‘Gay For Play’: A Game Show from RuPaul, Michelle Visage and that Guy Who Made the ‘Virgin America’ Safety Video


At this point, I feel like the place and mindset for watching game shows is: grudgingly, when you’re drunk and on Xanax and afraid and on a plane and don’t want to pay $8 to watch Hope Floats. But now, LogoTV is presenting RuPaul’s Gay for Play, a show that could likewise be consumed on a plane — entirely without the grudge. Perhaps I can’t think of a better place to watch this show — or a better show to watch in that place — because one of its “celebrity” panelists, Todrick Hall, wrote the Virgin America in-flight safety video. (He also has a show called “Twerk Du Soleil.”) But perhaps it’s also because the heightened game show — despite being a far more fun experience than your run of the mill game show — is still a game show; without the emotional sagas of reality television or the elaborate workmanship of competitions like RuPaul’s own Drag Race, Gay for Play seems like far more incidental viewing, but if you stumbled upon it while all sorts of fucked up on a plane, you surely wouldn’t be disappointed.

Gay culture — before the ’90s, when it broke into broader cultural discourse — had always, through the likes of Judy Garland, Cher and Celine Dion, taken from the schlockiest or most performative elements of mainstream, heteronormative culture to create, through a funhouse pastiche of those norms, a coded and singular cultural identity. Gameshows aren’t really thought of much as part of the repurposed gay cultural canon, but watching RuPaul’s Gay for Play makes it suddenly seem like something that always should have clicked — their naïve camp easily fits into the same aesthetic, and the fact that they’re so obsolete now makes them even better fodder for queering. (For what feels campier than something that’s too old to feel vital but too recently become déclassé to feel nostalgic?)

RuPaul said to Queerty that gameshows “were also encoded — encrypted with a secret gay language that was so important to [him] growing up. There was always a wink-wink to gay aesthetic, which has so much to do with irreverence and making fun of how hypocritical and mediocre the world is.” For that reason, Gay for Play could simply be more a note on what gameshows always were than its own gameshow. But it turns out it’s the latter, and alas, we’ll have weeks of libidinally charged Jeopardy to look forward to.

The extremely low-budget (winners could take home $5,000) show entails relatively straightforward trivia — the twist is that all of the categories, all of the members of the celebrity panel, the ordering of said panel, all of the wordplay uttered by the host, are particularly specific to mainstream gay culture. As RuPaul says at the beginning of every episode à la his Drag Race catchphrases, “You don’t have to be gay to play, but it sure do help.” The show sees “celebrities” on a small panel at the ready to help two competing players, who can either opt to take the wisdom of the celebrities — who make up two rows of bleachers, the “tops” and “bottoms” — or answer the questions on their own. “I still can’t believe I’m a top — this is so new for me!” says Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s sly Carson Kressley in the first episode, before the first category — “Manbuns,” or the identification of celebrity butts, is selected.

Amber Rose and Drag Race‘s Katya are the featured celebrity guests in this episode, while usuals like Kressley, Hall, The Tonight Show‘s Ross Mathews, and the draggiest non-drag-queen around, Michelle Visage, appear on a weekly basis to help people deduce the likes of famous anus. Serving as the show’s Vanna White are a gaggle of gold-sequin-shorted Go-go dancers. Other questions entail which item Oprah has given out the most on her show (pajamas, croissants or cars) and which half-eaten item of Britney Spears’ sold for more at auction (the gum or the egg salad sandwich). Finally, contestants get to pick their own areas of expertise (in Episode 1, Lil’ Kim and Death Becomes Her) to get asked about — and are awarded their own celebrity panelist to exclusively help them out.

The obvious draw of Gay for Play — as RuPaul’s described it and as it asserts itself so boldly — is the sense of overt raunch it imbues in the genre of television that always seemed so subtextually sleazy. From its pornographic trend-invoking name to RuPaul’s brand of self-awarely clunky innuendo — “we tossed a salad backstage — I’m sorry, we tossed a coin backstage” — it coats every aspect of the now-pretty-irrelevant game show culture in gayness. Or at least, the realm of gay culture that gleefully aligns with pop culture. Not only does it “certainly help” to be gay to play, it also very much helps (but is of course not necessary) to be gay — and to have something of a fetish for lowbrow factoids — to enjoy. If RuPaul represents one thing, it’s the wider mainstreaming of a mainstream form of specifically LGBT culture.

Beyond “gay culture” is a panoply of other sociosexual identities and their canonized referents, but today’s RuPaul happens to represent a relatively easily consumed — perhaps because at least in culture, it’s relatively accepted and somewhat well-represented — and somewhat limited aesthetic within the gay male mainstream. But what’s significant about RuPaul’s programming is that while the gay mainstream has in the past been marginal within the wider mainstream — RuPaul has become such a success that he’s instead turned hetero audiences towards his own, wonderfully ostentatious redesign of their own world. (Between tops and bottoms and the oft-binary drag performers on his show, RuPaul definitely draws from heteronormativity — but also spoofs it.) Drag Race may happen on an LGBT network — but it’s one that has straight people tuning in, and perhaps Gay for Play, with gayness applied to another familiar format, will do the same. He’s made unmitigatedly gay programming that straight people enjoy — not because it hinges on straight experiences, but because it doesn’t, because it is unquestionably gay.

Of course, this show would have seemed revolutionary in the era where game shows were at their height and gay game show personalities Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly — who RuPaul mentioned in an early statement about the show — couldn’t identify so openly. But since gayness is now widely accepted among the makers of mainstream American culture (if certainly not among everyone who consumes it, and though often without the nuance it deserves), this show therefore seems like a fun display of something that never got to exist in the past, as well as an adjustment to acceptedly limited gay voices of the present.

It obviously appeals most to a mainstream gay sensibility where Britney Spears’ half eaten sandwich is on the cultural radar. But the fact that that sensibility, and that half eaten sandwich, now have their own place to become a key, central trivia category is, if not revolutionary, certainly the type of fresh, fun mindlessness one would feel fantastic watching without the usual grudge one might bring to a gameshow watching experience.