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Arts & Culture
Laughter Against the Machine: Comedy with a purpose
Maybe you support the Occupy movement, or maybe you don't. Or maybe you take this point of view:
NATO GREEN: I want to be for the 99%, but I don't know if you realize this, that's a lot of people, including a lot of assholes. And most of us given the opportunity would be able to say, would want to be able to say, "I'm for the 99%, asterisk, except some people." And then we'd have our own lists!
Local comedian Nato Green, along with W. Kamau Bell and Janine Brito, are Laughter Against the Machine, a comedy troupe (of sorts) that believes that you can laugh and think at the same time.
Laughter Against the Machine has been traveling the U.S., filming a documentary of the most politically polarized places in the U.S. It took them to places like New Orleans, Occupy Wall Street, and Tucson, Arizona. And now, they’re back here in the Bay Area. Nato Green and Janine Brito joined KALW's Ben Trefny in the studio to talk about their work.
BEN TREFNY: So, tell me how it all got started.
JANINE BRITO: So Laughter Against the Machine was started by Nato Green through some frustrations that they had performing for liberal audiences, where they found that it ended up being that liberal audiences didn’t actually want to be challenged or hear smart comedy. They just wanted to hear a lot of cheerleading and that’s certainly not what any of us would want to do.
And so, we kind of came together under the banner of Laughter Against the Machine where it’s socially conscious political comedy where we warn everyone up front that you’re not going to like everything you hear, but we hope that you appreciate being challenged in your own views and appreciate us, as comedians, pushing ourselves to be honest about what we are saying, and to not have any limits on ourselves as artists in what we talk about and what we say.
TREFNY: When Janine says audiences are not going to necessarily like everything they hear, what does she mean?
NATO GREEN: That frequently – and this is sort of a famous stereotype of the left – but people and liberals on the left will quibble with you about like, “Even though I agree with you about 90% of the thing, because you’re not a vegan, or because you didn’t say something that I liked about recycling,” or whatever, that people will go south on you if you aren’t sufficiently reverential of their pet issue.
We just want to be clear that the idea is like a free-for-all engagement with ideas and that we’re responsible about it, like we’re never going to try to say, “Hey, we’re just kidding, it’s okay.” Like everything that we talk about are things that we sincerely care about, and we’re also trying to communicate ideas in a funny way. But it’s not the role of the comedian, the leaders of the movement, or the spokesperson of the cause.
TREFNY: Well tell me about this cause. You guys just finished a multi-city tour. Why did you do that?
GREEN: We’ve been building Laughter Against The Machine in the Bay Area and we made some forays out to Portland and Seattle, and the last year decided that we wanted to do a national tour. The reason, the idea of it was to go to places in America that represented major political themes and learn about the issues. We had a documentary filmmaking crew with us, from the people on the front lines and then do shows. So that if we were going to talk about the big issues of the day that every comedian or lots of comedians talk about, that we would have some firsthand experience to make sure that we knew what we were talking about and that it was rooted in our own experience of those things. So, we wouldn’t cross the border in Arizona and learn about the immigration situation. We went to 9th Ward in New Orleans, we went to a mosque in Michigan, and then we did shows in all those places.
That was really the inspiration for the tour and then in the middle of it Occupy Wall Street started and sort of changed the whole context.
TREFNY: What’s one of the main memories you bring back from the seven-city tour?
BRITO: In Arizona we went to watch Operation Streamline take place in a courthouse in Arizona, which is essentially where dozens of undocumented workers are processed and criminalized within a matter of 20 minutes. What I remember is the three of us walked out after watching this horrible process and just said, “We need to grief-eat.” So we found the nearest café and just got a pile of chocolate and chips and we just were kind of broken as comedians. We were just sitting there. Eventually, over the course of eating a bunch of starch and chocolate, we started laughing and joking and comedy kind of repaired us again at the end of the day.
TREFNY: And then you passed out.
BRITO: Yeah! And then we sugar crashed and took a nap.
TREFNY: How do you make comedy out of a situation like that?
GREEN: Well, it was, as we were observing Operation Streamline and as we were walking up and down the border, we started seeing these things and having reactions and so it took us days of wrestling with it to kind of start wrestling the jokes to the ground. But we all started noticing things, like the amount of money that is wasted on policing the border would be better spent, instead of building a wall along the border, just lining the border with bags of cash for migrants to go and pick up – it would be a cheaper and more efficient use of American tax dollars then incarcerating people. We also learned that Arizona is like, number 48 in public education and number one in angry mean old white people in the nation.
TREFNY: It has always struck me that the 99% is a lot of people. How did you grasp upon that concept?
GREEN: Like I said, a lot of the humor that has come out of the tour has been from our first-hand experience. There was one night towards the end of October where we heard that Occupy SF was going to be raided. I went down there and at the time, it was during the mayor’s race and a lot of the candidates for mayor were there. Half the board of supervisors were there, and we stayed there all night.
And it was this big reunion of the progressive movement in San Francisco, and I was talking to some of my friends and looking around and saying, “Wow, it’s so inspiring that the progressive movement can come together like this. I wish some of these people would leave.” That joke came out of my own soul searching about my own difficulty of embracing that idea of the 99%, and one of the things that we all learned from the tour is in some ways the most radical stance that anybody can take is it’s got to work from everybody … And that’s hard because we are all petty predictive people who have shortcomings.
TREFNY: Janine, can you explain this joke you have about being the Antichrist?
BRITO: I actually grew up in a very religious household and I went to church every week. At one point I was going to church three times a week, specifically in a Pentecostal household. The story of that is a very vivid memory I have of yet another fire-and-brimstone sermon where the pastor said, was talking about how the antichrist will come back and will “walkst among us and will fool everyone, and no one will know the Antichrist,” and me, as a little girl sitting in the pews being, “Oh my god – it’s me!” (laughs)
TREFNY: I’d like to know why you think it’s important to do issue-oriented comedy. A lot of comedians end up just talking about relationships but you guys are getting deeper into it. In fact, the purpose of your tour around the country, even the name of your troupe, is purpose-driven. Why is it important to bring comedy into issues?
GREEN: It became clear to me that there is this big disconnect where, they are on the front lines of trying to make the world a better place. And if you ask them, they would say, of course comedy has a role because it brings people together and it cuts through the nonsense. It gets to the heart of the matter, and it’s a way of communicating ideas that people aren’t necessarily as defensive about hearing. And you can be irreverent and you can be fearless in toppling the icons of the day, and yet those people, even though when you ask them, it’s, “Yes of course, comedy can do all of these things,” don’t tend to go to comedy shows. So, one of the things we are trying to build is to create more of a sense that comedy can and should, doesn’t just have to be just escapist entertainment.