One of the only ways to tolerate listening to mainstream new programs’ discussion of the debt ceiling crisis, the 2012 presidential election, the economy remaining in the shitter, the inane bickering that continues to plague Congress, or pretty much anything involving the Tea Party, is to tell yourself that it’s all a huge joke. Sure, Michele Bachmann might have said The Lion King could be used to normalize homosexuality in schools — I mean, obviously Timon and Pumbaa’s relationship is just gay propaganda –- but on another level, that is an absolutely hilarious bit of political comedy. You can’t make that shit up. But, of course, we definitely could do without that idiocy. There’s no benefit. It’s actively harmful.
Another flavor of political comedy, though, is undoubtedly better for society and our discourse in general, and that flavor has comics using humor to show us what’s really messed up about the world. And that’s precisely what Jamie Kilstein does. The stand-up comedian and co-host of Citizen Radio, an Internet talk radio show, releases his new album, Libel, Slander, & Sedition this week. It’s a doozy, guys; prepare yourselves for over an hour of sharp political commentary, hilarious critiques of homophobia and religion, and enough raging against the machine to exhaust you. You might need some herbal tea and a nap after listening to it.
I recently had a chat with Jamie about the album, the unique (and sometimes problematic) atmosphere of the comedy club for political comics, and how well-done political comedy can do more than entertain a crowd of people. So read, enjoy, and fight the power, man.
So Jamie, I listened to your album yesterday, and I really enjoyed it. It was a little blood pressure-raising at times, which I’m sure you’ve heard before about your comedy.
Yeah. That would have been a horrible thing if you had to interview me and hated the album. That would’ve been awful. If you were like, ‘It was okay.’ Now let’s force this conversation for an hour.
I’m very glad that didn’t happen.
I don’t even think I’ve listened to it all the way through.
No. I do remember when I first heard it, I was surprised that there were so many acknowledgements of people walking out. Have you ever heard that on an album before?
I don’t think I have either. Because I remember specifically that there was going to be the heckler bit and then I didn’t know that in between so many of the other bits that, ‘Oh, there goes another table.’ And I didn’t know if that was going to register as a bad thing.
That’s actually one of my questions. Is that whole people-walking-out-thing a normal response that you get?
Yeah. I mean, it’s getting a little better. The ratio at comedy clubs between people that know what I do and people that don’t is definitely starting to lean more in my favor. It’s really interesting – the last road week I did was at Morty’s Comedy Club in Indianapolis, and I went in really thinking it was going to be a nightmare. And I think it might have been if a lot of my people didn’t show up. What was so cool is that a lot of people came from Chicago, and I guess I have a lot of fans in Indiana as well. I noticed the people who really wouldn’t have liked me, like from just talking afterwards, or hearing their conversations coming in, or just being the creepy comic assuming that everyone was going to hate me. Because other people knew what I do, they started laughing, and they sort of alleviated the pressure. Everyone else kind of relaxed, and sort of chilled the fuck out, and they started laughing as well.
Which I always think is a really interesting dynamic, because even if people don’t agree with me politically, lots of people would still laugh. I have a ton of people come up to me after shows and say, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you, but I thought this was really funny.’ Or whatever. Or they’ll shake my hand and leave. But comedy clubs in general have this awful dynamic where it’s marketed and it just attracts groups of people like, ‘Hey, do you have a group of people who you don’t really want to talk to for a night? Come here!’ And what ends up happening is you have these office parties, or these fucking awful bachelor parties, or bachelorette parties, and if they don’t know who the comic is, and the comedian happens to be someone with political views, or is edgier, or is just a different kind of comic, like a Maria Bamford or Mitch Hedberg, back before he was super popular, they’re just going to be confused. And a lot of times there are ringleaders in these groups. If you’re out with your boss, and the comedian’s cracking an abortion joke, you don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh at that. You know what I mean?
Or you have an Alpha male, or you’ll have the dude who thinks he’s a funny guy, kind of like Ziggy from season two of The Wire, who’s just kind of awful and annoying. But that’s all he has to offer, that he’s sort of the funny guy. Suddenly now he’s not the funny guy [at the comedy club], and he’s pissed off. Or a boyfriend’s jealous that his girlfriend’s laughing at the comic at the club. There are so many bizarre dynamics that can happen, and I feel like when you have enough people in the audience that like you, that kind of takes the pressure off.
