Nato Green: Comedy via Activism

Green has been in the trenches and conveys a liberal bent.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Nato Green recorded his new live album over two shows in one night in Oakland.

    Nato Green is not a political comedian in the sense that he gets onstage with today’s copy of the New York Times and begins riffing. Nor is he opening his thesaurus to find words that rhyme with “Super PAC,” in an effort to write a bouncy piano parody tune.

    As a former union organizer with leanings “somewhere to the left of Ho Chi Minh,” he is used to his liberal peers fact-checking the accuracy of his jokes.

    Nato is quick to present some honest teasing to his compatriots on his new live comedy album, “The Nato Green Party.” He accuses the gay movement of getting soft since the Harvey Milk days — trading in “freedom” for “pride and the Bravo network.”

    He mentions the book his cousin, Aaron Belkin, wrote after helping the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, called, “How We Won.” “You know what lost? The book. Nobody bought it ….Liberals looked at it and said, ‘A book about how to win? Not interested. I want to read the book called, “Being Smug is More Important than Being Successful,” ’cause I’m a liberal!’”

    “The Nato Green Party” was recorded just over a month ago at The New Parrish in Oakland and is now available via Rooftop Records.

    Nato is currently in New York, writing for friend and fellow San Francisco comedian W. Kamau Bell’s upcoming FX show, “Totally Biased,” which will debut on Aug. 9.

    Corey Andrew: I just listened to your album on BART yesterday.

    Nato Green: Thank you. I hope you enjoyed it.

    Corey: I did. What were the challenges of putting together a live comedy album?

    Nato: Part of the challenge was I really wanted to — as they say — lay down some of the hits, for people not familiar with me. I’m fortunate to have a very affectionate and loyal fan base in the Bay Area, and I wanted them to get a good show. As soon as we set the date for the recording, I booked a whole stack of shows and systematically built a whole bunch of new material. I also brought back some old material and figured out how to make it different. We tried to make old jokes hit harder. Some of the tension of it was to really make sure I was giving a good show to the people in the room. The other consideration was that I work in the clubs and do mainstream comedy shows, and I have material that I do that is designed to make me more accessible to an audience that isn’t on board with my politics. I really decided not to do that for the CD. In the world of comedy, there are limitless opportunities to dilute yourself and make yourself more accessible and very few opportunities to give people the 100 percent, pure version of yourself.

    Corey: How many shows did you record?

    Nato: Two on the same night.

    Corey: How would you have handled it if one of your greatest bits had tanked for the night?

    Nato: Actually, it happened. There was material that I liked that didn’t work quite right that night, and I cut it out. It usually wasn’t an entire chunk; it was one part of a joke.

    Corey: How long were the shows?

    Nato: The CD ends up just under 51 minutes, and the two shows were like 62 and 65.

    Corey: Was it hard to lose some stuff?

    Nato: We had a really aggressive turn-around from recording to releasing in 28 days. I set that goal for myself, and the good people of Rooftop were willing to tear themselves apart to make that happen. If I had more time, I would have made a version and run it by my personal brain trust, to make sure I wasn’t getting too sentimental about my material. I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to do that as I wanted to because of the timeline.

    Corey: Did you analyze the laughs from the different shows?

    Nato: When I listened to the two different versions of it, I was listening for which version got the better response. There were some things where my delivery was more fluid and powerful. There were some jokes where in one show the audience clapped and the other show the audience laughed. I went with the laugh response. Something can happen with political comedy where people want to hear things they can agree with and clap at. I want to be a political comedian that can kill as hard as a comic who does jokes with their audience. I want that same level of visceral laughing. It’s not a good show if it’s a series of applause breaks.

    Corey: How does your San Francisco- and Bay Area-centric material play on the road?

    Nato: To the extent possible, I try to drain the most idiosyncratic local references. For example, near the end of the CD is the Sit/Lie Law bit. There is a whole part of the Sit/Lie bit that does very well in the Bay Area — that I can’t do anywhere else — about Walnut Creek. I try to drain some of that stuff out. Outside the Bay Area, a lot of the San Francisco stuff still applies to a certain liberal intellectual audience. Interestingly, the stuff that doesn’t travel as well is any gay material. Outside of the Bay Area, even in liberal places, people tend not to be as attuned to or aware of anything relating to gay issues.

    Corey: So referring to yourself as ‘the Tarzan of the gays’ and ‘I walk amongst them,’ stuff like that doesn’t play well in other places because people just don’t get it? I guess there are more straight people here that are really introduced to gay history at a young age.

    Nato: Yes, or the line where I say, ‘My kids get to pick their own gender.’ Let alone the gay community, the idea of transgender is so foreign to most people in the country — that one can be cavalier about it and not immediately dive into ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ people are like, ‘What are you talking about?’

    Corey: Even the term “political comedy” can be a turn-off for some folks. