Kiki & Herb explain it all for you

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday July 10, 2007
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Time has taken its toll on at least one aspect of Kiki & Herb's eternally touring louche lounge act, now ensconced in the gilded proscenium of the American Conservatory Theater. In the early days, the real-life counterparts of boozy chantoosie Kiki and her gay Jew tard accompanist Herb would consume as much alcohol as did the characters in the course of their act. It could create some interesting, if momentarily discomfiting, scenarios that Justin Bond, as Kiki, and Kenny Mellman, as Herb, usually managed to make work in the woozy context of the show.

"Now I can't drink an entire bottle of whisky six times a week," Bond said. "Now there is a very finally tuned calibration of alcohol intake."

Also in the early days of Kiki & Herb — they were officially born in 1993 at SF's Cafe du Nord — the duo would sometimes take hallucinogens before heading onstage. "It was interesting because there were the two of us in this weird symbiotic place," Mellman said, "and it's sort of how the rhythms of Kiki & Herb began, with their weird back-and-forth stories that went in circles and squares. But some other performers in town at the time would say, 'I want to do that. I want to take mushrooms and do a show,' and I was always like, uh, no."

Although Bond performed in drag as Kiki DuRane, whose exaggerated age makeup mirrored her fabulously horrific back story, Kiki & Herb were first embraced by young straight audiences who relished their musical choices of rock, rap, jazz, and indie songs for their seedy lounge-act material. "The selections appealed to a lot of music geeks," Bond said. "And because Kiki is an alcoholic straight woman, although she's not entirely straight, I think everyone knows a Kiki. She's a very angry woman."

After a few years, Bond and Mellman moved to New York and did odd jobs while establishing a new fan base for Kiki & Herb in the downtown clubs. By the late 90s, they were able to work fulltime as performers, and they capped their growing success with an off-Broadway show in 2003 and a 2004 concert at Carnegie Hall titled Kiki & Herb Will Die for You. It was billed as a farewell concert, which, temporarily, was true.

Bond spent the following year studying music in London, and when he returned, he and Mellman were ready to bring Kiki & Herb to Broadway on their own terms. "When we did off-Broadway," Bond said, "we did the same show every night for 150 performances, and we were very proud of what we did, but we didn't feel it was the essence of Kiki & Herb. It was very polished, but it just wasn't something that I enjoyed doing. So when we decided to do the Broadway show, we left a looseness in it so there are places we can improvise, and that will be true for what we do at ACT."

Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway played a limited run on Broadway last year, and the pair was nominated for a Tony Award for best special attraction. Unfortunately, they lost to ventriloquist Jay Johnson, who followed them into the Helen Hayes Theatre.

When they first performed as Kiki & Herb back in 1993, Bond said, "There was a lot of rage in our act and immediacy to our anger. Sixteen of our best friends had died in the past year. As the years have gone by, I think we've matured as performers. But philosophically and musically, we've tried to keep ourselves fresh by reinventing songs and expanding the narrative."

On Broadway, where audiences were a mix of fans and newbies, there was sometimes a learning curve before the Kiki & Herb conceit kicked in.

"When I'm putting a show together," Bond said, "I'm coming at it from the perspective of a gay man, and a lot of our politics are skewed toward gay politics. So I feel a responsibility, especially when I was on Broadway and there were going to be all these middle-class people, to really bang on about how fucked up George Bush is, and to bang on about gay marriage."

Bond counts among his showbiz heroes a diverse collection that includes Julie London, Elaine Stritch, Patti Smith, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and Gil Scott-Heron. But he identifies his greatest influence as Eartha Kitt. "I remember when I was young seeing her on Merv Griffin talking about her confrontation with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House [about the Vietnam War], and when I met her, I thanked her for teaching me that you can be both glamorous and political."

Both on stage and during an interview, Mellman tends to let Bond do most of the talking. "There would be no act if we were both talking," Mellman said during a chat following a mock-memorial service in an actual funeral home to publicize their ACT engagement. "I'm the strange little Jewish piano player, like it would be if Barry Manilow never stepped out of the shadow of Bette Midler, and kept playing for her for all eternity."

In fact, Bond and Mellman have taken professional breaks from each other, with the future left fluid. "Sometimes we've thought we've run the course on Kiki & Herb," Bond said, "because the very notion of saying you're going to perform together until you die is very daunting."

Have they ever gotten to the point of hating one another? "We have," Bond said, "but not in a few years."

And has any form of romance ever blossomed between them in their 15-year collaboration? "Absolutely not," Bond said. "Kenny has a lovely boyfriend and a dog, and I have several lovely ex-boyfriends and a cat."

Kiki & Herb: Alive from Broadway will run July 13-29 at American Conservatory Theatre. Tickets are $12-$65. Call 749-2228 or go to