I took my seat at Carnegie Hall thinking about Phil Collins.
There's an old myth that Collins wrote "In the Air Tonight" about watching a man do nothing to save his drowning friend. Then Collins gave him a front-row seat for a concert, set the spotlight upon him and played the song.
On this January evening, we're comedian Patton Oswalt's guests for his Carnegie Hall debut. The seats are five rows from the stage. Middle of the row. There won't be any easy escape. That cascading Phil Collins drum solo echoes in my mind.
Patton Oswalt and Salon have had a caustic history, both in print and on social media. We've argued about comedy and political correctness, about jokes that we've thought have gone too far or hit the wrong targets. He's made the case that we've become the shrill, scolding left, and have trained our outrage on the wrong subjects. Comedy and laughter, he contends -- not outrage -- are the best weapons against intolerance.
Oswalt is a thoughtful, well-read and passionate progressive, and despite the long-standing feud, it always seemed like we might agree on more than we disagreed. So the day after his triumphant and very funny Carnegie Hall performance -- no spotlight or drum solo, whew -- we met for lunch in New York's Union Square.
We started by debating some of the areas and specific articles where we have disagreed. Then after more than an hour, we both perhaps dropped our wariness and found some room for agreement in our frustration with today's Democratic Party.
We ended up talking something close to three hours, and I think we came away appreciating the other's perspective -- even where we agreed to disagree. It was a long conversation, so this transcript has been edited and condensed. The conversation also took place in January, prior, for example, to Jon Stewart's stepping down from "The Daily Show."
It's nice to meet. Maybe we'll even have a friendly lunch.
We’ll see how friendly it lasts.
Friendly but interesting. We have probably always had more in common than not in common.
And perhaps both of us have caricatured the other in some unfair ways.
It feels a little frustrating that a site like Salon that I used to always go to for great news, great commentary, did turn into a caricature of what a lot of really dumb conservatives used to say it was. That’s really disturbing to me because I don’t want it to be. And I’ve been saying this over and over again.
It gets pointed out to me, yes. But I'd disagree with that completely. I know the kind of stories that bother you, and I'm happy to talk about them. I'd argue that so much of what gets dismissed as "political correctness" or shrill culture policing is actually not that at all -- that it's criticized by people who don’t like the way the Internet has broadened the debate and empowered people who perhaps didn't have a voice before. There are people on both the left and the right who aren't always happy with that. I think it does a lot of good to listen to people who are responding to the culture – that’s how we make progress and gain empathy and understanding.
I hate to talk in terms of our side, this side, that side. But our side, the liberal progressives, the open-minded people -- I don’t want us to be the scolds and the shushers. That was always the role of neoconservatives and the religious fundamentalists, to restrict and remove words. I don’t want our side to be the one that’s parsing language.
It just really, really bothers me, if the liberal progressives have now become the scolds. We were the Grouchos! We’re not the Margaret Dumonts -- and we’re turning into the Margaret Dumonts on a lot of levels. That lets the misogynists and homophobes and racists seem like the rebels: “Well, we’re saying what people can’t say anymore.” We should be having way more fun with language and jokes and going too far. If our side starts doing that, then I think we’re fucked in terms of moving forward as a society.
I don’t think that Salon is the joke police or Margaret Dumont. But yes, we are willing -- and I think it's important -- to take jokes or other pieces of pop culture and ask whether it's fair or funny, to try to understand what it’s saying. Does the joke blame the victim, or kick down at a target in a way that demeans a group of people? We believe in the rebel and the outsider and the free thinker. We publish as many of those free thinkers as anyone. But just as the comedian has the right to make a joke, any of us have the right to speak up about it. And I believe in empowering voices that aren't 40-something white guys like the two of us to say, "Wait a second, maybe there's something being said here that we should all talk about, or another way of thinking about this."
Right, but opening the site to transgendered voices and Native American voices, fluidly sexual voices – this is what I think is so frustrating. They are given platforms to speak, but then they’re dismissed, or treated like “Then that nut’s done.” It’s one thing to have your voice silenced, because you have something to fight against. It’s worse when you’re saying something crucial and everyone’s just going, “That’s adorable.”
Comedians have always been the best conduit to the forgotten, to the outsiders, to the inarticulate. We speak for the underdogs, for the most part. That’s what most comedians do. If Salon is doing articles about, “Did the Onion go too far?” or “Why does ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ have to be hosted by another straight, white male?” then you are now just picking, out of context, these buzzwords. You’re asking questions that don’t need to be asked. The content of what John Oliver does is so revolutionary and so amazing that if you’re going to just pick it apart, you’re making progressives look like people that can count beans but can’t make soup.
You might remember this more clearly than me, but I don’t recall us arguing that someone other than a white male should host John Oliver’s show. We have made the point many times that there must be someone other than a white guy who is qualified to host a late-night show, and have pointed out dozens of amazing possibilities.
It was done in the spirit of “Just asking a question.” It was a glowing review of the show, but it still had that, “Mmm, but it’s gotta be a white guy…” Are you fucking kidding me, people?
Well, let’s talk about all of this: “Did the Onion go too far?” I don’t remember if that was even the headline, but we're talking about the tweet after the Academy Awards about Quvenzhané Wallis, the preteen actress from “Beast of the Southern Wilds.” They called her a cunt.
They were making fun of click-bait journalism!
