Cole Escola: Get 'Stuck' on the funny gay comic
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When Cole Escola makes his San Francisco debut at the Great American Music Hall on November 12 with his sketch show, Help! I'm Stuck!, he'll play an array of mostly female characters, including a suburban mom, a New York office worker, and Bernadette Peters.
This will come as no shock to those who know the Brooklyn-based comic actor from his role as neighbor lady Chassie Tucker on At Home With Amy Sedaris or from the viral commercial parody in which he plays a pitch-perfect orange juice pitchwoman.
Even fans who first discovered Escola playing Matthew, a bag of catty gay stereotypes, on Difficult People, won't find the elfin prankster's lady personae to be much of a stretch.
But in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Escola recalled his early years as manly man.
"In high school musicals," said Escola, who grew up in Clatskanie, Oregon (Population 1737), "I was always cast as the romantic lead. There were not a lot of boys who wanted to do theater, and I would get stuck playing Marius in Les Miserables, or Matt in the The Fantasticks, because I was the only one of them who wasn't tone-deaf. Those parts were awful for me—they made me not want to be an actor."
Instead, Escola suggests, the roots of his eventual career can be found much earlier in his childhood.
"I had a little tape recorder and I would talk into it for hours on end, telling stories, then listening to them and retelling them to make them better."
Raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, Escola always had an affection for female characters.
"I used to skip school every Monday to have lunch with my grandmother and her friends. I loved to listen to them talk. There's no way my mom didn't know, but I guess she didn't mind."
For much of his childhood, Escola recalls feeling awkwardness around his male classmates. "I always felt like I was intruding on the other boys, like a mother walking into a slumber party; like, "Maaah, leave us alone!"
While he says that "grade school and middle school were really brutal, with bashing and everything," Escola says that things improved in high school. "Once I came out, I was popular. If guys would say 'You're a fag!' I'd say, 'Yeah!' It disarmed them. Also, I was friends with the girls and the guys wanted to get in with the girls."
When he was 18, Escola —now 31— followed a high school boyfriend to New York. The pair broke up, but Escola stayed —save for one three-month retreat home to mom— scraping together a living in retail and occasional sex work before almost accidentally falling into show business.
In 2008, essentially as a goof, he and his friend Jeffrey Self began posting largely improvised comedic videos on YouTube. The pair's combination of clean-scrubbed boyish looks and free-flowing unselfconscious absurdity blew up online, ultimately winning the attention of Logo TV, which packaged their shaggy conversations as a micro-budgeted series, Jeffrey and Cole Casserole, winning the pair a much wider audience.
During the same period, Escola began participating in Our Hit Parade, a monthly downtown variety show curated by frequent collaborators Kenny Mellman (Herb, of "Kiki and Herb") and Bridget Everett, in which performers covered current hit pop songs (Escola did a particularly memorable interpretation of Taylor Swift's "15").
Fueled by his video following and encouragement from his eclectic entertainment elders, Escola ultimately developed a full solo cabaret act, which moved from gay-staple The Duplex to the much higher visibility Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. There, Help! I'm Stuck! proved a sold-out hit and helped his career become anything but stuck.
Despite the gregariousness of the characters he's developed in cabaret and television appearances on shows including Nurse Jackie and Mozart In The Jungle, Escola says that when he's not working, he's still very much that little kid with his tape recorder.
"I'm a pretty shy person," he says. "I have a character called the Goblin Commuter of Hoboken, who is born out of my discomfort around people. I do sometimes feel like I am some sort of strange creature when I'm with other people. I like to stay home in my apartment and watch Turner Classic Movies. Especially if Stella Dallas or Stage Door is on."
On occasion, Escola steps out for a night at the theater.
"I saw the Hello, Dolly! revival on Broadway three times," he exults. "With Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy [Murphy subbed for Midler once a week] and I'm actually flying into Chicago a day before the first day of my tour to see Betty Buckley in the road show. You just plug in a great broad and it works. It's like Diva Mad Libs."
The night after his San Francisco performance, Escola heads to Portland, for a long-awaited encounter with the leading lady in his life.
"My mother has not seen me perform live since high school," he says. "But she's seen the videos and she loves it. She sends me lots of dresses and nightgowns."
Cole Escola's 'Help! I'm Stuck!' Monday, November 12 at 8pm, Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell Street. Tickets: $20. (415) 885-0750.