With that said, the people who don’t like me REALLY don’t like me. I’ve had bottles thrown at me in Sydney; I got followed out to the parking lot after the CD taping in Minneapolis, which is actually a pretty liberal city. I kind of got sad afterwards. I think the album came out well, and the shows were consistently okay, but there were walk-outs at every show. And we did a Thursday through Friday or Saturday, maybe even more – I think there was a Wednesday too. There were walk outs in every show, and that really fucked with me. You hear Minneapolis is a really good city, which I agree with, and Acme – it was the first time I had performed at Acme, and Acme’s always been known as a comic’s club, a club designed for comedians. And it was. Everyone was really cool and supportive. But I was so mad when I got followed out from that club, when I had people walk out every night at that club. I definitely had this sort of sad sack moment, where I was like, ‘Ugh, do I belong anywhere?’ Like a character in a kid’s book. I was like, ‘Fuck man, if I can’t do it there…’
And I did Cap City in Austin before that, and it was the same deal. Great city. And I had these two fucking Marines rush the stage. It’s weird. I don’t understand it. It kind of makes me sad because the comic I was before, I sort of get it, in the sense that I think that before I got decent at this, and even on the first album, I think I was trying to be edgy. A lot of times it came out as me making fun of people. Sort of like, ‘Hey, if you’re religious, you’re retarded,’ as opposed to what I’m doing now, which I think is better. I’m trying to stick up for people. Instead of making fun of the Christians, just for being Christian, I’m trying to stick up for the people they’re trying to oppress. I’d rather stick up for gay people than call someone stupid.
So when I have people walk out, and when I have people get angry or when I have people threaten me, not only are they identifying themselves as ‘dickhead audience member,’ which pisses me off, they’re also identifying themselves as a bigot. I don’t know what to do in that situation. It’s this really horrifying moment where I’m just like, ‘Fuck, man. I don’t really want to fight you. You’re awful. You’re a bigot and you’re just an asshole.’ And that’s a really weird feeling, like when you’re talking about issues you’re so passionate about, and you get resistance to it – it’s kind of just like a double-header of rage.
Thinking more about the content of your comedy — it’s angry, you yell a lot — it’s driven by this frustration with assholes in the political and religious systems. I’m curious if there’s a particular moment, event, person, or something that inspired you to take on these groups in some way. What’s the origin story of your comedy, since it’s so polemical?
Sure. I don’t come from a smart person background. I dropped out of school, which makes this sound sort of noble, but if I stayed in school, I would have failed out of school. It was like, you know, I think at the time I dropped out, I had a 12 in my English class. I didn’t go to some fancy artsy school that was like, “We do things different,” like a 12 out of 20. It was a 12 out of 100. Sixty percent was failing, and I had a 12. I would just do nothing, I’d smoke pot and bitch about things I didn’t really know about. Religion was always the first thing that struck me, and gay rights was the first political issue I talked about, because you don’t need to be smart to realize that’s insane. You don’t have to be smart to see discrimination and to realize that America doesn’t give equal rights to everybody. It’s a very simple thing.
So I started talking about that, but I didn’t really know what I was talking about, and I was a shitty comic. Then my wife and I met when I was a failing comic, and she was a failing writer. We were working at a bookstore, because that’s what smart failures do. We decided to leave; we were just miserable working at this store. I remember the day I told her we had to leave – she was organizing those gift books, the really small ones they have at the counter with the wacky covers – she was in charge of organizing them, and she just started sobbing. I asked her what the matter was, and she said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ And I was like, ‘We have to get the fuck out of here.’ And she was just like, ‘Why? We can’t.’ And I was like, ‘Because you’re crying while organizing tiny books. We have to leave. This is terrible.’
We figured that if we left, and we went on the road, and didn’t pay rent, we could technically say we were making our living as artists. That’s really all we wanted to do. At the time, no comedy clubs would use me. No one knew who I was. I had a small fan base from MySpace, because a couple bands promoted this video I did. Through that, the shows I was getting kind of forced us to people. They weren’t at comedy clubs, we weren’t staying at hotels, we were crashing with people, staying on their floors, and we were playing these weird coffee houses. I was getting paid by hat passes, like Allen Ginsberg style; they’d pass the hat and people would drop change in. And that was the money I made. This was not long ago, this was like four years ago.
