The elevator door opens and a waifish (and dead) mermaid is waiting on the other side. She’s got Ariel’s exact hair, cadaverous black lips, and a piscatorial lower half that requires taking many short, effortful hops to get in after we get out. Before my companion and I can figure out which way to go, we’re nearly mowed down by a young guy in a low-cut magenta dress and combat boots, spouting production lingo into a walkie talkie. This is definitely the right floor.
The hallways around The Chris Gethard Show are as bustling as those at any other TV show within an hour of taping. Things just look a little unusual because tonight is an unusual night on a TV show that prides itself on being super unusual. This is a show that in the past year has filmed an episode for an audience of dogs and counted Sean “Diddy” Combs among its impressive roster of guests. It’s a show whose first episode on Fusion was entitled “Show Us The Weirdest Thing About Your Body,” and involved Gethard and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer stepping into a genital chamber. (You had to be there.) Since tonight’s guest is Lena Dunham—who says she always fantasized about being a mermaid—and since it is that time of year, this episode is An Under the Sea Gender-Fluid Poly Prom. The cast and crew are attempting to turn an outdated convention on its head, and why not? They’ve already done so with the outdated convention of putting on a TV show.
Chris Gethard, the bespectacled comedian best known for being hard to define what he’s best known for, has long been a champion of “sad, creative, sexually confused, generally forgotten kids.” His wildly participatory TV show, which has roots in NYC public access, is a homing beacon for outsiders, whom he welcomes with open arms when they call in with ideas and stories or attend a taping. If a revolution in the status quo prom has to happen somewhere, there may be no better place than here.
Traditionally, proms represent everything that the high school caste system is, culminating in students crowning monarchical leaders from among their own. Anyone who doesn’t fit in stands out, and has ample incentive to consider staying home. At their worst, proms are like late-in-the-game sorting hats dividing students up into Normal and Not Normal. But things are beginning to change. The stodgy, 19th-century-rooted traditions of high school are beginning to reflect our rapidly diversifying culture. While as recently as 2010, one Mississippi school canceled its prom rather than allow a student to bring her girlfriend as her date, in 2015 another school elected the first transgender prom queen ever. What is about to happen on The Chris Gethard Show is a glimpse at what might happen if we skip the next few years of incremental change and get straight to the point where proms fully embrace a come-as-you-are aesthetic.
Also, sea creatures.
The “Under the Sea” theme means that we’re just as likely to see crustacean hats and clamshell bras as we are cross-dressing crew members. A producer named David, not to be confused with another producer named Jersey Dave, shuffles us into the studio, which is absolutely choking to death with tinsel and glitter. Fish-shaped balloons hang low from the ceiling, foam coral punctuates the stage, and giant serpentine tentacles are poking out from behind the set, as if about to inflict a Jules Verne-style attack. All of this was assembled within the past 24 hours.
Another producer, comedian Jo Firestone, who is wearing fluffy shark slippers, suggests that I am not dressed festively enough in my gray hoodie and jeans, and I can either drape some tinsel around myself or get out.
“A codpiece, maybe?” I say, inspiring zero reaction. “Because cod?”
“Cod is out this year, pollock is in,” says David.
Nikki from Fusion’s marketing team brings us into the green room to wait while the audience starts filing in. A monitor in the room shows what’s happening on set and we watch as the redheaded mermaid from the elevator earlier hops over and collapses into a seat near one of the enormous tentacles. Steel drum music is being piped in to the green room tonight, giving the impression that the sea we’re under is Caribbean. A pirate-like “Yarrr!” emanates from the hallway as audience members start tumbling out of the elevators.
Just outside of the green room, it’s a steady parade of formalwear John Waters might approve of (because it’s not often you see looks that appeal to both the LGBT community and Maryland crab culture). Everybody who made the effort to come took the theme seriously. There are straight couples in tuxedos and gowns, and gender-flipped versions of same; there are seafoam green dress-and-wig combos straight out of Coney Island’s infamous Mermaid Parade; there’s a guy in an electric blue jacket and matching lipstick who looks young and nervous enough to be at his actual prom; and then there are also some real humdingers. There’s a trio all dressed in Beetlejuice-striped dresses, with orange cravats, pink wigs and tiaras, and devilish cosmetic accents on their faces. One dude is wearing the Pac-Man suit that was going around the Internet the previous day as a wacky “Hey, this exists” news item. As everybody walks by, they all seem to peek inside the green room, presumably trying to catch a glimpse of Lena Dunham, and instead they see me eating a bag of Funyons.
