Nato Green spent 14 years working as a union organizer. He was arrested for protesting on the first day of the Iraq War. He’s a native of San Francisco, a city he readily acknowledges is nationally perceived as “the center of the liberal intifada.”
Still, when Mr. Green dropped in on the blue tarps and sleeping bags of the Occupy San Francisco encampment outside his hometown’s Federal Reserve building last month, he did what came naturally.
Specifically, he grabbed a bullhorn and started making fun of people.
“I joked about how I’m really excited about the idea of the 99 percent, but that it’s also a lie, because that’s a lot of people — including a lot of [jerks],” said Mr. Green, a 36-year-old standup comic. “If we were really being honest, we would have ‘We Are the 99 Percent’ with an asterisk for all the people we would want to exclude.
“Personally, I would like it to be without Human Resources, the yoga people and Jessica from high school, because she broke my heart.”
Can the Occupy Wall Street movement and those who sympathize with it laugh at themselves?
Can a polarized electorate ticked off about the economy, bank bailouts, Solyndra, the Koch brothers — you name it — do the same?
Mr. Green aims to find out.
Looking in mirror for laughs
Alongside fellow Bay Area comedians W. Kamu Bell and Janine Brito, Mr. Green is a member of Laughter Against the Machine, a touring trio bringing pointed political humor to the D.C. Arts Center on Thursday night, part of a coast-to-coast tour they dub a “comedic peacekeeping mission to the most polarized quagmires” in the country.
Translation? While all three comics are (Mr. Bell’s words) “lefty, progressive people,” their self-professed goal is to provoke — read: offend — audience members of every political persuasion.
“The whole idea during our show is to get people to shout out and disagree,” said Mr. Bell. “That happens often.”
Mr. Bell, who is black, has the distinction of being perhaps the first comic to make an Obama joke: In 2005, he announced on Comedy Central that Barack Obama would never be elected president because “his name was too black.”
Win some, lose some.
“On the left, if you’re truly progressive, you can’t help but be disappointed and uncertain about Barack Obama,” Mr. Bell said. “As much as people on the right are like, ‘Obama is a leftist, Muslim militant,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I wish. That would be awesome!’ “
The brainchild of Mr. Green and Mr. Bell, Laughter Against the Machine was born out of comedic frustration. In 2008, the two performed together in Laugh Out the Vote, a set of political-humor shows.
Though the gigs were billed as left-leaning — and attracted a like-minded San Francisco audience — Mr. Green and Mr. Bell found the experience oddly unsatisfying.
“The people wanted to have their backs patted for living in the right city, [to] be assured that they were better than the people in the red states,” Mr. Bell said. “They wanted us to say things they could applaud, not things they could laugh at.
“For us as comics, that just wasn’t fun. It’s not comedy. Comedy should challenge people.”
Both men saw the election of President Obama as an opportunity to do something different — breaking with boilerplate liberal comedy they viewed as smug and lazy, epitomized by stand-ups poking fun at President George W. Bush with what Mr. Bell calls “recycled dumb-blonde jokes.”
When a San Francisco newspaper asked local comedians what they would do without President Bush to kick around, Mr. Green’s answer was telling.
“I said, ‘Give me a few seconds to figure out what I hate about Obama,’ ” he said. “When he was elected, a lot of people who had been doing political comedy walked away from it, saying they only want to make fun of Bush. They came back for the tea party.
“I’m as happy to make fun of the tea party as anyone else. But I don’t want to only make fun of them.”
Mr. Green and Mr. Bell staged their first Laughter Against the Machine show on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Since then, the two comics — along with Ms. Brito, who later joined the group — have learned a few things about liberal comedy audiences.
Rule No. 1: If you’re a black comic like Mr. Bell, do not mock the movie “Precious” — unless you enjoy being screamed at by indignant spectators.
Rule No. 2: If you’re going to argue that because only things that harm others should be illegal, marijuana should be decriminalized and Wal-Mart outlawed — don’t add that multi-culti world’s pop darlings the Gipsy Kings also deserve to be thrown in the clink.
Rule No. 3: Do not make fun of vegans. Like, ever.
“We’ve got a black guy, a Cuban lesbian and a white guy in me,” said Mr. Green. “So our shows are actually the best when the audience is diverse. When we get too much of an NPR-listening, old white people crowd, it’s a bad show. People get caught in their white guilt and overthink what’s funny.
“That’s not a surprise, but it’s emblematic about what is dopey about the left. It’s like, you can make fun of anything, but don’t make fun of vegans. And I’m like, ‘Hey, I just talked about the Holocaust for 15 minutes.’ “
Beyond dumb-blonde jokes
Following the January shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Mr. Green decided that Laughter Against the Machine should travel to the state to perform a “rapid-response comedy show,” in the same way guitarist Tom Morello and rapper Kanye West have visited Occupy Wall Street.
As the group discussed the idea, they realized there were other political hotbeds they wanted to visit. Such as New Orleans. And Washington. And Dearborn, Mich., home to the United States’ largest Muslim population.
At each stop on their tour, the comics — who are filming a documentary of their journey — attempt to do more than just tell jokes. In Madison, Wis., they met with union activists, and in New York City, they spent time with protestors in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.
In Arizona, the trio went to the border city of Nogales, where they visited a Jesuit-run humanitarian clinic. They saw a presentation about the bodies of illegal immigrants being bundled up in the desert. They went through a Border Patrol checkpoint. They heard a presentation from an American Indian tribe whose historical territory encompasses both sides of the United States-Mexico border.
“Frankly, it was incredibly upsetting,” Mr. Green said. “I’ve traveled in Latin America. It reminded me of being there — being in a militarized society, in the sense that you felt like someone next to you could get ‘disappeared’ at any minute.”
Firsthand, on-site engagement with their comedic subject matter is necessary for Laughter Against the Machine, Mr. Green said, because the group is attempting to transcend the brand of political comedy practiced by late-night talk shows, in which the jokes are never more than superficially political, if at all.
“It’s all about making fun of foibles, but not attacking the feelings or ideas of the people involved,” Mr. Bell said. “In the Clinton era, political comedy was an excuse to repackage a bunch of [oral sex] jokes. Even now, there’s a sense that if you do left-wing comedy, you’re just going to say ‘Sarah Palin is dumb,’ and people will clap.”
To illustrate the contrast with his group, Mr. Bell cited one of Mr. Green’s jokes: Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and a presidential hopeful, strikes him as someone who is one generation removed from baking muffins for a lynching.
“A liberal audience wants to hear you make fun of Bachmann, but they don’t want to hear about lynchings or women baking,” Mr. Bell said. “The joke requires a sense of humor about yourself and a sense of history. It’s asking a lot of an audience.”
The mind boggles at what the joke asks of a conservative audience.
“I talk a lot about race and identity politics,” said Mr. Bell. “After a while, people are like, ‘Man, I hope he moves on to how airports are weird places or the differences between men and women.’ But we want to carve out our own space in comedy.”
Of course, doing so isn’t easy: At Occupy San Francisco, Mr. Green became the first comedian to tell a joke via the famed “human microphone” system, in which demonstrators repeat what someone has said.
“People laughed, but honestly, it was a disaster,” he said. “It turns out that standing outside on a tarp with people drumming nearby is not the best way to tell jokes. I ended up yelling at people through a bullhorn.”
Mr. Green noted the irony.
“I’ve committed my life to supporting progressive causes,” he said. “But I know how much our side shoots itself in the foot. And I want to be able to talk about that.”