When Rooftop asked if I wanted to talk to Steve Gillespie about his new CD release, Stever Fever, I said “Absolutely yes.” I don’t know the man well, but I had bumped into him several times on the road and really enjoyed his comedy.
The last time I worked with Steve, it was at a bar in Iowa. At least, that’s what our itinerary said. Upon arrival, Steve and I discovered the location was a supper club, and a fairly swanky (by Iowa standards) one at that. We looked at our clothes–we had each dressed our best for a dingy bar–and felt a little out of place. To make matters worse, the space was decorated for a wedding, one taking place the next day. The walls were adorned in white lace, and our “stage” was the altar.
Fortunately, the audience was in a laughing mood and not in any way confined or defined by our surroundings; they laughed with ease and the gig was a fun one.
With a wink to Justin Beiber, Steve’s new release is out now.
NT: Where’d the title and cover come from; was it a difficult process?
SG: The name was the easy part. The cover art was challenging. I like taking goofy pictures, I have quite a collection, and deciding which one I liked best and fit with what I thought the title is conveying, was difficult.
With that said, I am really pleased with how it came out. I thinks its look sharp.
NT: Any rejected titles you’d like to share?
SG: I overheard a women in a restaurant say “I’m a badass girl in a tough ass world” and I thought for a moment that A Badass Girl in a Tough Ass world could work, but I’m glad I went with Stever Fever. It fits well with the tone of the album.
NT: How long did it take you to write the material?
SG: I think all of the material on the album has been written over the past 4 years. Some of it within a month of the release.
NT: Is this your first CD?
SG: Yes, and some are probably hoping its my last.
NT: How long have you been performing; how long did it take you to find your voice?
SG: My first time on stage was on Jan. 17th 2006, so just over 7 years.
Find my voice? That’s hard to pinpoint and in a lot of ways I think you never stop finding it. It should evolve as you evolve.
For the sake of the question, I would say I started to notice a definite direction around year 3-4.
NT: Do you see yourself remaining in Minneapolis, or have you an eye on LA or NY?
SG: The plan for me right now is to remain in Minneapolis for the next 2 to 3 years at the most and then move to Los Angeles.
I have spent the past two summers in Los Angeles and have been slowly prodding in that direction.
NT: How has the Minneapolis comedy scene influenced you?
SG: The “scene” (fucking hate that word), has made an enormous impression on my work. I’d put this city up against any other in the world as fast developing comics. I know the rebuttal, “(whining voice) but, but, but Steeeeeve, what about LA and New York?”
Those are the places you go when you’ve developed into a professional.
Of course there are always exceptions. I have performed pretty much all over the country and there are a few good and a lot of bad comics just about everywhere I have been.
NT: Your disc opens with self-depreciating humor. Is that done with intent, to set the audience at ease? “Look, I’m not taking myself too seriously here, so don’t get all sensitive when I get into slavery.”
SG: In retrospect I wish I would have called the album Stever Fever Live, because that’s what the it is, a live show. I don’t really know how I’m going to open a show until I get in front of the audience and feel their vibe (for the lack of a better word). That material chunk was going to be used at some point and when I got on stage it felt like the audience was um….uneasy about my appearance, so I naturally worked into that piece. But I don’t always open the same way.
And yes, my material can get pretty dark but I like to keep it all silly and absurd.
NT: Describe your comedy to someone who hasn’t seen—or in my case, worked with—you.
SG: Personal and dark subjects delivered in absurdity.
NT: You keep a road journal on your web page; is that for fans, or a way to keep track of your own career?
SG: Its basically just something on my site people can look at if they’re interested. Its becoming more of a picture/news journal than anything.
You can follow Steve on Twitter (@epigillespie) or be his Internet friend on Facebook to keep up with his day to day activities and tours.
Not Jono here, and I’m really proud to tell you all about some amazing shows we have coming up this weekend! Rooftop Comedy is getting together with SF Sketchfest again to sock you in your face with four comedy shows this weekend alone! You should come! Well, unless you hate fun, then you should probably stay home. Hopefully we’ll see you non-fun haters there!
