March 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Cole Escola breaks out in ‘Search Party’ Season 4. About time

While isolated in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment this spring, Cole Escola decided to do what no network or streaming service had, to that point, been willing to do: turn the sold-out stage show “Help! I’m Stuck!” into a TV special.

The forced solitude of the pandemic presented an opportunity: “That’s exactly the low bar that this show needs,” Escola recalls thinking.

Working from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. each night to avoid noisy neighbors and honking cars, the actor-writer-comedian donned an array of wigs to play film noir vixen and furniture magnate Jennifer Convertibles; Jessup Collins, a fashion expert with a grotesque filler face; and Laura Jean, a starry-eyed Southern belle who dreams of being a circus tuba player.

Filming on an Android and editing in iMovie, Escola released the 54-minute variety act to YouTube in a matter of weeks.

The aesthetic love child of John Waters, Tennessee Williams and Carol Burnett, “Help! I’m Stuck!” veers from potty humor to poignant melodrama to pop-culture parody, yet coheres as the work of a singular, wonderfully strange artist.

“I like playing extremes,” says Escola, who came out as nonbinary this month and uses they/their pronouns. “I don’t really know how to not be a 10.”

Cole Escola as Jennifer Convertibles in the digital version of “Help! I’m Stuck!”

(Cole Escola via YouTube)

Escola embraces these instincts in their breakthrough role as a deliciously over-the-top villain in the latest season of the noir comedy “Search Party,” currently streaming on HBO Max. “I just love anything that’s super-heightened,” Escola says via video conference from the same granny-chic living room where the special was made. “That feels more real to me, a more honest channel to express emotions. Like, poetry over diary, you know?”

The extreme DIY ethos is nothing new for Escola, who has been writing and performing their own material on YouTube for much of the last decade, often taking familiar archetypes to unexpected places and bringing kitschy characters to life with the commitment of a Method actor.

In a sketch called simply “Mom Commercial,” Escola played a suburban mom whose cheerful pitch for reduced-sugar orange juice abruptly pivots into a bizarre confessional about a lethal dog-fighting ring. And while Escola has a knack for female characters, their repertoire includes men too, like Toby, a basic bro who also happens to be an undiscovered musical theater virtuoso.

The industry has haltingly taken notice of Escola’s gifts. An under-the-radar sketch show, “Jeffery & Cole Casserole,” aired on Logo for two seasons and led to scene-stealing supporting roles in the acerbic comedy “Difficult People” and the oddball sketch show “At Home With Amy Sedaris.”

But even though the stage version of “Help! I’m Stuck!” had a successful pre-pandemic run in New York and beyond, the network people Escola invited to the show would say it was “‘too niche,’ which is code for ‘gay.’ It was just too weird, and maybe too queer, for people.”

Cole Escola in a scene from "Search Party."

Cole Escola in a scene from “Search Party.”

(Chris Saunders / HBO Max)

“It’s all about the lens to me,” Escola continues. “A lot of culture and art is created with the straight audience in mind, gay-splaining or trans-splaining to a straight audience. Like, ‘We are human. Look, we cry just like regular people! And you’re a good person because you cried when we cried.’”

Comedian Bridget Everett, who cast Escola as her diaper-clad unborn fetus in the bawdy cabaret show “Rock Bottom,” thinks the business has some catching up to do. “[With] anybody that is ahead of their time and so sharply and uniquely themselves, it can take a minute. But I just feel like Cole has the star power and the unique point of view to take us all to a different place. And I truly hope that they start cashing some big checks.”

In “Search Party,” Escola plays Chip, an obsessed fan who kidnaps Brooklyn hipster Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), holds her captive in a Victorian mansion and dresses in drag to avoid detection — a gleefully camp baddie who combines “Psycho’s” Norman Bates with Kathy Bates’ character in “Misery.”

“The whole Bates family,” says Escola, who, with doe eyes and a baby face, could pass for Amy Adams’ younger sibling.

Creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers wrote the character, briefly introduced last season, with Escola in mind. “We knew that we wanted them to do what they do best and play an older woman,” Rogers says.

Escola, 34, is at the forefront of a comedy scene that includes “Search Party” costar John Early, “Los Espookys’” Julio Torres and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang — millennials making subversive, off-kilter comedy from a queer point of view and building a following through social media as much as traditional platforms. (To wit, Escola recently invited their Instagram followers to submit videos dramatically reciting the line, “I kissed my grandfather goodbye in that rotunda,” inspired by Jenna Bush Hager’s reaction to the Capitol riots. The sentence is “just eight words long,” says Escola, “but raises, like, 6,000 questions.”)

Cole Escola, actor and comedian, leans in a Brooklyn doorway.

Cole Escola in Brooklyn.

(Michael Nagle / For The Times)

Yet Escola also has a distinctly old-school sensibility. In conversation, they cite the formative influences of Linda Lavin and Julia Duffy. One of their signature impressions is Bernadette Peters.

“I think Cole is one of many people who represent this time comedically,” Rogers says, “but then I also think that what makes Cole special is there’s a timeless quality. They feel like they’ve maybe been on the Earth for a hundred years.”

Escola grew up in Clatskanie, Ore. — a tiny logging town that is also the birthplace of Raymond Carver — as self-described “trailer trash.” Their mother cleaned houses and worked at an adult care facility; their father “wasn’t really in the picture.”