So we just started meeting more and more people who were affected by the stories we’d see in the news. You won’t hear from those people on the news. I had a point where I was like, ‘I want to be political. So I’ll read Noam Chomsky.’ But I was like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t know what any of this fucking means.’ I’d read Howard Zinn, because he teaches you about the history you really didn’t learn. But I didn’t know the bad history, because I didn’t pay attention. So I felt really dumb.
And then you watch the news, and it’s like either things you don’t get and understand, or it’s a bunch of rich white men talking about the plights of minorities or women or gay people, and they were just rich white guys. It’s not talking to the majority of Americans. I think that’s why a lot of people feel disillusioned. That’s why they get apathetic, because they think no one really gives a shit about them. Or they don’t understand it, and they use apathy as a defense mechanism, which is what I did for a phase.
Once we started meeting these people and talking to these people, we learned about personal stories. ‘Oh, they have a kid in the war,’ or ‘His best friend died in Iraq,’ or ‘He’s afraid to come out to his parents because his parents were right wing Christians, and he was afraid they’d kick him out of the house,’ or people who were on food stamps, even though they were working at Wal-mart or working two jobs. You turn on the news and rich white men are saying they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Once you start seeing the effects of our political system, and actually talking to people it affects, you realize you have to start screaming about it. It’s horrible. It was so sad.
That was when I was just like, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, if I’m going to talk more about politics and tell these stories, I have to know what the fuck I’m talking about, because I don’t want to be kind of slammed down in an argument even though I know that I’m right morally. I really do want the facts to back it up. So I forced myself to start reading; it was really hard at first. There was a phase where I didn’t think I could read, even though I was 20. I knew I could read words, and pronounce words, but I couldn’t retain anything. The first book I read that I understood was Al Franken’s, because he was funny about it. I remember reading the Franken book when I was 24; I remember saying, ‘I know how to read!’ And my wife was like, ‘Of course you know how to read, you fucking idiot.’ That was it. I just started reading a lot, and started watching independent news, like Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, and you just start learning and learning and learning, and the more you learn, the more outraged you get, especially when you’re learning all of these facts and you turn on the news and see nonsense coverage of Kardashian weddings. Stuff like that. You kind of just want to yelling about stuff.
Right. You mentioned reaching people and stories that mean a lot to people on a personal level – there were several moments listening to the album where I found the content really funny, but I also thought, ‘Oh, that’s actually a really good point.’ You know? Beyond entertaining the audience, you have this other role, so is there something else you hope a listener will take away from the material you offer here?
I just want people to be nice, you know what I mean? It’s one of those things where – I don’t even know how to phrase it. I’ve seen political comics do the thing where they’re just talking to their own audience, and I never wanted to be that person. I just don’t see a point. A lot of times, they come off as really smug, like, ‘Hey, George Bush, he can’t read, right?’ And it’s just like, ‘Who cares?’ Dude’s committing war crimes. Let’s talk about that.
I always try to challenge people, even though I have more than a liberal audience. On the album, that’s the reason I wasn’t afraid to criticize Obama, even though I have a very Democratic audience. Or to criticize religion, even though a lot of Democrats are religious. Now, the material I’m working on for my new hour, I have a 15-minute chunk about being a vegan. People get more mad about me being vegan than they do about me being atheist. I’m always kind of trying to – even when I have my audience, even when I should be happy with my career, and to just accept that people like me – I’m always kind of trying to push back. It’s like you said, I want to try to tell someone something they don’t know, and give them a different perspective.
Sometimes I don’t do it well. I remember I did my hour at UCB in New York, and this dude heckled me about the gay rights stuff, and I didn’t even have a joke, I just called him a bigot. I just went after him. And then when I did my gay rights rant, I just walked right up to him because he was in the first row, and at the UCB, you’re not on a stage, you’re on a flat floor. I just delivered it in his face, essentially, until he left. That would be an example of a time where it wasn’t the most tactful way to do it.
