Little did many of the Netflix series’ viewers know, though, that the grooming expert was actually trying to translate his own personal brand of quick wit and fast-talking humor to the standup comedy stage.
Now the multihyphenate — he’s a hair stylist, Game of Thrones recapper (via his popular series Gay of Thrones), EW Entertainer of the Year with his Queer Eye costars, author, and actor (who’ll have a guest-starring role on Netflix’s ice-skating-centered series Spinning Out) — can officially add standup comic to the list, especially since (quickly) selling out his Radio City Music Hall show this weekend.
“There have been lots of moments I just have to take a deep, gorgeous breath and close my eyes and just get it together,” Van Ness tells EW about the last 15 months of his life. “It has been so magical and continues to be such a magical ride.”
Van Ness hopped on the phone with EW before hopping on a plane to his Thursday night show in Pennsylvania to explain what — and who — inspired him to get behind the mic, how his love of all things Olympics are part of the show (his tour is called Road to Beijing), that time he flooded a Days Inn, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s one thing to be funny and witty, which I think you are, very naturally, but being funny on stage and presenting comedy in the form of a show is completely different. So what motivated you to take that next step and say, “You know what? Screw it, I’m doing this”?
JONATHAN VAN NESS: It started last year, but really it started because of growing up watching Comedy Central. I’d stay up late to watch those little standup specials that they would do — it was like Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Lisa Lampanelli. That was where I kind of first fell in love with it, but I never thought that I could do it, I just really looked up to comedians. And then when I started doing Gay of Thrones, I met Margaret Cho and she kind of reached out through Twitter. This is like in 2013, so this is a really full-circle, intense moment because really, she was like my first idol, my first queer idol — love her so much. She told me back then, “You should really do stand up, you need to try it.” And I just was like, I like to do it, I kinda do it during the day. Kinda like a Mrs. Maisel, you know. That’s what they do at parties. I’m not really a comedian though, I just like to do it at parties, but my party’s at a salon.
Then, it was two weeks before Queer Eye came out, so like the end of January last year I was like, let me just try this. So I kind of undercover tried it in New York and L.A. I did like two or three shows. And then when Queer Eye finally came out in February, I was like, okay, I’m going to post about it and I’m going to do it. And really I’ve been doing a shows since like February I think or March of last year. But I think because of the success of Queer Eye, I kept getting more opportunities, then I did the Hollywood Improv and was practicing and writing my sets and writing my material and like, I just kind of fell in love with it and I was like, oh my God, I really can do this. It felt like the first time since I learned how to do hair that I became obsessed with learning a new thing. And so I just kind of started really going for it. But I never thought I would get to do stuff like Radio City or like, I did a tour last summer where I got to play some really big places in Seattle and San Francisco. I was like, oh my God. I was so nervous, like, you know, stomach in butt-slash-throat at the same time. But the venues just keep getting cooler and I’m just trying to keep it cool, trying to keep it together.
What was that day like when you found out you had booked Radio City Music Hall?
I was speechless. I really didn’t start intensely, intensely thinking about Radio City until I was there a few weeks ago. I was like, oh my God, this is super-major. I’d been to Radio City once before to see the Christmas special, the first time I came to New York. And we did a little photo shoot to promote Queer Eye a couple weeks ago, and it’s just really awe-inspiring and so beautiful. There are so many people that have performed on that stage. I don’t have words. And that’s why I think I was trying not to think about it too much, because I don’t want to get up and just have a head-between-my-ankles moment, which is kind of what happened at the Kennedy Center. I held it together, but I definitely feel like I double-footed my first triple Axel; I smiled so hard I had to just kind of bend over because it has been such a dramatic change in my life. And to be having these opportunities in my 30s and just getting a chance… I’m learning how to do standup comedy in front of really big crowds. I think it’s going really good, but it’s definitely been fun. It’s not like you just get up there and wing it. Standup comedy is definitely an art, and it’s one that I’ve really fallen in love with the feeling of doing. Like I totally understand, I totes get [how big this is].
How has your own personal style of comedy changed from those first shows you did before Queer Eye launched to now?
I definitely think that I’m a storyteller. I definitely think that I go into stories, but also there’s an improv element to how I go between my stories. Even from Gay of Thrones, the very first times that I really started being in front of the camera, thinking about a performance, sometimes my brain has a certain alignment with something that I can’t really plan for and I go with it. So, like, learning that balance of storytelling and then quick one-liners has been what I think I’ve gotten the best at.
That improv aspect of it must also keep it fresh to some extent, for you and the audience.
Totally. And I’m always writing new material. I always feel like I have to get into a little Olympic moment — there’s always some Olympic herstory that I need to talk about. But then sometimes it’s more about how in hindsight I realize that I’ve gotten here, and then other times it’s really about what I’m going to do, what I imagined myself doing ahead. But that, I think, judging from my social media, can really cover a wide array of subjects that aren’t necessarily just figure skating and gymnastics. But I always feel like I find a way to make it funny. Like, I literally flooded a Days Inn once from turning a bathtub into a gorgeous synchronized swimming slide when I was 7 because I discovered the magic of shampoo and conditioner mix. It was very slippery but it really, you know, pretty much ruined my brother’s soccer tournament that weekend — it was a total nightmare. So that’s just one hard right that we can take in the show. There’s a lot of fun backstory on how I became the way that I am.
You mentioned the Olympics. The name of your tour is Road to Beijing. Did you know from the beginning that it would be the arc of the story and the show, or did that just happen organically?
It’s always kind of developing. Like, I added a whole acrobatic element that I didn’t necessarily know I was going to do. I was just like, oh my gosh, I have a captive audience. I’m gonna, you know, ask them to watch me do gymnastics for just a moment. I didn’t know that I would start off doing it that way. And it’s fun because I have a lot of room to play and create and try different things.
Please don’t break both of your legs like that gymnast did recently.
Oh my God, don’t even say that. Take it back. Ask the universe, take it back.
We want you to break just a leg! How is standup comedy fulfilling you in ways that styling hair or doing Queer Eye doesn’t?
I feel like this is kind of a culmination. I mean, I’ve been behind the chair doing hair five days a week for like 13 years; I was still doing hair full-time until like April of last year. So to be able to share the experience of what I went through kind of growing up and what I’ve come through and give it light and give it hope and kind of show how far I’ve come and be able to be informative and light at the same time, I think that’s one thing. I’m always learning and I want to share; I’m always a student and I always want to share what I’m learning. I want to learn more, so I feel like my shows are very interactive and this is a chance for me to be unfiltered and have a moment that — not to name-drop my podcast on this interview, but with Getting Curious, it’s like a moment where I don’t have a lot of editing; it’s a moment where I can share what I know and be vulnerable in the moment, and this is like a totally different medium of doing that. But it’s a moment where I have like control of what I want to say, how I want to say it, what gets shared, what doesn’t get shared, and I don’t have to ask anyone about it. It’s up to me what makes it in the show and what doesn’t. And to be able to also have the opportunity to highlight people like my friend Kyle June Williams, who comes to every show with me, and then to be able to have people that have taught me and who I’ve looked up to like the Michelle Buteau and Jaboukie [Young-White] — there’s so many people that toured with me on the last year and who I get to tour with now that I’ve learned from, so funny, so amazing. It’s really cool. I love everyone I’ve worked with. But it’s really fun to kind of be in the driver’s seat. It’s really, really fun.