The Latino lesbian comedian detonates a series of explosive observations about patriotism, the Bush administration and John Walker Lindh.

By Janelle Brown
Published July 18, 2002 7:16PM (EDT)

The comedian Reno -- just Reno, like just Madonna -- is the kind of person who complains about an attack of laryngitis that's been bothering her and then blithely lights up a cigar. She is the kind of citizen who can be devastated by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers just a few blocks from her home, and then take the stage a month later to unleash biting comedy about the event. In her politics and her private life she juxtaposes fear, sadness or fragility with unstinting criticism and humor.

And it works. At least as far as her stage show, "Rebel Without a Pause," is concerned. With its debut in October, Reno became one of the first comedians to attempt to tease humor out of the events surrounding Sept. 11. She says she conceived the show -- which is part memoir, part profane satire that dismantles just about every aspect of the political system -- as a way to exorcise her emotions. Tidbits from the unrelenting commentary include her description of the emergency food drops in Afghanistan -- "If the bombs don't get them, the sugar will" -- and an unforgiving take on George W. Bush's public speaking style -- "Like a drunk trying to look sober."

The show, produced by friend and occasional costar Lily Tomlin, "dares to suggest the unsuggestable," according to the New York Times. Other reviews have been equally positive, helping to create enough buzz and ticket sales for Reno to move to a larger theater on 42nd Street.

The 46-year-old Latina lesbian with radical political leanings wasn't always a comedic politico. She's done solo comedy shows in San Francisco and New York, as well as on cable TV, for almost two decades, and has built a cult following for her abrasively edgy sense of humor (Rolling Stone called her "the funny Madonna" in 1989). Her last film, "Reno Finds Her Mom," which aired on HBO in 1998, was a satirical documentary about the search for her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption in 1956; a previous show, "Reno: In Rage and Rehab," addressed her former crystal-meth habit.

Reno is the queen of wild tangents. Her brain zips around from subject to subject -- perhaps because of her diagnosed ADD -- and her train of thought offers an exhilarating ride even if you can't always stay onboard. Her favorite subjects these days are the hypocritical troika of Bush, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and what she believes to be the short-sighted nature of post-Sept. 11 hyper-patriotism.

During a brief break just before July 4, Reno strained her raspy voice to fire off opinions about flag-waving, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Department of Homeland Security. And what, exactly, did John Walker Lindh's dad tell her?

I heard that John Walker Lindh's father came backstage after a recent show in San Francisco, before his son was sentenced to 20 years. What did he say to you?

It was a brilliant moment, probably one of the highest moments I could think of. During the show I was talking about the brutality and overkill of the bullying conditions that so many people have signed on to, regular citizenry in the U.S. -- Ari Fleischer condemning people who have the slightest question about anything the administration does, or Dick Cheney calling the Democratic leadership in December and asking them point-blank not to investigate the physical evidence of Sept. 11 ...

And I was talking about the time when Bush Sr. came out of the woodwork screaming about John Walker, calling him "American Taliban" and saying he had a unique punishment for this kid. He said, "You know what we should do? Not let him wash his face or hands and make him walk across America and see how much love he gets!" He sounded just like an 8-year-old at a bus stop! I was talking about this, and then 45 minutes later, there's a knock on my door and a man is hugging me with tears in his eyes ... I was blown away.

I asked how they were treating his son. He said he can't go outside at all, but the marshal and the agents in the FBI assigned to his case are apparently treating him like a human being and ... they are accepting of John's innocence. That is what it seems like -- he was a hapless soul searching for himself as a callow youth and he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he's a good kid who would never advocate hurting anyone. His father says they believe that.

It's a real chiller, the way they treated that kid. Think of all the 22-year-old kids in the country, dreaming of the time they can travel across the world ... it's going to have a negative effect.

How do you personally define patriotism?

"Patriotism" has become a word that brings up fear, and a word that brings up tightness and narrowness. There's only one way to be a patriot: "My country, do or die," as they used to say. Whereas, as far as I can recall, the Fourth of July was supposed to commemorate a revolution from an oppressive overlord. It seems obvious to me that the way to celebrate the Fourth of July is to remember that change is the only constant. You can't kill all the people you disagree with; therefore you've got to think of a better way. To say that I aid terrorists when I question the government -- you're walking away from the meaning of July 4 there, buddy.

Let's get back to remembering our roots, which is all about questioning and no one having the final answer. You can't set the whole thing up in cement and expect it not to break.

How do you feel about the creation of the Department of Homeland Security?

It's sort of a hype, a window dressing. Who cares if there's a new goddamn department? Please tell the people in the NSA and the CIA and the FBI -- they've been doing all this stuff all along. It's just a shuffling and maybe an adding of places and people. But I don't like what the word "homeland" does for it -- it seems backwards, reminiscent of "fatherland," like the Nazis called Germany. It has a ring of Über Alles.

Does it bother you that the Department of Homeland Security may be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act?

