Brian Gallivan had a hint, years ago, that he was onto something with his Sassy Gay Friend sketches. He first performed them on the Second City mainstage in the mid-aughties, and at one point, he recalls, “Someone said to me, ‘You found a new joke. There aren’t many new jokes around.’”
Now the brash persona has ignited the Internet. Recorded in January for the Second City Network channel on YouTube, three sketches showcase Gallivan as the titular quippy queen, whose one-man interventions with Shakespearean ingenues always begin with his trademark exclamation: “What are you doing?!? What. What. What are you doing?” With tough talk punctuated by a flip of his saucy scarf, he coaxes Ophelia, Juliet and Desdemona out of their fatal decisions. “Instead of drowning yourself,” he instructs Ophelia, “you’re gonna write a sad poem in your journal and move on. P.S. This is the best your hair has ever looked! Oh my God, I can’t believe you were going to get it wet!”
The trifecta of videos burst onto YouTube in February and March; they’ve since tallied more than 4 million hits and inspired a legion of inferior knockoffs. It’s a new world for Gallivan, who says he initially resisted video because he’d only performed for a live audience. Now he’s getting spotted by strangers. “Whenever I’m eating bad fast food, I get recognized,” he says.
In 2003, the Massachusetts native left a teaching career to explore comedy in Chicago. Four years later, Gallivan moved to L.A., where he now performs for both the Second City’s West Coast outlet and Upright Citizens Brigade. The viral videos have snagged him “some meetings and more attention in Hollywood.”
Asked about his pioneering work last decade in terms of gay visibility at Second City, Gallivan says, “I didn’t really think about it too much while I was there. But I went back for the 50th anniversary in December, which was amazing and fun, and I realized how few out gay performers have been on the mainstage. Improv is a real straight-guy thing.”
During those Chicago days, he admits, he grew tired of Sassy Gay Friend. “The character is so big—he is kind of a stereotype, in a fun way,” Gallivan says. But a colleague in L.A. encouraged him to revive the sketches, “and I remembered how fun they are.”
Along with the team that worked on the first vids—director Josh Funk and producer Mark Kienlen—Gallivan plans to heed the online clamor for more. Though he’s keeping the new scenarios under wraps, Gallivan says viewers likely will get to see Sassy Gay Friend dealing with Lady Macbeth’s damn spots. Beyond that, “we will probably be heading outside the Shakespeare world.”
In the meantime, fans are e-mailing Gallivan from the U.S., Ireland, Denmark and New Zealand. “They see my name in the credits and look me up on Facebook,” he says. What if he ends up with a cyberstalker? Gallivan notes, sassily, “Isn’t that a sign that you’ve really made it?”