The overseas adventures of the undersized Tanyalee Davis
Thu, May 29, 2008 (12:01 a.m.)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
You weren’t expecting this shit, were ya? ... It’s a natural human reaction to freak out when you see somebody different. Kids are very honest, very upfront about their reactions. Kids’ll see me: "Hey, what happened to youuu? Did you get into an accident?" "Hell no, I didn’t eat my vegetables when I was your age, you little shit … now put me down.”
Late March, the 175-capacity LA Comedy Club at Palace Station Casino. Even though The Learning Channel’s Little People, Big World filmed her here in February (the episode airs this fall), Tanyalee Davis doesn’t get booked much at this venue. Or anywhere in Vegas, really. In fact, her friend Dan Mengini pulled a few strings to get her 10 minutes on the 9 p.m. show, an especially ironic twist considering when the headliner met her at the Hollywood Improv nine years ago as a newbie comic, she was the one offering up the career advice.
Host Brandon “Gooch” Hahn brings Davis up, passing the microphone directly instead of leaving it in the stand as is the custom. A self-described “midget,” Davis rarely uses a stand at all, save to occasionally steady herself atop the chair she’ll stand on at center stage, or to rub against her considerable “black girl” ass in one stripper-mocking bit. Tonight she forgoes both buttresses altogether, standing for the first half of the set before sitting on the step stool she’s lugged up for the occasion. The constant physical strain on her body ensures she tires easily. Not that it prevents her from delivering the most energetic, animated performance of the night.
“I love hotel rooms, ’cause other people clean up your shit,” she begins, eyes wide, red-brown shoulder-length hair bobbing. “The one thing I don’t like is when the maids make the bed, when they put the sheets real tight on the mattress? Oh, they’ve got a staple gun, some crazy glue; those bitches are in the closet giggling. I come in from a show; I’m tired, I’m drunk, I just want to go night-night. Try to pull the sheets back, I’ve got to put my legs up against the wall. Finally slide in there; I feel like I’m sleeping in an envelope … Hey, does somebody want to lick me good night? Aw, fuck it. I’ll just sleep in the pillowcase.” She mimics the actions she describes throughout, flailing her arms, baring her teeth and making her voice higher and shriller to emphasize phrasing and pauses alike.
Davis’ sleek black pants and low-cropped, sleeveless black top reflect her material’s dominant theme: promoting self-assured sexiness, whatever the seemingly unlikely package. Yet there’s a line between winkingly bawdy and outrageousness purely for outrageousness’ sake, one shaded on either side by degrees of inherent playfulness. It’s a line Davis bends to her own fluctuating purpose with ease. If she hasn’t won them over with:
Living in the desert here, the summer gets very hot. Being a woman, you’ve got to worry about aesthetics. My friend actually recommended I try getting a bikini wax. She said, “Don’t worry, it only stings for a little bit.” She didn’t tell me what happens when that shit starts to grow back. And I can’t really reach my cootchie, right? So I’m scootching across the carpet …
… she does so with her traditional closer: “I do think it’s important that everybody be sexy. You’ve just got to find that sexy and bring it out. I feel kind of deceptive though, ’cause it looks like I’ve got big boobs. It’s actually just an illuuusion. Ladies, I’ve got a new bra that’s out on the market; it actually gathers the fat from your back and moves it aaall forward. This is what back fat looks like, boys. Yeah, and it works, too, ’cause this tattoo used to be on my shoulder!” It’s here she yanks the low-cropped top down further on the right side, revealing a orange, green and red butterfly alighting atop her ample cleavage.
“As a fellow comic I’d describe her style as a ‘deceptively educational rock concert,’” Mengini says. “I like to sit in the back of a comedy club and watch her audiences laugh, learn and grow while she delivers an hour of stand-up. It’s amazing to listen to all the compliments as people exit the showroom … She’s a seasoned professional that brings people together with laughter by telling the truth. That’s no easy task when you have to bring the ‘regular’ folks into the day-to-day routines of a little person with words and a microphone. But she pulls it off every single time.”