But it makes it clear that I really care about it. So what I try to do – I don’t try to be preachy, ever. I want to stay likeable, and relatable – likeable is a bad word, I want to stay honest about my own flaws. Which, I guess, in turn, would make me more likeable than if I just said, ‘Here’s all the reasons you guys are idiots, or here are all the reasons you guys are wrong, if you are a Republican.’ I think when you do that, and when you don’t come across as this preachy monster, people let their guard down.
I’ve said this in interviews before, but if there’s a Republican in the audience, and they like me as a person, and maybe even they didn’t agree – they don’t think that we’re going to run out and open up the Mom and Pop abortion clinic, or we’re going to get gay married, or liberals are just whiny cunts. I think if they think that the next time they hear someone say, ‘Oh, all the liberals are just elitist pieces of shit,’ they might be like, ‘No, I heard that one comic, he definitely wasn’t elitist, he definitely hated himself a good deal, and he had some funny points’ – you just start to plant seeds, you know?
I also think there’s a whole audience that are not extremists. There are a bunch of people who wouldn’t consider themselves homophobes, and maybe they even think that gay people can marry, but they’re also the people who anytime they’re mad at someone, they call them a fag, or they’ll say, ‘Oh, I support gay rights as long as they’re not sucking my dick.’ And that’s definitely still a kind of homophobia. If onstage I’m telling these stories where I’m showing these pictures of horrible bigots, like James Dobson, Rick Warren, these people who say that gays cause natural disasters or Hurricane Irene – if I’m saying that, even if I don’t describe them specifically, there’s definitely a part of them inside that’s like, ‘Oh, that guy’s on my team. I’m a little homophobic, and that’s a version of me as well. That guy believes the same shit.’ And maybe it’ll just embarrass them not to.
Tons of people have become vegan because of my new stand-up because it’s just something they didn’t know about, and then they went and did their own research. And I really like that, I think it’s cool. I don’t think that every comic should do it, I don’t think that what I’m doing is special, but I think that there’s such a lack of honest conversation and progressive news in the mainstream media that it does get to a point that things are so bad that it is really important for comics, musicians and artists to start talking about this stuff that really matters.
When Paul Provenza and I were doing an interview, I watched Paul do a couple of interviews, and a big thing he talked about that he doesn’t like in comedy now is sort of distancing, emotional detachment– this kind of ironic not-really-giving-a-shit-about-anybody-else, not showing real emotions – that’s become a trend. It’s really safe, it’s weird. I think people think it’s edgy to say the word ‘rape’ or to say the word ‘faggot or to be a white guy and say the n-word because Louis C.K. has that awesome bit. To me, that’s not really edgy. What’s really edgy is putting yourself out there, being vulnerable – it doesn’t have to be political, just fucking telling an honest story or putting something out there where it’s like, ‘I care about this,’ and if someone disagrees, you’re going to be the one who has to defend that.
What’s interesting is I think that comics all have that power. Humor is something that will win any debate. If you have a funny guy versus a smarter guy, the funny guy’s going to charm the shit out of the audience and he’s going to win. People who use that skill to go after minorities – that’s the shit I don’t get. Really? You’re going to go after gay people? You’re going to make fun of homeless people, like, ‘Oh, someone took down the homeless-industrial complex, those guys were fucking us bad enough.’ You gotta use comedy to punch up. You want to attack people who are more powerful than you, or else who gives a shit?
I’d like to focus on one of the things that you said about the mainstream media being inadequate in addressing a lot of these issues. Thinking about political comedy more broadly these days, it’s really in an interesting place with shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report – the space where a lot of people get their news, especially young people. How do you see your comedy alongside shows like that, that are pretty mainstream, but that try to do a little more needling at points that perhaps mainstream news shows don’t?
What’s interesting is that with the radio show that [my wife] Ali and I do [Citizen Radio], and with my stand-up, I’m definitely more to the left of those guys. I love it, and I’m laughing, and then because I think I care more about politics than about comedy, there’s definitely that time when Colbert broke character and went after Julian Assange from Wikileaks. And I was like, ‘Fuck, man.’ Or the time before the big Rally to Restore Sanity where Jon Stewart was comparing the Tea Party with people who watch Keith Olbermann. And it was like, ‘Really? You’re going to compare fucking racists with people who want universal health care?’