Not Jono and the whole Rooftop Crew
FRIDAY, JANUARY 25, 10:30PM, EUREKA THEATRE
Conspiracy Theory Live with Jesse Ventura
With James Adomian, Kate Berlant, James Urbaniak, The Mutiny, and more!
Former Governor and wrestling legend JESSE VENTURA is on the ground in Chicago and he’s assembled a team of investigative experts to uncover some explosive information that will unravel the biggest conspiracy yet. The New World Order might keep Jesse off the air, but they can’t cancel the truth! A hit show at festivals around the country, Conspiracy Theory Live is heading for JFL Chicago in June! Featuring James Adomian as Jesse Ventura, and a panel of comedians in character as inside experts, you’ll want to be at ringside for the action.
Dr. Brown is the absurd comedy character of Philip Burgers – a world-renowned clowning skills instructor and actor who trained with the infamous Philippe Gaullier, another of whose pupils, Sacha Baron Cohen, called him “the greatest living teacher of clown”.
His credits include Dr. Brown Because (2010) and Doctor Brown Becaves (2011). He was also awarded the Top Ten pick of the Fringe 2010, Malcolm Hardee Award for Most Original Comedy nomination 2010 & 2011, The Sunday Times’ Best Comedy Newcomer 2010, Total Theatre Award nominee 2011, BARRY award for Best Comedy Show 2012, Total Theatre Award for Innovation 2012, Foster’s Edinburgh Best Comedy Award 2012 and global sell-out runs everywhere.
Burgers’ act much of which is mimed, and much of which is highly uncomfortable and a tad repulsive, nonetheless makes for compelling viewing.
‘About as bonkers an hour of comedy as ever you would find – part Mr Bean, part Buster Keaton, all odd.’ Sunday Times ★★★★
After a spectacular run at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012 and numerous international festivals, Doctor Brown presents his BARRY Award and Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award 2012 winning show Befrdfgth. His cult following spreads to Prague, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Toronto, Dubai, Hong Kong and London’s Soho Theatre to name a few; Dr Brown is fast becoming one of the most talked about alternative comedians on the international circuit.
We’ve been following The Beards of Comedy all around the country and one day we can only hope to go on a road trip with these guys. In the first edition of Beards Across America, the guys dove into the SF dining scene, finding weird meat alternatives (brain tacos, anyone?) in the face of a pork shortage (remember that?). You can catch the two newest episodes, which take the guys to D.C. and NYC. First up, the Beards investigate the US Treasury Department, finding all kinds of conspiracies and little-known-facts about money. Next, the guys head to NYC to find a small slice of privacy in the city of over-stimulation. Watch both episodes after over at MSN!
To help prepare for his role in the 1988 film, Punchline(pictured here), Tom Hanks stopped by The Comic Strip in New York to get a feel for what it’s like to be a comedian. Movies.com came across this footage of Tom on stage, doing what any good comic would do: making fun of Sylvester Stallone. Watch a bit of his set after the jump.
We’re happy to present our newest web series, The Thing About. Each episode features actors, comedians, and writers telling funny, personal anecdotes. It sounds simple, because we know when to shut up and let them do the talking. We were lucky enough to have actress (and recent novelist) Molly Ringwald on the show. Molly serves as storyteller in the first episode of The Thing About, retelling a particularly memorable audition that involved one ex-boyfriend, one French director, and one choke collar. We’ll let Molly fill in the rest. Find out what happened at the audition over at MSN.
If you work in an office that organizes betting pools, we’ll save you some time and say “You’re welcome”. We’re happy to present our newest original series, Expert vs. Chicken. In EVC, which you can find over on Bing, we help you make the right choices when it comes to casual gambling.
