Part Joan Holloway, part Joan Crawford: Angela Di Carlo’s cabaret series, a ‘Mad Men’ spoof, comes into its own
In the sixth episode of The Mad World of Miss Hathaway, performed last night (and continuing tonight) at Wild Project in the East Village, a Manhattan advertising agency named Spencer-Colfax is taken over by an Irish parent company, sending the employees into a panic.
To endear herself to the new management, Joanne Hathaway, a busty, redheaded secretary, visits McStumbles Irish Tavern to research “ancient Irish drinking games.” Cheat Cunningham, a junior ad executive and socially awkward WASP, is forced to compete against his rival Benny Snodgrove in a campaign for a product called Jazzygal Energy Drink.
Cunningham’s winning tagline: “Has Your Wife Become as Lazy as a Mexican?”
Does this sound like a familiar storyline? The episode, titled “How to Succeed in Business: The WASP Way,” is the latest in the ever-rising flood of “Mad Men” parodies, which threatens to become its own genre. "The Simpsons," "30 Rock," "Saturday Night Live," "Community," "Sesame Street"—all have tried their hand at spoofing the quintessentially spoofable show. But few of these efforts are as funny—or as risqué—as The Mad World of Miss Hathaway, a musical take on the AMC hit by the downtown cabaret diva Angela Di Carlo.
In the first episode, “The Torment of Peggy Trollson,” Hathaway plies the covertly pregnant Trollson with thalidomide to treat her morning sickness, resulting in the birth of a malformed thalidomide baby. In episode five, "Misogyny and Mistletoe," the dashing Drone Raper’s young daughter Sandy “sleeps her way to the top” of the firm. Patrick Johnson, a 250-pound gay man and ensemble member, played the role of Sandy.
“It’s just my twisted mind at work,” Di Carlo, who stars as Hathaway, recently said of the show, which she also writes and directs. “The material is not for the over-sensitive.”
Since it began in early 2011, Mad World has attracted a devout cult following in the downtown theater scene. Village cabaret fixtures Amber Martin and Molly Pope have guest starred, and Michael Stipe, Alan Cumming, and John Cameron Mitchell, director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, have been spotted in the seats. On Thursday night, Casey Spooner, half of the cult art-pop duo Fischerspooner, played the role of Mr. Shenanigans, a freckled, Jameson-swilling leprechaun of a man who stands in for Lane Pryce’s character Jared Harris in “Mad Men.”
A previous episode in December quickly sold out, and was chosen as a Time Out New York Critic’s Pick—albeit in the Gay and Lesbian category. The show's growing notoriety comes with increased expectations.
“On ‘Mad Men’ last Sunday, there was a scene of Roger Sterling getting a blowjob,” Di Carlo said. “People asked me: ‘Are you gonna put that in the show?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding? The show’s this Thursday. It’s done!’”
Still, she did manage to slip in a German version of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” sung by Johnson in his role as Gretyl, a leiderhosen-clad secretary. (Cunningham later forces Gretyl to read his short story “Rainbow Raccoon,” which he’d published in Highlights, the children's magazine.)
Despite the similar plot points, Di Carlo’s friends stress that “Mad Men” is only a jumping off point for her gifts as a writer and melody-maker.
“Angela’s brain is like a big cocktail shaker, and she just shakes it out for this show,” said Adam Dugas, an actor and director who played Drone Raper in previous episodes. He characterized her aesthetic as part John Waters, part Joan Crawford, and part Turner Classic Movies catalog.
Mike Albo, the writer and performer, said Di Carlo’s talents extend beyond parody. “She’s a really amazing songwriter,” Albo, who played Dusty Peubody, Trollson’s beatnik boyfriend, in episode one, said. “I’m hoping she’ll either put this project aside or turn it into a full-fledged Broadway-type musical.”
“Mad World” was conceived two years ago when David Conrad Brouillard, the former artistic producer of the now-defunct Off Broadway performance space The Zipper Factory, suggested Di Carlo create a cabaret show around a Joan Holloway-esque character.
Di Carlo, who looks like a cross between Carol Burnett and Christina Hendricks, had recently discovered “Mad Men,” and was obsessed. “I’m a very detail-oriented person, and the meticulousness of the story and design really appeals to me,” she said.
She cast her friends in different “Mad Men”-derived roles, but changed the names “because I don’t want Matthew Weiner coming after me,” she said. She occasionally plays other characters, like Cheat Cunningham’s wife Tipsy Wadsworth Hanover, the “second richest heiress on the Eastern seaboard.”
Though Di Carlo performs regularly at Joe’s Pub and has released an album of funny songs called Just To Be Polite (representative track: “Why Do You Have to Be Gay?”), she works a day job as a makeup artist. In addition to dolling up celebrities like Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig for glossy magazines, she spent years doing makeup for Fisherspooner, having befriended Casey Spooner while both were at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The two met on the set of a Chicago cable access show called “Too Fast For Strawberry,” in which Di Carlo appeared briefly as a character named Angel Food Cake. (See minute :55 here) They have collaborated regularly since; this year, Spooner and his boyfriend Dugas cast her in a short film called There Is No Tomorrow, which was shown during the pre-show screenings for the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
“She creates the catchiest, funniest, and rudest songs,” Spooner wrote in an email, noting that audience members walked away from “There Is No Tomorrow” humming a five-second ditty Di Carlo invents in one scene. “I really do think she’s a melodic genius.”
“Mad Men” may provide the narrative framework for “Mad World,” but Di Carlo said she finds equal inspiration in the work of Barry Manilow.
“A lot of people don’t know that Manilow did a shitload of commercials,” she said, adding that a track on his live album titled “Very Strange Medley” incorporates jingles for McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper, and State Farm Insurance. “That’s been a huge influence on me.”
In honor of Manilow, every episode of “Mad World” concludes with an encore based on the “Very Strange Medley.” On Thursday night, the encore featured some shockingly catchy melodies on subjects ranging from adult bookstores to hobo sweatpants to throwing out one’s Christmas tree in April. It drew tears of laughter from the crowd.
“People tend to get more excited about the 'V.S.M.',” Di Carlo confessed, laughing.
As far as she knows, Matthew Weiner has yet to catch wind of the production. Christina Hendricks, however, is said to be aware of it.
“A friend of mine met her at Sundance this year,” she said. “He texted me to say: ‘I ran into Ms. Hathaway last night. She says she wants to come to a show, and sends her love.’”
Episode 6 of 'The Mad World of Miss Hathaway' will be performed tonight at Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, 212-228-1195. For tickets call or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos, of previous episodes, by Adam Dugas.