Dan Savage On Nerdy Kink, Musical Theater, and Cultural Catholicism
My parents were a little too old to be hippies, but their younger siblings were all hippies. I would go to my uncle's house and there would be the Don McClellan album, and Hair. But my dad, who's a straight Irish-Catholic cop, had an 8-track tape collection that included Camelot, and Oklahoma, and Cabaret, and Carousel, and those are the things that I grew up listening to.
Dan Savage is the host of the sex and relationship podcast Savage Lovecast. Savage visited us recently while in Chicago for Hump! Film Fest, an amateur porn festival that he created. We talked to Dan about the intersection between nerdiness and kink, the beauty of musical theater, and more.
(Note: This is a condensed and edited version of the Nerdette interview. Hear the whole conversation above.)
Tricia Bobeda: We have a question that we sometimes debate on Nerdette: is kink just nerd sex? Is it just being nerdy about sex?
Dan Savage: There's a lot of overlap between the kink community and the nerd community.
TB: A lot of costumes in common.
DS: A lot of costumes, a lot of overlap between cosplayers and kink-players. Maybe it's the same little chunk of the brain. Nobody knows! Nobody knows what makes people kinky, what makes people snap onto some stimuli or exposure early in life and form an erotic connection to it that is lifelong, and kind of compulsive and compulsory. People have observed that you will find a lot of nerds in kink-land, and I think that just makes kink-land more interesting and more fun.
TB: What is it like to watch the audience at Hump! Film Fest?
It's my favorite part of Hump, actually. By the time we do the screening, I've watched every film a thousand times.
And we actually watch the audience during the screening, because one of the things that we tell people who take part in Hump is that this is where you get to be a porn star for a weekend in a movie theater, and not porn stars for eternity on the internet. So we can't have anyone taking video or photos during the screening. We police the audience, and everyone has to put their phones away, and I watch people watch the show.
And you have, you know, 20 or 30 short films; gay, straight, bi, trans, kink, vanilla, hardcore, softcore. And there’s this great thing that happens, where within the first 20 minutes, the first four or five or six films, everybody is just thrown back in their seat.
People are watching porn they would never in a million years watch on their own, and all people can see at first is what's not theirs, what's different, what's not mine, what’s freaking me out, and then there's this moment where just the mood in the room completely flips. Where the same audience of people who were freaking out or thrown back in their seats are laughing and cheering for every film, no longer having that, "Oh my God!" reaction even if a new film comes up that's something they haven't seen yet.
I think what happens is there's this moment where you know, there's this group of five, six, seven, eight hundred people who could only see what was different suddenly start seeing everything that is fundamentally the same.
That, for me, is not the mission of Hump. Hump is to titillate, entertain and have fun. But it is this benefit to Hump that people have that epiphany, perhaps a subconscious epiphany, where they get more comfortable with people's desires, passions, turn-ons, bodies, whatever.
Greta Johnsen: Is there criteria beyond the fact that someone submitted it knowing that it was porn festival?
GJ: That's awesome.
DS: There was a film a couple years ago called Go Ahead and Pee, and it was just a woman in a grey unitard jumping on a trampoline, while a voiceover said, "Go ahead, pee.” Then there was this moment when you realized that her grey leotard was getting a lot darker in the crotch and down the legs because she had gone ahead and peed, and then it was over.
And people were like, "That's not porn!"
That was somebody's porn, and they shared it with us and it was kind of fun, and funny, and amusing, and humanizing, and awesome.
TB: Let’s switch gears and talk about The Real O’Neal's. This was initially called the Untitled Dan Savage Project, right? And now it's this ABC sitcom a couple of years later. I'm gathering that as an executive producer now maybe you're watching the show more than actually being actively on set.
DS: I read the scripts and I share some thoughts like, “Real north-side Irish Catholics don't go to the St Patrick's Day parade.” They had a whole episode built around how this family, this Irish Catholic North Side Chicago family, goes to the St. Patrick's Day Parade with their own float. I was like, “That wouldn't happen,” but I guess it happens in sitcom-land.
TB: What drew you to wanting to do something with TV like this in the first place?
DS: Just to be in a place where I could tell more stories or do new stories. I have a theater background, I had a theater in Seattle for many years, it was very successful, which is like having a successful pancake shop at the bottom of the ocean, people aren't going to find out about it.
I began to make contacts in TV through being a guest on shows, by doing my own thing on MTV. And then, people wanted to have meetings with me for “scripted,” it's called, to talk about any ideas I might have. I had a courtesy meeting at ABC and I said, “Well, you know, that time Dad divorced my mother, I think, would be hilarious Rosanne-y kind of sitcom.”
And then I laid it all out, and then they hired writers, who then did their own thing riffing on the idea, and it moved very far away from the initial concept. And that's fine, and it's its own thing, and I'm happy to observe, and read the scripts, and observe the process. The cast is amazing, so I'm really thrilled to be a fan of the show. Some people think it's my show-- people tweet me like, "That joke you wrote wasn't..." I'm like, “I didn't write it.”
TB: I know that for you musical theater is a place where you and Kenny the character in the show have some commonality.
DS: I love musical theater. Everything that I needed to know about life I learned from musicals.
TB: Talk a little more about that. People like Greta are late to the party-- she's a Hamilton fan, so now I'm trying to convince her that there's more to the world.
DS: Ugh, arriviste Hamilton fans. “Oh my God, guys, have you heard about musical theater? It's a thing. I just heard Hamilton.”
GJ: I just didn't grow up on them, y’know.
TB: But Dan, I think you and I kind of in a similar way did grow up on them. My dad was sort of a generation removed from the age of the rest of my friends’ parents, and so Friday night was MGM movie musical night on VHS. And that was what the family came together around -- it was very much what our nuclear family did together, it was a common interest my Mom and Dad both had.
DS: Yeah, it seems niche and it seems queer now, musical theater, but it really was mainstream pop culture. Frank Rich writes about it in Ghost Light, his really terrific memoir about growing up.
But musical theater was pop culture, musical theater was Beyonce dropping a new album.