By calling a 9-year-old a cunt? On the best night of her life? Make fun of click-bait journalism with some other target!
I do think that you're right when you say that comedians play a really important role in opening up and furthering the kind of conversation that we absolutely have to have: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Chris Rock. You can go back to George Carlin, to Lenny Bruce, as far back as you want to go. There are really important conversations that can be started off of comedy. Yes, if somebody does a quick shrill piece that only says, "This is a racist joke," that's sometimes stoking outrage and not helpful to the bigger conversation. Maybe that's Internet journalism's equivalent of the comic's easy dick joke.
I'd defend every story we did about the Onion's tweet -- they were stories about the history of that word and how it works, about the power it has and who gets to use it, about who the target of that joke was, and how it was received.
But how do you know how other people are receiving it?
Because you can see how it’s being tweeted or retweeted, you can see how the culture is talking about it. And to wonder whether it’s an appropriate joke to make about a preteen on that night, to me, that's fair. I’m not sure that asking any of those questions chills the dialogue or makes comedians feel like they can’t make a joke.
Let me just make one more point. John Oliver doesn't have many bigger champions in the media than us. We have a been a big fan and celebrator of the important work he did on "The Daily Show," the job he did filling in for Stewart, and then his own show. But it's valid to look at the big-picture of late-night TV -- Fallon, Kimmel, Letterman, Conan, Meyers, Stewart, Ferguson, Colbert -- and to say it's exclusively white. Exclusively white, straight and male. I don't think it takes anything away from the brilliance of John Oliver to point that out.
It qualifies his triumph in what he does and it makes some people stop looking at the content of what is coming out of the face. All they’re saying is, “another white male,” and they take it down a couple notches.
But if all the faces are white males, shouldn't people say that? Are we really suggesting that in every case, these are the most talented people?
But in John Oliver’s specific case, what did he have to do with that? If anything, all he’s done is champion the transgendered, champion women that are fighting against oppression and misogyny and stuff like that. So it’s an irrelevant point at that point. Again, it goes back to, you’re just looking at beans. You’re just counting. If you want to do a bigger article about that subject, that’s fine, but to slip it into an article just about John Oliver and his show, what does that have to do with anything?
If people like Louis C.K. and Bill Burr are the two most brilliant comedians working right now, I can’t imagine them going, despite the fact that they’re white and redheaded, “There’s just two white, redheaded guys." It has nothing to do with anything. You’re now getting back to some bigot in the '50s, you’re doing the same thing of the guy who says about his doctor, “He’s a black guy, but he does have some good points.” What the fuck does that have to do with anything?
If the score is eight, nine or 10 white guys and zero for everybody else, giving that score seems relevant.
Not in an article about one of the individual white guys, though.
That one sentence, you think, takes away from the individual?
It totally does. You’re focusing on something that has nothing to do with the actual content of what he’s doing.
That's the big-picture context in which every show exists.
Then do that in an article about the bigger picture.
We have. But why can’t all these things fit together in a big conversation?
Because it feels like you’re throwing red meat out to a certain segment of your readers to go, “OK. Good, they pointed that out because that concerns me.” I just don’t know what that has to do with comedy and content and being ballsy. It’s like when guys go, “Well, women aren’t funny.” It’s like, well, you’re saying it based on nothing. You don’t watch a lot of female comedy.
(laughs) Maybe that’s because none of them are on in late night.
Yeah, none of them are hosting. But any host knows that the funniest people on Twitter are all women. All the funniest people on Twitter are women, and I can name 50 hilarious female comedians and they’re all doing their own thing.
So the fact that none of them get that opportunity to do a show at 11 o’clock or after …
Yeah, they don’t get to do some boring-ass, 11:30, standard-format talk show, but they get to do “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City” and “Girls.” They get to do stuff that actually has, I think, way more effect on society. Maybe a lot of them don’t want to be restricted by that format. It’s not the most free format.
My guess is some of these people might not mind having the opportunity to work four nights a week for a lot of money in a high-profile, important TV job. And to have the chance, like Stewart and Colbert and Oliver, to remake the format.
Fine, do a big article about that, but it does not belong in an individual article about a John Oliver or a Conan who could not be bigger allies towards people of color, towards women, towards transgender people. It is an unnecessary, little jab.
Those guys try to put women on their staff, they try to have women on their show as much as they can. They’re fighting the same fight. I’m just telling you, the way that someone like me reads it, and I’m the kind of reader that I think you guys want to have, it just makes me roll my eyes and go, “Jesus Christ, that is not what this article should be about.” That should not be in this article. It just shouldn't. Yes, the bigger picture, that’s a huge question to ask. There’s plenty of women I know that could easily host one of those shows, but we’re talking about these very old, dying out, network dinosaurs. It’ll be another generation before they open up to shit like that.
There’s been a lot of turnover in the last year on these shows. The generational turnover just happened. And it looks as white and male as it did before!
I know! Look, I’m just as frustrated. At least they’ve been giving it to funny white males; at least we have John Oliver and Conan and Seth Meyers. So they’re giving it to very open-minded progressives. They’re not giving it to Larry the Cable Guy.
We can be thankful for that, certainly. But you also just gave these shows a lot of credit for diverse writers' rooms, and I'm not sure what the writers' rooms look like at all of those shows.
I don’t either.
In Colbert’s case, it was very white as I recall.
