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From the Alt-Cabaret Stage to HBO, Bridget Everett Is Still Singing

After years of performing karaoke and explicit sing-alongs, the comedian has settled into the lead role of an understated coming-of-age series on HBO, ‘Somebody Somewhere’

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bridget Everett has built something of a reputation in her years on New York’s alt-cabaret scene. Backed by her band, the Tender Moments, Everett’s stage persona is loud, lewd, and boozy, belting obscene original lyrics to songs with names like “Titties” and “Fuck Shit Up.” Before the pandemic, Everett put on regular performances at Joe’s Pub, the more intimate stage of the famed Public Theater. Those outside the tri-state area can see her talents, among other things, on full display in Gynecological Wonder, a special that aired on Comedy Central in 2015. With the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz on bass, Everett leads the crowd in an infectiously filthy sing-along: “What I, what I, what I gotta do / What I gotta do to get that dick in my mouth?”

Everett is, in sum, the exact opposite of Somebody Somewhere, the new half-hour HBO series she leads throughout its seven-episode first season. Where Everett is “larger than life,” the headline of a recent New Yorker profile, Somebody Somewhere is small and subdued; where Everett is a New Yorker through and through, Somebody Somewhere settles into “the eighth-biggest town in Kansas,” where Everett’s character returns to take care of an ailing family member. On the surface, it’s an imperfect star vehicle for the diva at its center. Somebody Somewhere may introduce Everett to a much larger audience, but that audience will meet a very different side of the performer who storms onstage swigging from a bottle of wine in a paper bag.

And yet the show, created by High Maintenance writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and produced by the Duplass brothers, is very much an extension of Everett. Like her character Sam, Everett hails from the deep Midwest; Everett, too, lost an older sister to cancer, a tragedy that robs Sam of the only relative who truly gets her. Somebody Somewhere picks up six months later, when a dead-end job at a standardized test grading center reunites Sam with an old high school classmate. Through Joel (Jeff Hiller), Sam meets a circle of misfits who come together for weekly “choir practice.” In truth, the gathering is more like an open mic night that happens to take place in a church. For Sam, it’s a safe, welcoming space to get back into singing, a hobby she abandoned years ago.

To Everett, Sam is a version of her younger self, a woman who doesn’t trust her instincts or feel uninhibited enough to make a stranger motorboat her chest, a signature move in Everett’s cabaret act. She’s also an outlet for the kind of catharsis Everett hasn’t had regular access to since the coronavirus shuttered theaters nearly two years ago. Through Sam, Everett can dip a toe back into live performance—though in her case, it was the pandemic that kept her from the stage, not a psychological block.

HBO has marketed Somebody Somewhere as a “coming of middle age,” a description that doesn’t just apply to Sam. Joel struggles to find a place in his religious community; Sam’s older sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) mourns their sister in her own way, while both siblings try to reckon with their mother’s obvious drinking problem. (Drag king Murray Hill also stars as Fred Rococo, a choir practice regular who teaches at an agricultural college.) But Everett is the series’ spine. Her personal experiences inform the story; her irrepressible energy sells Sam’s self-discovery, which culminates in Sam singing—what else?—a self-penned song about genitalia.

Everett has crossed over into movies and TV before. Her performance in Sundance indie Patti Cake$ was critically acclaimed; in 2017, Amazon produced and aired a pilot called Love You More, starring Everett as an aspiring singer who counsels teens with Down syndrome. (Everett cowrote the pilot with stand-up Bobcat Goldthwait, Sex and the City producer Michael Patrick King, and former HBO president Carolyn Strauss, who also works on Somebody Somewhere—a testament to her range of admirers.) But since Amazon declined to order Love You More to series, Somebody Somewhere is her most significant platform yet. The show starts low key; in time, though, it channels the full scope and singularity of Everett’s talents. To learn more about her role in the series, The Ringer spoke to Everett about grief, second chances, and family, both biological and chosen.

I rewatched Gynecological Wonder last night. It reminded me how integral live performance has been to your work. What have the last couple of years, when that often hasn’t been on the table, been like for you as a creative person?

Well, to be frank, it’s been brutal. Singing and performing is my thing. It’s the thing that gets me out of bed and gets me excited. So not having that has put my happiness at a real deficit. But I got to perform right before omicron hit. And I was like, “Oh, this is what it’s like to feel alive.” I got the juice back in me. I’m good for a while.

Did making the show alleviate that brutality at all?

Yeah. The show is amazing. This has been an incredible life experience and very meaningful. But there’s just something special that happens between me and my audience. Every night feels like a great first date. You feel like you’re making a new special friend every night. I feel connected to my emotions and all those things and a TV show is that, but in a different way.

The show’s choir practice scenes capture this sense of joy and community and finding your people and finding your voice. Have there been any spaces that functioned that way for you as a performer?

Oh yeah, definitely, like late ‘90s, early 2000s. It was all about the Parlour on the Upper West Side, which is an Irish bar that used to have karaoke every Sunday night. I would go there and, like my friend Jack says, it sort of became a performance, more than just getting up and singing a song. More and more, I felt wilder and wilder. That was the heartbeat there, for many years.

I know this show wasn’t technically your first foray into TV; I was one of the people who was very sad when the Amazon pilot wasn’t picked up to series. Was there anything you took out of that experience that you applied to this second shot at making a TV show?

When I did Love You More, and it didn’t get picked up, I was like, “Well, Hollywood gives you one golden ticket. I just got it. And it didn’t work out. So I guess that’s it.” You know? So when this opportunity came along, I was like, “Whatever you do, Bridget, just make sure that you follow your gut on every single decision.” And that way if it doesn’t work, then I only have myself to blame, but at least I’m being 100 percent true to myself. Not that I wasn’t during Love You More, but this is a more personal story, so I could really put more of my say on it. And all the way through, I just kept thinking, “Well, this may not get us a Season 2. We may not get the shot again, but at least I’m following my heart and doing it the way I want to do it.”