And there were times that even though it was a comedy show, as a comic, I have to be like, ‘Jamie, take it easy.’ The problem is that they have, whether they like it or not (which Jon doesn’t, he’s been interviewed about it, he’s not happy with the statistics) – they do have a responsibility now, because the majority of college age kids watch them for the news, not just comedy. I think the biggest difference, at least with the radio show, is that The Daily Show does a great job of using comedy to mock the news. And what we do on the show and in my stand-up is using comedy as a tool, a sort of conduit to present the news. I think that’s the difference.
The thing you’re supposed to say, you’re always supposed to say things like this in pitch meetings – you know, that “comedy always comes first.” I’m just a political comic, that’s just the audience I’m trying to get. But for us, politics always comes first. The message always does come first. I feel like comedy is a really great way to make politics less daunting, less intimidating, and really kind of the first step in finding solutions.
We’re getting into the 2012 election right now, so I’m curious if, as a political comic, you have any predictions for how that’s going to play out.
I don’t know, man. Right now it’s just like a fucking crazy fest. We’re really only highlighting the Republicans. I think it’ll end up being a boring election. Right now, you have all these Republicans vying to be the craziest. They’re vying for this small minority of the Tea Party, the Evangelicals, and so one person says we shouldn’t teach evolution, so the next person has to say people should be punished if they teach evolution, or another says gays caused Irene, the next person says ‘Send gays to an island!’ They’re just trying to out-bigot each other. So that’s always interesting.
I think it’s going to come down to Mitt Romney or someone who is just your classic fucking rich male selfish asshole and then Obama will charm them; Obama will win. We’ll be happy for a day, and then we’ll go back to being disappointed when he goes back on everything he says he’s going to do.
Sounds pretty great.
In a perfect world, what would happen is someone who is much more progressive would say, ‘Hey Obama, you said we could have universal health care, and you said that you didn’t think pot should be illegal, and you said you were going to close Guantanamo, and you said you weren’t going to extend the Bush tax cuts on the billionaires, and you said all this stuff, and I’m actually going to do that.’
But that’s not really going to happen, I don’t think. So what needs to happen is that the people, being us, need to be as loud as humanly possible, and not be bitter, and not be jaded, and not be nihilistic – I hope my answer didn’t sound nihilistic, but we need to be really loud. If you’re an Obama supporter, you need to be out on the street marching with people who are getting arrested in Washington DC. You need to say, ‘Hey man, I voted for you. Make good on this or I’m not going to vote for you again.’ If you’re a Republican, I don’t know, read some books and stop being an asshole.
The system is so corrupt and so broken that all of us are competing with corporations that have billions and billions of dollars to give to politicians. And all we really have is our vote and our voice. We need to use that, whether that’s complaining to the mainstream media for not covering important stories, supporting independent media like our show or Democracy Now, or Bill Moyers, or running for office. You may not be able to do much in the presidential election, but all these local elections – this school board thing they had in Texas, those were very local elections. Who would think you should get involved in an election for the school board? What happens when you don’t is they try to get text books that try to get rid of any mention of gay people or lesbians or feminists. The school board in Texas actually wanted to take out a picture of a woman in a business suit, and, I shit you not, replace it with a picture of a woman baking muffins. Do these people think Mad Men is real? It’s just like the most disgusting thing.
But that happened because of a really local election. If all the kids in Austin, Dallas, and Houston – I’m trying to think of other progressive places in Texas besides Austin, I know there’s some other college town, I forget the name – they could have stopped that.
Well, they do say all politics is local.
Yeah, totally. It’s really easy to get disenfranchised when you’re like, ‘Obama, the White House, the administration, it’s so big, it’s untouchable.’ And that’s true. That doesn’t mean it should stop you. If we just elected a bunch of Ralph Naders to Congress, then so much of our agenda would actually happen.
Jamie Kilstein’s new album Libel, Slander & Sedition is available now on iTunes and wherever fine comedy is sold. You can download it here. Check out Jamie’s radio show, Citizen Radio at wearecitizenradio.com. Jamie’s official site is jamiekilstein.com.