Kyle Kinane doesn’t want to hear your shitty Donald Trump jokes. It’s almost too easy to jump on the bandwagon and make fun of the self-imploding Republican presidential candidate who still (unsurprisingly?) has a voting base no matter what he says or does, but the laughs wouldn’t be legitimate. Speaking about a figurative comic performing in front of a liberal city like, say, Portland, Kinane equates any applause that person might receive with the audience simply agreeing on the subject. “That’s just a speech,” he says over the phone, his gravelly voice punctuating each word’s hard consonants in that Chicago way of his. “That’s just a rally.”
Whether such laughs are genuine or not, we live in a time when a lot of people are heavily invested in earning some kind of approval. That could come down to the simple social media currency of likes and retweets, or, for comedians, an audience’s validating laughter. What does it matter if it’s a mechanism identifying with the comic’s beliefs rather than a response to their jokes? Kinane wants more, both from his own writing and from how an audience responds to it. “Comics are confusing applause and woos of agreement with having a successful set,” he explains. “Like, ‘I agree.’ Well what fucking fun is that? Go out and agree with people. You don’t grow that way.” He’s instead actively interested in eking out more challenging spaces where he won’t become lazy simply because he performs in front of likeminded people every night. “I’d rather challenge an audience to laugh at something they don’t believe in,” he explains, “because then I get to feel like, ‘You still got it, buddy. You can still write a good enough joke that people are laughing at it regardless.’”
So what’s the best way to approach the tiny-handed candidate who likes to use his meaty paws to grab women’s pussies? Kinane distinguishes between where the press and comedians should be aiming their mark. “If you’re a journalist, I understand,” he says. “Trump’s bad and you list the reasons. But as a comedian, what’s left? There’s no meat on that bone anymore. If you go ‘Trump’s good because of…’ now you’ve got my attention. And if it’s a well done joke, good for you, now I’m laughing at something I totally disagree with and that’s great.”
Kinane’s new Comedy Central special Loose in Chicago proves that very point. Not about Trump, but about walking the tightrope that is dissent, which ideally leads to honest and compelling dialogue. Kinane is a Billy Goat Gruff, not just in terms of his voice, but also in the wry stance he brings to his material. “I’ve always had a little bit of a contrarian streak in me,” he admits, likening the position to someone who enjoys disagreeing for argument’s sake. He continues, willing to criticize his approach, “Like ‘Oh, that’s just being a dickhead, that’s just being a devil’s advocate.’ No one likes those.” By Kinane’s own admission, it might seem as though he’s closer to a grump than anyone with a point to make, but there’s something diplomatic about his attitude. He is the person who sees—or is willing to see—both sides; he may end up taking one, but he isn’t quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the other.
In his newest special, politics exist to an extent, but not in the way audiences might expect. Kinane certainly doesn’t view himself as a political comic. He may be liberal, but that doesn’t mean he needs to play into every liberal agenda or ideology circulating at the moment. In fact, he often incorporates ethical twists into his material. Speaking about a gun joke he does in Loose in Chicago, Kinane builds on it over the phone, provoking those opposed to the widespread availability of automatic weapons in the U.S. by thickening the plot, so to speak. “What happens when all these guys that insist on carrying their AR-15s into Starbucks to prove a point, what happens when they sit out front of that Kentucky clerk [Kim Davis’] office and usher gay couples in for safety, or usher women going into Planned Parenthood?” he proposes. “Now, all of a sudden, you’ve just garnered sympathy from people who don’t want open carry laws. Support some liberal causes with the fact that you want to walk around with a semi-automatic weapon, and all of a sudden the edges get a lot more softened when it comes to gun control.”
His contrarian or nuanced point of view is an interesting one to offer audiences considering that comedy depends at times—hell, often—upon finding your niche and burrowing into it. It’s not that comedians need only stick with one viewpoint, but they know what to offer audiences once they start to make a name for themselves: Amy Schumer will at some point talk about sex, Aziz Ansari will cover millennial dating and Louis C.K. will be cynically intelligent with a hard-nosed liberal bent. What would happen if any one of those comics considered their subject matter from its opposing side? And, more than that, offered it up to audiences? It’s not that Kinane is necessarily doing anything groundbreaking comedy-wise by building in caveats, but his jokes never follow one set, easy path, and that makes for compelling comedy. “People forget that you can laugh at jokes even if you don’t agree with the viewpoint,” he says. “I’d much rather see someone go out onstage with conservative values and still make a liberal audience laugh because that would be masterful. That just means somebody’s a fantastic comic.”
One way Kinane pushes himself in new directions—directions that might not ever make it into his act but serve as a kind of workshop nonetheless—is to write against his beliefs. “That’s college debate class stuff, and it’s just a good writing exercise,” he says of his choice to examine other perspectives. “Say you feel strongly about something, choose the opposite argument and write from that, just to make yourself more well rounded. I’ve done that with my own jokes. Maybe at the end of it, all I’ve done is strengthen my original stance more, or I’ve enlightened myself and seen some viewpoints I previously did not entertain because I was just attacking that viewpoint instead of trying to defend it. So many comics don’t do that.”
Mixed in between his talk about guns, about patriotism, about mundane conspiracy theories remains the hard-boiled comic that his fans have come to love, and he’s hard pressed to give up his contentious ways. “I’m much more interested in a conflicted comedian,” Kinane says. Whether watching them or performing as one himself, he seems to know that that’s where conversations start and the real fun begins.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.