The Missoula Children’s Theatre’s annual visit to Clatskanie was a highlight for Escola because it marked “the one week a year where I got to do something that I liked,” they say. At 5, Escola played a breadcrumb-eating bird in “Hansel & Gretel” and a passion was born.

As a tween, they worshiped the women of “Saturday Night Live” — “Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer were like the holy Trinity for me” — and had precocious taste in sitcoms.

“I used to run home after the pool closed in the summer to watch ‘Newhart,’” Escola says. Other favorites included “Mad About You” and “Keeping Up Appearances,” the British comedy about a middle-class woman putting on airs: “I was, like, a redneck just aspiring to be PBS.”

Escola also gravitated to the glamour and poetry of old movies. “It was just so romantic to watch people speak beautifully and passionately, like Ida Lupino in ‘The Hard Way,’ just monologuing about getting out of this hick town one way or another,” they say, affecting the rhythms of a ‘40s film star.

Escola came out as gay at 17 and, after high school, followed an ex-boyfriend to New York City — yes, like “Felicity.” They enrolled at Marymount College but soon dropped out. “I couldn’t afford it. It was either go home to community college or stay in New York. And you can’t spend a year in New York and then go back to community college.”

Escola’s early years in New York were rough going. There was a stint living with strangers in a railroad apartment — “a mattress on the floor situation” in Bushwick — and an assault at gunpoint.

Cole Escola in a scene from "At Home With Amy Sedaris."

Cole Escola in a scene from “At Home With Amy Sedaris.”

(Phil Caruso / TruTV)

Escola found a job at a vegan, gluten-free bakery but for several years supplemented their modest wages through sex work. “It was less demoralizing than any service job I’ve ever had, because at least I didn’t have to be nice to people. Being a counter person at the bakery felt more degrading to me.” Still, Escola adds, “I was very naive in terms of the dangerous situations that I put myself in.”

Escola eventually befriended fellow comedian and now “Search Party” costar Jeffery Self — “we spoke the same language” — and they began to perform as a duo called VGL (“very good-looking”) Gay Boys. Their lo-fi videos earned them the chance to make the late-night “Jeffery & Cole Casserole.”

It didn’t pay well enough for Escola to quit sex work right away, but it got them noticed.

Escola became a fixture in the downtown cabaret scene, performing exuberant covers of Taylor Swift and Cher, sometimes wearing nothing but a pair of briefs.

“Rock Bottom’s” Everett gave Escola the nickname “HPF,” or “Human Party Favor,” because, she says, “Cole surprises and delights and makes everything a better place to be.” But she also sensed a certain vulnerability, an undercurrent of melancholy in the “zigs and zags and surprises” of the stories Escola would tell about their childhood.

“I think the sadness in Cole is both what delights me as a viewer and makes me want to wrap them up and protect them,” she says. “It’s oddly like what you see when you’re watching Judy Garland. There’s this command and this power, but there’s, like, a wounded bird sitting in front of you. And whenever you can slice yourself open and let people see the raw nerve beating, you’re gonna win, but people are going to want to protect you.”

Sedaris had guest-starred on “Difficult People” and was impressed by Escola’s performance as Billy Eichner’s monstrously vapid nemesis, Matthew. When she saw “Mom Commercial,” she realized Escola would be the right person to play her neighbor, Chassie Tucker, a pastry chef and part-time grifter with an Ann-Margret bouffant, in “At Home,” a twisted version of a cooking-and-crafting show.

Cole Escola in a scene from "Search Party."

Cole Escola with Alia Shawkat in a scene from “Search Party.”

(Chris Saunders / HBO Max)

Escola would elevate the material with minute but sublimely silly flourishes — like dragging Chassie’s handbag in butter during a spanakopita demonstration — and became a force in the writers room in Season 2, according to Sedaris. “We’d say, ‘Everyone leave for the day and come back with an idea for the scene.’ Cole would just go way out there.”

Asked where she sees Escola’s career heading, Sedaris replies, “No one wants a TV show more than Cole Escola. And [they] deserve it.”

Escola is currently developing an animated series with the team behind “Big Mouth” and is again collaborating with Self, this time on a pilot. “Help! I’m Stuck!” “didn’t break any barriers,” Escola says, “and I won’t be receiving awards. But I’m personally proud of myself for doing it. I worked on that material for so long that I didn’t want it to just, like, die in a folder on my computer.”

Escola, who secretly used “it” pronouns with two other friends as a child, was inspired to think more deeply about gender by a scene from “Search Party” in which a character suggests that Chip, in disguise as his septuagenarian aunt, is just a man dressed as a woman. Escola understood the dramatic intent of the exchange but still felt unsettled by it. “I just started thinking about the fact that I haven’t really ever identified as male.”

“Being queer, I have just seen gender as a sort of joke — nothing to take seriously,” they say. “So it felt strange to plant a flag that was saying, ‘I’m not planting a flag.’ But then I realized, words themselves are just symbols. And this symbol is closer to how I identify.”

The final epiphany arrived, as so many do, while watching an episode of “The Golden Girls,” a sitcom Escola has been turning to lately for comfort. Dorothy recalls a question Sophia asked her long ago after a fight with her husband, Stan: “If you could erase this one day, is this still the man you want to spend the rest of your life with?”

“I was vulnerable and it spoke to me,” Escola says. “If I could live in a universe where my life is exactly the same, but they/them has always existed as an identity, would I choose that over this one? Absolutely. There was no question in my mind.”

‘Search Party’

Where: HBO Max

When: Anytime

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)