From Corey Ruffin’s experience, people often associate burlesque shows with flashy dancing, jazz music and fancy vaudeville outfits.
Ruffin, creator of the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque shows, said his troupe doesn’t even come close to that. Instead, it’s “modern, disgusting, raw performance art and musical theater.” There’s live original music, scantily clad members and a 350-pound male stripper and plenty of dirty humor to go around.
“No subject is too taboo,” said Ruffin, who has been a part of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque since its creation 10 years ago. “Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred.”
And audiences will soon find out again how far the burlesque group will go for a laugh when they return to The Chesterfield on Sunday (April 19). A lot of sketches are satirical in nature, but those aren’t the kind of jokes the group originally intended to have.
“It’s just kind of the stuff that people reacted to,” said Ruffin. “Anything that got a ride out of the audience we kept in. So satirizing religion, the classes and things like that have gotten people reacting to us.”
The group is able to get away with jokes about religion, which Ruffin said is an obvious choice since the group all hails from West Michigan, considered part of the “Bible belt.” But Ruffin has noticed a fair share of backlash from audiences.
“Basically, something started happening at our shows," Ruffin said. “We’re a burlesque show. We’re filthy. It’s a given. You hear the word ‘burlesque’ and you know at the very least you’re going to see a strip tease.”
Ruffin and company would commence these shows and, through the course of the night, there would be jokes about men and women, the rich and the poor and even politics.
“We would just get tons of laughs,” he said. “Maybe the third to last act, one of our dancers would come out and do a strip tease as Jesus. Everyone loved the show and then suddenly at that point people started getting mad; we’d have people walk out and get angry.”
Ruffin remembered one instance where an audience member approached him during intermission and perceived the show as being misogynistic (a trait he applauded the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque for). The jokes against women were fine, Ruffin said, but the Jesus sketch was going too far; the burlesque group had crossed the line.
“It became amazing to us,” Ruffin said. “This is generally how it is for a lot of audiences. They’re OK with racism — we do these blown out caricatures of Chinese people — but then a girl comes out dressed like Jesus and really doesn’t have him do anything offensive. The act was just her dancing to the song ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
“Just the level of anger astounds me when some people come to the burlesque show. They’re totally OK with all the sexist stuff and totally OK with the nudity and totally OK with all this stuff, but not this one thing. And that just blows our minds.”
But for those “content with filth,” all bets are off at Super Happy Funtime Burlesque shows. Ruffin added people can’t pick and choose their humor.
“Anytime we tell a joke or we satirize something, it kind of comes with a donkey punch at the end,” he said. “Like, you laughed at this so we’re going to take it farther so you better laugh at that too. You already showed us that this is OK. That’s kind of how our satire works. We definitely hold up a mirror to those laughing.”
It’s a different show every time the group tours, Ruffin said. Fans don’t even know what to expect. The Super Happy Funtime Burlesque shows could create a full-on play or variety show format for one gig and other times they’ll create straight up rock concerts full of filthy songs.
The song “You Can’t Make Fun of Jesus” (written by Ruffin), in particular, draws mixed reactions. A singer disguised as an upset audience member sings about all the things Super Happy Funtime Burlesque can make fun of — war, brutality, rape, racism violence — and, of course, the one thing they can’t make jokes about: Jesus.
“We’ve been singing that song and have people in the audience are basically yelling at us to stop the song,” said Ruffin. “Those people in the audience are basically being the people we’re caricaturing onstage right in front us, real time. It’s taken everything to a whole new level.”