- Views & Opinions
When sex advice columnist Dan Savage, author of Savage Love and founder of the HUMP! Film Festival, brings both of his creations to Madison’s Barrymore Theatre April 1 and 2, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the gay media celebrity.
Savage’s career has spread beyond column-writing to encompass podcasts, television programs, political commentary and LGBT activism, but it all began behind the counter of the former Madison video store Four Star Video Heaven.
“I had moved to Madison in 1990 from Berlin with my then-boyfriend so he could get a Master’s degree at the UW,” says Savage, a Chicago native. “The plan was for him to get his degree and for us to move back to Berlin, but that didn’t happen.”
Savage was the night manager at the video store when he befriended Tim Keck, co-founder of the alternative newspaper The Onion. Keck at the time was preparing to move to Seattle and start The Stranger, an alternative news and entertainment weekly.
Savage made the offhand comment that Keck should make sure to add an advice column for the paper because of their popularity. Savage typed up a sample column by way of example and, to his surprise, Keck offered him the job.
“We started the column initially as a joke and I anticipated doing it for maybe six to 12 months,” Savage remembers. “I was a gay man offering straight people advice on straight sex in a sort of snarky, funny way, and they loved it.”
The move to Seattle proved the undoing of Savage’s relationship, but the start of a 25-year career as an advice columnist. His visit next month will be one more opportunity for Madison fans of his column (which currently runs weekly in Isthmus) to get in on the fun. He’ll also be recording an episode of his Savage Lovecast podcast on Friday, April 1.
“The deception at the heart of the advice column racket is that you appear to have all the answers because you never print questions to which you don’t have the answers,” Savage says. “The performance, sections of which will be used in future Savage Lovecast segments, is my column on its feet and will give the audience a chance to stump the expert.”
Savage has, indeed, been stumped before, including a time five years ago when he was doing another performance in Madison. An audience member asked him a question about female genitalia — about which he professes to be no authority — and that led to an on-stage call to a professional colleague at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex. The expert fielded the question and Savage relayed her answer to the audience.
Savage does not necessarily expect to be stumped during the April 1 Barrymore session, which can run anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours depending on audience preference, but he has his cellphone at the ready just in case.
“The barriers to porn were beginning to fall, so we invited readers of The Stranger to make and submit amateur porn videos,” Savage says. “Would people send us porn knowing that it was going to be shown in a Seattle theater where their friends and neighbors might see it? They most certainly did.”
Savage was inundated with submissions of homemade pornographic shorts, but the real question was whether anyone would pay to see them. The paper rented a theater, and to the editor’s surprise, all of the showings completely sold out.
“This is a porn festival for people who wanted to be porn stars for a weekend,” Savage says. “It’s not commercial porn, it’s creative people having fun with their friends and lovers, sharing their kinks, identities and expression.”
HUMP! is also nondiscriminatory, mixing gay with straight porn and the kinky with the comical. By exposing everyone to literally everything imaginable, the 5-minute films offer a diverse experience that in the end has a positive impact on its audiences, Savage says.
“We watch the audiences to make sure there isn’t anything naughty going on and the reactions are almost always the same,” Savage says. “For the first 20 minutes the gay boys are knocked back in their chairs by giant scenes of cunnilingus and the straight boys are knocked back in their chairs whenever gay sex comes on, but eventually that changes. People stop seeing the differences in the types of porn and start seeing the similarities.”
Usually, the porn experience is selective, with the viewer choosing what he or she wants to see, Savage says. This is where the cumulative effect of HUMP! differs.
“If you’re sitting in front of your computer masturbating to porn, it’s something you enjoy, but this is not just that,” Savage says. “Even if the plumbing’s different, the desire, the lust and the vulnerability is the same, and all of those things are more important. And that’s the beauty of HUMP!”
Where Savage has trouble finding beauty these days is in the current presidential race. A history buff with a full shelf of books on World War II, Savage isn’t afraid to weigh in on individual candidates, especially Donald Trump. Based on historical comparisons he doesn’t like what he sees.
“It’s so hard to look at this election and not be hit with a white-hot panic over what’s happening,” Savage says. “It’s like a dormant virus and Trump is a biological agent that is activating that virus.”
Savage is especially troubled by the violence erupting among attendees at Trump rallies, something that also occurred in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power.
The author’s March 10 blog on The Stranger website contains footage of a North Carolina Trump rally during which an African-American protester is punched in the face by a ponytailed white man in a cowboy hat as officials escort him out the grandstands. The remaining members of the audience cheer as the African-American man is arrested.
“I am very disturbed by this, and if Trump wins the general election it’s only going to get worse,” Savage says. “It’s time for the white people who are appalled by this to start pushing back and fucking vote for whoever the Democrats nominate.”
The Republican Party itself needs to be shattered, less because of party officials and more because of the people who support it, he explains.
“The problem is the voters,” Savage adds. “It reminds me of the old Bertolt Brecht quote that referred to the East Berlin uprising against Communism in 1953.”
Taken from the poem, “The Solution,” Brecht postulated about the regime’s disappointment in its relationship with the populace the lived under its Communist thumb.
“[The leaflets] said the people had forfeited the government’s confidence,
And could only win it back by redoubled effort.
Wouldn’t it be simpler, in that case,
If the government dissolved the people and elected another?”
If such a step were possible, even that might not be enough, Savage says.
“The hate chickens have come home to the hate roost,” he adds.
Columnist Dan Savage brings Savage Love Live to Madison’s Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. on April 1 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance plus a $3.50 convenience fee. Savage also will host HUMP! Film Festival 2016 at the Barrymore on April 2 with shows at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $18. Order online at barrymorelive.com.