Backstage at a gay bar in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, on the same block as the fountain square where slaves were sold, sits America's most appalling comedian. He's a fat, gay forty-five-year-old white man, a part-time nurse, who lives alone with two cats and who believes he's on a mission from God. Once a month, Chuck Knipp (pronounced with a hard K, like "Knievel") transforms himself into a living taboo. First, he puts on a giant housedress and a pink, curly wig. Then he smears his doughy face and neck with chocolate-brown foundation, rainbow-hued eye shadow and garish red lipstick. When he's finished, staring back at Knipp from the mirror is the blackface mask of a modern-day minstrel, and the character known to Knipp's legions of cult followers as Shirley Q. Liquor, a welfare mother with nineteen kids who guzzles malt liquor, drives a Caddy and says in an "ignunt" Gulf Coast black dialect, "I'm gonna burn me up some chitlins and put some ketchup on there and aks Jesus to forgive my sins." Shirley also shops at "Kmark," eats "Egg McMuffmans," visits her "gynechiatrist" and just loves "homosexicals."
"She's a lady who doesn't give a damn," Knipp says. "She just raises her kids and watches her stories and hangs out with her best friend, Watusi."
Outside the nightclub, a score of protesters, both black and white, line the sidewalk across the street from the Rosa Parks Museum, waving signs that declare no MINSTREL SHOWS! and BLACKFACE ISN'T FUNNY!
Inside, a full house of mostly gay white men erupts in laughter as Shirley struggles to remember the names of her ''chirrun," in one of Knipp's most popular routines, "Who Is My Baby Daddy?" (They include Cheeto, Orangello and Kmartina.) Later, Shirley warbles "The Twelve Days of Kwanzaa" to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas": ''On the fifth day of Kwanzaa, my check came in the mail/AFDC!/Thank you, lawd!/Come on, kids/Let's go to the store/For some collard greens, ham hocks and cheese!"
With such material, it's no wonder Knipp is vilified, or that angry protesters are a fixture outside his shows. But not all his routines are so crass. In her own bug-eyed fashion, Shirley Q. invites audiences to empathize with a poverty-stricken black single mother's daily struggles with police who arrest her for "driving while black," clerks who wrongly accuse her of shoplifting and coldhearted bureaucrats who shut off her electricity.
"Baby, we was extremely povertied this week," Shirley Q. announces. "My check had not came on time. Oooh, we was stretchin' it, honey. I aks them to keep my power on. I said, 'A woman have got to have some fans runnin' down here in this heat.' "
Knipp's act has emerged from the dive bars and semi-underground gay clubs in the South, and he has he rapidly developed a second-tier celebrity cachet. Shirley Q. routines are now popular not only at burlesque drag revues but also at frat parties, and house-music DJs from Atlanta to San Francisco mix Shirley Q. samples into their late-night sets. The cast members of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy repeatedly dropped Shirley Q.'s catchphrase greeting, "How you durrin?" into the show, and they hired Knipp to perform at their wrap party last June. Shirley Q. Liquor versions of historic Southern college fight songs are ubiquitous on campuses like the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama. Last fall, at a University of Arkansas home basketball game, fans spontaneously burst into Shirley Q.'s campy take on the school's eighty-year-old sports anthem: "A-R-K-A-N-S-A-S/Jump around/Up and down/Shake your booty/We got to holler for these mens."
Black activists and intellectuals have responded to Knipp's rising popularity by organizing a nationwide boycott and by hoisting Knipp up alongside Don Imus as a prime example of cruel racism masquerading as humor. But Knipp goes beyond just calling black women "nappy-headed ho's": He blackens his face and plays one on stage, or, increasingly, at private events for Deep South socialites and celebrities.
In 2005, the actress Sela Ward hired Knipp to perform at a fiftieth-birthday party she threw in New Orleans for her husband. And last year, country-music star Ronnie Dunn arranged to have Shirley Q. waiting on the tour bus after a Brooks and Dunn concert in Atlanta to surprise Dunn's wife on her birthday. "Mrs. Dunn is a big fan of mine," Knipp says. "Oooh, lawdy, we had ourselves a time."
