In recent years, America has gone through a difficult political time that has left the majority of Americans quite confused. With so many different media outlets trying to make sense of it all, there is one type of person that remains ahead of everybody: the comedian. Through humor and observation the comedian has been able to make things much clearer for the mainstream audience. One particular comedian that has been quite successful at that is San Francisco native Nato Green.
Nato recently released his album The Nato Green Party which can be purchased through iTunes, Amazon.com, and RooftopComedy.com. I caught up with Nato in Prospect Park, Brooklyn while he is staying in New York to shoot six episodes of a new series called Totally Biased for FX.
Are you enjoying the Brooklyn weather so far?
Yeah, this is phenomenal it’s very comfortable. I’ve been learning how to use air conditioning. It’s very different for me. We don’t have that San Francisco.
Why is there no air-conditioning in San Francisco?
You don’t need it. Usually it doesn’t get humid and when it gets over 70° you open the window and that’s it.
Now you are with Laughter Against the Machine is that a show from San Francisco or do you travel around the country?
We’re a tour. There are three of us. It’s me, Janine Brito, [and] W. Kamau Bell. We started Laughter Against the Machine in the Bay area in late 2008 and then last year we started touring more aggressively. We did a Kickstarter campaign, raised a bunch of money to do a national tour documentary to places that represented sort of the high points of American political polarization and confusion and dysfunction and are in the process of editing that documentary now and will hopefully release it later this summer.
That’s exciting I’m looking forward to that. You come from firsthand knowledge of dealing with political topics. You used to be a union organizer correct?
Yeah I was a union activist of different kinds for about 14 years. I organized bike messengers and I was involved in nurses strikes in hospitals and also community work around keeping hospitals open in poor areas. Stuff like that.
That’s good. Maybe we can unionize comedians one day.
You know people ask me that a lot. I think, if comedians have an opportunity to participate in their unions whether it’s SAG or AFTRA or the Writer’s Guild, they should. But I think there are other things that comedians could do to improve their [careers]. I feel like comedians should participate in the arts community more. Generally, there is a lot of arts funding that we can access, but we sort of hold ourselves apart from [the arts community]. The reality is comedians frequently reach a bigger audience than a lot of people doing these very small performance art and modern dance [shows]. Those people are going and getting public funding and foundation money to have theaters to do work. I would love to see comedians do more to get more funding for our art form.
I was unaware of that as well. I know firsthand from performing myself that comedy is an art. In what way have you incorporated a lot of artistic talent into your act?
Well, I’ve been fortunate enough that in San Francisco we have a pretty substantial writer’s community; like a literary world. They have added me to their shows, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of serious literary writers. Essentially, the creative process is the same. As a comic, I work on my craft, we all carry notebooks, we all jot down ideas, we all think very hard about word choice and what we’re trying to say, and the audience, and the message and the context and the story we are trying to tell. The fact that [our art] is only done live and a lot in bars, we [as comics] have this idea that we really just babysit drunks. However other types of artists that I meet talk to me and say, “I do these beautiful paintings, but I could never do what you do.” So I feel like we should have the self-respect to realize that our stuff just by virtue of being a creative endeavor fits within the world of the arts. Art doesn’t just have to be confusing and on relatable to be real art. I would like comedians to elevate ourselves. The dedication and the discipline it takes to build this I think is at least worthy of us having healthcare.
How has picking the right words helped make or break a joke?
There are times when you’re trying to pick a particular cultural reference that the term might be too obscure for the audience. It might not fit in their frame of reference. I really try to structure my writing so that people who can’t catch all the references and follow all the words [will know] it sounds sort of silly at least and they get the gist of it. [However], people who do get it can enjoy it on a deeper level. I know comics who write things out and count syllables where every word choices is deliberate. I generally write on stage. I’ll have maybe a sentence and sort of rift my way around it until it settles into a final form.
You deal with a lot of political topics. How have you found people from different cities receiving your material?