Each episode poses a question on the likelihood of a certain pop culture-related outcome: will Rhianna show up Chris Brown and his new neck tattoo and win big at the VMA’s? Will Mad Men take home the award for Best Drama at this year’s Emmys? (No one said we were going to softball these). To answer each question, we turn to an expert, like TV Line‘s Michael Ausiello, as well as a, well, chicken. The latest episode tries to predict Mad Men‘s fate at Sunday’s Emmys. Who are you siding with? Watch the Expert vs. Chicken and let us know who you think will win and who’s just chopped liva’. [Swish]
Comedian Erin Judge will be quick to tell you she has mixed feelings about Whole Foods Market. While she undoubtedly falls into the young, urban liberal demo that the supermarket courts religiously, Erin is in her comedy zone when poking fun at the store and its Singles Night events (a real thing hilariously recounted by Erin). Erin’s debut comedy album, So Many Choices, is available today and is already getting some greatreviews from critics. We chatted with Erin in the midst of The Pink Collar Comedy Tour to talk about her love for Chris Rock, her performance on the Live at Gotham Comedy Central series, Mitt Romney’s comfort zone, and more.
Rooftop Comedy: You recorded your album at the Broadway Playhouse in Santa Cruz, California—a community-focused black box theater. Why did you decide to tape your album there?
Erin Judge: I had done a two-woman play a couple years ago, called The Meaning of Wife, with my best friend and we had a run at The Broadway Playhouse and it was one of my favorite experiences performing ever and I loved the audiences there and I loved the vibe, so I thought it would be the ideal place to record my album.
RC: How did you start out as a performer?
EJ: In college, I did improv comedy. I was part of my college improv comedy troupe. From there, I hosted a variety show, my senior year of college, which was more of a stand-up-type environment to be performing in and then after I graduated, I decided to start doing stand-up, because I had always loved stand-up growing up. All of my favorite comedians were stand-ups; I watched Comedy Central religiously as a kid. So I started with improv, but I think I was destined to end up in stand-up because it’s what I loved as a child.
RC: Who were some of your favorite comics growing up?
EJ: I remember Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho. Chris Rock was my favorite growing up and I remember seeing so many people and memorizing so many routines. I also remember watching the show The A-List, which was hosted bySandra Bernhard—she’s amazing.
RC: Do you think there’s a growing comedy scene at Wellesley College?
EJ: Yeah there really has. It’s pretty cool. Wendy Liebman, who’s a pretty famous stand-up, she graduated from Wellesley before me. And then, she and I have had many opportunities to perform together. Since I left, I’ve noticed a lot of Wellesley graduates going into the comedy world. Many work at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] and do sketch and improv. One recent graduate was just on an episode of 30 Rock. It’s pretty cool to see arts and entertainment coming into more of a focus at the college.
RC: Last year, you were featured in The New York Times magazine, proving to know very little about Twilight. Are there any pop culture franchises you guiltily or maybe not-so-guiltily adore?
EJ: I’m a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I love True Blood. True Blood and Buffy are the limit of my vampire interest. Those are my addictive pleasures—no matter how absurd True Blood gets, I will always be loyal to it. It’s extremely campy and just gets campier. As the mythology expands, it’s gotten bigger than it can be contained. It’s fun and it can be ridiculous. I also love Girls. I think the show is really funny and I like that it’s brave and I like that the female protagonist doesn’t have to be loveable, huggable, wacky, goofy. She can just be obnoxious and actually somebody you might not like and I think that’s something brand new that the show is doing. I guess that’s the one show I’m really on the bandwagon for right now.
RC: As a writer, what did you make of the internet kerfuffle when the show premiered?
EJ: I always think it’s a missed opportunity whenever a show lacks diversity in the cast and I personally, if I ever had the opportunity to put together a team of people, I look around the world of comedy and my friends that I would hire and it’s a diverse group of people. If you look at the people W. Kamau Bell is putting together for his show, you can see that there’s just amazing, talented, diverse people out there and it always surprises me when people don’t tap into that. That said, Girls is going for a very specific angle, which is basically what Lena Dunham knows and feels comfortable writing about and I don’t think anything that anybody does creatively should have to represent anything except exactly what it represents. She’s really funny. She’s really brave and she is doing a lot of things that I think are different and new. She’s just not doing absolutely everything one could possibly do to forward women in television.
RC: You’ve also performed on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham series. What was that experience like?