Knipp occasionally shifts into character during interviews, especially when he gets nervous. And he gets nervous talking about hiring himself out for private events for rich people because, while he likes to defend his act by claiming that laughter is the best medicine for racial ills, he knows, deep down, that any redeeming social value in his comedy depends entirely on the intentions of his audience, and whether they're laughing with Shirley or at her.
"Wealthy white people are starting to hire me for private parties, where I play the raisin in a bowl of" oatmeal," he says. "From the way they interact with me, I can see that my being there as Shirley makes them feel it's acceptable to openly mock black people in a way they otherwise would not, and that does cause me to have second thoughts. If what I'm doing is truly hurtful, then I need to stop."
Vocal critics of Knipp who are demanding he do just that — stop — all point to the similarities between his act and nineteenth-century minstrel shows. There may be comparison points, though not necessarily the ones Knipp's detractors imagine. Though blackface minstrelsy is today seen as an example of America's regrettable racist past, shelved in history between Klan lynchings and Jim Crow laws, minstrel shows were not purely racist. Like Knipp's routines, they veered wildly from celebratory imitation to vicious ridicule.
For his part, Knipp argues there is no difference between his donning blackface and Dave Chappelle putting on whiteface to make fun of uptight white folks, or Eddie Murphy portraying a stereotypical fat, loud, black woman in Norbit.
But there's no denying that controversy over blackface has been resurging for some time, driven by a series of ill-advised fraternity parties at Southern universities. In 2001, Auburn frat brothers wore blackface and KKK robes to a party where they simulated a lynching. And this past January, similar incidents occurred at colleges throughout the South —— some Clemson students in South Carolina hosted a"gangsta" malt-liquor-and-blackface party over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
Many of the students who sing Shirley's songs may not realize a blackface performer recorded them. A lot of Knipp's casual fans outside gay culture mistakenly assume that Shirley Q. Liquor really is a black woman eagerly offering her "ignunt-ass" opinions. What that says about modern-day racism in the South, Knipp would rather not care to speculate. While Shirley is coarse and boisterous, Knipp when he's playing himself is delicately mannered and reluctant to reflect upon the implications of Shirley's rising popularity or the corresponding uproar.
"Gosh, you know, if I have to explain to people what my show is about at its deepest levels, it kind of takes the fun out of it," he says. "I do see that Shirley Q. Liquor unleashes a lot of important emotions and issues around race, but I'll be damned if I can get a grasp on it. I wish God would clue me in on where I am supposed to go with her."
Knipp routinely sells out small venues in the South, and Shirley Q. is a huge draw at Southern Decadence, the annual "Gay Mardi Gras" bacchanalia in New Orleans. "My core audience is gay men, their moms and rednecks," he says.
He is paid between $4,000 and $7,000 per gig, depending on how far he must travel from Lexington, Kentucky, where he moved after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his beachfront apartment in Mississippi. Knipp's cat Rebel miraculously survived. Despite his appearance fees and Shirley Q. merchandise sales, Knipp claims his annual take is "about on par" with the money he made as a traveling registered nurse, around $70,000 to $90,000 a year.
At some of Knipp's shows, he provides his own warm-up act by portraying Betty Butterfield, a pill-addled Southern white lady who discusses her never-ending quest to find the religion that's just right for her, and the travails of life with her abusive, double-amputee, Vietnam-vet husband, Jerry. However, Betty doesn't have the same crossover appeal, and Knipp owes his success, and the corresponding firestorm, to Miss Liquor.
Raised a Presbyterian, Knipp is now an ordained Quaker deacon. Critics who assume he's a hateful racist might be surprised to learn that Knipp is one of only a handful of chaplains in the South willing to preside over same-sex marriages. "Most of my clients are black lesbians in the Mississippi Delta who can't find a church to give them an official ceremony, so we go to a beach or park, and I'm happy to do it for them."
If there's a contradiction in marrying black lesbians by day, then performing racial comedy in blackface by night, Knipp's blind to it. In fact, he feels that on both accounts he's doing God's work.
