The Woman Who Laughs: Vera Drew on “The People’s Joker”

The gonzo polymath talks sight gags, caped crusaders, and the pop-culture whiplash of her debut feature.
Kamikaze Jones

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

In The People’s Joker (2022), Vera Drew makes her feverish entrance into the cluttered morass of the DC Comics cinematic multiverse by bursting through a trapdoor. Having garnered recognition as an Emmy-nominated television editor for outré comedians such as Tim Heidecker, Eric André, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Tim Robinson, Drew serves as director, co-writer, editor, lead actress, and cosmic prankster for her cinematic debut. The anarchic DIY spectacle, recently released theatrically after two years in intellectual-property limbo, mines the contradictory supervillain mythologies of the Joker to narrate Drew’s journey of self-discovery as a trans woman in the fractious world of alternative comedy. After Warner Bros. sent a cryptic letter of disapproval regarding the film’s flagrant recontextualization of the Batman franchise a day before its debut at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, it was pulled from the program. 

Drew and her battalion of masked vigilantes (entertainment lawyers, gender outlaws of myriad vocations, and the queer distribution company Altered Innocence) have commandeered a janky Batmobile to chug along the congested outskirts of Gotham City, charting an unconventional course to the film’s release. From both a technical and conceptual standpoint, The People’s Joker is an exquisite corpse stitched together by a criminal mastermind, comprising crowdsourced contributions from over 100 artists, running the gamut from intentionally crude deepfakes to uncanny 3D models and matte backdrops. 

Under Drew’s puckish brand of auteur Discordianism, the Gaussian blur of a Zoom call background and the ubiquity of the green screen are perverse signifiers of a warped transcendental cinema, landing somewhere between the satirical mysticism of Xavier Renegade Angel (2007–2009) and the multisensory barrage of Ryan Trecartin’s video art. Here, Joker the Harlequin (Drew) endures a difficult relationship with her mother (Lynn Downey) and navigates a fraught romance with Mr. J, her toxic transmasc boyfriend (Kane Distler), while mingling freely with partially-digested Sims, interdimensional beings, conservative talk-show pundits, and digitally rendered corporate-comedy overlords. The overall effect is destabilizing and invigorating, a Troma-inflected blast of autofiction that explores how gender identity is mediated by pop culture, the liberatory capacity of the avatar, the comedy world's complicity in authoritarianism, and the sad, sad tears of the proverbial clown.

A day before the New York debut of The People’s Joker at IFC Center, I grabbed coffee with Drew to talk about New Trans Cinema, chaos magic, digital piracy, Transcendental Meditation, and the memeification of the sociopolitical landscape.

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: I first read about your film in Corpses, Fools, and Monsters, the forthcoming book by Caden Mark Gardner and Willow Maclay about the history of the trans cinematic image. We seem to be in the middle of a very particular zeitgeist in contemporary trans cinema, in which parody, revisionism, and transgression are primary forms of interest.

VERA DREW: I don't think I understood that on an academic level until we were in the middle of making The People's Joker. I've always thought of transness as very spiritual, but the act of actually creating the film with so many different contributors and animators was revelatory. Even with Hedwig and the Angry Inch [2001], there [are] animated sequences, mixed media, and an emphasis on time-bending. There's something inherently queer about style clash and pulling from a lot of different resources. For me it's the iconography of the Joker, and for a filmmaker like Jane Schoenbrun with I Saw the TV Glow [2024] it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We each have a formative relationship to specific pieces of media that we were able to see our identities reflected in. Alice Maio Mackay is an Australian filmmaker that I always like to shout out because she's literally nineteen and has made five genre movies at this point.

NOTEBOOK: She made T Blockers [2023], right?

DREW: Yeah, it's great. I really identify with her as a filmmaker and as a trans woman, because her influences are directors like Kevin Smith. When you grow up in a world where you don't have real representation to point to, you have to find yourself in little fragments that you can hopefully piece together. Now not only can I read comics to see myself, I can use them to actually mythologize my life. That's definitely the through line I see with the community of trans filmmakers that are currently popping up. We’re drawn to a lot of the same pop-culture references, but we have different aesthetics and approaches… I bring a very Midwestern identity to the kind of stuff I'm trying to make. 