EJ: It’s pretty cool. I think a lot of us, a lot of my friends and I who are in comedy have that as our first credit, which is just a cool memory to have. I remember Myq Kaplan and Baron Vaughn both called me up around that time and told me that they did too. So it was a very exciting time for all of us. It was just out of a competition that we did called Open Mic Fights that Comedy Central used to run around the country and I was still living in Boston at the time. But they had seen me do their competition and decided to put me on the show. Tommy Davidson was the host and I got to meet a bunch of really cool other comedians as part of performing on that show. It was just a lot of fun and I still get people following me on Twitter and emailing me through my website who see the video on ComedyCentral.com so it has wide reach too.
RC: What stories from your album do you especially like to perform?
EJ: The thing that is really one of my favorite things to talk about right now is when I was bullied. On the CD it’s called ”Erin Solves Bullying Forever”. It’s a story about me getting bullied in high school and it’s a fun story right now because bullying is so relevant and in the news and I think it’s an inspiring story and a funny one. People can take it as inspiration and motivation to overcome that stuff.
RC: Speaking of your teenage years, you have some great stories about your experience with Sex Ed in Texas public schools. It doesn’t seem like things have progressed much since then.
EJ: It’s amazing how little things have changed and it’s amazing how it’s still this “teach you to be afraid of your body” attitude—even though there’s cable. Even though these kids can go on the internet and find out this information. That’s why the show on MTV called Savage U—I think Dan Savage is a genius and he has this show where he answers sex questions on college campuses. I think that’s really providing a really great platform for Sex Ed outside schools for kids.
When people can’t find out about information at school, they look on the internet. And the last place you want people finding out about Sex Ed is the internet. If you don’t know what “69” is and you ask the internet, it won’t give you a subtle answer.
RC: As you discuss on So Many Choices, you’re openly bisexual. Do you ever feel pressured as a performer to incorporate that into your act?
EJ: A lot of people do ask me questions about bisexuality after I get offstage. They’re like, “So, are you really bisexual?” and I’m like, “Yeah”. [Laughs] I don’t mind talking about it. I think it’s interesting and I find a lot of my experiences in life that are both funny and have to do with that and have to do with people’s confusion and ambivalence toward it. I just read an article today about Mitt Romney and a Sex Ed pamphlet in Massachusetts and it was about bullying. He didn’t mind the word “gay”, but he wanted them to take out the word “bisexual”, because it was too racy for him. I find that kind of stuff fascinating and I love talking about my personal life and my own experiences and I think that one of the things that makes my story a little bit different is I’ll talk about my ex-girlfriends and then I’ll talk about my ex-boyfriends. Through my stories I like to make myself a bit more normal, because it is normal to me. It’s something I’m really happy to talk about and some of my best material comes from that subject matter.
RC: I agree totally. One especially memorable track recounts you attending your ex’s wedding. Not to spoil anything, but the story ends with the line “I was up to my snatch in porch”—if that’s not an amazing tag, I don’t know what is.
EJ: [Laughs] I’ve had somebody tell me to put that on a t-shirt. “You might be a redneck, if you’re up to your snatch in porch”.
The nice thing about writing for a blog is: you don’t have to have any of that pesky “journalistic integrity”. This means writing for a blog, is just like working for Fox News.
But I digress.
For the sake of fairness, I will state that I love Danny Bevins(Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, HBO’s Comedy Arts Festival). I don’t have to tell you I am biased, but am doing so anyway.
I met Bevins over ten years ago, and even got to travel to Iraq with him in 2004. (Shameless whoring: Bevins is the “Danny” in my book, I Was a White Knight… Once.)
Bevins doesn’t know this, but he helped shape who I am as a comedian. When I was just starting out, I learned early on that my favorite comics were those I felt I learned something about when their set was finished. Instead of gesturing wildly on stage and having no point to their set—“Men and women, different, right?! Am I right?! High five!”—I enjoy comedians that dig beneath the surface and discuss who they are as people, and how they came to think the way they do. That describes Bevins in a nutshell. It has been said that the stage is therapy for a comedian, and you get the sense that Bevins is constantly working out who he is as a person while casually speaking into a microphone. What makes it work is: unlike some performers, Bevins isn’t lashing out at the audience, he’s drawing them in. Listening to Bevins’ new release, Inappropriate (available 6/12), is like listening to a conversation Bevins is having with himself; he’s trying to describe himself, but without lecturing.