"There are so many pent-up things that black people want to say to white people and vice versa, but we're all scared to death of offending each other," he says. "I think God's plan for me is to get right in the middle of all the tension and just make them laugh and say, 'Oh, my God, I've thought that, but nobody's ever said it out loud.' There's gotta be some healing that comes from that. And I truly think that's why God put me here: to be a healer."
That," says Lecia Brooks, is bullshit. You're going to heal racial wounds by ridiculing poor black women and calling it God's will? What arrogance!" Brooks, the education director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, helped organize the protest against Knipp's Montgomery show.
"I was incensed to see all these white folks nonchalantly giggling at a white man in blackface drag," says Brooks, who is black and a lesbian. "It's amazing to me that even the rampant homophobia in the South doesn't put a dent in the sense of racial privilege presumed by the white gay men who patronize this clear example of racism and misogyny disguised as entertainment."
Like most of the protesters at Knipp's performances, Brooks admits she's never actually seen Knipp do his thing. But she's never been to a Klan cross-burning either, and she's still pretty sure she's not down with the Klan: "I don't need to see his show because I have lived it. I have witnessed every vile, demeaning, dehumanizing stereotype he draws upon to create his caricature. Blackface is not acceptable, period."
So it's a given that performing in blackface remains such a fraught historical taboo that Knipp could read a FORTRAN programming manual as Shirley Q. and still piss a lot of people off. Just ask Ted Danson. But according to Knipp, his act is more than just mean-spirited and offensive parody — it's really a key to a uniquely American code.
"I think sometimes my act is viewed as a violation of a private language," Knipp says. "Starting with slave songs that contained multiple meanings and cries for freedom their masters couldn't comprehend, black slang, or private black-speak, has been a primary social identifier of black culture. For this reason, there are people who feel it's a violation for white people to talk black, even though there are a lot of black people who talk white depending on the situation. I just love speaking black English, and I wish more white people could or would feel comfortable enough to speak it, because it's a beautiful, fun, rhythmic, more supple way of speaking. It just sounds better."
Knipp grew up in Orange, Texas, where the Klan had a storefront on Main Street and held monthly cross-burnings. He attended segregated public schools until the fifth grade. "That's when I met my first real black people," he says. "I've been a natural mimic since I was a little bitty kid, and I came home from school that first day talking black."
He attended the University of Mississippi, where he majored in nursing and played tuba in the Ole Miss marching band. All the other tuba players were black gay men, and he'd sit up with them late at night, drinking rum and listening. "They'd do all kinds of imitations, old black men, old black women, Gulf Coast accents, Mississippi Delta accents, all the black Southern dialects."
Knipp later got a nursing job at a hospital back in Orange, where he spent hours in the smoking room, listening to the other nurses, who were all black women. "By being the only white guy in the room, and practicing the mimic's art of listening to not only the patterns and inflections of a dialect but also the vocabulary, and watching the nonverbal expressions, I was able to crack the code on private black speak," he says. "You just listen and watch and imitate."
Then, in 1990, his mother asked him to do one of his black voices on her answering machine. "Girl, the lady you callin' ain't even up in here right now," Knipp said on the message. "You gonna have to call later on. She through. She busy."
The message became so popular among his mother's friends that Knipp began updating it daily and soon named the character Shirley Q. Liquor.
In 1996, the manager of a radio station in Beaumont, Texas, who'd heard the messages asked Knipp to do his character on air. Later that year, Knipp got his big break — and it came from the very people who laugh at Shirley, rather than with her. The right-wing African-American talk-radio host Ken "The Black Avenger" Hamblin started having Knipp call in to his nationally broadcast show in the slot right after none other than Rush Limbaugh. (Knipp identifies himself politically as a Libertarian who supports socialized medicine.)
The exposure led to syndicated Shirley skits on radio stations across the country. Then came the requests for live stage shows.