NOTEBOOK: For me, The People's Joker feels very informed by millennial internet culture: eBaum's World, Napster, and the aesthetics of digital piracy, like the "You Wouldn't Steal A Car" commercials that were meant to deter teens from illegal downloading. I was wondering if there were any formative viral videos or digital media you remember seeing as a teenager that might have reemerged while making this film?

DREW: That's all definitely there. The digital media landscape is an overriding influence, but on a more immediate level, I was playing with the Adult Swim style. I came up at Tim and Eric [2007–2010] as an editor, and doing post production at that company was kind of like my incubator. I was always playing with the analog aesthetic, but in that glossy digital way that they're known for. In The People's Joker I wanted to approach that from a very sincere, autobiographical space, because I'd never seen it used in that way before.

As for the internet, my friend Alec Robbins, who created a comic called Mr. Boop, randomly tweets sometimes, "For as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be on the computer." I think about that all the time. I was frequently drawn to the art that was inaccessible to me. I definitely remember downloading Team America World Police [2004] on LimeWire, and I think the first time I ever saw a David Lynch film, pre-Criterion Channel, it was through a torrent. My generation of queer people experienced when physical media like DVDs got wiped out by streaming services as they became more controlled by capitalism. I think that shift definitely impacted my film’s early-[aughts] Hot Topic mall rat, pop-punk energy.

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: I feel like there's a relationship that the trans community has with cringe comedy and the edgelord sensibility that is explored pretty thoroughly in this film.

DREW: I think a lot of us want to explore it, because we're constantly subjected to the idea that wokeness is somehow a threat to comedy. That was one of the reasons that my cowriter Bri LeRose and I actually sat down and wrote The People's Joker, because Todd Phillips had been talking about woke culture, and how he didn't want to direct comedy films anymore, because it was too hard in the times we live in. Most people want to hear me talk shit on Joker [2019], but I understand where that sentiment comes from. We do live in very reactionary times, and I came up as a comedian during a period where everybody was doing really edgelord jokes. I understand that creatives can feel stifled by "wokeness" or whatever, but for me, my trans friends are the most offensive people I know and have the crudest sense of humor. My friend Louise Weard is a despicable human being. She's making a sixteen-hour film right now about castration, and I play a white woman with dreadlocks in it, with cold sores all over my face…spoiler alert. That is a space that I think we're all trying to reclaim, because the realm of the subversive used to belong to queer artists like John Waters and Kenneth Anger, and it somehow got taken away from us. 

On top of that, I was really into conspiracy theories when I was an angry, stinky socialist in college. I'd watch Alex Jones all the time, because he was a news source that was ridiculous and funny, and a lot of it was obviously fake, but then he would be railing against the police, or talking about George [W.] Bush as a war criminal, and comedians were parroting him on SNL. Then I noticed that when Pizzagate happened conspiracies had completely stopped being fun or for entertainment purposes, and became a force that was actively destroying America. I remember thinking that the world of alt-right memes was eerily similar to the aesthetics we were toying with at Adult Swim. The lines had gotten so blurry.

NOTEBOOK: I want to talk about the history of the Joker, which is so multifaceted and has its own unique context in regards to gay panic, in which the Joker, and comic books in general, were cited as a source of rising rates of homosexuality by censors in the 1950s. Then in 2018 there was an online petition to make the Joker gay again, because of various homoerotic overtones that have ebbed and flowed throughout the history of the character. In your work you seem very engaged with the notion of "trans panic" and the semiotics of propaganda. 

DREW: So, I'm very New Agey. I'm very magical-minded.

NOTEBOOK: Same here. I'm a woo-woo girly. Memes are sigils, you know?

DREW: I'm so glad we're talking. Sigils and memes are the exact same thing! People are often committing magical acts without even realizing. My movie is not a Joker movie. And it's not a Batman movie. It's a movie about my relationship to those archetypes. I'm attracted to the Joker as a primordial trickster. Grant Morrison's portrayal of the Joker in their Arkham Asylum book is a mythical queer Joker grabbing Batman's ass, and explores this premise that Joker is so crazy and so traumatized that he can see through the matrix code of reality. He knows he's a comic-book character, and he knows that Batman will never kill him because Batman needs him to function.

I've been experiencing trans panic in some ways around the film's release. People online have been feeling protective about the franchise.

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: Warner Bros. canceled that Batgirl movie a couple years back. Ivory Aquino would have played the first trans character in the DC cinematic universe. 