But still, who gives a shit? They’re still out there fighting the good fight for progressives. They’re part of the fight to get more people of color, more women, they’re trying to open up that dialogue.
When are they going to do that, though? If the writers' rooms are white, and if the hosts are white, when do we start to see that change that should come from having these allies that you say are in these places.
That I can’t say. I don’t know. But it doesn’t help to make them seem like not an ally for being white males hosting these shows. That does not fucking help our side, to start picking apart people that are already on our fucking side. It must have been so frustrating for someone like Joan Rivers at the end of her life, who kicked open all these doors for women and gay people and transgendered people and people of color. Early on she was promoting Richard Pryor, she was trying to get the word out. And at the end of her life, suddenly she started having her stuff picked apart by the people that benefited directly from the risks she took and the work she did. To have them start going, “Well, that word’s not right. What is that word?” And she’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me? I opened up the doors for women to get onstage and do whatever the fuck they want. Just like the guys were doing. And now the people that benefited from that are now picking me apart.” That must have been so fucking frustrating.
Oh hey, putting my picture next to “rape joke” was hilarious. What a wonderful joke that was. By the way, don’t think I don’t know how powerful and crucial words are. I understand that. But that’s why I always give it a second and look at it again. I remember when the whole Daniel Tosh thing went down, and I’ve said this a million times. When he told that girl, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you were raped?” Awful. That was awful. That part was awful. Everything leading up to that, I will defend to the ends of the earth. I will defend any comedian being allowed to go onstage and try to make a run at making any subject funny.
But if it doesn’t work, or if people think it doesn’t work, or even if people get it and think it’s not funny, don’t they then have the right to say, “You’re kind of being an asshole”?
Well, don’t laugh. Or talk to them after the show. But the thing was, in that case, she interrupted him before he could get to the punch line. Maybe there wasn’t even a punch line there, I don’t know.
Again, his answer to the heckler was awful. Look, if you’re sitting there watching Lenny Bruce and he goes, “How many n**gers here--” and you’re like, “You fucking racist!” At that point, you’re totally justified screaming racist at him, but you don’t understand how come because he’s doing it to startle you and then bring it to a point about, “Here’s why I hate racism, but I have to do it this way.” So for all we know, Tosh was getting to a point about how rape is awful. Also, it’s an open mic. At an open mic you’re allowed to go onstage and fuck up and just make horrible mistakes. You can’t judge people on that.
Leave the room or don’t laugh. But you can’t interrupt the guy. Just walk up after the show and go, “Hey, I had a problem.” OK, I’ll talk to you. Fine. Anyway, I heard about it and said, look, trying to find a way to make a joke about rape, you’re allowed to try. You’re allowed. You don’t get to yell at someone if they don’t like the joke.
A guy wrote to me and was like, “I didn’t know that you’re so pro-rape and I will never watch anything you’ll do again. Violence against women is really serious.” I’m like, oh, well, does that mean you’ll never watch anything with Sean Connery? I named a bunch of other actors that have hit and beaten women and are on record as hitting women, and wrote back, “At least they’re not making jokes about it, yeah, they’re actually doing it.” But in his mind what I was doing was actually worse. I’ve never made a joke about rape, but I’m not going to tell anyone else that these are the things I talk about and you have to work within that box. Other male and female comedians have made brilliant jokes about rape, brilliant points about it through jokes. Through jokes.
I'm not going to defend shrillness or scoldinesss. Sometimes Internet outrage culture is too shrill; sometimes we’re too shrill. All I'm arguing about jokes is that it’s important to sort of keep in mind the context and the target.
Yeah, that’s why we do open mics and try to work out the joke we’re making perfect. So if you’re at a free open mic where someone’s working it out, you can’t yell at them in the process.
You know who really hated jokes about racism back in the '50s and '60s? Fucking racists. They wanted that shit to be serious. But once you start making jokes about it, you can then start pulling it apart and pulling it down. You saw with those Charlie Hebdo attacks; they do not like jokes about the prophet because they use that shit to suppress women, to kill gays, to murder other people. If you’re making fun of them, they’re not cool with that. I’ve heard people go, “I bet rapists laugh at rape jokes all the time.” I bet they don’t, because that [violence] is the one pathetic slice of power they feel like they have.
Sounds like Bill Cosby made a rape reference the other night.
Well, you can’t make a rape joke if you’re a fucking rapist. There’s a huge difference. But if you’re someone that is sickened by rape and sickened by how much of it there seems to be in the world, then yeah, one way you deal with it is to make a joke about it.
Does Twitter then decontextualize things sometimes?
Certainly, yes. But when you talk about what kind of a response something gets, I think back to the Asiana Airlines joke -- I know you think we didn't get the joke, and that we thought the joke didn't work -- but scrolling through all the Twitter responses and it was just a sea of obnoxiously nasty Asian name jokes and it’s like, oh man. No matter what you intended -- maybe you’re making a completely deft, ironic comment. But if it is in an environment like that in which sometimes the intent can be unclear, and the response can then be that this nastiness…
And in that case, you’re asking anyone doing comedy to constantly think of an out-of-context moment, which we can’t do. What if somebody walks by the room of a comedy club and just hears one line of mine out of context? Am I responsible for that?
You're talking about my joke? The “We so solly” joke?