The last time I worked with Bevins was years and years ago. He opened his set with the concept, “What is love?” Most comedians try and open big; maybe a shocking masturbation joke, or something with a punch line within 30 seconds. Not Bevins. He has the strength, skill, and confidence to pull the listener in by trusting their intelligence. In a day and age when The Jersey Shore is popular viewing, that’s placing a lot of trust in people that don’t always deserve it.
On Inappropriate, Bevins’ opening draws the listener in with meditations on the meaning of family, and what it is to both love your family, but also maintain a desire for independence. It’s neither fast nor flashy, but it’s honest, and captivating. When he does turn to worldly issues—say race or politics—he does so from the point of looking for laughter. Many comics in the same position either rant, rave, or simply ramble on, because they think having a microphone gives them free liscence to be opinionated and boring. Bevins knows that you are absolutely allowed to have an opinion, but people go to a comedy club to laugh. Thoughts must be wrapped in jokes, because if they aren’t, what’s the difference between a comedian and an Occupy Wall Street protester?
OK, too much babbling.
Without further ado, here’s what Danny had to say:
Nathan Timmel:You open Inappropriate by gently letting the listener know you’re a family man—with a wife and child—and then enter into the “Inappropriate” bit. Was this done with specific intent, to prepare the listener for anything to come? “Look, you already know that I’m a husband and father, and how I feel about passing judgment on ideas, so if you don’t like anything from here on out, it’s on you.”
Basically, do you open soft, so you can hammer an audience later?
Danny Bevins: Yes, but it’s totally by accident. When we were recording it, I had been opening my set with another bit, and I felt the audience wasn’t really coming along with me the way I wanted them to. I mean, they would get there, eventually, but it was taking a while. So, I had this conversation with my wife that morning—my parents were staying with her and my son while I was on the road, and she just needed to vent a little—and when I got on the stage that night, that’s what I felt like talking about: family, and all that goes along with family relations. I just started talking, and it worked. The audience laughed, and it made the transition into other material easier.
NT:Similar question: Your disc has an arc to it; you open by discussing your family, mentioning in passing your new baby boy, and close it discussing the kind of funeral you want. So you open with life, and end with death. Was this arc intentional, or accidental?
DB: Oh, absolutely intentional. To me, and this is just the way I write, if you can’t have a “theme” to your set… and I don’t mean I want it to be to the point where you’re like, “OK, enough with your little motto,” but I do want my set to feel like I’ve told a story. There is a start and finish point; it’s not random.
When I started getting the bits ready for this recording, in Edinburgh, the opening was about my birth, and the fact I was an accident. And then my set went from that to the natural close, my funeral. So that arc was absolutely on purpose. I had the “I was an unwanted child bit” already, and then was at a funeral where everybody was sad, and I knew the departed would absolutely hate that, and would have preferred a celebration of sorts. I mean, you and I are not going to want the standard “funeral package,” with crying and all that sadness. If you’re going to do that, I’d rather just not have one. Do something interesting. Be original.
NT:“Inappropriate” is a concept, because personal choice dictates what is or is not inappropriate to any single individual; why do you think moral crusaders feel the need to shove their personal brand of taste down the throats of others?
BV: Oh, that’s easy: because it makes them feel good. It makes them feel superior. If I don’t tell you how “good” I am, then how are you going to know? To me, that’s the whole point to the whole “inappropriate” theme; if you’re talking, it doesn’t mean anything, it should all be based on what we do, not how we champion ourselves. If you want to be a good person, you should be a good person because you want to be a good person, not because you think you’re going to get some candy or other reward. So they want to let you know all the things you do that are wrong, or “inappropriate,” because then they feel righteous. What they don’t understand is: when they say these things to me, I don’t think they’re good, I just think they’re a twat.
NT:Related question: even after discussing the cathedral of the comedy club being the one place humor shouldn’t be questioned, do you still get people lecturing you after shows?