DREW: It's so weird to me, because the 1960s Batman series was, for its time, incredibly diverse and campy. It's arguably queerer than Joel Schumacher's Batman. The characters from that series feel like messy 2020s queers. The Riddler in that show is essentially a weird little poly freak, and it's beautiful. It’s such a part of those characters' identities, but it's never explicitly stated. I can't stress enough that I'm legally allowed to explore this material because I'm exploring it from the lens of my own personal experience. It is my life, and embarrassingly so. I'm getting asked questions on this press tour like, "Oh, has your mom seen the movie yet?"  Then I have to watch them put in writing that I haven't talked to my mom in a few years, and she's gonna see the movie next week. It can be tough. As far as its use of the DC canon, the movie is actually very restrained. I could only include things from the Batman universe, or DC, if I could find a direct parallel to my life.

NOTEBOOK: Did you have to provide documentation for that? 

DREW: No, because in this situation it's a creative defense. I was talking to lawyers when we started writing it, and they gave me a list of guidelines and bullet points and rules for myself to follow, the primary one being that the character designs needed to be completely original. So we had character designers for each of our DC villains, with the exception of Joker the Harlequin, because I had a specific vision I wanted to pull together in terms of her personality and her aesthetic.

NOTEBOOK: Her makeup seems to have a touch of Kiss in it, a Gene Simmons influence.

DREW: One of the guidelines that the lawyers gave me was, "This is not a legal opinion, but don't make Batman gay. Tread lightly." Which is silly because the Joel Schumacher films are so gay. 

NOTEBOOK: They are open-secret gay, Paul Lynde–and–Liberace gay, rather than groundbreaking, explicit-fisting-scene gay.

DREW: [Laughs.] Yeah, which The People's Joker is full of.

NOTEBOOK: Viewers be warned.

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

DREW: It's weird for me. In past interviews I've gotten a lot of questions about representation, which I was thinking about very directly while we were making the film, but really only in the context of wanting to make a queer supervillain film, because I understand that transness as a concept is inherently villainized. 

NOTEBOOK: I would venture to say a majority of filmgoers aren't accustomed to experiencing an emotionally abusive T4T romance portrayed so irreverently, especially in the context of a “supervillain” film.

DREW: That was one of the scarier things to navigate creatively. I was just talking to my publicist on the train about how bad I feel for my ex-fiancé at this point, with how much I've talked about him without naming him, with how I based the character off him and how I modeled that character off of Jared Leto's Joker, which helps with the aesthetic of an abusive ex, because Jared Leto is a creep.

NOTEBOOK: Jared Leto has a particular cultural residue, and there's also the context of his portrayal of a trans character.

DREW: Yeah, it came up that casting a trans guy as a Jared Leto type character was our way of getting even for Dallas Buyers Club [2013]. I do think his [Leto's] performance was coming from a place of seriousness and sensitivity, and that's what's so sad about it too. That kind of representation is well-intentioned, but queerness has never been about assimilation.

NOTEBOOK: The anti-assimilationist ethos is interesting in the context of the visual language of the film, because it is patchwork and mosaic, but it also registers as a cohesive vision in spite of, or perhaps because of, its many disparate parts and contributions. There's that transformation sequence, set to the Mimi Zima song "Back of the Truck," that really sticks out in this regard.

DREW: I really didn't know what song that was going to be, because that comes in the middle of the movie, when the Joker really, finally becomes the Joker.

NOTEBOOK: It's her cuntification ritual.

DREW: Yes, exactly! I knew the song needed to embody that in some way. It was in the midst of pre-vax COVID, and we had a small group of five friends that would get together after testing every month to do a rave at one of our houses. We would do molly and, you know, all the things. We were all dancing, and that song came on, blatantly exclaiming the joys of "acting like a slut while I'm looking like a bitch" and I knew it was the attitude that we should all be aspiring towards.

NOTEBOOK: It's the pinnacle of representation.

