Countless female performers have attempted to replicate the bawdy stylings of Bette Midler in the past few decades, but few of those women have deigned to dip their toes into the scene in which the Divine Miss M infamously got her start. Not so for the Texas-bred, New York–based singer and comedian Tori Scott, who once did a gig at a male bathhouse — even if it was a far cry from the ritzy Continental Baths of the Seventies where Midler earned the moniker Bathhouse Betty.
“It was nothing like Bette Midler’s days,” Scott says of her appearance at a monthly party held at a Turkish bathhouse on Wall Street. “I’ve seen the videos of Bette Midler at the bathhouse — there’s a really grainy one on YouTube — and she has a band and a stage and a full audience of people sitting and watching her. I, on the other hand, was the only woman, standing on a small stage and singing along to a couple of tracks.” Asked if she witnessed any of the patrons engaging in any dirty deeds while she was there, Scott offers up her first of many hearty laughs. “Of course I walked around before I left,” she admits. “Someone told me that Midler once said she never saw a penis in all of her time performing at the bathhouses, but I have never seen so many penises in my life.”
There will be remarkably fewer male genitals flanking the 35-year-old performer when she takes the stage at Joe’s Pub on December 14 for her upcoming show, Vodka Is the Reason for the Season, but that won’t keep Scott from working a little blue. And while the name of her act might imply some onstage boozing — as did her sharply titled show over the summer, Thirsty! — Scott admits she keeps herself pretty tame. (“Sometimes I’ll pretend I’m drunk onstage,” she says.) But it’s the stories she tells, paired perfectly with a selection of songs ranging from American standards to contemporary pop, that showcase her strength as a performer who occupies the border zone between stand-up comedy and cabaret.
Scott easily blends the crude with the charming (an anecdote about a homeless man masturbating in front of her on the subway begets a mash-up of Judy Garland’s “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “The Trolley Song”), the confessional with the self-deprecating (“I like a guy who’s direct and goes after what he wants,” she muses. “No games, no dinner…no teeth”). Her wry observations are more Margaret Cho than Garland — just if, you know, Margaret Cho could sing.
While Scott cites the usual suspects of Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone as influencing her belting-heavy approach, she more exuberantly expresses a love for funny women — particularly Carol Burnett, Janeane Garofalo, and Cho. “I was really into watching stand-up as a teenager,” she says, “and I never understood how people could do that: to get up onstage and tell jokes.” Discovering Cho in college, she learned that a comedian wasn’t limited to formulaic bits but could work more as a storyteller or cultural observer. Pairing the latter sensibility with music, Scott playfully pokes at the absurdities of the human experience, particularly in a routine that plots the life cycle of a lesbian relationship through four songs (specifically, Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” and Annie Lennox’s “Why”). Her voice, of course, is a safety net. “If a joke doesn’t land,” she says, “I can always save it with a song.”
After graduating from the Boston Conservatory, Scott, like many young hopefuls who find their way to New York, dreamed of Broadway fame and fortune — a career path that didn’t pan out. She went on numerous auditions, often for the same role (“If I went in for Hairspray one more time, I thought I’d kill myself,” she says), and soon found herself sick of performing, considering that the performances were limited to “singing sixteen bars of showtunes in audition rooms.” A respite from that disillusionment came, naturally, in gay bars — Vlada, to be exact, the now-closed club on 51st Street where a friend of Scott’s worked and offered her a gig. It was there that a co-worker of Scott’s saw her show — she was working as a fundraiser for the Public Theater at the time (and now holds a similar position at MCC Theater) — and implored director Shanta Thake to give Scott a gig at the theater complex’s cabaret space at Joe’s Pub.
Scott experienced a bit of nervous culture shock when she was offered the shot to move to a more established performance venue. “I remember sitting in Joe’s Pub for a show a few weeks before my first one, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe I said yes to this,’ ” she recalls. “I was used to being in the back of a gay bar, where people are loud and drunk and barely listening to me.” But a successful first show paved the way for more appearances at the venue, with next week’s being her twelfth.
Joe’s Pub might be the epicenter of the cabaret scene in Lower Manhattan — a far cry from the more polished spaces uptown and their prim and proper notion of cabaret. The performance style has, until recent years, been associated with standards and showtunes, two genres that Scott doesn’t necessarily avoid. But the blurring lines between performance art and comedy have given rise to genre-bending performers, which allows Scott the freedom to explore the ways in which comic storytelling and singing (or, in Scott’s case, belting) go hand in hand.
And it might be one of the few remaining art forms primarily found in New York City. Scott recounts a trip to a theater festival in her home state of Texas last winter: She was already nervous about how her tales of romantic pratfalls and wacky urban adventures would play in the Lone Star State, and that anxiety heightened when she did interviews to promote her show. “Every interview I did involved someone saying to me, ‘We don’t really have cabaret down here! Explain it to me!’ ” she says. “How do you explain cabaret? It’s such a wide range. I found it was easiest to say it’s comic storytelling through song.”
Like all great storytellers, Scott has a way of making the specific feel universal; seeing a homeless man’s unit on the train isn’t a prerequisite to feeling grossed out by an unwanted suitor, after all. But it’s the music that ties the package together, a metaphor fitting for her upcoming holiday-themed extravaganza that gives the self-described “bad-decision expert” the chance to embrace the seasonal spirit. With a selection of songs made popular by Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, among others, Scott is closing out the year with what she does best: what she describes as her own little mixtape, peppered with relatable stories and mixed with her own favorite tipsy spirit for that extra oomph to make an emotionally volatile time of year go down just a little bit smoother.
Tori Scott: Vodka is the Reason for the Season opens at Joe’s Pub on December 14. For ticket information, click here.