nomination?

Rainbow, who has raised musical parody to a political-satire art form, is again David facing Goliath. His competition in the short-form series category includes shows from James Corden, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers.

On top of his Emmy hoopla, Rainbow is on the road with his national “The Pink Glasses Tour,” named for a favorite accessory (and a song he co-wrote with composer Alan Menken). He’s due in Kansas City on Sept. 9.

Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke: The Series” has nabbed the Emmy the past three years. Does Rainbow see the British actor-comedian as his chief nemesis?

“Nemesis is a strong word,” Rainbow replied, waiting a perfectly timed beat: “Enemy,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “No, I’m a big James Corden fan, so it’s been an honor to share the category with him. They could throw it to the little guy every once in a while.”

It’s true that the self-described little guy doesn’t have a network or its resources to draw on. But his YouTube videos — typically merciless, fearless and peppy roasts of conservative politicians and policies — have racked up more than a half-billion views, and he’s amassed 3 million-plus social media followers.

“He’s a genius,” Burnett said of Rainbow. “His lyrics are right up there with Stephen Sondheim. … In fact, Steve said he’s one of the best lyricists around today. I mean, that’s a quote from Sondheim, and that’s from the master himself.”

The late Sondheim said just that. John Legend and Lin-Manuel Miranda are among Rainbow’s many other prominent admirers.

His latest Emmy nomination is for “Gay,” which takes on Florida’s GOP governor and the new law he championed that bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

“It’s my send-up, tribute I guess you could call it, to Ron DeSantis and his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill,” Rainbow said, using the title bestowed by its critics. “That video obviously has a lot of meaning, and I was very proud that it made such an impact. It was nice to be recognized for that one.”

Randy Rainbow gained fame with his music videos skewering politicians. Now he’s bringing his live show to Kansas City in September.
Randy Rainbow gained fame with his music videos skewering politicians. Now he’s bringing his live show to Kansas City in September.

But it’s the desire to entertain, not punditry, that drives his career, he said.

“I didn’t get into this because of an interest in politics. I’m certainly more interested in politics now than I was when I started doing YouTube videos 11 years ago,” he said, attributing the shift to his own maturity and the times.

“But I try to stay true to my initial intent, which is only to be amusing and bring a little levity to these situations which are otherwise anything but light,” he said. “I think that that’s the reason that it continues to resonate with people and why people still get a kick out of my stuff.”

The escapism of make-believe is what helped sustain Rainbow — his real family name — as a shy and bullied youngster, along with the unstinting love of his mother, Gwen, and the grandmother he called Nanny. The three of them shared a passion for music, and Rainbow credits Nanny’s caustic humor as another key influence.

When he hit adolescence, Gwen Rainbow accepted without hesitation that her son was gay. In his touching and lively new memoir, “Playing With Myself,” Rainbow recalls his mom’s reassurance that she “loved her gay friends.”

“I certainly didn’t remember ever meeting them,” Rainbow writes. “I mean, I’m gay five minutes and suddenly my mother’s Liza Minnelli at Studio 54?”

His musician-father was “reasonably tolerant,” Rainbow says in the book. But Gerry Rainbow dismissed young Randy’s early artistic efforts, telling him he’d never earn a living “wearing wigs and making silly videos.”

So much for predictions, with Rainbow’s YouTube success just the start. He’s touring to promote his latest album, “A Little Brains, a Little Talent,” includes duets with Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, Broadway stars he’d long admired from afar.

His Emmy category was set to be announced Sept. 3 as part of the creative arts Emmy ceremony that precedes the Sept. 12 main awards show.

Rainbow still runs a lean video operation. The studio is in his two-bedroom New York City apartment, “where all the magic happens,” he said during a recent Zoom interview, gesturing at the modest space. A producer, arranger and musicians tailor songs to Rainbow’s specifications.

He writes the lyrics often usually set to the Broadway tunes he reveres. In the guise of a TV reporter, he conducts mock interviews with clips of his targets before launching into a bespoke song. He’s lead vocalist, his own backup singers in a dazzling array of costumes, and he does the editing.

He knows how to sell a song. Rainbow’s supple voice adapts easily to every tune, and his boyishly handsome face becomes a veritable flipbook of vivid expressions that slide from faux sincerity to skepticism to wide-eyed alarm.

The source material Rainbow draws on is equally varied. “Gurl, You’re a Karen,” which mocks Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, is set to the tune of “Dentist,” sung by Steve Martin in the 1986 film “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“Gay” is set to “Shy,” a song Burnett performed when she made her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in the 1959 musical “Once Upon a Mattress.” In his first viral political video, Rainbow inserted himself as moderator of the 2016 Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential debate and did a “Mary Poppins” riff on Trump’s use of the impromptu word “braggadocious.”

“He’s super callous, fragile, egocentric braggadocious. Likes to throw big words around and hopes that we all notice. If he keeps repeating them they might just make him POTUS,” belted out Rainbow.

The biting lyrics and brassy on-screen persona aside, Rainbow is “funny and loving, and there’s just this kind of sweetness to him,” said Burnett, a friend as well as a fan. “You just fall in love with him.”

Burnett said she shares his political perspective, but Rainbow has learned from meeting fans that they aren’t all in sync. Some have bluntly informed him they dislike his views but love his videos.

“In a way, what I’m trying to do is transcend the politics of it all. So that’s always nice to hear,” he said.

Randy Rainbow in Kansas City

Randy Rainbow will bring his Pink Glassses Tour to the Uptown Theater at 7 p.m. Sept. 9. See uptowntheater.com for details and COVID-19 restrictions.