But the responses were never like, “Haha, dumb Asians.” It was like, “Oh that stupid fucking station.” If you look at all the responses, they weren’t laughing because, “Oh this silly Asian name.” And literally two tweets before, I had said, “Holy shit, these are the dumbest people.” I can’t believe they literally fell for a joke that a morning zoo would immediately go, “Oh, come on, guys.”
Right, somebody actually sat there and typed that onto a slide. Four of them had to read it.
There were 900 opportunities for someone to just go, “Guys, come on!” And they all just went, “Well, all right. Oh, wow.” And at that point because it was such a public joke at that point, on the station, not the Asian names. Here’s the other thing, though, let’s say you were scrolling through and you honestly thought, “Hey, I feel like that’s racist or inappropriate.” But then, it got explained to you. It got explained, not just me, everyone was like, “Are you guys kidding? He’s making fun of--” and then you doubled down and said, “In the wake of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict…” and I’m like, are you tying this in with the murder of an unarmed black kid and saying that this is part of the atmosphere of evil that’s hanging over us racially right now? I was making fun of how awful our news services are in bringing us information. That was scary to me. That’s scary that people that are responsible for informing the public fall for shit like that and that deserves all the fucking ridicule possible. All the ridicule possible.
It amazes me that a roomful of people could type those lines in and enter them onto a script and nobody reads them out loud and figures it out. But we are in a really polarized climate …
Not just along racial lines, along financial lines, along sexual lines. So that is why more than anything we need humor like that, to illustrate this stuff and make it seem manageable. If you can make fun of it, you can manage it. If you can laugh at it, you can manage it.
But I saw those responses and there were lots of playground Asian name jokes in there. It’s one thing to say we didn’t get the joke …
I’m sorry, you didn’t get the joke. Objectively, you didn’t get the joke and then you doubled down on not getting it once you realized what the joke was instead of going, “Oh, that’s what he was doing, we get it, OK.” No problem, I miss shit all the time and then go, “Oh, I got it, no problem. I was wrong there.”
By the way, not only am I not responsible for the responses, I’m glad that there were shitty responses. Because those shitty responses lead to someone else going, “You know, that’s not the joke.” And I’m sorry, that was a fucking good joke. I was nailing that station, having a ton of fun with it. It got all these likes, all these retweets. And the people that didn’t get it, if you then look at the people responding, they’re like, “Hey idiot, he’s not making fun of Asians, he’s making fun of …” and they’re like, “Oh …” That’s another great benefit of comedy is the people that get it wrong then get that shit pointed out to them by the people that actually got it. They go, “Oh, no, dude, you didn’t get it,” and they go “Oh!” And that creates more growth, more dialogue, more understanding.
Do you see what I’m saying? Just like the one thing that always drives me crazy in Salon articles or Slate articles or anyone that’s arguing against something like this. Social justice warriors. They will go into a comment thread and find the most extreme comments by people that are clearly unhinged. And, again, I am all for social justice warriors just like anyone else, but just like fundamentalist Christians, there are extremes that are hilarious and you make fun of that shit. Why not?
Hey, I have a 1 p.m. checkout. I’m just going to quickly pack my stuff, then come back down, to be continued.
(Resuming) We’re talking just a few days after the horrifying Charlie Hebdo murders, and it’s been a week of very complicated arguments about satire, freedom of expression, sensitivity, political correctness.
Where do you see the complications, though? I’m not trying to judge …
Well, the question of whether editors should republish these cartoons is complicated. On the one hand, you value speech and expression and independence and the guts to stand behind brave people and courageous thinking. No one wants to back down in the face of extremism or terror. But this particular conversation got twisted very fast, as it often does when the topic is Islam: Defending the publication of things you disagree with, that freedom, is absolute.
I read shit I disagree with constantly because I want my arguments and my worldviews to be strong. Stuff you don’t agree with is not radioactive. It goes back to, “Should you let kids read ‘Mein Kampf’'?” I mean, I wish you would, because then kids would recognize when the new Hitlers crop up and go, “Oh, that’s that same asshole.” I don’t know if you’ve ever read "Mein Kampf." I read it in high school.
There’s my headline! Patton Oswalt: I was a young Nazi.
(laughs) Teen Nazi. I did an interview and I was talking about the whole Bill Cosby situation. The bottom of my list of concerns about that is that it’s ruining my image of Cosby. The top of my list is that women are being fucking drugged and raped. Of course, I don’t want to believe any of this shit. I was like, “No, no, no. I don’t want this to be true.” But when you get to 20 women who all have the same story... I said something like, Hey, if you see one cockroach in your kitchen, that means there’s a thousand of them. Of course, then some story said, “Patton Oswalt Compares Rape Victims to Cockroaches.” If you read the article and see the whole quote, “Oh, no he didn’t.” They did it to get the eyes on it.
No, that wasn’t you guys. OK, and please don’t misquote me here. I have a weird, affectionate part of me for the book "Mein Kampf" because it’s like an Onion article. You read it and you go, “I can’t believe anyone read this without cracking up because it’s just basically a dumb guy who’s angry that the world isn’t as dumb as he is, and his manifesto is, “If we could just get everyone down to my level, we’d be OK,” which to me is fucking hilarious because it is so sad and desperate. It blows me away that anyone read that book and was like, “Yeah! I’ve got to find out more about this guy.” ‘Mein Kampf’ is the biggest Onion article ever written, unwittingly. It’s so fucking hilarious and so sad. You’re like, “This guy is the most damaged motherfucker.” And then he’s about to run a country. It’s amazing.