I travel a lot. I’ve been all over the world; I’ve been to Australia. Nobody warned me about the reptiles. There I was, my rucksack on, I’m trudging through the rainforest, and a goanna ran across my path. If you don’t know what a goanna is, it’s a big fucking lizard. They actually grow up to six feet long, and they have razor-sharp teeth and claaaws! And they prey on birds, snakes and small mammals. I’m a small mammal!
Originally from Thompson, Manitoba, Davis saw the world early, taking advantage of her pilot father’s family passes to explore Canada, the U.S., Costa Rica, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and beyond, and to horde stashes of barf bags she’d later use to brown-bag it at school. Her parents divorced when she was five, though she remains close with her dad, Kent, who goes by Kato. “Stay in school,” is what he recalls being his reaction to her wanting to be a comedian. “She’d actually wanted to be an actress first, and I told her she could always do that after she got her degree.”
Davis first took the stage January 23, 1990, at Yuk Yuks in Winnipeg. It was her second time ever in a comedy club, the first being a few weeks prior, when she went in support of a boy she “fancied” in her community theater group. He sucked, she instinctively knew what he was doing wrong, and he challenged her to do better. Davis was all of 19 years old; within three months she was a paid performer in Calgary.
In 1997 she and fellow comic Pam Ludwar decided to move from Vancouver to LA—driving a total of 40 hours and illegally crossing the border just minutes before its midnight closing—despite Davis never having visited the city. “Loading up the car, we had her scooter, my cat—who I had given a Valium—the cat’s litter box, all our clothes and for some reason, the microwave,” Ludwar laughs. “We get to the border and you couldn’t even see out my back window, the car was so jam-packed. I went to this one border-crossing where I knew they were old and barely looked up from the newspaper. I said, ‘Oh, we’re going camping on Whidbey Island.’ If he’d even lifted a finger to investigate … I mean, who goes camping with a microwave and a cat? We drove through the night … of course Tanya can’t share any of the driving. I was so tired I was like, ‘I want to lie down. You sit in the seat and steer, and I’ll just push the pedals.’”
Over the next few years, Davis placed second in the 1999 Seattle Comedy Competition, the first female in 10 years to reach the finals. 2001 saw her headlining at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and she scored a few minutes on Last Comic Standing in 2004. When she wasn’t performing stand-up, she appeared as a magician groupie on The X-Files, a hooker in For da Love of Money and a frequent guest on Maury.
Christopher Titus, Ralphie May, Tommy Chong and Brad Garrett are among her admirers and headliners who’ve hand-picked her (or, in Garrett’s case, also picked her up) to open for them, but it was a chance 2002 encounter with Dave Attell that led to her proudest Vegas-centric moment. While partying with friends at Myrtle Beach’s Comedy Cabana, the comic approached and asked her to take part in that night’s show, which he was filming for his then-Comedy Central program Insomniac. “He said, ‘Listen, I’m going to break into a midget bit; I want you to come storming to the stage, yelling at me and giving me shit,’” Davis recalls. “I had a couple of drinks in me, and I was like, ‘Sure!’” Flash-forward three years, when Attell’s national Insomniac Tour was winding down with a two-night DVD taping in Vegas. “I sent him an e-mail that said, ‘Hey, can I get a ticket?’ All the sudden I’m on my way somewhere, in the middle of going through security at the airport, and I’m getting a call.”
The result became a highlight of the subsequent Dave Attell’s Insomniac Tour DVD. “You know what they say, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” the headliner begins at the onset of his set. From deep in the audience, a squeakily enraged voice calls out, “That’s not what you said last night, you douchebag!” And there is Davis, shouting from atop a chair, pulled to her full 3’ 6” height and thoroughly riled up. “Hey honey!” the faux-shaken Attell counters. “You know Daddy says a lot of things when he’s drinkin’.” “How the hell would you know, you’re never fucking sober! That’s the last time I let you teabag me!” The camera zooms in close. “You know what, Attell? Not even my hands’ll make your dick look big!” With that, security carries her from the floor, her tirade losing none of its steam. “Attell, you’re not funny! You suck! No wonder you’re not on prime time, you big loser!” It’s basically an extended midget gag, sure, but it’s the just-bizarre-enough-to-be-believable aspect of the pair’s chemistry that sells it. Though the two never actually did the deed, you’re kind of wishing they would have all the same.
