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The busy burlesque host and producer, who’s also the mastermind behind the long-running Gameshow Speakeasy (in which celebrity contestants guess audience members’ occupations), presents his latest burly-Q salvo, succinctly titled Sexy.
TONY: I ran into your name years ago, long before I knew what you did. How did you come to call yourself Neil O’Fortune?
Neil O’Fortune: That actually originated with another performer, Jo “Boobs” [Weldon]. We were hanging out with a group of people, and she just turned to me and said, “Neil O’Fortune!” This was long time ago, before I even knew I would need a name. I said, “If I ever need one, that’s gotta be the one I’ll use.” And the first thing I ever did was host a game show, so it was a perfect fit.
TONY: Was that Gameshow Speakeasy?
Neil O’Fortune: Yeah. That was back in 2006.
TONY: That’s not quite as long a run as Wheel of Fortune, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Neil O’Fortune: Yes, for a live game show in New York, it’s not bad. It will be six years next month.
TONY: What were you doing before then?
Neil O’Fortune: I was working in the non-profit field, and I still am, when I’m not hosting or producing shows. But I originally got into this because my former partner in life, Clams Casino, became a performer herself, and we decided to get involved in this world together; we actually were producing Gameshow Speakeasy together. I said, “Well, I work cheap—I guess I can host this thing!” It just kind of took off from there. For a while that’s the only thing I was hosting, and from there it grew into producing and hosting burlesque shows.
TONY: And now you’re an impresario—at least, that’s how you’re described on your website, neilofortune.com.
Neil O’Fortune: Well, you know, others have called me that. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. But then again, everything I do is a little tongue-in-cheek.
TONY: You’ve had some notable panelists over the years, haven’t you?
Neil O’Fortune: Yeah. The show is based on the old TV game show What’s My Line?, which was famous for having celebrity guests. I always wanted to include something like that in our version of the show, and I’ve been very lucky in getting pretty people to play the game over the years. That’s one of the advantages of being in New York; everybody lives here. Martha Plimpton was the mystery guest at the second show I ever did, and she was great. Another early one was Zach Galifianakis, and he was hilarious and completely charming. He hung out afterwards and had a beer. Of course, this was before The Hangover; he wasn’t quite the global, SNL–hosting megastar he is now.
TONY: As great as he is, I never would have pegged him as a future international superstar.
Neil O’Fortune: That’s so true. He’s so quirky. He just got the right role, and it blew up from there. We’ve had so many other people as well…lots of comedians and musicians. We had Randy Jones from the Village People, for instance. More recently, we’ve had a lot of people from The Daily Show. The bottom line is that if you answer your own e-mail, I have a good chance of getting you.
TONY: I was going to ask you about how you actually line up your guests. Do you seek them out, or do they sometimes come to you?
Neil O’Fortune: I’ve usually come after them. Some of them come through personal connections; working in the nightlife community, you end up knowing a lot of people who work with these guys. But often, I’ll just take a chance and track them down on Facebook or Twitter. They either think that it sounds like something fun, or they don’t.
TONY: The game involves figuring out people’s occupations. What are some of the oddest jobs that you’ve featured?
Neil O’Fortune: Oh boy. Well, sometimes I’ve booked contestants with interesting jobs, and I’ve also just taken contestants out of the audience. Without fail, the most interesting ones have come out of the audience. Early on, we had a prostitute play the game. She wasn’t working that night; she was on a date—a nonpaying date. We have them fill out sheets with their names and what they do, and my lovely assistant brought this one up to me onstage and whispered, “This is real.” I was like, “Oh, she is definitely playing!”
You can’t pass that up.
Neil O’Fortune: No, you can’t. We’ve also had an anal bleacher.
TONY: I never knew that was a real job!
Neil O’Fortune: Oh, it’s real. I mean, he did other stuff as well, but that was a big part of his job. I read about it in Next Magazine and was like, I have to get one of these guys. He had his own salon, and was apparently one of the first people in the city to do it for the general population, not just for porn stars. The funniest part was that the panel actually guessed it correctly. We’ve gone from stuff like that to someone who was literally a rocket scientist, and everything in between. We’ve had a morgue photographer, the official historian for the borough of Manhattan…all kinds of fun stuff. The odd thing is that the most colorful occupations are the most fun, but it’s almost always the case that the panel struggles with jobs like bike messenger or dog walker. They tend to overthink it.
TONY: I’m sure in your related field of endeavor, burlesque producer and host, you’ve met a lot of interesting people as well.
