The Queer Audacity of Throwing Shade

Sassy and shady: Bryan Safi and Erin Gibson of Throwing Shade.

Courtesy of TV Land

From the electric colors and incongruous visuals of its opening credits, Throwing Shade brings us to camp and lets us stay there. TV Land’s new weekly late night news satire, created by and starring Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi, is the hefty dose of queer joy we need to process politics and culture.

Based on their podcast of the same name, which has been running since 2011, the TV version of Throwing Shade launched Jan. 17 and airs on Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. It resembles other late-night news shows like Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal in that it shifts between live studio segments and pre-taped sketches, but it stands out for its queer and feminist sensibility.

Gay and female voices are scarce on late-night television which, despite the rise of Samantha Bee and the recent launch of Viceland’s Desus & Mero, is still dominated by straight white men. With a gay man and a straight woman at the helm, the jokes and cultural touchstones are different and refreshing. No straight guy would call alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos an “Annie Lennox cosplayer,” but no more perfect comparison exists. In a sketch from the second episode, Gibson and Safi talk to teens about body image. Trying to be relatable, the two walk out styled as Raggedy Ann and Andy complete with circles of blush. They plop down on some bean bag chairs to share real talk with the youth, only to be read for getting their contouring wrong.

The show targets a young audience, but Gibson and Safi demand that viewers be fluent in queer history to keep up with their sly nods to camp classics and gay icons. These niche references aren’t alienating, though, they’re aspirational. One of the most important things gay TV does, whether it’s RuPaul’s Drag Race or Throwing Shade, is point its viewers in the direction of great, underappreciated art. By engaging with the history of queer culture, these shows join the conversation, directing initiates toward the sacred texts and figures, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden

Besides, the show is great fun. The recurring segments, like Local Dicks, which highlight state politicians from across the nation whose actions have made gays and women their enemies are biting as well as hilarious. In the Shade List, they simply yell at targets that deserve to be shouted at, such as the new claim that a coal fire contributed to the sinking of the Titanic, former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, and wicker furniture.

In a segment on female astronauts, the pair provide bizarre facts from the history of women in space, such as the number of tampons NASA provided Sally Ride (it was 100) and skewer pop culture depictions with a sketch about female astronauts one-upping each other’s personal tragedies while competing to be chosen for space travel. Because if Arrival, Contact, and Gravity have taught us anything, it’s that women go to space when they’re sad.

Gibson and Safi are also willing to take on their straight male counterparts. On the Jan. 24 episode, they highlighted the gross new trend of straight men—including late-night hosts Stephen Colbert and James Corden—kissing. As Safi says, “I know you’re trying to shock the audience into laughing, but this is so tired.” Two men kissing isn’t a joke, and playing it for laughs is demeaning to those who share same-sex intimacy. But rather than getting weighed down by their own seriousness, Gibson and Safi then swapped spit in front of the camera, since there’s nothing funnier than a man and a woman sharing a smooch.

The duo met while performing improv at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles, and they worked together on the Current TV show InfoMania. After InfoMania was canceled, they started their podcast and began producing videos for Funny of Die, like their stellar performances as Michele and Marcus Bachmann.

As a fan of the podcast, I couldn’t be happier about the new TV show. For all the pleasures of the audio version, Gibson and Safi are at their best in front of a camera. Some of their greatest podcast episodes are those with companion videos on Funny or Die, because the visual gags and physical reactions ramp up the humor. Being on television changes the format from a loose discussion with light research to strongly reported stories with tight jokes and pace, a welcome update.

Throwing Shade’s presence on TV Land may seem curious, because until recently it’s mostly been known as a home for superannuated syndicated sitcoms. But since the mid-2000s, the network has been trying its hand at original programming, and it seems to be finding its voice. With current programs like Younger, Teachers, and an upcoming series based on Heathers, TV Land is providing a place for exciting new comedy. Throwing Shade couldn’t have better sisters.