Let me steer this back to Charlie Hebdo, because I do think it’s relevant to our larger conversation about language and expression. It seems like publications are being asked to republish these cartoons now -- not in support of free expression, but as a statement and a poke in the eye. That’s different from supporting someone’s right to publish – it’s saying if you support my right to publish, you will publish the same thing. That crosses the line of agreeing with someone’s right to do something and also retaining the right to say, “I disagree with it,” or “Maybe I wouldn’t have done that the same way.” Supporting your right to publish does not mean I surrender my own right to decide what to publish. The ACLU supported the KKK’s right to march in Skokie. They didn’t go join them.
We have a strange and awful double standard when these issues involve the Muslim world, with what gets labeled terrorism and what doesn’t, and the way we expect an apology. Nobody asked us white guys to apologize for Adam Lanza or Elliot Rodger, or the kid who shot up the Aurora movie theater. The idea that the response to blasphemy has to be extreme blasphemy, which is what Slate argued the other day, and what Salman Rushdie seemed to be suggesting--I’m not convinced that doubling down on blasphemy is appropriate or helpful or proportionate. This isn’t simply a debate about free expression. It’s been twisted.
Then when a shooting gets labeled terrorism – as opposed to the shooting at Isla Vista, Sandy Hook, Aurora, any shopping mall -- it opens up the security state. It leads to very different policing. It leads to hate crimes. It leads in the case of September 11 to a couple of wars that go on for 15 years. It leads to drone strikes, torture, and in a circular way, because everything is connected, right back to Charlie Hebdo. Our politicians and our media like to pretend that we are virtuous and innocent, that we suffer assaults from evildoers who hate our freedoms. There are politicians craven enough to argue this and people dumb enough to believe it, who simply don’t grapple with the bigger picture of our involvement and our wars over many, many decades.
When you start to see people suggesting you must answer a charge of blasphemy with extreme blasphemy—well, no I don’t. That’s not cowardice, it’s thinking through consequences and cycles. The first thing I think about after something like this is empathy for the families and the individuals affected. And then I think about the people who unwittingly are going to pay for it if there’s an exacerbated response: If a mosque gets bombed, if someone is attacked on the street, if a drone wipes out a wedding party.
If a mosque gets bombed or someone’s attacked on the street, then the terrorists have won. They want to create a perpetual state of justified revenge for attacks against Islam.
But so do people here.
What’s interesting about Charlie Hebdo is people going, “Oh, I don’t want to reprint these cartoons but it’s their right to publish it even though I don’t agree with it.” It is ironic because Charlie Hebdo would totally support that. They were all about “like or loathe what you want and be totally open about it.” They did not mind any people not liking them. What they did mind was people who didn’t have a sense of humor. That’s what bothered them. All the people that were going, “All they do is mock Islam ...” They mocked everybody. They mocked their own politicians, their own people, their own country, England, America. There was nothing sacred.
There’s one really frightening thing for people like the Ayatollah Khomeini or Jerry Falwell or a Fred Phelps: They want everyone wired to their sad little frequency. I think that’s why people like them are so violently against gay marriage. It’s not that they care about gays getting married. They’re afraid of the public saying, “Do whatever you want.”
I don’t even think that people are pro-gay. I think people just don’t give a shit. It’s almost at the point where some gay people get upset that they’re not getting more support -- actually, indifference means progress. Go get married. I’m not going to give you a parade. Do whatever you want. Victory is indifference. In Portugal, this crazy Catholic country made gay marriage legal and then two weeks later, no one talked about it anymore. It was a huge uproar. It passed.
What I’m saying is, that comes down to someone like a Charlie Hebdo, or a Larry Flynt -- they are necessary. We need people that will go all the way out on the edge and ask the most disturbing fucking questions that are out there. We need them. Otherwise, if you start having a society where people are policing their own thoughts, now we’re back in Salem, Massachusetts, where literally, they didn’t do anything for fun, and then that pressure built up and they all went nuts. Our society will go fucking crazy if everyone is even policing their thoughts. Are you enjoying this the right way? I’ll enjoy it any fucking way I want to. Sometimes I laugh out of disbelief and shock at horrible, racist, sexist, homophobic things because it’s so absurd to me that that still exists in the world. It’s like seeing a unicorn, like holy shit!
But so much of it does still exist, and it feels worth pointing out – almost for that very reason. We have members of Congress who think you can’t get pregnant if you’re raped. We have people who don’t believe in evolution chairing the science committee. Right here! In 2015. We need to be angrier than we are about some of this. I think outrage culture has a bad name. Like everything, it can go too far. But Ray Rice, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson – people who are outraged, speaking up, loudly, get attention and make change. For example, all these women felt like they could finally come forth and talk about Bill Cosby now because finally there was outspoken outrage that changed the culture.
You know what the most painful thing for a Ray Rice or a Bill Cosby is? People making jokes about them. That is the most painful thing. So to say you can’t make rape jokes -- I can if I make a joke about those guys, because they take themselves very seriously. That helps the victims go, I have some power. I’m going to mock this motherfucker. There’s nothing scarier than when someone is trying to oppress you or ostracize you then to just start laughing at them. It drives them nuts.
