Nato Green isn’t a political party or a multilateral military alliance, but he’s likely to crack a joke about either of those if you give him half an hour. The Bay Area union-staffer-turned-comedian has been making the funny in the stand-up scene since he hit 30 and realized that his other job as a labor organizer was just as rife with absurdity and slightly more thankless. Recently at Netroots Nation he performed as the Jewish side of the lefty comedy trio Laughter Against the Machine. In this edited interview with CultureStrike editor Michelle Chen, originally published on Alternet, Green discusses his approach to making fun of serious stuff.
Michelle Chen: First things first: what’s with your name?
Nato Green: The truth is so much more intolerably tedious than anything your fanciful imagination can conjure up, so go with that instead. Am I an heir to Lockheed fortunes? Am I an ironically code-named super-soldier for the proletariat, engineered in a subterranean laboratory to wage class war from below? Are my brothers named Emerald and Mint? Is my real name something long and embarrassing, like Frusengladje Diaperface? These are all plausible theories.
MC: When’s the last time you really offended someone–on stage and off?
NG: I offend people offstage constantly, to such a degree that my loved ones have begun telling people that I have intermittent Asperger’s Syndrome. Fortunately, I’m very good at apologizing. Unfortunately, I’m not good at not being an asshole. If I could figure that out, I wouldn’t have to be so good at apologizing.
Onstage: hard to say. People usually step to me after shows to quibble about something esoteric. “You uncritically accepted the notion of Jewish whiteness.” Once I had a week of shows with Paul Mooney, who opened his set every night with “give it up for the Jew who thinks he’s white. You’re not white. Ask the Klan how white you are.” And then the audience would applaud uproariously. First of all, it was confusing to interpret what it means to have a room full of middle-aged black people applauding my non-whiteness. Second, I thought, “Yes, Mooney, that may be true. But let’s also ask the police how white I am. I live in San Francisco where I have to deal with the police a lot more than the Klan.”
MC: So, you started out as a labor organizer, and when that got depressing, you started telling jokes for a living? Explain the transition.
NG: In my version of urban, red diaper baby, Jewish intellectual family, I was taught that I had only two career options: revolutionary or comedian. I also have the traditional oldest Jewish son vanity/insecurity that if I don’t win a MacArthur (or Nobel or Pulitzer or something), then I’m a complete failure. When, by age 30, I had not yet succeeded in earning my spot in the pantheon of great political organizers, I switched gears.
I started doing stand-up again at 30 after a brief flirtation in college. I started working at the California Nurses Association a month later. I did both until I felt like I couldn’t keep doing both and had reached a point in comedy where I knew I would be haunted if I didn’t really try to have a go of it. When I started stand-up, I advanced more quickly than I might have otherwise because my organizing skills were somewhat transferable. Compared to, say, a strike, it’s relatively easy to get a decent turnout for a comedy show. Having the skills to produce successful shows and build my own audience gave me breathing room to learn how to become a better comedian.
I plunged into comedy because that’s the way I know how to make sense of the world. When I started going to open mics, I thought I was just getting something out of my system. I ended up stumbling into the first community where I felt like I belonged. Being a comedian is the first time I haven’t felt crazy most of the time. I came home to this wounded, sensitive, piratical world of boozy philosophers.
I’ve known people who had families, stopped being full-time organizers, and went to find jobs they could sustain and have politics in those jobs. Now we have a dense web of sleeper agents comprised of highly skilled organizers working as teachers, nurses, farmers, journalists, academics, parents, electricians, and at least one comedian. I’m still figuring out what it means to be a comedian who wants to change the world.
MC: You broach many complex and often uncomfortable topics, from immigration, to being a politically progressive parent, to the use of violence in protests, and of course, the holy trinity of race, class and gender. How do you make that funny?
NG: The more uncomfortable the topic, the more I root it in my own personal experience, which in the nature of my life happens to be a political experience.
For example, I wrote my “illegal elves” joke in 2006 originally during the wave of immigrant marches that spring. Every comic was writing immigration jokes, and I kept coming up with the same hacky jokes that everyone else was. Then I thought about all the undocumented immigrants I had known personally in the U.S. and in their home countries, how immigrants have brought what energy remains in the labor movement at all, and what that told me about the issue. The set-up takes longer than most jokes, because I choose my words carefully to avoid lapsing into a “them” language. I’ve been told that I could get the joke on TV if I shortened the setup, but I’m not willing to take a short cut that gives people an unclear idea of what I think, or misrepresents a community that I care about.
The more heated, emotional, confusing, divisive, a topic is, the better fodder it is for my comedy. For comedians, unlike other artists, our self is the medium. I need to be a real complete person for the audience to trust me. Whatever the topic is, my goal, which I succeed at certain times better than others, is to figure out my personal truth about that topic. If that gets uncomfortable, that’s fine, but it’s only because truth and honesty are so rare.
MC: Is the Bay Area a good place to do political comedy? Seems like everyone there takes themselves way too seriously.
NG: The Bay Area is a good place to do stand-up comedy of any kind. There are lots of people in the Bay who want every experience to validate their suffering and particular ideological preferences and predilections. But there are also plenty of people who watch The Daily Show and wish they could have seen Pryor or Carlin back in the day, who would never think to check out a live stand-up show now.
MC: Has touring with Laughter Against the Machine (LATM) been a learning experience?
NG: Touring with Laughter Against the Machine has been amazing. The first thing I learned was to have the confidence onstage to force the audience to come to terms with the show. People often come to a show they think is a political comedy show expecting some smug jokes about how stupid Rick Santorum is or whatever. And they are massively shocked at a Laughter Against the Machine show. We wanted to broaden “political comedy” to include race, class, gender, and identity and make fun of our side. It was less political comedy than a comedy of big ideas. So frequently there’s some resistance from the audience as we upset their expectations and we will hammer them until they come around.
The other huge thing is that I’ve come to talk more about whiteness and white privilege than almost any other white comedian. This is entirely an effect of LATM; I’m the only white guy on the bill and the audience is very multiracial. I knew I didn’t want to be what I think of as “the good white guy,” the sensitive groovy white guy who builds his identity around being down with people of color. I’ve traveled in the Third World, but didn’t grow a beard. I own Putamayo CDs, but they were gifts. I am committed to opposing oppression as much as I can, but I also have no illusions that I have the same nonsense in my head as everyone else in America.
I kept being struck by the fact that if you’re not a white guy in stand-up, you are automatically the representative of your people. When my LATM colleague W. Kamau Bell goes onstage, he is continually dealing with the audience’s preconceptions of what a black man is. He can play against it or with it, but he makes those choices. I started experimenting with explicitly claiming onstage being “the official spokesman of all white people.” Even progressive comedy audiences that are ready to hear about race can get prickly when I start talking about “great moments in white privilege.”
MC: Can you end this interview with a class-war pun?
NG: It took me seven years of stand-up to come up with the two puns on the CD. I can’t just crank them out on command.