DB: Not so much anymore; I think that bit helped a lot; I think it cut down about 80-90% of those kind of moments. I think there are still people that want to tell me what they didn’t like, but luckily there are usually people around me after a show telling me how much they enjoyed the act. That makes it harder for anyone that wants to come up and bitch about what they didn’t like. But, every once in a while, there’ll be somebody that just has to tell me what they thought. These days it’s more… I get people saying they didn’t like a certain idea I had. It’s not about language or something I said, but just the fact I talked about abortion, or people lecture me about my “Date Rape Joke.” That’s what they call it, “The Date Rape Joke.” To me, it’s “The Grandfather Joke,” because it’s about my grandpa. I had a woman tell me, “You can’t joke about rape.” But the joke isn’t about rape, it’s about my grandfather. If rape is the way you see it, if you take that catchword out of the theme of the joke and focus on it and not what I’m saying, then I’m probably not going to get through to you anyway.
NT:Changing gears: you discuss ethnicity in Scotland—homogonous—but not comedy; did you find cultural differences at all hindering to your sets, or as you are very personal, did you escape that? Did you notice any comics who tend to be too generic having problems translating?
DB: Overall it went really well. There were a couple things that I didn’t expect, like, they didn’t understand “mulligan…”
NT:[Interrupting; incredulous]The country that invented golf didn’t know what a mulligan was?
DB: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It took me by surprise. It was in a review of my show, “Bevins doesn’t explain what a mulligan is,” so there are little things you’ll discover about your act. In America, people will laugh at one part, and in Europe they’ll laugh somewhere completely different. They’ll still laugh, but they find the humor in different places, and I love that. I find that in Europe they want a point to whatever you’re saying, and I think they really enjoy storytelling over just “setup/punch line” comedy.
NT:Your last disc contained material with you poking fun at the Republican party while performing in a red state. Given that we’re in an election year, how political will you be this summer?
DB: Eh, some stuff, but for me… I’m just too beat up by the whole process these days. I mean, overall, I just feel sorry for all of us. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, we all suffer in the end because of the idea of taking sides. I know I’ll be in Washington D.C., and I’ll pull politics out then… I mean, you and I could sit down and debate shit one-on-one, but we know each other and it’s OK.
I do, like you pointed out, like going in front of a group of people, and if I know how they stand on a certain issue, making fun of it. It’s a good to see people challenge themselves; can you let go of your position for a second and see that what I just said is a funny joke, or are you just going to get mad and pout?
NT:How much of your writing takes place on the stage? How much do you write, say, using a notebook, and how much of it is… while not exactly “free form,” is you going on stage with an idea or concept, and working it out with people listening?
DB: I basically go up with a concept, and an outline. I have an idea of what I should say, and where the bit should go, but the stage will determine where it ends up. The audience lets you know what’s funny.
I have a bit right now that I’m working on, and when it started it was about suicide, but over the past few shows it’s drifted into being about a toll bridge, the location of the suicide more than suicide itself. It takes me a little time on stage to really figure a bit out, and where I’m going to take it.
My wife really helps a lot in that process; she is a great barometer.
NT:My mom used to be that way for me; if I said something and she made a lemon face and went “tisk-tisk,” I knew it was a great bit.
DB: [Laughs] No, I don’t mean like that… my wife actually really helps… keep me honest, is the best way of putting it. When I bounce ideas off her, and then she hears me working through them, she’ll remind me, “That’s not where this started,” or “I thought you really wanted to make this the focus of what you were talking about.” If I stray too much, and… I don’t want to say pander, but if I start just going for the easy laughs, my wife will challenge me to go deeper.
Inappropriate will be available tomorrow, June 12 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. Be sure to keep up with Danny on Twitter @MySmartAss
In 1991, Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford came together to form Rage Against the Machine. The focus was inspirational, educational music; music with a purpose. Encouraged by the idea art didn’t have to be mindless, in 2008 Nato Green joined forces with comedians W. Kamau Bell and Janine Brito to form Laughter Against the Machine, a comedy troupe with the implicit design to challenge audiences to “laugh and think at the same time.” Nato will continue collaborating with Bell as a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, a new Chris Rock-produced series coming to FX in August.
Nato Green has been a staple of the San Francisco comedy scene for years, and Rooftop Comedy is proud to be releasing his CD The Nato Green Partyon Tuesday, June 5.