It takes a lot of trust to tell a more personal story with collaborators. How did you first connect with Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen? What made you feel that you could work with them on a personal project like this one?

Well, I got a deal with HBO and I called [executive producer] Carolyn Strauss. I was like, “Will you help me build a show?” And she suggested Hannah and Paul, who I’ve been familiar with for a number of years. And they pitched the world. By the end of their pitch, my heart was in my throat. I was like, this is it.

Hannah, Paul, Carolyn, and our other writer, Patti [Breen], they’re all warm, sensitive people. I always felt like I was in a safe place whenever I would divulge something personal. And if it was personal in a way that wouldn’t work for the show, we didn’t use it. But there were a lot of times where I cried. And a lot of times where I divulged something and I was like, “I think that maybe that one’s for me.” Not everything needs to be in the show. But Paul and Hannah have huge hearts and are very sweet and very caring. I always felt very looked after.

Were there any parts of your life experience that you knew you did want to include in the show?

Yeah, they took the idea of Sam having a sister who passed away, and my sister passed away. I felt like in real life, I didn’t ever deal with the grief of that. I just didn’t deal with the grief of that very well. So having the show was a raw nerve for sure. But it also felt important because my sister who passed away was a real sweetheart and my biggest cheerleader. It felt like a nice tribute to her.

Sounds like it was pretty cathartic for you.

Definitely. There’s things that happen with her, for instance, my sister always wanted to hear my songs. I thought that they were stupid, when I was first doing it, and I was embarrassed to show her. And then she died, and I hadn’t shown it to her. That’s in the show, and it’s a very personal thing. And stuff like that, it’s a nice tribute to her. That’s how I think of it.

In terms of singing and performance, Sam is a very different and much more withdrawn character than your stage persona.

Mm-hmm.

Did you approach performing as Sam differently from performing as Bridget Everett of Gynecological Wonder?

Well, Gynecological Wonder—it took me years to get there. I started out as more Sam-like in my 30s, and then I found a karaoke bar and started to get looser and looser. But we constantly talked about how much to Bridget-ize Sam. We don’t want to have—she’s not at the top of the mountain singing “Titties” and motorboating people. She’s in a different place in life. But I think that she’s got it in her. Sam’s got the blue humor and a dirty mouth. That stuff amuses her and that stuff amuses me. So we definitely wanted to share that between Bridget and Sam.

That blue humor seems to liberate Sam a bit. Has profanity served a similar emotional purpose for you in your own work?

Yeah. I’ve always, always gotten in trouble, at least growing up, for being too wild, too dirty, a little too lawless. And even when I moved to New York, I would go see shows and things, I found downtown performances in New York and they were wild. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is it.” But I felt like the lyrics and the story ideas that I had were maybe too silly or not intellectual enough.

And then my friend Adam, who happens to be Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, I told him about this song idea I had, about different kinds of tits. And he was like, “That sounds like a hit!” It was so nice to hear from somebody that has a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that thought my ideas weren’t silly. Thinking about tits and dicks can be looked down upon, but I also think that there’s something glorious in it. So I’m happy that I had a couple cheerleaders along the way to [say] like, “Do it! And do it loud.”

Speaking of cheerleaders, in Somebody Somewhere, there are all these amazing performances that surround you, like Murray Hill and Jeff Hiller. How did you want to populate the world around Sam, or decide who to include in it?

I think it ended up being a happy accident that the people that Sam is surrounded by, or that Bridget’s surrounded by, are people that are kind of in similar stations in life. Murray and Jeff have been hustling for years, popping up here and there, but never had a real, had this kind of opportunity.

So the fact that we are all doing this together feels very organic. It felt like I was in the room with the right kind of people. Mary Catherine [Garrison], who plays my sister, Tricia—we lived together for eight years. She auditioned for the part, she was the best one. It was just kind of like we all found our way. We all found our way to this and it’s happening with the exact right people at the exact right time. I like that all of us are kind of the same age, kind of at the same level in our career, and getting this opportunity together.

Another theme in the show that resonates is the idea of home—both negotiating your own relationship with where you’re from and finding your place within it. I know you shot the show in Illinois and not in Kansas, but what’s your current relationship with where you come from?

I have to tell you, over the course of the last two years even, it’s really changed. Doing this show, and we started this family Zoom right at the beginning of the pandemic. My mom went into a nursing home and we still do it. Over the course of time some, there’s been a lot of laughs and a lot of tragedy. And being together with my family like this, as this show is coming out, it feels like kind of a double homecoming.

My brother, Brad, he’s always like, family first. He’s got four kids and is just a really dedicated family man, an upstanding member of his community. And I’m always like, “When’s happy hour?” [Laughs.] Our lives are polar opposites, but I have come to re-appreciate family and home because I was forced to do these family Zooms for the last two years. And also because I got to do this show where I looked at Kansas with fresh eyes.

Has your family seen the show yet?

They’re all waiting to see it like everybody else is. Not everybody else, but whoever’s going to watch it. They’re really excited. My brother, the other day, he couldn’t get his hands on a copy of The New Yorker, where there’s a feature on me. So he drove to Topeka, which is an hour away, brought it home, went straight to Hobby Lobby, and got it matted and framed so he could take it to my mom and she could hang it in her nursing room and have it to look at. I mean, that’s just like, I would never do that. He’s excited. And he’s a good family man.

I’ve always thought that they might be a little embarrassed of my chosen profession. If you’ve seen Gynecological Wonder, you’d be like, “Oh, that’s my sister. Oh my God.” Like, some people might. But my family, they’re really proud of me. And it’s very meaningful to me.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.