My husband is 6 feet tall. It’s great because he’s nuts over me.
Eight a.m., mid-April. “I sleep on the couch and watch the Food Network,” is how Marty whiles away the time when his wife works across the pond. The Mirage poker dealer met Davis online while she was living in Los Angeles, marrying her four months later partially to speed the obtaining of her green card. In the summer of 2004, after Davis had worked all the major LA comedy clubs and toured the world but was still finding it difficult to make ends meet, the two moved to Vegas. They’ll be married 10 years in July.
Her flight’s not until 11, but Marty always drops Davis off early to “deal with all the shit” that comes with traveling, specifically three overstuffed bags, her own unique security search and the motor scooter she relies on for transportation having to be tagged at the gate. Fortunately she’s devised ways of reducing the wait.
“I cut in line,” she readily admits. “For everything.” And she does, zipping to the front of the first-class check-in with her economy reservation. Yes, she’d like the entire row of four seats to herself while you’re at it, thank you very much. Then zip, right to the front of the security checkpoint. Here she’s taken behind a glass partition and patted down by a female TSA worker in blue latex gloves. The process is, to say the least, thorough, meaning she’s groped in places even Marty may have yet to discover. “Oh yeeeah,” she jokes, “I’ve got some explosive activity going on down there. You’re gonna make that bomb in my pants explode.”
The rigorous search occurs every time Davis, whose name habitually pops up on a watch list, flies internationally. Once when she was coming through Vancouver, an inept worker, instead of passing the designated threat-identifying powder swab over the tops of her shoes only, also ran it over the bottoms. “The machine read it as having bomb-making material ’cause it had gasoline or whatever. I mean, I walk through parking lots! The shit hit the fan, and people come running over, they grab my passport, they take my shoes, they have these hazmat Ziploc bags, I had to fill out all these forms, they made a copy of my passport, and ever since that point I get a secondary screening where I get basically everything but an anal probe.”
Zipping to the front of the gate line, Davis boards before everyone else. Her red Go-Go Elite Traveller, meanwhile, gets manhandled off to who knows where as she ambles down the aisle to her four-seat spread and unfurls the arthritis-reducing homemade sleeping mat Marty crafted from a knockoff brand of Memory Foam and a blue pillowcase. A pre-boarding toddler tries to push by, but she’s having none of it. “Give me a minute, kid,” she demands. He dutifully waits, suddenly shy and uncomprehending.
“She’s gotten a lot more fearless,” Ludwar muses. “She trusts her instincts a lot more. Onstage and in real life, she’s just not intimidated by anybody or anything. Or at least she doesn’t show it. It doesn’t matter what situation or relationship she’s in, she evolves into the leader or the boss. That’s who she is. She’s a pit bull in a Chihuahua’s body.”
Davis has steadily worked the U.K. since her 2003 appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s U.S. Comedy Invasion. She began touring regularly the following spring, always hitting the Scottish festival and most recently earning four-star reviews for her 2007 solo one-hour Fringe show Little Do They Know! She’s arguably more successful over here than in the States, but the payoff can be emotionally steep. When it comes to physical differences, British attitudes tend to be as backward as the side of the street on which they drive. For starters, the preferred term is “disabled” instead of “handicapped,” as the latter derived from the phrase “cap-in-hand,” referring to the group’s historic need to subsist as beggars. “And they really do make you feel ‘disabled,’” Davis marvels. “I’m so glad I didn’t grow up here, treated like a second-class citizen.”
By the time she boards the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, various airport and airline employees have, in her presence, asked a companion for Davis’ last name and where she was heading, bent at the waist with hands on knees to speak with her, and, in one truly backward compliment, cooed, “She’s so cute. You just want to pick her up.” Her gate-checked Elite Traveller is nowhere to be seen upon touchdown; eventually she’s told the scooter can’t be brought to the plane because it’s waiting at baggage claim. It isn’t. One airport wheelchair (which her “arms like a T-Rex” are incapable of propelling) and an hour and a half later, it finally shows up, missing the racing-stripe sticker previously adorning the right side. This is nothing, however, compared to the time she flew from London to Edinburgh and the Elite Traveller was shuttled back and forth on the same plane for 10 hours simply because personnel couldn’t bother to remove it from the hold.
