Nervy, Nutty, Nuanced: Tammy’s Nico is Essential to Experience in Film, Podcast, ‘Pub’ Form

Image via Joe’s Pub.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Take the studied mimicry of a musical tribute act, add the dead-on burns of a Friar’s Club Roast, and top it off with the showy vocal flourishes of a Kennedy Center Honors cover, performed as the iconic originator looks on from their box seat. Whisk together and bring to a near-boil—and you’ll have the potent broth that drenches writer/performer Tammy Lang’s densely layered, impossible-to-completely-unpack comedic creations.

And what a rogues’ gallery of unruly Golems Lang has unleashed upon NYC theater, cabaret, and concert audiences since her early days on the Lower East Side’s 1990s “alternative comedy” scene. There, at venues such as Luna Lounge and Surf Reality, audiences and fellow performers alike sat mouths agape, loving what they were seeing while not entirely sure what was happening. Back then, Lang’s character-driven calling card was Tammy Faye Starlite, a country crooner equal parts confident and damaged, who’d morph over the decades from Nashville cat to Christian soldier to Trump acolyte, chewing scenery and diving deep into a multitude of musical genres with joyful, infectious zeal.

Of late, Lang has grafted that aesthetic onto a full album performance of Broken English while in Mirror Dimension Marianne Faithful mode, and—to bring us to current—a show that finds her as tread-worn Teutonic chanteuse Nico, white-knuckling it through a 1986 radio interview during which a series of probing questions and touchy topics (including her dynamics with Bob Dylan and Lou Reed) are answered or evaded via some truly stunning musical performances.

And that’s the genius stroke of Lang’s musical character studies: Her solid vocals (sometimes eerily similar to their source, other times hailing from who-knows-where) are backed not by a prerecorded soundtrack, but by a small, tight onstage band preternaturally skilled at bringing the song of choice to life.

As for how it’s all to be digested, consider what Lang recently shared with in a telling Q&A (click here to access it). Of the current run of Nico: Underground (Wednesdays in May at Joe’s Pub), “You could call it a weird little offbeat jukebox musical, but it’s kind of a Hadean jukebox,” said Lang. “It’s not feel-good stuff… but in a way it is because… Theater can be cathartic if somebody is saying the horrifying things that that you’re thinking, you know, it’s kind of a release in a way.”

How refreshing and reassuring to know there’s a real, thinking person behind the personas; one who doesn’t care to stay in character, and is generous in her sharing of the backstory about any given alter ego’s evolution. You’ll find this done very well during Lang’s recent guest stint on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, in which the titular host—active in the NYC comedy scene of the 1990s concurrent to Lang’s formative years on stage—takes a chronological trip down and out of Memory Lane, eliciting from Lang a treasure trove of creative insights and time capsule recollections of growing up in NYC long before she grew into the writer/performer who gives us Nico: Underground. To access that episode (#1533!), click here.

“Nico: Underground” is performed at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place) at 9:30pm on May 1, 8, 15 & 22. For tickets ($25 plus two-drink or 1-food minimum) and more info, click here.

Image via the Coney Island Film Festival

For more Tammy Lang, this time in film form, head to Day #2 of May 3-5’s Coney Island Film Festival. There, at 7pm in Program 7’s collection of music videos and experimental films, you’ll find the NYC premiere of 2020’s These Days (runtime: 3 minutes, 58 seconds). This cover of Jackson Browne’s song finds Tammy Faye Starlite in Nico mode. Directed by Michael Schiralli (who also directs Nico: Underground) and filmed during the height of the pandemic on the nearly empty streets of NYC, Tammy is in top form, vocals and physicality doing funny/tragic duties (often at the same time as only she can). And the “days” of choice, following her pandemic-era routine, deepens the song’s themes and tone in a way that’s respectful of how it’s been received in the past, while saying things about COVID-inspired isolation rarely seen, so far, in the public discourse or impact reporting. In decades to follow, we’ll likely be awash in post-pandemic academics—but as so often happens, art has its finger on the pulse way before studies and stats declare it’s a “thing.” There’s so much going on here—a note applicable to any given project from Lang and friends.

“These Days”—directed by Michael Schiralli—features Tammy Lang, Keith Hartel, and Richard Feridun, and was produced by Tom Beaujour (with cameo from Danny Fields). It’s in Program 7 of the Coney Island Film Festival, screening on Saturday, May 4, 7pm at the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave,. Brooklyn). For tickets ($10), click here.


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