DREW: Look, in my day-to-day life, I'm one of the most boring people ever. I wake up super early, I meditate, I eat breakfast, and I go for a walk. I have ten really quiet friends that I see about once a year. But when I'm making art or having conversations like this, I'm not going to try to fit in. I just did an interview where I described an executive as addicted to Adderall, and [the interviewer was] like, “Wow, you really just go for it.” A lot of executives are addicted to Adderall, and I wouldn't have finished my movie without it! We've run out of time to be polite, as far as I'm concerned. There's a way of being direct and brassy while still respecting other people's humanity. I'm a trans woman who's not interested in making respectable films, and we throw a lot of bombs at major institutions in The People’s Joker, and poke at the white cis savior complex that runs through most Hollywood storytelling. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking to that, the class dynamics of Batman have always been dubious; the rich philanthropist turned tortured vigilante who protects the needy and the disenfranchised. 

DREW: That was why I took that bit of advice I got from my lawyers and immediately threw it out, because how can I talk about a billionaire crime-fighter and copaganda icon without talking about abuse of power? Even beyond capital, Batman is an extremely flawed character. He’s a 55-year-old man who’s obsessed with his parents dying and perpetuating his own trauma. The gay Batman and Robin narrative in all honesty would be pretty grim… “Trust your Daddy! He rescued you from the orphanage!” It was a direction that even my co-writer was hesitant to explore, but Mr. J needed his moment. We needed to understand why he was the way he was. I was thinking about the relationship between Tara Reade and Joe Biden—

NOTEBOOK: This is stupid, but I was thinking of Sharknado [2013] in regard to your film… And now I realize that is not the Tara Reid you are referring to. 

DREW: Both Taras were very influential in the making of this film. There’s your headline. 

The People's Joker (Vera Drew, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: Do you believe in the revolutionary capacity of comedy?

DREW: Honestly, it's been so demystified for me that at this point, I don't know. I think The People's Joker is contending with the fact that comedy in and of itself is pretentious. It makes sense to me why certain comedians are considered philosopher-kings now. People like Dave Chappelle and Jordan Peterson being put into the same category as “leaders of thought” is crazy, but comedy has always been a propaganda tool on some level. The comedy that I was profoundly influenced by was anarchic, whether it was Tim and Eric or John Waters. I’m interested in punching up rather than punching down, in tearing into structures of power. Comedy should never be used to uphold the interests of the state. The People’s Joker is political and like a [Paul] Verhoeven movie with all the media landscape stuff, but ultimately the movie is about how comedy can, in its purest form, help you figure out what your identity is, and at its worst, keep you a prisoner of identity. 

NOTEBOOK: There are a variety of editing techniques in the film that hint at the media’s complicity in collective oppression. For example, there’s an artificial shaft of light in certain digital backdrops that is reminiscent of antidepressant commercials, particularly in flashback scenes when Joker the Harlequin is talking to her mother.

DREW: That's another negative reaction that comes up with the movie: that it was too much stuff to look at. I get it! The first twenty minutes of the movie [were] put together in a way that MK Ultras people into saying, “Okay, I'm acclimated. I've seen every type of animation under the sun in record time. I can’t turn back now.” I was at a film festival screening it, and I stepped out for a break during one of the more challenging sequences that are hard for me to watch, and there was this old man out there vaping. He recognized me from the intro and said, “Hey, I'm sorry, I just needed a break.” I was like “Dude, it's totally fine, me too.” There are certain lens flares and soft-focus moments that are designed to overwhelm the viewer with the character’s perspective. I’ve always been a fan of Harmony Korine and the way he can take the viewer hostage, especially in his new film, Aggro Dr1ft [2023]. 

I think a lot of my experimental impulses come from David Lynch. Mulholland Drive [2001] is a very trans movie to me. He really was a big influence on The People’s Joker, if only because I got into Transcendental Meditation while I was making it. It's not a practice that's for everybody, and I get why a lot of people don't like it, but it really saved my ass as a creator. In order for me to effectively make art, I need to be experimental in my understanding of reality. I found that a lot through meditation and chaos magic. I think a lot of artists make work not to be understood but to understand themselves. I was taking a big leap of faith and working with a deep inner knowledge to get this film made. I took out a huge loan to finish it, and I was taking on the risk of being in debt for the rest of my life, but at least I'd have made a movie that I was confident would find its audience no matter what kind of distribution plan it got. I was confident I would come out on the other side more self-actualized and understand the first 28 years of my life in a way that I never would have been able to if I didn't make myself this naked cinematically. And it all feels very worth it.

NOTEBOOK: So in a way this film is an act of chaos magic for you?

DREW: It is one giant chaos magic ritual. I won’t get more specific than that, but it is.

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