The Cosby story started most recently with the Hannibal Buress joke. And then the New York Times credits Brittney Cooper’s piece in Salon as being one of the very next things to crack the conversation open. It started with a rape joke, and then took off with media outrage.
That’s right. A rape joke started the conversation. It was a rape joke. People say you absolutely can’t joke about rape. Well, Hannibal Buress made a rape joke and it opened up this whole thing. In the very furthest sense of this, as much as you motherfuckers annoy me, as much as we have these fights, it means that comedy fucking matters. Every couple weeks there’s a giant demand for an apology, a huge outrage, a hand-wringing think piece about jokes. Clearly, they mean a lot.
Of course the jokes matter. It’s not hand-wringing about the jokes. It’s about what the jokes say about the culture. “National conversation” is kind of a lame, overused term, but through these big scandal stories, we actually do, one think piece at a time, one joke at a time, one "Daily Show" segment at a time, kind of forge through to a place where we’re actually talking about things that are important. The fact that we can only talk about these things through comedy and through journalism is in some ways symbolic of how broken our politics are and how broken Congress is.
All the way back to Thomas Nast. You always needed the fool in Shakespeare. You need to someone to say, “Hey, we all know what’s going on, right?” The fool remains the fool. The king remains the king, but you have a voice out there. so that people aren’t going nuts because they can’t talk about it. That being said, I don’t want any voices silenced, no matter how repellent, no matter how racist or homophobic. I want to hear them. I don’t like this policing of language so racists, homophobes and misogynists just think of more clever and obscure ways to get their hatred out there. Let people say n****r and faggot. I want to know where those people are.
Bill Maher has been very outspoken on religion and Islam. You’re also an atheist. Maher’s style isn’t yours, but do you ever feel he is maybe being a little too aggressive?
I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it. I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it. I have my own moral code, as twisted as it is, but it’s not a bunch of old, desert fairy tales that I live by. I live by experience, failure, learning, that kind of stuff. Everyone that goes, “But all the war is because of religion, blah blah blah,” well then you’re no different than the housewife that’s like, “My son killed himself because of a Judas Priest record.” No, your son killed himself because he was an unstable idiot. Those people started wars because they were unstable idiots. They stumbled across this religion thing, but if they hadn’t found that book, they would have found something else.
John Oliver said this, that Islam is still a relatively young religion, and if you look at Christianity and Judaism when they were young, they were violent, fucking crazy religions. But right now I would say there’s a bigger percentage of that in Islam, but still that percentage is still small. Again, he is discounting all of the moderate, progressive, intelligent, horrified Muslims going, “What the fuck is going on right now?” And especially attacking someone who is Muslim, who’s living in America, they came here because they wanted to get away from that shit. They wouldn’t be here. That’s why it’s really hard to have North Korean or Islamist sleeper agents because the minute they get over here, they’re like, “Holy shit! Hey, you know what? I convert and what do you guys want to know? This is awesome.”
There’s always going to be Christians, always going to be Jews, Hindus, Muslims, so let’s find a way to make all that progress. Because that’s always been the solution of frightened people, if we could just get rid of this chunk, everything would work. No, it doesn’t. I realize that there are people, intelligent, well-meaning people, that literally think if we can wipe out gay people, it will trigger some magic spell that will fix everything else. They believe that the reason all this shit has happened is because of gays and that God is angry at us for not stomping them out. If we can all just work this magic spell. That’s really terrifying thinking. It’s terrifying.
People still buy into it. I can understand how Maher gets angry and frustrated about religion and belief.
There’s stuff about him I love, and there’s stuff about all my comedian-friends where I’m like, that thing is great, that thing fucking drives me crazy. Everyone now has this litmus test, where if you do not agree on every single point, then we can’t talk to you or that guy’s got to lose his job. You’re not going to ever agree perfectly with everybody. You’re just not. That’s another thing with all this shaming where it’s not enough that I disagree.
Whenever I see somebody that’s a homophobe, or a misogynist, or a racist, or a misandrist, anything, anyone that hates a group, I always feel bad for them. I don’t support them, but I’m always like, oh what a horrible way to be-- like you get to live on this planet but you’re shutting out all this shit that you could be looking at. That’s awful. It’s like they’re being punished. That’s how I feel, like they’re already being punished for having to live with that shit.
My problem is when we all have to live with this shit – because people like this run Congress and the Republican Party. It's Todd Akin and legitimate rape, and all the others who say similar things…
I could not have been happier that he said that, because I want to know what those people are thinking. I don’t want him using this weird, code language and then when he’s behind closed doors with bills that he’s fucking over women and minorities. Hey, man, what’s on your mind? Great, now we know.
But that takes quoting him. That takes social media outrage. That story might be one paragraph in the newspaper if those stories don’t get written and shared and turned into something important.
Say it. Say it and see if you get reelected. Prove me wrong. Say that you think there’s such a thing as not legitimate rape and if you get reelected, I’ll go, hey, I guess I was wrong.
I want way less outrage, and I want more pity and mocking, because outrage, they'll wear that with a badge of honor. If people just laugh, that is what shrinks them. It deballs them. Mocking and pity depowers them, That’s what I always go for.
To me, though, it starts with identifying it and calling it out.
