“Whenever somebody says you’re a niche artist, that’s the kiss of death to me,” writer-performer Justin Sayre says. “I don’t want anything to do with that, because that means you don’t think what I say is true to a larger scale.”
As the creator of the International Order of Sodomites, Sayre is a comic performer whose work straddles the mainstream and the alternative. He’s old-school high camp in a very particular way, an unabashed fan of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor who speaks in an innocently affected accent similar to the contrived Mid-Atlantic dialect that spread throughout classic Hollywood.
Sayre is also a staff writer for 2 Broke Girls. What went viral, though, was an extended 2014 riff on the hanky code. In that version of The Meeting*, a perpetually evolving nightclub act that centered on a fictitious gathering of the governing body of world queerdom, he took the fetishes that correspond to the various colors of hankies men gay men flag in the rear pockets of their jeans and replaced them with various neuroses and annoying personality tics. After eight years and a number of iterations of The Meeting*, Sayre will be at Oasis this Saturday, Sept. 30, to preview his new show, I’m Gorgeous Inside.
“The show is stories and songs and guided improv and interactions with the audience,” Sayre says. “It’s a lot of pieces, and it’s all centered around this theme of bad girls and their sexuality, which is something really close to my heart — but also something that fascinates me.”
In other words, it’s very different from The Meeting*. But because Sayre works with arranger Kenny Mellman — a cabaret artist, a member of The Julie Ruin, and, with Justin Vivian Bond, the male half of Kiki and Herb — and because Sayre can’t help but be Sayre on stage, it won’t sit still.
“I think it will mutate every night,” he says, “because that’s just the performer that I am, and that’s why I’m working with Kenny. He’s such a genius improviser and can kind of just make things appear out of thin air.”
A few days before our conversation, Sayre had gone on a Twitter rant about Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” a diss track aimed at Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian. It wasn’t so much the song itself that set him off as the social media-driven ethos of “reading headlines in a song.”
“I would honestly say that I am not a fan of any of their music,” Sayre says, when pressed to elaborate. “I just felt like, ‘What are we doing?’ This is a moment of death in the culture because I think it’s not nice — not that a song has to be nice and deal with only nice emotions — but for certain young people, the conversations get shifted to ‘How can I let my enemies know they can’t fuck with me?’ And I’m like, ‘What is that really saying to people? Why should they have enemies to begin with?’
“There’s no insight, no kind of depth,” he adds. “It’s really just ‘Tag, you’re it,’ and now we wait for a response from the rest of them. … I think there’s a growing lack of empathy in songwriting and in media. I think it’s bad for people’s souls. I hate to be that serious. But you just listen to it over and over again, and it’s bad for ya.”
Quote-unquote high-culture proponents looking down at tawdry celebrity culture is nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s almost refreshing to hear Sayre hold forth on this point. He’s capable of looking at the Taylor Swifts of the world as people who’ve gotten phenomenally successful beyond their wildest imagining, and then lost their way a little. And he, too, faces the same species of pressures, whispers in his ear urging him to do this or that for greater fame or more money — plus he freely admits he’d sell toothpaste if someone asked him to do it.
“I think I’ve been lucky to have some really great teachers in my life who’ve been great guys to me — but also very on, I saw any kind of notoriety as a tool, not an end or a destination,” Sayre says. “I was saying this even as a young performer: I never want to be famous where people would recognize me at brunch.”
Left blissfully alone while finishing eggs norvegienne he may yet be, but he’s is still enough of a known quantity to appear on the second season of Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback and get Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters to drop by for a 45-minute chat on his podcast, Sparkle & Circulate. Upon returning to New York, Sayre will further refine I’m Gorgeous Inside before working on his third book and workshopping a play at the famed Off-Broadway theater La Mama.
And incidentally, his full name — Justin Elizabeth Sayre — is not a nom de stage or some SEO-inspired gag. The day after Elizabeth Taylor’s death in 2011, he was at a bar and saw The New York Times’ obituary, and he remarked to a friend that “I can’t believe we’re going to live in a world without Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Granted, she was 110,” he says. “But knowing that level of glamor existed was a solace, and I admire her work so much.”
The friend replied that he could be Elizabeth. So, Sayre says, “my eyes exploded and I thought, ‘I can be! I can be Elizabeth Taylor now.’ ”
The nickname stuck. Then, later, Sayre had to change his legal name for business purposes.
“They said, ‘Oh, no middle name?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wait! I could put it on there!’ ” he says. “And now my name, legally, on my license and my passport, is Justin Elizabeth Sayre.”
In other words, the gorgeousness is right there, inside his given name and surname.
Justin Sayre: I’m Gorgeous Inside, Saturday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m., at Oasis, 398 11th St. $20; sfoasis.com