It was only two years ago that new London buildings were required to be accessible to the disabled. And for the most part, Davis says, these buildings meet only the bare minimum of requirements. As for public transportation, cabs are a nightmare, the Tube is impossible, and buses are a constant gamble. In fact, no sooner does she emerge from Paddington Station than the first City Bus driver encountered pumps his hydraulics up and down once and proclaims his ramp to be broken. “That guy didn’t even try the ramp switch. It makes a totally different sound,” Davis sighs as the red double-decker rumbles off. When she finally does convince a driver to accommodate her, she points out the public-service signage overhead prominently featuring a man in a wheelchair being yanked upward by the collar. “Having a disability is not a crime …” it reads. “Abuse, Assaults, Threats, Offensive Material or Criminal Damage towards someone because they have a disability is a crime!”
Stares and the lack of concern for impassable sidewalks aren’t crimes either, nor are constant queries of “Where’s your carer?” (Explains Davis: “It just seems like a good percentage of disabled people have carers, personal aides. Certain disabilities, obviously, okay. But when I’m trying to get on a train, I’ve got my scooter loaded up with bags, and I’m quite capable of zipping around the platform, and someone says, ‘Where’s your carer?’ I’m like, ‘Excuse me? I got this far on my own, why the fuck would I need somebody else?’”)
Not that a carer wouldn’t come in handy every once in a great while. There was the time she was Elite Traveling around the sidewalks on the banks of the Thames near the London Eye: While gazing upward, Davis managed to zip right off the curb, the scooter flipping over and on top of her in all its 75-pound delicacy. Not one passerby asked if she was okay or offered to help. Couldn’t have hurt, just that once, to have someone who cared.
I was very active as a child. I played every sport humanly imaginable in school. I ran track, I played volleyball, hockey, the whole thing. Problem is, I developed arthritis at a young age. But when I was in high school we found a doctor that said he could perform surgery on me to alleviate the pain in my joints. Basically what he was going to do was break every bone from my waist down and reconstruct me. The payoff would be one to two inches of height. You know what? One to two inches is great if you’re a penis.
Davis nearly died (see sidebar) this past January while undergoing a myelogram procedure involving X-rays and a special dye injected into her spine. The pressure was so intense it felt like her back was on fire, and Davis recalls thinking, “Just kill me now! Kill me now!” Suddenly the pain was gone, and the next thing she remembered was the doctor yelling, “Come back!” Her body had gone into shock, and decided to shut down.
The myelogram was required as preparation for an upcoming surgery scheduled for June 2 at St. John’s in Santa Monica to relieve pain caused by spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the spinal canal that crushes the spinal cord. It’s an affliction common among little people, one that has left Davis experiencing leg failure, arm spasms and a general loss of bodily feeling. All 12 thoracic and five lumbar vertebrae will undergo a laminectomy—the removal of bone to reduce pressure—after which a back brace will restrict her for three months. Best-case scenario, though she’ll have to miss Edinburgh for the first time in six years, she’ll be back onstage the last week of September at Oneliners Comedy Club in Greenwood, Indiana. At worst, she’ll be permanently paralyzed, and her comedy career, not to mention her entire life, will take a decidedly more difficult turn.
I do a lot of shows over here in the U.K., and I find British people really start to freak out when I get onstage. “Holy shit, we can’t laugh! We’re gonna go to hell!”… I hear the word “brave” a lot. “You’re so brave! Yes you are; you’re so brave!” That’s not patronizing at all, is it? Honestly, I don’t consider myself brave just for being me. I think policemen are brave. The fire brigade, they’re brave. Anyone that works in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, they’re fucking brave! That guy’s a cock.
The two-drink-minimum requirement typical of most U.S. comedy club has got nothing on comedy chain Jongleurs, where, in the windswept City Center region of Glasgow, Scotland, the 380-capacity clientele wastes no time in getting properly pissed out of their stag-and-hen-party-celebrating gourds. They shriek, they wear feathered headgear and flashing buttons, they puke in the bathrooms and pass out on the back couches during the show intermissions.