“This was the queerest possible arrangement of my girl scout badges,” says a colleague of Nicki from Marketing, who has joined us. Sure enough, the woman, whose hair is contained in little green-flecked buns all over her head, has on a varsity jacket with badges like San Francisco Swimming, Golden Gate Bridge, and just a rainbow. My outfit of a hoodie and jeans, which in certain circles is considered the comedy event uniform, could not feel more out of place now.
When we finally get on the set, there’s a feeling of gently contained chaos. While that male PA in a dress from earlier is frantically running around, pulling cords out of the way of camera rigs, the crowd is jamming out to the house band’s languid cover of recent Rihanna hit, “Work.” Chris Gethard appears swaying at the fringes of the crowd, next to his co-host and dear friend, Shannon O’Neill, who is dressed in a huge turtle costume. Another cast member from the show, Connor Ratliff, is trying to corral the cream of the crop in terms of audience costumes onto the stage.
“Everyone take a moment to appreciate this,” Connor announces over the music. “It’s been a great four years of school. Turn to the person next to you whether you had a class with them or not and share a memory from your time here.”
Even though it’s a joke, this solicitation is almost even more of a high school flashback than the sight of so many young people in tuxedos.
More and more people fill the stage. When the kid with the bright blue lipstick gets there, he immediately throws his hands in the air and starts gyrating joyously.
Just before the taping begins, the enchanted sea of prom people parts so that the guest of honor can be brought out. Lena Dunham looks luminous in a cotton candy-colored wig and all-pastel mermaid’s tail. She’s sitting atop a chrome platform that some assistants roll toward the stage so that the star doesn’t have to endure the unfortunate hopping performed by the other mermaid on the show–who turns out to also be named Lena.
“Prom is a tradition that enforces binaries,” Chris Gethard says to the crowd as the show kicks off. “But you don’t have to fit neatly into any boxes tonight.”
The crowd erupts. The room is crackling with positive energy in a way that is mostly unheard of in New York City. Looking around, it’s clear how much the Prom Night Done Right concept means to everyone. It’s a prom without any awkward sexual tension, celebrating individuality over conformity, and the infectious giddiness has nothing to do with spiked punch. It’s a prom where gender-fluid Andies and Duckies from Pretty In Pink, or Janis’ and Damians from Mean Girls, have taken over. And the unanimous opinion from the crowd seems to be that it’s about fucking time.
One of the first acts of the show involve taking prom photos. Lena Dunham is up first, and she has her choice of three background paintings: ghosts escaping the sea, underwater kingdom, or a seal eating a shark. She picks the latter.
“I hate sharks and I don’t care if they go extinct,” Lena says to the crowd. “That’s probably going to get me in trouble on the Internet later.”
While the Girls creator and star may be intolerant of undersea predators, back on shore, she is a fierce advocate for all types of humans. Dunham has received awards for her outspoken commitment to LGBT issues, and she makes for an appropriate ambassador to this celebration of open-mindedness.
Over the course of the ensuing hour Chris and Lena preside over a succession of Skyped-in promposals in real time, along with prom-themed shenanigans from the show’s regulars like Vacation Jason and the Human Fish, all on route to crowning the night’s three non-gendered Prom Rulers. The moment that perhaps best brings together all of the night’s quirks, humor, and poignancy, though, is when a selection of audience members come up to slow dance with Lena and tell her terrible true stories from actual proms. (“Dancing” here means holding Lena’s hands and spinning her platform around in a circle with the buffer space of a boom mic.)
“This is how dancing at proms should be,” Lena says, “Instead of a grind-a-thon free-for-all.”
An equal share of laughs and sitcom-audience awws abound as people share nightmare stories of prom no-shows, accidental boners, double-crossing best friends, and in one extreme case, a spontaneous marriage. For every story shared, though, there are probably a dozen from the audience that are too painfully awkward in a not-cute way to share.
While this prom couldn’t possibly erase the collective trauma of its attendees’ past proms, at the very least it puts them into cathartic perspective and points the way toward trauma-free proms of the future. As the night closes out with a five-song set from guests They Might Be Giants, everybody dancing along in the crowd–cast, crew, guest, or journalist; male, female, both or neither; officially crowned or otherwise—everybody felt like a prom ruler in their own right.
The gender-fluid prom episode of The Chris Gethard Show airs on Fusion tonight at 10 p.m. ET.