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Drag King To Foul-Mouthed Granny: How Comic Petey Gibson Found A Voice

I first encountered Petey Gibson when she was still called Jill. Back when she worked as a server at Cambridge Common on Mass. Ave. and moonlighted as a drag performer. Before she left for Los Angeles to seek her fortune at the legendary improv school the Groundlings, a regular launching pad for future “Saturday Night Live” stars.

In those days (which, to put it in perspective, were only a few years ago), Gibson co-produced the monthly "Bent Wit Cabaret" at Oberon in Harvard Square, where I worked as a cocktail server. She hosted the show in character, as the demented 86-year-old ex-vaudevillian Mary Dolan.

Of all the off-kilter fringe theater folks to make their way through the club in those days (so long ago!), Mary Dolan stood out because—well, first of all, there was the hat. A good foot tall and festooned with fruit. Then there was the voice: nasal and cartoonish with an accent capable of transporting a Massachusetts native such as myself back to my fourth grade classroom, which was presided over by an imposing, gray-haired woman who pronounced “corn” as “cawn” and dropped “r”s with alarming abandon, only to throw them unexpectedly onto the ends of words, as though language were some anarchical game of Scrabble. Mary Dolan was a naughtier version of that teacher—or maybe just her secret alter-ego—wizened and bespectacled with an utterly raunchy mouth. There was usually burlesque involved.

But I digress. Gibson, who hails from Barnstable, Mass., will be back on home turf on Saturday, Dec. 21, to host a special show at the Davis Square Theatre titled “Uncle Petey’s Christmas Comedy Spectacular.” It will feature a cast of comedian friends (The Walsh Brothers, Sarah Faith Alterman, Jenny Zigrino, Julee Antonellis, James Patterson, Sean George), live music (Lainey Schooltree), and an old-school variety show format.

It’s one in which Gibson is particularly at home. She got her start with All the King’s Men, a drag troupe that evolved into a gender-bending sketch comedy and character-driven live show.

Warning: The video above features humor including cussing and frank sexual lingo.

“I was a little, lost, wandering soul,” she said recently over the phone, remembering her first few years in Boston. “I went to Emerson, I thought I wanted to be a writer, and then I had a panic attack and left Emerson cause I was like, ‘F--k, I can’t write!’ And then I was kinda drunk for a while and worked in a pizza shop, and then I had a bad breakup, and then one of my friends was like, ‘Get it together, there’s a group called All the King’s Men having an audition. You should go see them. I think you would really like them.’”

Gibson learned to bind her breasts the night before the audition and was accepted into the troupe after donning tighty-whiteys and lip-syncing to the song “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” whilst getting dressed (and dancing, of course).

Needless to say, she is rather fearless onstage. With All the King’s Men, she perfected the art of drag, from mustachioed masculinity to stiletto-heeled high femme. She brought a twitchy, coy energy to the stage: an elastic-limbed imp in sweater vests and bowties.

The budding performer honed her comedic timing with Mary Dolan, who morphed from a mimed drag character into a filthy and beloved insult comic. Mary Dolan was cast as Drosselmeyer in Somerville’s legendary burlesque-ballet “The Slutcracker,” produced and starred in her own one-woman show, and was nominated three times for Boston’s Best Comedian by the Boston Phoenix. This past fall, in between comedy classes and restaurant shifts, Gibson filmed “Meals With Mary,” a cooking show starring the foul-mouthed octogenarian. She plans to release it, somewhere, next year.

Towards the end of her tenure in Boston, Gibson created a variety show with fellow All the King’s Men performer Julee Antonellis called “The Gibson/Antonellis Comedy Hour.” It was there that she first appeared onstage as herself, both as co-host and in her nascent stand-up comedy act.

Warning: The video above features humor including cussing and sexual lingo.

It is in her stand-up that she addresses her gender and sexuality most directly. “The problem with working out your gender onstage,” she remarked at one memorable performance, “is it’s so awful for everybody except you.”

Gibson calls herself a dyke or queer and uses female pronouns for lack of something more fitting. (As a former English major, she cannot get past the grammatical weirdness of “they” and “their.”) The nickname “Petey” started as a joke among friends that eventually stuck. “It made me feel more like my gender,” explains Gibson. “Which is sort of a little boy-child that cries a lot and reads books and needs his mom.”

Not surprisingly, she sticks out in L.A., among the utlra-hip, long-legged fashionistas, with her plaid shirts and tweed caps.

“I don’t have a crazy agenda,” she says. “I feel very comfortable in my own skin. And people see me and they feel comfortable with whatever in-between thing I’m doing because I’m comfortable with it.”

Gibson moved to Los Angeles a little over a year ago to study with the Groundlings. The improv company counts Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy among its alumni. In fact, it was Wiig’s 2011 film, “Bridesmaids,” which featured an ensemble cast of all women, many of whom started out at the Groundlings, that inspired Gibson to audition for the program. Once accepted, she was put through her paces among an ever-shrinking group of cohorts as the classes increased in difficulty.

“I feel like the Groundlings is the right place for me, and I hope I’ll get to continue on, ‘cause I think this is the right community,” she says. “The way they think about comedy is the way that I think about comedy.”

Just as Wiig and McCarthy typify a new brand of female performer, whose humor is broad and daring and whose films flout Hollywood stereotypes by valuing friendship and self-fulfillment over romance, Gibson represents an even more radical breed of comedian. She defies easy classification, in terms of both gender and genre. Is she a drag performer? A character actor? A stand-up? An improviser? Her ambiguous presentation and willingness to toy with gender make her at once subversive and versatile.

Though she may not fit comfortably into any box, Gibson always feels at home on the stage. And she credits that in large part to the city where she found her footing.

“I was allowed to do whatever I could think of in ‘Bent Wit Cabaret.’ If I were to do that show in L.A., nobody would show up because it’s a live show,” she points out. “It’s bizarrely close-minded in L.A. versus in Boston, even though L.A. is pumping out what the world is watching.”

“I can’t believe how grateful I feel for Boston and how excited I am to come home now,” she adds, with a note of amazement. “Because I feel like, Holy sh--, what an unbelievable city.’”

Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr: http://thebestalbumofalltime.tumblr.com/

This program aired on December 19, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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