Davis is featuring here for three nights, performing 20 minutes before a headliner from Kansas City who alternately juggles dangerous objects and forces crowd members to wear embarrassing hats and act out scenes loosely inspired by the legend of Robin Hood. The jokes and the drinks and the turning of the showroom into a post-show dance club run together with little to differentiate the evenings, but one constant remains: Davis maintains both control and crowd favor. Even a Friday intermission offense—a drunk couple spies the Elite Traveller parked in the back, the girl climbs on, grips the handlebars and grins for her boyfriend’s camera—elicits little more than an eye-roll. She’s become so accustomed she barely notices anymore.
Marty and I went to our first little people convention. There’s an organization called the LPA, Little People of America. Over here in the U.K. it’s called the RGA, the Restricted Growth Association! Stupid. I’d never been to one of these LPA conventions before … 1,800 midgets from all over the world had invaded the hotel. Most of us were staying on the fourth floor, and I figured out why: ’Cause nobody could reach the fifth-floor button in the lift. There was a Jehovah’s Witness convention going on at the same time. ‘Course I got drunk and told my friends, “Let’s stay up all night!” Six o’clock in the morning, start walkin’ around, bangin’ on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doors. I swear to God, all you could hear was, “Hmm, I don’t see anybody …” They had a dance every night; that was cool. I think the DJ was screwing with us though, ’cause every night he’d play “YMCA” by the Village People. Can you see 1,800 midgets doing “YMCA” … lowercase?
She mimics the letters, and nine times out of 10, the crowd mimics them right along. At the close of her set, the DJ strikes up the tune again, and the entire room turns into a sea of herky-jerking letters.
After the show, as Mengini had attested, the compliments Davis receives are plentiful. In addition to, “Aye, you’re fuckin’ brilliant!” “You made my birthday!” “We came from Yorkshire to see you. Seven hours away!,” soused Scots don’t hesitate to kiss a cheek, lick an ear or grab a breast. Eternally amiable, Davis welcomes all, even the large, slobbering bloke who hollers, “Rrrfhhng! RRRFHHNG! YouTube! YOUTUBE! And we came out tah see ya! Ya hair smells of apples! APPLES!” and the 20-something wallflower who confesses, “I have to tell you, I’ve always had a phobia of people shorter than me. So when you got up there I was proper scared. But you were right funnay! And now I won’t be afraid of the Willy Wonka.”
Heading for the Glasgow airport the following morning, the real world, populated with the millions who’ve never heard of Davis, licked her ear or smelled her hair, again reasserts itself when a hole in the brick sidewalk leading to the terminal effectively prevents her passing. No one notices, no one stops; she ultimately has to dismount the Elite Traveller and drag it over the six-inch gap. Back in London, where the cabs are legally required to be equipped with ramps, the first driver flagged down claims he doesn’t have a ramp; a simple glance through the back window proves otherwise. The second driver, once given the address, insists he’s unable to locate Wharfdale Road, a main thoroughfare servicing the King’s Cross area. “It’s so illegal I can’t even tell you,” Davis grouses from the back seat. She’s headlining tonight at the Funny Side of Covent Garden, and the delays, through no fault of her own, mean she’ll be cutting it close. But again, she’s become accustomed.
Having done four shows in as many days, she’ll enjoy a three-day break before hitting Leicester, Nottingham, London (again), Liverpool and Nottingham (again). ITV, Britain’s version of NBC, will follow her through a series of shows and cab rides for a feature documentary that will reach American shores around October. Davis will ultimately be gone a month before returning to Vegas for a reunion with Marty and Kato, the filming of a top-secret television show and a last-minute, one-night-only (i.e., someone dropped out) headlining slot at the LA Comedy Club, relocated in her absence to Planet Hollywood. The ITV cameras will be on hand May 20 to film her pre-op appointment in Santa Monica. June 2, crack of dawn, she’ll go under, her back will be sliced down the middle, and chunks of bone will be removed from around her spinal nerves. It’s a rare situation she’s not 100 percent in charge of, and she’s undoubtedly a lot less fearless than she lets on. But if anything, those soused Scots should prepare for her defiant return to Edinburgh in 2009, baring her teeth, flashing her tat and maybe, just maybe, finally being able to flag down a cab on the first try.
Julie Seabaugh is a frequent Weekly contributor.