It varies. The audience needs to agree with the basic idea that we’re going to talk about ideas. I always think about that interview with Bill Hicks where people said, “we don’t go the comedy show to think.” [And Bill replied], “Well, where do you go to think? I’ll meet you there.” I’ve certainly been in situations where the audience is just fundamentally not interested in anything that will make them think about anything. They’re looking for purely escapist entertainment. And those situations can be challenging. Sometimes I can turn it around. Generally, I don’t really have an opportunity to perform for people who are completely on the other side of the political spectrum from myself. More often it’s people who are disengage and apathetic. And that’s why I try to do my political material based on [my] first-hand [knowledge of politics]. This is my experience. Let me tell you a story about myself. People tend to find that less threatening.
Have you found audiences to be more conservative or liberal or something else?
Again, I’m not playing places where very conservative audiences are going. I come from sort of the left wing of the political spectrum but I’m not a cheerleader. I end up making fun of my side more than the other side. Anybody can make fun of the other guy. I feel comedy really thrives the more diverse the audience is. Then, people can’t get too complacent and entitled about their own experience. When people see other people laughing at stuff they’re like, “Well, maybe I’m missing something here.”
When it comes to political topics and important issues, how has comedy as a philosophy helped change people’s minds for the better?
I think every social current, every political movement, every part of our society finds expression in the arts. When I was a kid growing up, part of how my politics and my understanding of the world developed was by listening to punk rock and hip-hop and watching George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Chris Rock. Those were the things that help me make sense of the world. I was better at understanding the statistics when I started reading the big studies later on in life having had some cultural fodder to give me a context for it. When I was about 12, my grandfather in Chicago every week would collect political cartoons from newspapers and mail them to me. Then, we would talk about them on the phone. So, from a pretty early age, I had no experience of being aware of the news without simultaneously making fun of the news.
Comedy can sort of go off the deep end of responsible debate. That we [as comics] can have a little free speech zone in the club. So we can push the envelope of public conversation in ways that people who have to worry about their focus groups for their polling can’t [push it]. I feel the greatest jokes… almost plant a little flag in your brain, or you can think about that topic anymore without thinking about the joke about that topic. When I was organizing in 2003 to raise the minimum wage in San Francisco, there is a Chris Rock joke from his first album Born Suspect which is, “Minimum wage is your boss’s way of saying, ‘I would pay you less if I could.’” And we put that on campaign flyers! Comics have a role to play in saying this kind of stuff, and it works better when we have the freedom to be fearless, crazy, and say things that are uncomfortable for people [to say themselves]. [Comics] can bring down an issue in a way that you come away feeling like there is no rebuttal to that. I want to be in a dialogue would audience as we try to figure out how to untangle these volatile things.
Do you consider yourself a political comedian or a comedian who happens to speak on political issues?
I consider myself a political person who is a comedian. I think a lot of times when people talk about political comedy, they want to sequester it with the idea of either cheerleading or it’s all applause breaks and no laughter. The [comedians] that people think of as the greatest comics of all time had a worldview that dealt with controversial issues [which were] contemporary. They had a critique of society and talk about things that they care about that were very real. I care about political things so I’m trying to be honest with who I am. I feel like that’s what we should all be working at is bringing this level of honesty to our humor. On Laughter Against the Machine, we started talking about it not as political comedy, but as sort of the New Sincerity. We’re never gonna say, “Hey, these are just jokes. Lighten up!” Yeah these are jokes. These things are funny because I’m a comedian, I say things in funny ways, but this is also how I really think and feel about the world. I’m trying to use humor as a way to sort of open my heart rather than protect my heart.
You are in New York working on a show for FX. What’s the show called, and what is it about?
The show was called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It’ll premiere on FX on August 9 after Louie at 11 PM. It’s produced by Chris Rock. W. Kamau Bell is a San Francisco comic and we’ve been touring together as Laughter Against the Machine. Basically, last year we started working on a pilot with a group of comics that knew Kamau. At some point it attracted the attention of Chris Rock. They ordered six episodes and it’s a new late-night show. We start pre-production next week. It’ll be like Kamau’s act: a mix of very topical, political, and racial comedy. It will also have some pop-culture silliness. I think it will try to combine some elements of a more typical late-night show, some Daily Show, some pre-produced sketches as well. What’s kind of remarkable is most of the people working on the show are people no one in showbiz has ever heard of.
About the Author: Mike Sgroi is a comedian, writer, and film maker from the New York City/New Jersey area. He is also a hip hop music producer and a great American. @MikeSgroi21