I remember a performance in the late ‘80s, in one of the Taper’s New Works festivals, by John Fleck. Tall, slender and charismatic, he drank much beer until, about 45 minutes into the show, titled All the Little Fishes, he pissed into a toilet situated upstage left. A goldfish may or may not have been swimming in the porcelain bowl, but we were led to believe it was. Shortly thereafter, Fleck — one of the notorious NEA Four along with Karen Finley, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes — was funded (1989), defunded (1990), then funded again (1993) by the National Endowment for the Arts, setting off an exhausting national debate about federal grants going only to artists who conformed to a community‘s prevailing standard of decency. Such standards were evidently violated by exposed genitalia and gay themes, which constituted the Foursome’s very reason to create. So they sued the Endowment, arguing that its policy was an arbitrary and unconstitutional violation of free speech. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
Fleck has since buttoned his fly and transformed his performance style to honor the beauty of nature with a transcendental Emersonian uplift — all delicately woven into the fabric of finely textured language. His latest creation, a late show performed in the lobby of Evidence Room, goes by the elegiac title Nothin‘ Beats Pussy.
L.A. WEEKLY: But John, I thought you were gay.
FLECK: Well . . . I’m 99 percent gay. But I‘m 1 percent raging heterosexual. The show is about that 1 percent. I’ve got the women interested ‘cause they can sense I’ve had pussy. Most of my audiences are straight women — and twisted straight couples.
So what‘s it about?
Home. Family. I don’t know where I live anymore. It‘s really about finding a family — as I get older, that becomes more important to me. Maybe it really comes from my father. We finally had a heart-to-heart. He looked up at me and said, ”You’re not a fruit, are you? No poontang can beat family.“
You have brothers and sisters?
There are seven of us, three boys and four girls, and I‘m the only one who never had children. They’re all still in the white enclaves of Cleveland — every year they move further and further out to get away from the riffraff, so I don‘t really identify with where they are now. I don’t miss it, but as I get older I start to miss the idea of home. I even performed in Cleveland in 1994, and none of them showed up — okay, one sister showed up. It just wasn‘t on their radar. But a couple of my nieces saw the show in New York. They liked it, though they were a bit sensitive about the family stuff, and now they’re in it, helping out.
So what exactly happens in the show?
Well, all my shows are about the frame of the show. I like to spend a lot of time setting up, so the audience doesn‘t understand that my getting ready for the show is actually part of the show itself. There’s another play going on at the theater when the audience arrives, so people meet in front of the Bagel Factory across the street, and I‘ll be in my bathrobe serving coffee and bagels, and the whole thing is to get them into our family.
When the theater clears, we walk across the street into the lobby, and everybody gets comfortable, and there’s a bar in the lobby, and I serve complimentary highballs, and my nieces from Cleveland serve cookies and help take off people‘s shoes and get them to relax, so we’re transforming the space into home . . .
My form is very nonlinear. I pay people to come up and act out scenarios, or play music, and they also get an authorized picture of me as a freak — you know, [as Silik] on Star Trek [Enterprise], or as a fag, which I play on TV. I seemed to do that a lot last year. I do gay good. That‘s why I’m changing my name to John Gaygood. I did six episodes on the Fox Family Channel playing a gay bookseller on The Fearing Mind.
At one point I use these hand puppets, and there‘s this whole relationship with this pussy character that I’ve developed . . . And it‘s about this desire to be blond. I do a kind of collage from musical pieces. Being blond was a big thing in my family — my mom used to wear blond wigs, and I put blond streaks in my hair — and it ties in with this ”everybody wants pussy“ idea. Everybody wants blond pussy. And it culminates with what happened in my family. Something crossed the boundaries of a good relationship, so to speak.
And does any of this break new ground?
[Fleck glares back with an expression approaching hatred. He strokes his goatee.] Let me call my director. Maybe she knows.
[He makes a call from a cell phone.] Hey, Randee. John here. Listen, is the show the same old tried-and-true bullshit or is it breaking any new ground? . . . Uh-huh . . . Uh-huh. Okay, thanks.
She says it’s my most personal show ever.
You‘ve performed it before?
I’ve been workshopping it for a year and a half. Here at the Village, then Dixon Place in New York, PS 122 in New York. In L.A. I‘ve been working with [director] Randee [Trabitz], but in New York I was working with David Schweizer . . .
They make you pay your dues out there. God, they hate L.A. Whenever they say ”L.A.-based performer,“ I know I’m down the toilet. It‘s so provincial and fear-based. But old habits die hard.
And then I look at New York, and they’re more L.A. than we are. They dump on you if you do TV, yet all their fucking plays use TV stars. God, I love New York, but I feel more attractive in L.A. — the tyranny of youth there, everyone in the Village is 24 and 25, and I think, God, I‘m not so young or beautiful. In L.A. I don’t feel that so much, maybe because I‘m not on the streets so much.
The NEA scandal, does that still come into play? It was, what, how many years ago?
You had to bring that up, didn’t you? For the old-timers, it‘s nostalgic. Nobody under 30 knows what it was, or cares. But the notoriety of it still gets me bookings. I’m doing a show in Pittsburgh at the Warhol Museum because of it. I‘m still a little footnote in all the textbooks, so it lives on, so to speak. But yesterday I was at this Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, selling signed autographs for 20 bucks a pop — it’s a good gig, one year I made a couple of grand in one day — and this kid wants an autograph for $18, that‘s all he’s got, and I grumble and say, ”Okay, okay, take it.“ And then I think to myself, God, is this what my life has come to? I really need to find a place to call home.
John Fleck performs Nothin‘ Beats Pussy at Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., on Saturdays at 10:30 p.m., through September 7. For tickets, call (213) 381-7118. Also see New Reviews in Calendar.