"At first I thought I'd just get up there with no makeup and do it like Rich Little," Knipp says. "Then I thought, 'Do I dare?' "
Knipp did dare, and he started performing in blackface in 1997. His early shows were mostly in black gay bars in the Deep South, where he opened for black drag-queen revues. Not only did he make it out alive, the crowds loved him. He didn't begin to draw serious protests until he ventured north of the Mason-Dixon Line in 2002, when his show at a gay bar in New York's Chelsea was shut down by police responding to a crowd of protesters that drag queen RuPaul, who is one of Knipp's biggest fans, labeled a "self-righteous lynch mob" and "a bunch of" barbarians with misguided rage." Protesters have since succeeded in pressuring promoters and city officials to shut down Shirley Q. shows in Boston, Atlanta and most recently Los Angeles.
"While Shirley Q. Liquor may be popular in the South, this is Los Angeles and African-Americans here are not going to take this lying down," says journalist and protest organizer Jasmyne Cannick, who is leading a national campaign to force Knipp to "retire Shirley Q. Liquor permanently."
It's Saturday night, one hour before showtime, and Knipp is signing autographs in his dressing room at the Connection, a labyrinthine gay-and-lesbian club in Louisville, Kentucky, that's filled with rowdy Shirley Q. Liquor fans. The stars of the Connection's weekly drag revue — statuesque drag queens and post-op transsexuals with bodacious breasts — pose with Knipp. Four of the five drag queens are black.
"I'm not offended by Shirley Q. Liquor," says one drag queen named Syimone. "Because my sexuality is more important to my sense of who I am than my skin color is, and I don't see the so-called black community out in the streets protesting for my right to love and fuck and marry who I want. Black comics have been calling people like me a faggot and making jokes at our expense for a long time, and folks just laugh. But now I'm supposed to get all upset because this white man is having a little fun with a black stereotype? I don't think so. That's payback, honey. And you know what they say about payback: She a real bitch."
When the MC introduces Shirley Q. Liquor, the ballroom goes bonkers and Knipp shuffles into view, pushing a mop. When he reaches the microphone at center stage, the cheers and whistles subside. Then he mutters, "How you durrin?" and the roar picks up again.
Knipp invites a black fan onstage to join him in a duet of "Who Is My Baby Daddy?" then segues into another hit routine, "Ebonics Airways," in which Shirley is a stewardess welcoming passengers to "this Section 8 flight."
At one point, Knipp has Shirley predict the most popular black baby names for 2007. Fema, Tivo and Fallujah top the list. For his closing number, he sings "If I Was a White Lady," to the tune of "If I Were a Rich Man," from Fiddler on the Roof. Shirley wails, "If I was a white lady/All day long I'd sit around and lounge around and watch The Price Is Right." The drunken audience belts out every word. They know the lyrics from MP3s, which Knipp offers free of charge on his Web site. He charges $19.95 for concert albums (Queen of Dixie, Totally Ignunt and Mississippi Woman), $100 for a personal phone call from Shirley and $1.99 for Shirley Q. ringtones.
The morning after the show, Knipp lounges in the lobby of his hotel, having just enjoyed a bacon-and-eggs breakfast followed by two low-tar cigarettes. He likes getting the big laughs, he says, but even more he likes "anxious giggles" that let him know he struck an uneasy nerve. Still, as his shows have shifted from rowdy drag nights in backwoods gay bars, where anything is fair game, to major clubs drawing a larger and more mixed clientele, Knipp realizes the rules have changed. He's hearing more anxious giggles than ever before. But he has no intention of backing off. "Comedians are supposed to be challenging," he says. "We're supposed to find the little truths, the inconsistencies, and point them out.
"I wish I were more socially aware than I am," he adds. "I wish I'd gotten a Ph.D. in sociology so that I could understand things on a really deep level. Maybe that would help me be more sensitive. But then you can become so sensitive that you never express yourself, because you're so afraid to offend anyone. Being 'racially sensitive' usually means just saying the right things. It's a lot harder to get out and remind people of the pain that Jim Crow still inflicts. And making it funny is damn near impossible, but I do what I can.
"Anyway, that's my ignunt-ass perspective. How you durrin?"