I think one of the main problems right now that is not meeting up with enough righteous indignation and opposition is the building of walls between what this democracy is doing and the press. That freedom of the press, the First Amendment, is not just, "Oh, in case anyone wants to find anything out, we'll let you, and no one should oppress you for writing something." No: It's an institution that is dependent upon a democracy to keep it free.

We've already been getting strongly attacked by corporatization, and the gradual eroding of all those rules from the FCC that said you weren't supposed to own more than one venue in a single market. Because much of the money in America has, over the last 10 to 15 years, been invested in new methods of communication, all the rules keeping it a public reality have been shrunk out from underneath us. Now we've got a guy like Rumsfeld who hates the press: When someone asks him about civilian casualties in Afghanistan this June, he says, "Obviously, you never ran a war!" Belittling the guy: "What's wrong with you, wimp! Screw on your dick, you'll understand."

It's so demeaning and so dangerous, because people sort of take the press for granted and it's more and more become a money-making proposition, and it should be a civic institution because if we don't have it ... I'm a postman and you're a secretary and he's a sculptor, and we don't have fucking time to watch everything these people are doing. We need the journalists, and if they are prohibited from doing their job because they're "helping the enemy"... Here we have it: The Nazis were sledgehammering presses. If you don't get it, look at history.

I recently started talking about the Freedom of Information Act onstage, and it's more like the Freedom of the Magic Marker Act. You've seen people's files: There's no substance -- it's all been excised. Not to mention, what about the schmuck, Bush, when he decided to exempt presidential papers? He says, "No president starting from me ..." in order to protect Reagan's papers? Uck!

What was your reaction to the 9th Circuit Court's decision about the Pledge of Allegiance?

I've always thought that. Why do we say "under God" and why not "under the dollar bill"? It says: In God We Trust. It should say: In Merrill Lynch We Trust! One nation under God -- that's bullshit! Why bring God into it? Leave that at home, or in church. It's just bringing in strife and ugliness; it's irrelevant. But obviously for some people, it's not irrelevant. And they are the ones trying to shove their ideas down someone else's throat. And the ones that say it should be there, like every bastard in the Senate, are just sucking up to their electorate. The ones who aren't sucking up are only saving their asses.

Your show has some pretty radical political content. Has there been any backlash? Has anyone hassled you about your opinions?

I'm way too underground for people to give a shit, I guess, although the whole time I've been performing I've been purposefully excluded from the main shows -- like Dave Letterman, the night before I was supposed to go on his show, someone called and said I would freak him out.

But so far, it's been the opposite: People run up to me afterwards and write to me saying, "Thank you for saying all these things I've been wanting to say. I didn't think I was allowed to say it." People write that when they went back home and talked out loud, about how they felt happier. People say it's a service. Everyone makes their contribution.

When I'm looking at people, if the light is such that I can see the audience members' faces, yeah, some people have indicated that it's not the majority opinion.

But to me, it's not opinion: It's common sense. Self-preservation. The boundaries have been broken, guys, don't act like they haven't. Don't think that this satellite missile defense system is going to protect us ... We are beyond that now, guys, and we have got to figure out what our place in the world neighborhood is, because we aren't living on some other planet any longer.

Your show was launched last October, just after the attacks, and it's still running eight months later and has moved to an even bigger venue. How has the show evolved during that time? Is it a work in progress?

The word "work in progress" in my experience is sort of a disclaimer meant for people who are not up for criticism -- i.e., this is not a finished product and it will become what it's meant to be at some point in the future. But I could just say that my show continues to change because now you have the Supreme Court saying, "We didn't really mean the separation of church and state." You can't just walk past that and not mention that.

Recently, I've also been talking about needing some sort of symbol to show my solidarity with those people who died the most horrific death [by jumping out of the World Trade Center towers]. I imagine everyone thinks about that decision those people made, deciding whether to go down with the building or jump. Recently I started to state explicitly that these people were involuntary soldiers. I always meant that but I never said it. The last couple days I've connected with my real anger, [that the country put] these people in that fucking position. I'm not talking about because the FBI isn't talking to the CIA. I'm talking about the longer level, the higher overview: How America conducts itself in business overall.

Do you think that your show has done so well because New York needs humor to help discuss the things they are bitter about?

When I cast this in a humorous light it makes it easier to accept it, because you can see the folly. I say something about looking at those buildings burning five blocks away, and I can't help it, there's a shock, over and over in my brain, saying, "Ashcroft thinks this is a perfect day." Not that he is happy about the carnage, but that he'll finally have permission to reform that Bill of Rights into the shape of the New Testament. People get that, and also it's funny.

I only go so far as people want me to. It's very important to be funny: If you're not funny, you're a politician, and no one trusts politicians. And that's another real shame. You can't throw your hat in the ring these days unless you have no morality left. Because a decent human being will not accept that invasion. Which is why you get a guy like Clinton, who started out beautiful and kept giving back and putting more layers of Saran Wrap around him until the only thing left that worked was his little penis.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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