Faking the Climax: A New Documentary Exposes the Air Sex Phenomenon
Air Sex: The Movie is a documentary about a live comedy show that has become a nationwide phenomenon based on the simple idea that watching people mime sex is outrageously funny. Furthermore, Comedian Chris Trew, the Air Sex Championship host and ambassador, made the documentary using the following mantras that can be applied to any film project: be enthusiastic, trust your partners, and make friends everywhere you go.
So, what exactly happens at an Air Sex show?
Contestants sign up for a slot first. Then, get up on stage and pantomime having sex to a song they’ve chosen, similar to an air guitar contest. How wild things go is entirely up to the performer. But, there’s no nudity and a basic sexy dance won’t do you any favors when it’s time for the audience to vote for a winner. The contestants range from people familiar with the show who came to compete to people who’ve never heard of the show and have decided to give it a whirl. It’s a mix of karaoke, physical comedy, and exhibitionism presented as a sport.
Filmmaker Jonathan Evans explains, “What brought me to the show was that it was light and quirky; it’s so self-explanatory, people can’t believe it’s real. They think ‘that can’t possibly be what it is’ but yes, that’s absolutely what it is. It’s as dumb as it sounds. But it opens you up to unlimited possibilities. I promise.”
The Air Sex show evolved away from the air guitar contests comedian Chris Trew hosted in Austin, Texas. “Air Guitar is a really fun show, but it’s a one-note joke. So, on Valentine’s Day, we decided to do an Air Sex show instead, and it went really well. Then we did another and that went really, really well.”
Afterward, Trew took the Air Sex show on the road for the first time in 2009, hitting up fifteen cities, where winners were invited to the Air Sex Championship event for the ultimate prize. Air Sex: The Movie was filmed during the 2013 tour by Jonathan Evans, who first met Trew in 2010 when he saw him performing stand-up in New Orleans. The two have worked on several short sketch videos and short films ever since.
“He came on tour and saw a different aspect of the show,” Trew says. “It’s a side that I don’t think many people thought existed, like the sex-positive side of it and the motivations behind people wanting to do it. People have told us ‘This show helped me come out of my shell,’ or, ‘This show helped me come out of the closet to my family.’”
Comedian Molly Ruben-Long went on the tour in 2013 as a judge with a front row seat to soak in all the different ways people express the physical humor of sex. “It’s a show that can really move people and people can surprise themselves with how much they are invested in it and how much they take away from it. I think we’re a society that doesn’t talk about how funny sex can be and how joyful it can be.”
Evans has an instinctive love for concert and tour documentaries as exemplified in Wilco’s I am Trying to Break Your Heart and The National’s Mistaken for Strangers. In fact, he knew right from the beginning that he wanted to make that type of film, i.e. one that mixes performances with contestants sharing their ideas about sex and society.
Filming almost every frame of the movie, Evans enjoyed the challenge of being the sole camera operator, trying to capture unscripted behavior at every turn. And that meant not only shooting someone performing, but their invisible partner as well, and incorporating them into the scene.
“I frequently noticed that they were like skits, little shorts,” he says. “The best Air Sex [performances] are when they get up there and pretend to have sex with their husband but their husband dies so they have to give him a hand job to bring him back to life. It becomes this triumphant story that’s really funny.”
Telling a story is such an important part of an Air Sex routine. Says Ruben-Long, “Taking it seriously to some degree really helps because you have to commit to this character, you have to commit to this routine, and if you find truth in it, then it’s funny and it rings true to the audience.”
After amassing hundreds of hours of performances, Evans had the huge task of editing. But an even bigger challenge was that none of the original music the performers danced to could be used. The film’s budget would not cover the cost of licensing. “I told them to trust me and that we were going to delete all the sound we had recorded from shows.”
Luckily, having a small crew turned out to be one of their biggest advantages. Mike Felton, the sound technician on the tour, is also a multi-instrumentalist, and as Evans and his editor rebuilt routines, Felton would write brand new songs for them based on the theme. Since he’d seen all the performances firsthand, he was able to create music that was so appropriate, many might not notice that the performers aren’t actually dancing to it.
“He’s a very, very talented musician,” Trew says, “one of those Frank Zappa types who can just do everything. He’s made country songs, he’s made dubstep songs, he’s made West Coast hip-hop songs and metal. He does everything and came through so big for us. To me, he’s our sneaky, most valuable player.”
So, after years road-tripping, careful editing, and creating brand new music, Air Sex: The Movie finally had its release on April 1, available as a digital download or streaming from vhx.com. And premiered at the CineKink film festival in New York City.
Says Trew, “I think I have a disease in my creative life where if something goes well, I think, ‘What if we did this all the time?’ But right now, we’re just excited to see how this all plays out.”