If you do it with outrage and anger, then all it does is, now it makes them look like some kind of First Amendment warrior now. But if you’re just like, “You can say anything you want, dude,” and you’re just laughing like, “Holy shit, are you kidding me? Wow.” Again, plenty of people denounce Islam all the time and radical Islamists don’t go after them -- but the people that draw fucking cartoons and mock them, it’s terrifying to them. Fucking terrifying. Who’s the girl that the Taliban shot in the face?
Malala. She forgave her attackers and took pity on them. Didn’t try to do anything. And that angered them even more, and terrified them. Not only does she not die, she comes back twice as strong and twice as understanding and forgiving. That’s the last thing they want to hear, that’s terrifying to them. That’s terrifying because it just reduces them. So mocking and laughter always, to me, does that shit.
I always go for mocking and laughter before outrage. The reason that Ann Coulter gets away with the shit that she says is because the people responding spend half their energy going, “I can’t believe it! Why would you?” She should say shit, and then you should just go, “Aw, Ann. OK.” I never get outraged at shit. I just don’t. You come back with jokes, they don’t know what to do. There has to be way less outrage, more fun and mocking and irreverence.
It just feels like being outraged puts you in a position of not being powerful. You’re so much more powerful when you’re laughing and being forgiving and taking pity on someone.
Martin Luther King fucking changed everything. He did the scariest fucking thing, which was, “No matter what, we’re all calm, we’re just going to keep walking and then let these guys do what they do with the hoses and dogs.” That’s what destroyed the racists down South. He let them be who they were, and it destroyed them.
He changed everything, yes. But the racists are still there.
They’re still there, but they’re treated as a joke. They have local power, but—
They run Congress!
Yes, some, but even the guys that get into Congress, a lot of them are just flailing. They’re just pathetic, and they’re jokes. They’re fucking jokes. There were some pretty powerful people then, but that generation is dying out.
The way they’ve got the South gerrymandered and rigged, there’s no beating some of these people. They're only vulnerable from people further to the right.
They can only do that for so many more years. A lot of those gerrymandered districts chased the Tea Party people out.
That whole Tea Party thing, it’s so fucking hilarious. There is something very beautiful about how the Republicans go, “Those are our guys, they’ll get us in,” and then once in, they realize, “Now we’re linked to this beast that demands a litmus test and they’re out of control.”
Suddenly the beast is in charge.
Exactly, the beast is in charge. But I don’t want our side doing that, too. I don’t want our side to have a litmus test. There are going to be people that are like me, very, very pro-gay marriage, pro-transgender rights, but I do not share [Salon’s] views about language restrictions, subject restrictions. There can’t be that litmus test. We have to be a much more diverse, messy, brash, loud group than the conservatives.
I’m certainly not for language restriction; I’m arguing for talking about the ideas behind words and why they matter -- and being smart and sensitive about them. As far as a political litmus test, to me the question there becomes how the Tea Party has really effectively driven the entire political conversation in a major political party all the way to the right. They’ve changed the center of compromise, to something much further right. And I do wish that there was an equal force on the liberal/progressive side that was attempting to hold some of these Democrats who are happy to make trade agreements or happy to run drone wars or happy to take a lot of Wall Street money, who are happy to cut corporate income taxes down to nothing.
All we’ve got is Bernie Sanders right now.
It says something horrible about the state of the Democrats that there is a very popular political case to make on all of these topics, and not only is the party’s likely standard bearer on the opposite side of these arguments – but the guy who might make them would look the crazy socialist and probably do worse than Dennis Kucinich.
Democrats are basically moderate Republicans now. Elizabeth Warren for president, Bernie Sanders vice president. That’s my dream. It’ll never fucking happen because we live in this shitty time, but oh my God, could you imagine that? It would be the greatest.
The Tea Party and the Grover Norquist side got something right with their pledges and their litmus tests.
The reason that doesn’t exist for us is because of a very good quality we have: We will still question and criticize our own leaders. I love President Obama for gay marriage. But the fucking drones? There’s no way to justify it. It’s horrifying. But the Republicans just stick together; it’s A-plus all across the board. And that’s fucking terrifying. You can’t do that, you just can’t. I will take the messiness.
I wouldn’t mind more messiness: I think messiness scares Democrats. After Nader and 2000, everybody got so scared about protesting too much – we’ll lose the Court! -- that people just end up accepting the drone wars and the cave-ins to Wall Street and arguing we can’t get do any better than this.
It just shows people how much stronger we are as progressives if we are the ones openly arguing. But if we’re attacking each other over, again, out of context stuff, especially humor -- the best weapon of our fucking time is fucking humor -- then we’re ankling ourselves. I don’t know how else to say it, but we are the mockers. The three scariest words, as a comedian, that got said last year was the Suey Park interview either with HuffPo or Salon. Three words, “Context doesn’t matter.” Holy shit, that could not be further from what comedy is. When she said, “Context doesn’t matter,” I’m like, OK, that should be our line in the sand as satirists, comedians, all of us. Context absolutely matters.
I’m definitely not speaking for her, and could be wrong, but my understanding was that she was arguing the context of that joke on Twitter was different than the context on the show.