Rooftop sent interviewer Nathan Timmel to talk to Nato about his new disc, intellectual comedy, and parenting.
NT:Easy questions first: Where was the CD recorded? Tell me a little about the venue.
NG: The shows are taped at the New Parish in Oakland. My group Laughter Against the Machine has been doing runs there twice a year for the last couple of years. It’s mostly a music venue, although more comics are checking it out now. Moshe Kasher taped his tv special there in January. One night after a Laughter Against the Machine show, after the audience had left, we were walking out as Too Short was coming in. Some of the most explosive comedy shows I’ve ever done have been there, so it was a natural for me to go back there to tape the cd. Also, as San Francisco gets intolerably expensive to live, both the diversity and the arts community are being pushed out to Oakland.
NT:What is the CD called, and where does the title come from?
NG: The title is The Nato Green Party. There’s not a lost of mystery to that title, is there?
NT:You open your new CD with a play on your name, followed by an examination of your religion, Judaism. How important is your self-identity to your comedy? Is it your specific intention that audiences get to know you as a person through your comedy, as opposed to talking about traffic, or another “topical” subject: “Airline peanuts, who’s with me?”
NG: Hugely important, for two reasons. First, the comedy that inspires me the most is the comedy that carries an honest and personal point of view, that uses humor to search for personal truth. Second, I get called a “political comic” a lot, but a lot of political comedy is comedians writing jokes about things they see on the news. As someone who grew up on the left and was a labor activist for most of my adult life, I talk about politics because that’s my experience. It’s important to me to talk about political and social issues not only as an observer but as a person who is implicated in them.
The discipline that we spent the last four years cultivating in Laughter Against the Machine is only talking about things we sincerely care about. So occasionally, I think of observational premises, but they don’t really fit in my act because I don’t have strong feelings about them. “Why do we call people who take care of things caretakers, but people who take care of people caregivers?” They get shelved, or tweeted, until I can figure out a reason to talk about it onstage.
NT:How important is it to you to have an educated audience when it comes to political humor?
NG: It’s a different thing. When I’m in front of a very educated audience, I can go farther, cut out the exposition in the jokes, trust that people will catch all the references and understand what I mean by them. On the other hand, the best thing is a diverse audience. More diversity keeps everybody honest. It’s very satisfying to figure out how to make a nightclub audience laugh about thorny political issues, after they’ve been hearing dick jokes all night. (Not that there’s anything wrong with dick jokes per se.)
NT:Do you craft your political jokes in a way that allows people who do not follow the news to keep up?
NG: I try to write ripped from the zeitgeist more than ripped from the headlines. If I’m writing about something in the news, if I need more than one sentence to explain it to someone who doesn’t know about it already, it usually doesn’t make it into the act.
NT:Topics such as slavery and abortion make their way into your show, and are handled with confidence. Do you ever run into audiences that just aren’t willing to go down such paths with you?
NG: All the time. I don’t know a lot of other white comics who talk as directly about whiteness and white privilege as I do, and talk about race in that context. I have ended up writing material that is continually digging me in and out of holes with the audience. Walking people through why they reacted negatively to the jokes. Sometimes I feel like I’m facilitating a discussion more than performing. People don’t so much heckle me as participate in the conversation.
NT:Regardless of what you are saying, do you feel certain audiences just hear the topic and have a knee-jerk reaction?
NG: My audiences tend to react negatively to things, or want to quibble with things, but it’s not always what you’d expect. Someone came up to me after the CD taping show and said, “I love the show, but you shouldn’t drink bottled water onstage.” Someone else emailed me after the show to say that they loved the show but felt I “uncritically accepted the concept of Jewish whiteness” rather than placing it its historical context.
Sometimes it’s the audience and sometimes it’s me. Audiences always get very tense if I talk about Israel and Palestine, regardless of how carefully I tread. On the other hand, I tend to be pretty dark in my perspective on things, and want to talk onstage about whatever I’m upset about. Sometimes it’s too raw and I haven’t figured out a way to make it funny enough. I check my set list to make sure there’s not too much death and suffering clumped together. I have ideas all the time that I think are interesting and funny, but I need to let marinate until I get enough perspective to make it work for the audience without just rubbing their faces in anguish.
