The Impish YouTube Star Who Thumps Trump
Randy Rainbow is my new neighbor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan! Okay, it’s true that the multitalented YouTube phenom didn’t exactly move in next door and stop by to borrow that proverbial cup of sugar. In fact, I don’t even know which street he lives on. But thanks to a nosy New York Times article in July, I now know what his new home looks like.. His corner apartment has a panoramic city view, floor-to-ceiling windows, two columns in the living room, sleekly modern decor, and a special room with a green screen and prop closet for Rainbow to use as his production studio. Wherever in our left-leaning neighborhood he alighted, Rainbow, a fierce satirical critic of the Trump Administration, will easily fit right in. (The neighborhood, which has jokingly been referred as “the United Socialist Republic of the Upper West Side,” is pyrotechnically blue, a lock for Joe Biden. In 2016, candidate Trump got a measly 9.8% of the vote here.)
If the neophyte Upper West Sider, who grew up in Plantation, Fla., still had lingering little-town blues, July definitely melted them away. Rainbow won the Manhattan trifecta last month: in addition to the splashy New York Times real-estate story, Rainbow won an Emmy nomination last week (July 28) for “The Randy Rainbow Show,” his wildly popular YouTube Series. It was the second year in a row that the program was nominated.. To top it off, St. Martin’s Press announced the next day that they would be publishing Rainbow’s memoir, Playing With Myself, next year.
Rainbow is a man of many roles: comedian, singer, writer, satirist, actor and producer. Best known for his YouTube offerings, which the Washington Post described as “sublimely impish parodies,” Rainbow regularly skewers Trump and his GOP cohorts. His weapon is musical comedy, with sassy political lyrics he writes to well-known show tunes and pop songs. Hence, “Oklahoma” becomes “Omarosa,” “Camelot” morphs into “Kavanaugh,” and “Maria” from The Sound of Music turns into “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?”
Rainbow’s stats are up in the Internet stratosphere and climbing every day. “Randy Rainbow has built a viral-video empire from his New York apartment,” proclaimed NPR. He currently has a contingent of devotees who have viewed him on YouTube 68 million times, and who also comprise a crowd of 1 million Facebook friends. He has many celebs in his fan base, including Hillary Clinton, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman. John Legend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Stiller, to name just a few. Musical theater icon Stephen Sondheim told the Washington Post Rainbow’s lyrics are “as good as anyone writing today.” Not bad for a star-struck kid who had a mural of the New York City skyline painted on his bedroom wall when he was a teen.
To clear up a few matters: yes, Rainbow is Randy’s real name, His father, a musician and talent booker on the bar mitzvah and wedding circuit, changed the family’s Jewish surname, Ribner, to the showbizzy Rainbow. Yes, he is gay, or “super gay,” as he puts it. His mother told the Washington Post, “I knew he was gay by the time he was 3. He was constantly putting on shows and making the girls be the prince. He was always Snow White.” Yes, he’s a registered Democrat. And an emphatic Yes, he really detests Donald Trump, of whom he sings, “Of all the U.S. presidents he is the Mussoliniest.”
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand where a chunk of that animus comes from. “My father was Donald Trump in many ways,” Rainbow told the Washington Post. “His narcissism. I grew up with that generation of guys from New York, a generation of New York phony snake-oil salesman. Before he died [in 2017], my father said of Trump, ‘I can’t watch him, because he reminds me of me.’ My father had all that phony BS.” A marriage that his mother described as “a 32-year-nightmare” ended while Rainbow was still at home. The unhappiness took a toll on him. As Rainbow told Fresh Air host Terry Gross, “It made things very uncomfortable in my home and - you know, which is why I was locked in my room, making videos with my Barbie dolls. It was not a pleasant experience. It was not a pleasant environment because it really just - he was the nucleus, and it just revolved around this man who was really sick.”
After dabbling in academia at Broward Community College and working on a cruise ship as a singer, Rainbow escaped to New York City in 2003, “I was a very young 22-year-old, so I just kind of started finding my way as a human and was working odd jobs here and there,” he told Billboard.. One of those jobs was as a host at Hooters. (“I can still see the disappointment when the men walked in and saw me,” he shuddered.) A Broadway wannabe, he went through rounds of fruitless auditions. But he became known in the Broadway and gay communities for his wit online, particularly when he began to edit himself into irreverent videos with celebrities, such as viral hits like “Randy Rainbow is Dating Mel Gibson.” Rainbow had found his métier. The rest is YouTube history.
So how exactly does Rainbow craft his musical parodies and spoofs? CNN blares on his multiple large screen TVs at home constantly, as he obsessively combs cable news for inspiration. “Well, it happens very quickly, because we are living in the age of social media,” Rainbow told Billboard. “It's gotta be fast, just because of the amount of content being put out, and if you're covering this administration or the news today, the news cycle is completely different by noon the next day. So I am already an anxious person, but this has taken my anxiety to this next level. As rewarding as it has been, I'm more stressed than ever. I constantly have the news on, and I am constantly trying to keep up with things.
That’s the current-events part of the process “As far as picking the songs, that's always the easy part for me because I'm very gay -- I think automatically in show tunes, so that always kind of jumps out to me, it's kind of obvious,” Rainbow said. “I also have a nice following now, so people are recommending things that they want to hear, so sometimes I draw from that pool. Then, I try to give myself no longer than 24 to 48 hours to do a video, so I'll write it for about four hours. If it's a song, I'll record for another two or three hours. I'll film for another two or three, and then I'll stay up pretty much all night editing. So it's very fast.”
Whatever Rainbow is doing is turning into box-office gold. Before the pandemic, he was playing to sold-out crowds across the country. He’s even a hit in red states, where walkouts are surprisingly rare. This past November, on his new stomping grounds on the Upper West Side, he sold out the prestigious Beacon Theater as a headliner for the New York Comedy Festival. But the pandemic has put the kibosh on touring. Have no fear: the mischievously subversive Rainbow is playing on a computer screen near you. And if you can’t wait for a post-pandemic live performance, on his website you can buy a pair of his signature pink cat’s eye glasses ($20), or a COVFEFE coffee mug ($20). Is Randy Rainbow selling out? Hey, the guy has to pay rent on his swank new Upper West Side digs.