Notebook Dump: "The People’s Joker" Confirms Robert Wuhl is a Legend

Notebook Dump: "The People’s Joker" Confirms Robert Wuhl is a Legend
Warner Bros.

Programming note: What I’m calling “Notebook Dump” will be an infrequent part of the Retronym newsletter — an extra bit that relates to an article/interview/what-have-you I’ve recently worked on. It could be something cut for space, a thread excised for narrative purposes, or more thinking on a subject than I could get into in the published piece. This first one was cut for space — a part of an interview I wish I could have included (if only for my own interests) but couldn’t. So I’m sharing it here. It is about a journalist, though. Sort of. I’ll try not to overload your inbox with such things.

Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker, billed as a “queer superhero coming-of-age film,” is a lo-fi, DIY multimedia freakout that turns Drew’s coming out story into a bananas parody of Batman and DC Comics. Joker is a trans woman (and one of many Jokers), Batman is a hyper-fascist groomer (with a terrible mustache), and off-kilter versions of rogues gallery villains and DC Comics mainstays (like an Alex Jones-ified Perry White; honestly wasn’t keen on this interpretation) pop up alongside riffs on Joker lore (like Drew’s Joker the Harlequin falling into a vat of estrogen at Ace Chemicals as part of her transition, and Gothamites sedating themselves with hits of Smylex). 

(Warner Bros., Batman’s corporate daddy, found none of this funny and sent a letter suggesting rights infringement after a midnight screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Drew pulled the film from further screenings. But after legal wrangling and in-film disclosures, The People’s Joker is finally getting released, with a lot more buzz than it otherwise would have thanks to the kerfuffle. It begins a 70-theater run on April 5 at IFC Center in New York; full details available on the film’s website.)

The People’s Joker also has nods to other cinematic Batmen, including Tim Burton’s 1989 film. In a real grab-you-by-your-fanboy-lapel moment, Robert Wuhl, who plays pervy-but-honest reporter Alexander Knox shows up in a vertical selfie video saying something along the lines of, “I can’t possibly say this. It’s not what Cameo is for.”

Yes, Drew tried incorporating Wuhl into her film via Cameo. What gumption! What nerve! What genius!

If all there was was that one moment, us Knoxheads would be satisfied. But then he comes back during the credits, in a continuation of that video, adding, essentially, “But what you’re doing here is admirable and worthwhile and I wish you the best.” It’s not only an excellent coda to the first, um, cameo, but it’s a moment where Robert Wuhl confirms he’s one of the good ones. 

When I spoke with Drew for a Q&A, soon to be published in the Red Hook Star-Revue [now available], I had to ask about these moments of Wuhl. As a massive fan of Batman (1989) and of Knox — my brother and I used to drop his lines all the time (“Maybe they should call him Bruce Vain,” “…what’s he pulling down, after taxes?,” “Hellllllo legs.”) — I needed to know more.

That bit of our conversation didn’t make it into the final version of the interview. But as I was the first — and maybe only? — person to ask Drew about this, I wanted to make sure I got it out into the record. Thanks for indulging me.

woman with green hair and joker clown make up smiling wide while staring at the camera
Vera Drew as Joker the Harlequin in "The People's Joker" (courtesy Altered Innocence)

One of the surprises of the film is that Robert Wuhl, who plays the reporter Alexander Knox in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, shows up — but in a selfie video recorded through the app Cameo. And when he does appear, he’s saying, basically, I can’t do this because it’s not what Cameo is for, it’s not kosher, and so on. I love Robert Wuhl, I love Alexander Knox — what did you ask him to say?

Nobody's asked me about this yet. Let me think for a second…  

When I originally reached out to him, I was like, “Hey, I'm making this queer Batman parody andI'm obsessed with you, you’re one of my favorite character actors of all time…” I miss seeing him pop up in things and I love him in Batman. So I kind of said all that to him and I think I gave him some lines that were commenting on the film. Joker the Harlequin has a viral moment in the movie and I wanted him to kind of appear as a version of Knox commenting on the moment. His response was what you see in the film. It was him going like, “Yeah, I can't legally do that. This isn't what Cameo is for.” 

But then he continued and delivered these gorgeous words of encouragement. We include it in the post-credits sequence of the movie. It's one of my favorite parts in the movie because it came during a time where I really needed it. It was, like, a month before it premiered at TIFF and I was so behind on visual effects. My girlfriend will admit it now that there were various times during the making of this movie where she was, like, “I don't think she's ever going to finish it.” And that was one of those times. And getting that message from Robert and those words of encouragement from him going, like, “I’m so proud of you for doing what you're doing,” basically saying, like, “You go girl. You're breaking barriers” — it meant so much to me that I said, I'm going to include this in the festival cut of the movie because I want it to be there. It's a part of my story now. 

The making of the movie itself is kind of in the movie — the entire third act of the movie is very close to what I went through at TIFF, so it really just made sense to include it in there. And I'm so glad I did. We only screened it a few times with him in the cut, but every time we did people would go crazy in the crowd just seeing him pop up in a way where he's, like, “I can't be involved in this,”, and the movie acknowledging that, and then bookending it with that encouragement.

It’s always cool when you meet somebody who's been making stuff for years and is cool with trans people. He was so encouraging just about the fact that I was making a queer Batman parody. And that alone was like, “Oh my god, what? I want people to know how fucking cool this guy is and how much this meant to me.”

I’ve reached out to him since and I said, “Hey, I don't know if you remember me, but here's how it shows up in the movie. I have a little bit of finishing funds that I'd love to throw your way.” He responded and was, like, “Hey, congrats on finishing this. I don't know how you did it. Finishing anything is impossible,” basically implying, it looks like we made an impossible movie. Which, again, makes me feel very seen and good. But it was also an opportunity for me as an artist to go back and say, “Here's why I did it. And why I'm coming to you now is I want to pay you for it.” I come from a very punk sensibility. I worked at Everything is Terrible for years, I've been making remix art for most of my career, and I haven't always been doing it ethically. This was an instance where I wanted to go back to this beautiful human being who is now so intrinsically wrapped up in the story. Thankfully, I don't  think he felt too betrayed, and he gladly accepted the Most Favored Nations actor fee that we're paying him.

I don't know that he wants to do any press about the movie, but I'm happy to give you the exclusive because I haven't talked about it yet and I'm so stoked that he was cool with us using it. 

Seriously, go see The People’s Joker if you’re in New York or when it comes to a city near you. And since you made it this far, here's a great Knox scene from Batman.