Comedy

Nato Green: The Most Political Comic

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Listen to the track "We Made Trump Climb a Wall Like a Refugee" from Nato Green's new stand-up record The Whiteness Album above.

There are a lot of comedians who have material that is political, but very few comedians have the résumé of political activism that Nato Green brings to the table. He’s a husband and father but he’s also been a union organizer for twenty years. Now, he’s managing that 1099 lifestyle: juggling comedy, consulting for unions as a negotiator, consulting for NARAL Pro-Choice California, being a landlord, and writing a column about local politics for the San Francisco Examiner. Getting political has become more en vogue in the last year and half, as the world seems to be crumbling around us, but Green has been fighting the good fight (and several other fights) for two decades while incorporating it into his stand-up.

As he describes it, “I came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t choose between comedy and politics. I have to do comedy and I have to be an activist and I just need to figure out a way to be my whole self, which is both.”

Now, Green is releasing his newest CD The Whiteness Album on Blonde Medicine records. It’s a densely packed, culturally sensitive shitshow, which manages to celebrate and eviscerate in equal measure. As “the official spokesperson for white people,” he intends to set the record straight while pushing for change in everything he sees around him.

We got in touch with Green, who is currently in Cuba, to talk about the Jewish people, timely references, and blowing it all up.

nato green by red scott.jpg

Paste: Are you the most political comic?

Nato Green: A lot of comedians who talk about politics will watch or read the news and then write jokes about it. Even if they’re amazing joke writers, their relationship to the subject is the same as their relationship to Game of Thrones, unless they’re also in Game of Thrones. On the other hand, I’ve been participating in politics and living in left-wing activist communities for my entire life. My real life world includes activists, journalists, academics and intellectuals, people who are literally affected by politics. It means my source material is different.

My relationship to politics as a comedian is less like my relationship to Game of Thrones than like Jim Gaffigan’s relationship to food and his family. It’s different to write jokes about immigration when you have actual immigrants in your life pulling your sleeve if you get it wrong. The hat trick for me, which I accomplish with mixed success, is to build an act that works for my comrades that will also work for any rando drinking tequila shots with a red wine chaser that walks into the Sunday Night Showcase at the Punch Line.

Paste: What did you learn from being a community organizer in SF?

Green: The way I approach problems is the same in either setting. I had a joke on my first album (The Nato Green Party) about how being a father of twins, a comedian and a union organizer meant I do one thing: tell people stuff they don’t want to hear. In both, I’m asking, what’s happening, what does it mean, who benefits, who suffers, why can’t we stop it, can we kill the rich yet?

Sometimes they come together, like I often do stunts where I give funny public comment at hearings. Government hearings are required by law to let anyone who shows up speak for one to three minutes and they’re usually broadcast. It’s free stage time. And the best part is that I get to make fun of people I disagree with politically to their stupid faces in public. I almost got punched out in Los Angeles at a hearing of the Assembly Housing Committee about the possibility of expanding rent control. It’s doing comedy with slightly less control and higher stakes than usual.

Paste: What are you doing in Cuba?

Green: Why I’m in Cuba and what am I doing are different questions.

Why I’m in Cuba is that my wife is in a PhD program in medical anthropology and is doing her dissertation research here. She’s studying medical innovation. The kids and I are tagging along. We rented a house here and put the twins in the Spanish international school. Internet here is limited, so what I’m doing is not looking at my phone as much and being present with the people around me. It’s unceasing torture. My wife has her research and my kids are in school, and I have writing projects but no real structure or deadlines. I don’t know many people or have many plans. I haven’t spent this much time not being busy or hustling in my life. I’m telling a kind of audio diary about being an American comedian in Cuba into a Zoom recorder and doing some interviews with people here just so I have something to focus on. I’m trying to find a producer and distributor that want to release it as a limited series podcast.

Paste: What was the turnaround on this album because you’re covering things like Whitefish and the fires in wine country which feels like it was maybe from last month or yesterday?

Green: I did the album with my old friend Dominic del Bene, who is launching a new label called Blonde Medicine. We recorded the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco, on the hallowed ground of the historic Purple Onion. I left for Cuba a week later.

Internet in Cuba is a challenge. You need to stand in line, sometimes for two hours, at the state-run internet company office to buy a wifi card and can only buy fifteen hours at a time for about $1/hour. The wifi card gives you a login code that you use at one of Havana’s many public wifi spots, where the connection speed can be hit or miss. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to download big audio files, so Dom and I did the bulk of the editing that first week after the taping.

This is not an ideal way to approach an album. I think some material got lost because my departure date created a hard deadline to record the material and to edit. And as the news progressed, I kept tossing bits and writing new ones. I felt insane, writing new material up to the last minute, but these motherfuckers kept getting up to no good and I had to talk about it. The thing about doing political comedy is that sometimes the decent joke when it’s most relevant is better than the perfectly-honed joke that’s too late. Because of the nature of topical material, getting it out quickly was important.

