Given the number of people lining up to humiliate themselves on shows such as Temptation Island and Chains of Love, you'd think the connection between fame and shame is a new-millennium phenom. But New Yorkers Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman have been making a scary public spectacle out of themselves for seven years now as Kiki & Herb, the kamikaze musical comedy act that turns desperation into an aesthetic. "The national hunger for fame reflects off of them, and because they were never famous, people think they're losers," says Bond (otherwise known as Kiki) of the characters they play onstage. "Audiences look at them and see these survivors, but it's not clear what they're survivors of. They can't quit. They've sacrificed themselves on the altar of show business."
We'll leave the complete Kiki & Herb mythology to be recounted by the stars themselves, but let's just say the history of this tattered cabaret duo involves mental illness, multiple addictions, serial divorces and dumpster-diving. Kiki is a septuagenarian songbird who's devolved into a Wendy O. Williams-style punk wailer from some combination of daily picklings in Canadian Crown and her increasingly deranged devotion to socialist politics; Herb, a "gay Jew retard" friend from childhood and Kiki's most faithful enabler, tickles the ivories but stays mostly silent, except for the occasional reassurance and yelped-out backup vocals. He witnesses Kiki's bipolar swings between love and scorn for her audience: One minute, she's throwing her drink at a ticket-buyer; the next, she's descending the stage while crooning PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me," begging another to lick her thighs. The vast Kiki & Herb repertoire includes Cheap Trick, Tori Amos, Radiohead, Britney Spears, David Bowie and the Wu-Tang Clan. Mellman admits their performances are a reaction to the smothering mediocrity of both contemporary drag and cabaret.
"There's a whole generation who thinks drag is archaic," he says. "If you watch the Barbras and the Celines, they're right. And for the past 20 years, new cabaret songs have been shit. They're not about anything. We go to rock-and-roll shows, not piano bars. Kiki & Herb play into people's anger. We play to a community." Gay? Bi? Straight? "Nah," says Mellman. "Bothered."
As purely New York an invention as they profess to be, Texas has proven not entirely alien for the toothsome twosome. This will be the second Kiki & Herb concert in Dallas, although the first public one; last year they played the Gypsy Tea Room at a corporate party for bartenders. A string of Austin shows will follow the Dallas date; they performed at Houston's Theaterlab last November. Bond does confess some good-natured frustration at what he considers a marketing misfire there. "We were part of [Theaterlab's] subscription season," he says. "I think audiences thought we were really going to be a 70-year-old singer and her accompanist. There were a lot of gray-haired people with their fingers in their ears. But five or 10 young people just went crazy for us."