Comedians as Activists in the Era of Trump

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In his 2012 book, Tortured Artists, Christopher Zara examines the mental anguish that has plagued some of the most revered artists in history, from Poe to Picasso to Rowling. He also sums up a belief shared by many about the nature of creativity: “Great art comes from great pain.” Though it’s taken comedians some time to gather themselves since the Mike Tyson uppercut that was election night, it appears America’s standups, eager to take action in these turbulent times, are finally becoming mobilized. Just as Donald Trump mounts his throne in Washington, D.C., comics — some with a history of providing humorous political commentary, others, publicly indifferent to politics before, but now vocal about the sad state of the union — are hitting the clubs and theaters in big numbers, looking to gift the country some mindful comedy throughout the coming administration.

“If you’re listening closely, people are just getting their legs under them,” says Los Angeles comedian Caitlin Gill, who co-hosts “Crabapples,” a weekly variety show at Hollywood Improv (The Lab), with Bobcat Goldthwait. A number of standup comics have stated their sets in the immediate aftermath of November 8th were reminiscent of those after September 11th. Everyone was emotional, and though comedians delivered some jokes, many were hastily crafted and base — political dick jokes, essentially. But according to Gill that’s beginning to change. “There are comedians … that are on fire and they’ve been really fun to listen to,” she says. (Gill cites Jena Friedman and James Fritz as two among many whose new political material has emerged especially intuitive.)

Nato Green, a San Francisco comic, activist and show organizer, agrees with Gill’s observation. “Assuming civilization survives,” Green says, citing the threats of nuclear annihilation with America’s heightened tensions with Russia and global warming, “it feels like something different is happening.”

Though Gill and Goldthwait’s show was never intended to be political, with every passing “Crabapples” performance since its founding in March 2016, the duo’s improvised, conversational asides between guest acts organically became very Clinton- and Trump-charged. “We needed to respond to the campaign season events,” says Gill. “It would’ve been weird not to.”

Gill, who considers herself “an activist because I’m a human being,” and Goldthwait, who Gill says has always been wise to politics, though not typically outspoken about issues, are purposefully taking their show on the road for the first time. The tour, “Crabapples vs. the Orange,” kicked off last week in San Francisco and continues this weekend at the Riot L.A. comedy festival. Proceeds will go to a number of charities, including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, and featured performers are sure to provide fresh funny takes on this time of Trump.

Jenn Welch and Emily Winter have been looking forward to this Inauguration Weekend for a time as well — since shortly after Welch received a text from Winter the night of the election reading: “I can’t believe this. We have to do something.” They’ve organized the “What a Joke” comedy festival, a coordinated collection of 88 shows occurring in 34 cities, which began yesterday and continues through Sunday — proceeds are going to the ACLU here, too. Initially, Welch figured they could coordinate a few shows from their New York home base, across as many as fifteen different cities throughout the country. The grouping would be less a protest and more a statement of solidarity from a group of people who support American values. “We’re blown away by how big this has become,” Welch says. They’re not even sure how many comics are performing, only able to come up with an estimate that exceeds 500.

Though Nikki Glaser has never been overtly political when it has come to crafting material, she opened up the New York leg of the “What a Joke” festival last night at The Stand. Glaser and several other comedians I’ve spoken to in the past few months have stated they anticipate doing political jokes for the first time in their careers in lieu of the Trump election victory. Glaser says Trump’s controversial statements have transformed her into “an angry feminist,” and she can’t help but “kind of like that moniker.” “It’s so upsetting that you have to take a side,” she says, admitting to at least a small concern in her camp that voicing her opinion publicly might alienate a vast swath of her audience. “Sometimes I say things I regret,” Glaser admits, “like, ‘If you voted for Trump … go find the gun that you definitely own and do us all a favor and get rid of yourself.’” Nonplussed, Glaser says that if a person possesses any level of celebrity, they should use their voice to create a positive change in the culture, asserting that she’s “happy to throw away” Twitter followers if they don’t appreciate her worldview.

Barry Crimmins, a comedian known for politically minded performances spanning a 44-year career, urges standups to strongly consider the things they say onstage these days. “Even when you’re ad-libbing and improvising,” he offers, “try and be responsible with what you’re doing out there and understand the fact that it has an impact on people.” Crimmins, who counted historian and social activist Howard Zinn as a friend and mentor, adds, metaphorically, “It would be easier to just join in and shit on the person everyone makes fun of at the office … but when you don’t, you have to understand that you’re going to be distrusted by people.” Crimmins says he’s working on a new one-man show that will provide his usual brand of commentary on current events, along with what he says is the issue he cares most about: children’s rights and safety.

L.A.-based comedian Brandie Posey — who recently put out a mixed tape of anti-Trump bits from various comics, Burn this Election — also asserts she’s witnessed an uptick in organization among longtime activist standup comics, including herself. But like Crimmins she notes the trepidation that can come with the job: “When [Trump] got elected, I was a little hesitant to go on the road,” Posey recalls, saying she was a worried about backlash from conservative crowds. But she’s met Trump supporters before, and reminded herself, “When you [interact with] them in person … you realize you have more in common with them than you don’t.”

Adding to that point, Tom Simmons, a leftist originally from Long Island with 24 years worth of stage time, credits crowds that seemingly lean right for making him a better comedian. Such audiences unwittingly teach him how to deliver liberal ideas in a funny and more generally agreeable way. He says that, in response to Trump, when he tours the Midwest and the South this spring with Stewart Huff and Jay Whitecotton — as part of their “American Heretics” tour — he’ll anticipate few problems.

It’s that kind of awareness Caitlin Gill says she will attempt to keep in her pocket during these volatile times. “I don’t want to feel a divide with people anymore,” she says. “I became bitter too young, and it took work … to build bridges instead of blowing them up.” With all that said, Gill is aware of the audiences her and Bobcat Goldthwait expect to attract on the road, likely bubbling with some of the more welcoming, progressive members of society. “We’ll be preaching to the choir,” Gill says. “But what a beautiful song.”

Maybe all this pain is about to pay off.

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