It still worked brilliantly on Twitter, because unless you’ve never seen "The Colbert Report” in your life, how could anyone read the “ching-chong” thing and think that, “Well, I guess they decided to be racist.” You’d have to be the dumbest human being on the planet. And, what’s even more sickening -- and which Stephen pointed out so brilliantly -- was that he was trying to take down this actually powerful racist organization and she deflected all the heat off of them. The Washington Redskins should send her a gift basket. “Hey, thanks, thanks for putting all the focus on the guy making fun of us.” She replaced mocking and pity and actual progress with outrage and nonsense. And now we’re safe. Thanks, Suey Park! What the fuck? What the fuck?
Let me ask this: Stewart, Colbert, these shows have been on for a decade. Terrific mockery, brilliant work. Most nights, it’s better journalism than lots of news organizations. But here we are a dozen years into the Stewart/Colbert era. If mockery and humor are so effective at countervailing conservative ideas, as you suggest, why do we seem to be going backwards? Have they made us complacent? Do people feel like posting a brilliant clip the next morning is the same thing as activism? Have we won late night but lost the country? It feels as if the conversations on race, on immigration, on science even, have gone backwards by decades. We just had this huge election which was a romp for the right.
I totally disagree, here’s why. You said, “it feels like.” Now, yeah, they got shellacked in the midterms. That always happens in the midterms. It happened to Bush, it happened to Clinton, it just happens. That’s what happens in a midterm, especially during your second term. Both Clinton and Bush had one good midterm and one awful midterm. That’s what happens.
It feels more polarized and poisonous and dysfunctional to me. I think it goes deeper than good midterms and bad midterms. The 2002 midterms, yes, right after September 11 and during the march to war, those were certainly ugly. But there’s a real know-nothing contingent within the GOP, it's amplified by Fox News and right-wing media, and they’ve built themselves control of the Congress and the courts in a deeply undemocratic way to get around the changing demographics of the country. This seems different to me.
Right now it seems like the conversation on race is going backwards only because the backwards people get to be very, very loud right now. But the fact that they are being very loud in the open and people are laughing at them -- I actually think it’s very progressive, what’s happening right now. This last year was so ugly in terms of the Ray Rice video and stuff, but my wife said something really smart: “I’m glad that video is out there, because I’m looking at all the comments on sports sites about this and for the first time you can’t turn away from it, it’s right there. That’s what violence against a woman looks like.” And these are sports fans going, “Yeah, I don’t know about this.”
It is sad that it has to be this way, but that was a wake-up call for a lot of people, and it sucks that that had to be the wake-up call. Because last year was so fucking brutal on every level. Last year was just a series of scabs getting ripped off of everything. Of race, of depression. I think that Robin Williams’ suicide, which I still have not gotten over, made clear that depression is very real. It’s like telling someone, “Hey, just walk that cancer off, man.” If it can take down someone as joyful as that guy, I mean, it’s a monster. He fought that for 63 fucking years. And Ferguson, and Eric Garner. It’s all ugly, but it’s all scabs being ripped off and we needed them ripped off right now. We needed to put some air on these fucking wounds. And it’s going to be ugly and really messy for a while, but I like the messiness. What I get scared of is when things are suddenly very quiet and it’s all being covered over.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the first couple years of Obama’s term, conservatives – the neocons and the far-right-wingers -- they got very, very polite and brittle in the way that they were speaking. It felt like in the basement of Fox News they had a big dry erase board. They wrote the word "n****r" on top and were like, “OK, what are other terms we could use?” And that’s why you started hearing anti-colonial, exotic, Kenyan, all that.
That’s why I like rough, vulgar, tasteless language, because it’s messy and it gets to the heart of the matter and then it’s all fucking out there. Todd Glass said to me, “If you can mock it, you can manage it.” At the beginning of last year, the end of 2013, I was very anti-p.c. I thought that p.c. had mutated. P.c. was our Tea Party, that’s how I thought of it. But then he pointed out to me the British comedian Stewart Lee. He is so brilliant. He's said that if the extremist 10 percent of “political correctness” also comes with improved attitudes about race, and sexuality and overall equality, then it’s worth it. Maybe some people are policing shit out of context, but if that's attached to the larger issues of maybe thinking more about your target, are you punching downwards, then I'll take it.
Lindy West says, “I’m not against rape jokes, I just want better ones. I want smarter ones.” If that’s part of it, then I’ll fucking take it, if that’s the tiny part of it. When I was having that big rape joke debate with Lindy, I started realizing that a lot of the people that were saying we can’t restrict [jokes] were putting quotes from comment threads like, “All jokes are bad.” They were looking in the most obscure comment threads for the most extreme comments. Even other progressives were like, “Oh, Jesus.” But then they would hold it up like, “You see how this whole movement is?” No, you found the one loon in the comment thread.
My rule for comedy has always been the line from the song “Flower": “Obnoxious, funny, true and mean.” It's the Liz Phair edict. That is what the best comedy is. And again, the funniest people, the most outrageous, beautifully offensive people on Twitter are all women. They’re all women. Jenny Johnson, Charlene deGuzman, Shelby Fero, just boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s incredible.
The messiness is what will save us. The politeness will not save us. Politeness, the policing of words, let it all fucking out there and then if someone says something racist, just fucking laugh at them. Dude, really? Make fun of that shit.
We used to be the guys that fucking say it all, and now we are policing shit and I don’t like it. That’s going to hurt us. That’s going to hurt progressivism in this country. I think that's the relationship with me and Salon. We’re going to be at each other’s throats sometimes.
Thank you. I think this might have even been fun.
It was, man. I’m glad you guys were willing to talk to me.