Paste: Perhaps nothing acknowledges the fast paced nature of what’s happening--in the wrong direction--than saying that being a Jewish comedian was much more fun when there weren’t actual Nazis around.

Green: Definitely making Holocaust jokes was more fun. I feel like reality stole my act. Who said that the job of a comedian is to be ten minutes ahead of public opinion?

Paste: You spend a good chunk of the album acknowledging how, I think, political parties and candidates have lost you. What do you consider yourself? Are you a Bernie bro? Are you a regretful Democrat?

Green: For someone who cares as much about politics as I do, I don’t care at all about parties or politicians. I care about policy and the people affected by it. I come from the capital L Left. In another generation, I would have joined the Communist Party but now most communist organizations involve too much selling newspapers where every headline has an exclamation mark at marches for me. Post-Bernie, I joined the DSA on principle, even though I’m not much of a joiner. That’s why me being in Cuba is the most on-brand Nato thing I could do.

I supported Bernie in the primary but I wasn’t mad when he lost. I never hated Clinton the way some people on the left did. We can’t manage to elect a progressive Mayor of San Francisco for crying out loud; I don’t know why anyone would think we were capable of winning the presidency. Even if Bernie had won, the next day I would be out protesting him.

I’m endlessly amused by how sentimental people are about politics. It should be obvious that it’s all about power. The system is corrupt. It’s not fair. Electing the president of the USA is electing the emperor of capitalism. Why would anyone expect this to be rational or virtuous? But so many professed radicals or progressives get disappointed that politics don’t live up to what they taught us about the majesty of the American experiment in fifth grade civics and want to vote for a clown like Jill Stein or not at all. Jill Stein isn’t qualified to be president of the shiitake stand at the farmer’s market, let alone of a nation. When people tell me they don’t want to “legitimate a corrupt system” or whatever, that’s not politics. That’s a personal emotional performance. The right wing wouldn’t work so hard to stop people from voting if voting wasn’t a threat to people in power.

Paste: What are your goals as a comic?

Green: Revolution.

The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit says “politicians are weather vanes and it is our job to be the weather.” Comedians can help make the weather. I want to get better and do things that are intrinsically satisfying to me creatively whether they lead to anything or not. Show business doesn’t seem to be looking for a fortysomething leftwing activist/intellectual dad from San Francisco as the next breakout comedy voice, so I keep having ideas and I just want to get them out of my head. In addition to developing this podcast about Cuba, I’m using this break in live performance to focus on writing. My writing partner and I wrote a script and we have a few more brewing. I have some articles and essays coming. When we get back to America, we’ll see how I feel. I’d still love to make Iron Comic, my Iron Chef-spoofing fake game show, into a TV show. Several years ago, we made this tour doc of me, Janine Brito and W. Kamau Bell on tour called Laughter Against the Machine. It has fun footage of us in the middle of total bedlam at Occupy Oakland and in a hotel strike in Chicago and crossing the US-Mexico border. It will irritate me until I get that finished and released.

Paste: You mention that masculinity is a cage. What’s your advice to up and coming male comics, or men in general? You’re a good husband and a good dad. You have the clout for this.

Green: Comedy is the only art form where your self is the medium. We have to fail publicly, so we should have some humility about our mistakes. I can’t pretend to be an infallible woke feminist man. I have abundant shortcomings. Let’s all go get our asses handed to us, get called on the carpet for our stupidity, and figure out how to learn and grow.

In comedy, we need to support women into positions of power. When I have any say over a lineup, I try not to do a show that’s all white guys. The shows I produce are co-produced with women. When people ask me to refer a comic for a job, I try to refer someone who’s not a white guy. More inclusion makes comedy more exciting and interesting for all of us. If we as men feel like we can’t succeed without making comedy needlessly harder for half of humanity, then we’re not that good at comedy.

Paste: You have one of the most casual comedian deliveries of all time. Where did you find the place to be comfortable in long stories and silence and set-up without becoming a cartoon? Who are your heroes?

Green: I don’t say things onstage that I don’t believe and care about. Doing comedy is hard enough, I can’t imagine going out night after night leaving my family if I wasn’t talking about something that really mattered to me. I don’t think that’s the only or best way to do comedy, it’s just what works for me. Because I’m fully behind my perspective onstage, I’m willing to wait for the audience. These are my ideas, and I can say them as a joke in a club or through a bullhorn or in a Marxist book club. You pick where you want to have the conversation. As a comic, you find at least a part of your true essence and amplify it. Green men are all slow talkers and pausers. If you can imagine it, I’m the most volatile and effusive of the Green men. My register onstage matches my personality.

I’ve learned from every headliner I’ve worked with, but one of the people who affected me the most was Greg Proops. I watched him become a headliner in San Francisco, and I’ve since gotten to do a lot of club weeks with him. He encouraged me to work to the top my intelligence, and not concern myself with pleasing the audience.

The comedy I aspire to the most is pure POV. I love comics where if you wrote down what they said, it wouldn’t even be clear why it was a joke. It’s the whole voice and presence and emotional connection as well as the material.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.

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