Justin Bond sounds like he drinks straight-up grain alcohol directly from the bottle and inhales a five-alarm fire between gulps. His voice is a husky wonder, a rasp that goes far beyond the clichéd crackle of too much whiskey and too many cigarettes—and that's just his normal speaking voice. When he launches into character as his trashed, over-the-hill, lounge-lizard alter ego, Kiki, his voice gets extra slurry and extra punchy at the same time. He uses this voice as his primary comedic weapon, and though he'll often get leverage from body language and bad dancing, most of the time he gets his laughs from the way he says a simple phrase, as when he shouts, then slurs the words: "Ladies'n'gennelmen!"
This is part of the appeal of Kiki & Herb, the nightclub act that started over 10 years ago in San Francisco before making its way to New York, where it played in small clubs like Fez before winding up at, of all places, the Cherry Lane Theatre, an off-Broadway theater where the show ran for six months last year. With the shy, nervous, melodramatic piano man Kenny Mellman as Herb, the duo creates edgy cabaret performances that appeal to hipsters who get the Radiohead and David Bowie references while remaining homey enough for the middle-class, middle-aged curious, who find comfort in the show-tunesy style of Mellman's tinkling compositions, even if they don't recognize the song.
You might expect Bond to have an apartment as cluttered and neurotic as the character in his show, but his East Village abode is disturbingly cheery. Bright pictures hang on the sunny yellow walls, including two fine drawings by Bond himself as Kiki alongside one of his boyfriend. Five pairs of glittery Manolo Blahniks serve as art ("My friend stole them," says Bond), and a cat named Pearl curls up in a chair.
As they begin relaying stories of their humble beginnings in San Francisco, where the two met, Bond starts to tell the story of Mellman's piano man, before looking at Mellman apologetically. "Talk," Mellman instructs Bond, who does so happily.
"You don't get to talk much during the show," I say.
"How could I?" says Mellman.
"For him to talk, I'd have to shut up," says Bond. "And that's not going to happen."
Bond, who hails from Hagerstown, Md., is a classically trained actor who studied at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he took pains to study the art of the cabaret performance. Los Angeleno Mellman suffered childhood piano lessons before studying music and composition at UC Berkeley. They met in San Francisco, where they encountered the real life Herb, a sad soul named Eddie who, says Bond, "would sit at the piano and drink tequila and cry. He would talk about his cat because he loved his cat. She was his best friend. He was just this amazing character."
Kiki was inspired by the dying mother of a friend Bond met when he was 12. "She had been a showgirl and sort of a dancer and singer in the '50s, but she was an alcoholic and really opinionated and really political. I thought, 'What would she have been like had she never given up show business?'" Bond recalls a story about his muse that he still uses in the show: "Shortly after Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan, she looked at me and said, 'You know, the saddest day of my life was the day when John Hinckley missed. I'd go to Washington, D.C., and shoot that son of a bitch.'" Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan died the day after our interview took place.
The same duo that The New Yorker declared "slashingly funny, psychically unsettling entertainment" began their run as Kiki & Herb, appropriately, on magic mushrooms. Every weekend for the first year when they performed at San Francisco spaces like the Elbow Room and Café Du Nord, they were flying high on 'shrooms, until their New Year's Eve 1994 performance brought them back to earth. That night was worthy of a David Lynch film, with a flu-stricken Bond throwing up between each of the three acts, helped along by a guy continually smoking cigars in the front row, and finishing with Mellman standing in the pouring rain wearing bicycle shorts before ending up "with $3,000 in someone's car that I hardly knew," he says.
These days, they're all business. They just returned from a successful eight-week stint (expanded from four weeks) in London, where they performed on the HMS President, a decommissioned war ship from the first World War. "Every Christmas, there's a pantomime that kids have been going to since the '40s, and the main character is a man in drag. He's the evil queen or the grandmother," says Mellman. "Even on the very simplistic level that we're a 'drag act,' with big quotes around it, they grow up with it."
Adds Bond, "We're an extension of the punk thing. They have the whole tradition of the cross-gendered performance, starting, really, with Shakespeare."
Bond, who is 41, is attending Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design in London this fall to study stenography. Mellman will likely move there until Bond graduates, after which they will embark on what they jokingly call their "European tour."
While all the praise for their off- Broadway performances was appreciated, Bond and Mellman insist they will never do it again, even if The New Yorker's review brought out their high-school art and music teachers. Mellman and Bond liken their off-Broadway run to a job, and not a very highly paid or enjoyable job one at that. "It got good reviews," says Bond. "It was a big success. [But] it wasn't really fun for us. We did seven shows a week, 150 shows in six months. It was completely scripted."
"Someone else could have done it," says Mellman, who's suddenly talking. "Ultimately, it made us realize what we like about Kiki & Herb in the first place."
They much prefer the unscripted chaos of a regular Kiki & Herb show, the kind they'll be bringing to Seattle. "It's more interesting for the audience and more interesting for us," Mellman says. "It's a little more dangerous," Bond adds with an arched eyebrow and a thick cackle, "if you don't know what's going to happen."
Kiki & Herb play On the Boards at 9 p.m. Thurs., June 24, and Fri., June 25. $18 adv./$22. They also play On the Boards' 25th Anniversary Gala with Sarah Rudinoff and Nick Garrison at 8 p.m. Sat., June 26. $75/$100.