NT:While you are unabashedly left-leaning regarding politics, you do skewer your own political leanings as much as, if not more so, than you attack the right. Does this ever confuse audiences? Do people ever tell you they felt insulted by anything you said because it conflicted with their personal beliefs?
NG: Years ago [National Public Radio's] Fresh Air ran an interview with this Israeli who organized a Jewish anti-semitic cartoon contest. You’ll remember that a Danish newspaper ran a cartoon of Mohammad, and in a non sequitur retaliation an Iranian newspaper called an anti-semitic cartoon contest. This Israeli guy said, “Anyone can make fun of the other guy. It takes real confidence to make fun of yourself.” That really inspired me.
I spent years as an organizer, and still stay close to the progressive/radical social movement activist world. While it’s plenty fun to mock the stupidity of the right, I am firmly convinced that my side’s biggest enemy is ourselves. We love to smirk about how stupid and hypocritical and paranoid the Tea Party is or whatever. Meanwhile, we manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every chance we get.
Certainly, there are people on the left who come to my shows who realize they didn’t actually want to see a comedy show–they just wanted to hear things they agree with. I’m not for them. Mostly I get away with making fun of my own side because the other people on my side can recognize the motivation, even if they don’t agree with the particular conclusions.
NT:You are a father—twin daughters—does that hinder, help, or have no effect on your touring schedule as a comedian?
NG: There are a lot of things I could do that comics do to build my career if I didn’t have a family. Instead, I have to be focused and disciplined. I hear other comics say, “I spent the day watching all of Battlestar Gallactica” or something. That’s not an option for me. My family is making sacrifices so I can pursue this dream so I want to have scraps of progress to show for it every single day.
NT: Did becoming a father re-calibrate your focus as an entertainer?
NG: Being a parent raises the stakes on every choice you make, because every choice affects another person. Every choice–from how many nights I’m away from home to how long I sit on the toilet. At the same time, my daughters are the greatest joy in my life. As much as I go onstage and talk about painful, confusing, scary, controversial topics, I’m basically hopeful. I’m happier now than before I had kids, because I no longer waste as much time on nonsense.
NT:I have an advance copy of your CD, and by that I mean “un-edited.” It contains some visual cues; will those remain on the full release? How much of your overall act is cerebral, and how much is physical?
NG: Mostly they will. If the joke has an act-out, it stays. Let the listening audience have a reason to come see me live.
NT:What’s next for you; what are your comedic goals? Touring, acting, writing…
NG: My most immediate next step is that I’m going to New York to work on the writing staff of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the new Chris Rock-produced late night show premiering on FX August 9. Beyond that, I want to blast this CD out widely to a non-comedy audience. The folks who might like The Daily Show but would never go see live stand-up. I plan to finish and find a distributor for the Laughter Against the Machine documentary I did with Kamau and Janine, and then tour behind it in the fall. After we get through out first 6 episodes of Totally Biased, release the LATM doc, and promote the CD, I’ll evaluate where I’m standing then. And I want to keep logging my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to become a great stand-up comedian.
The Nato Green Party will be available June 5 on iTunes, Amazon, and the Rooftop Comedy shop. The album will also be available to stream through Pandora, Spotify, and Last.fm.
We’ve been busy over here in the Rooftop Comedy offices. This year, we’re branching out into the summer blockbuster realm and we’re excited to present two full-length trailers for Swim for Loveand I Will Never Close My Eyes. As soon as we read the scripts for both of these films, we knew we had two mega-franchises on our hands. First, Swim For Love: it’s like The Notebook, only with less Ryan Gosling (200% more sharks though). Go ahead and lose yourself in this epic tale of Olympic pageantry, honor, love, and acoustic guitar:
Balancing the sweeping, inspiring romance of Swim For Love is I Will Never Close My Eyes. Building off the mega-success of films like Paranormal Activity and knowing that people are pretty much powerless against a cute baby, this got the green light right away. Don’t let the adorableness of the leading baby fool you, though. This is a twisted tale that will surely place the film in the pantheon of great possessed-child cinema:
Release dates are still being finalized. For now, let us know what you think and share around!