The fictional tale of Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman that is Kiki & Herb has entranced and enthralled audiences for decades. With Bond as the boozy, bawdy, female lounge singer, Kiki, and Mellman as her sarcastic pianist, Herb, the twosome have paved the way for drag-based cabaret in clubs, performance halls and off-and-on broadway.
Now, the K&H team are on a six-city holiday tour for a musical, performance art comedy, “Do You Hear What We Hear?” making a stop at Perelman Theatre on Monday.
“Kiki and Herb’s holiday shows were always our most special events,” says Mellman. “Along with the usual insanity of these two characters, they are each trying to put together what, in their minds, is a very normal Christmas show, which adds another level of madness to the proceedings. Besides, Kiki & Herb were always about the LGBTQ+ community, and this is a nice thing to do for people who do not normally have family in their lives. Because, face it, Kiki & Herb do not really have friends or family. These characters only have each other – so their origin story is, in reality, a nice, heart-warming Christmas tale.”
From upstate New York where Mellman lives, “Herb” discussed the team’s San Franciscan roots and duo’s earliest play-dates in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Going back to the rigorous schedules of the 1990s and days of club performances in NYC borough spaces such as The Fez and DUMBA, Mellman said that, by 2008, Kiki & Herb “had enough of each other.” Laughing, Mellman went on to say how that “break up” made sense as their relationship had burned so brightly for so long.
“It was intense, two people doing such histrionic work – I am surprised that we lasted as long as we did in our first incarnation. I mean, we did upwards of 250 shows a year.”
Co-joined again by 2016, the pair have performed new productions but in a less strenuous manner. “Now, we only do it when we want to do it, and not when we have to do it. That makes the act more enjoyable for us.”
Performing as themselves in San Francisco in the 1980s, Bond became “Kiki” for parties and area events. Gifted with old cocktail dresses and big wigs, Bond adapted the role of “this harridan, one who actually frightened me when she first appeared,” laughed Mellman. From there, Bond and Mellman worked with their neighborhood bar and made the bartenders part of the act, with boozy dialogue of “two crazy old people” doing comedy and song with Bond in drag.
“We did not have to look or sound pretty… just be these characters. And because there was so much death and bad politics going on at the time, Kiki & Herb could say or sing things to that effect that other entertainers could not.”
Mellman is quick to note that Kiki & Herb always remained — and remain today — subversive “without ever watering down the act, or its politics.”
“We were outsiders who got inside,” says Mellman. “Which is interesting now, because there is an entire generation where more than half of it doesn’t know who we are and — even though we don’t think of ourselves as a drag act — we predated RuPaul’s Drag Race by years, all without Twitter and YouTube to aid us.”
Kiki & Herb: Do You Hear What We Hear? will be on stage at Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Perelman Theatre on Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. For information and tickets, visit kimmelculturalcampus.org