Neil O’Fortune: Oh, sure. But the beauty of being involved in burlesque in New York is that there is such a level of professionalism here, maybe more than exists anywhere else. I’m lucky enough to have worked with burlesque performers from all over the country and the world—I work with the burlesque hall of fame in Las Vegas—so I’ve seen everything there is to see. And I can say that, without a doubt, New York performers are the most diverse and the most interesting and the most professional around. And we have so many performers here—in burlesque, sideshow, cabaret and all those overlapping circles—that do it on such a high level. There are more here than anywhere in the world.
TONY: Do you think that’s a recent phenomenon?
Neil O’Fortune: When I started, if I told somebody that I doing a burlesque show, they’d ask, “What is that?” Now, they always know what it is. It’s very rare to run into somebody who hasn’t seen a show at some point; the level of awareness is amazing.
TONY: That must be quite fulfilling for people like yourself who have been at this for a while.
Neil O’Fortune: It’s been interesting, that’s for sure. There are positives and negatives. There are more shows now than any of us would have ever thought possible. And that’s great. But it certainly puts more pressure on producers to put on a really kick-ass show. With such a proliferation of shows, you have to stand out more. I want to make sure that if somebody is new to burlesque and is coming to my show for the first time—out of all the shows in Time Out they could pick from—I want to create a new fan, both for my own shows and for burlesque in general. We all want to keep everybody in business. There’s added pressure, for sure.
TONY: I suspect that you are up to that challenge.
Neil O’Fortune: I think so. There are literally several generations of performers in New York now; there are people who have been doing it for over a decade, and the people who are super talented but have only been performing for a month. Because I’ve been doing this for a while, I know all of them. I have people in my upcoming show who have are new to the scene, and then I have people like Trixie Little & the Evil Hate Monkey who have been at it for a long time, and are among the most respected performers in the country.
TONY: I like the name of your new show, Sexy. It’s a very to-the-point title.
Neil O’Fortune: That was my goal! You know, one of the things about burlesque in New York nowadays is that there are a lot of theme shows—a lot of shows that focus on a particular genre, or a particular kind of character or music or scene. And that’s great. But my goal is to build a show that doesn’t require a particular area of interest, that you know exactly what you’re getting into when you hear the title. Burlesque is a lot of things. It’s funny, it’s thrilling.… It encompasses a lot of things. But when you come right down to it, it’s always supposed to be sexy. It’s grown-up entertainment; it’s supposed to turn you on
TONY: Some of your shows have had a bit of a narrower focus, though, right?
Neil O’Fortune: Sure. We did a couple of shows called So Wrong It’s Right, which focused on the most out-there, “I can’t believe I just saw that” kind of acts. And the last one was called That’s Incredible, which included amazing feats and “How’d they do that?” kind of acts. One performer assembled a game of Mouse Trap as part of her act. There was hula hooping, fire stuff, that sort of thing. After those shows, I was wondering what I should do next. And the answer was easy: the sexiest acts. That’s what it’s all about, right?
TONY: Who do you have lined up for Sexy?
Neil O’Fortune: It’s a fabulous lineup. I have Darlinda Just Darlinda, Fifi Dupree, Ruby Valentine, Rhinestone Follies’ Ginger Brown, Jezebel Express, Honi Harlow, Schäffer the Darklord, and as I mentioned before, Trixie Little & the Evil Hate Monkey. I’m hoping that we make the aerial happen, so that they can perform the act that they just did in Vegas for the Burlesque Hall of Fame last month, which was just incredible.
TONY: Didn’t you get your start in burlesque by volunteering for the Burlesque Hall of Fame?
Neil O’Fortune: That is absolutely true. I did that before I did anything on stage myself. My first year out there as part of the volunteer production team was the first year that it was in Vegas, in 2005. I’ve been a part of it ever since. I highly recommend it; it’s amazing. There’s a large New York contingent there every year, both onstage and off. And I’ll tell you, getting to see people who you might ordinarily see on tiny little stages—a door and four paint cans kind of thing—doing what they do in front of 700 people, on this stunning, huge stage with great lighting and sound… It’s very, very cool.
TONY: So what’s next on the agenda?
Neil O’Fortune: We have the sixth anniversary of Gameshow Speakeasy coming up in August. And on August 10th, I’ll be in Coney Island as part of the Burlesque at the Beach series. That’ll be a good one; it’s a burlesque version of Iron Chef. We’re calling it Iron Stripper. That could be a total mess.… But it will be very Coney Island.
Neil O'Fortune Presents Sexy at the Bowery Poetry Club Friday, July 13.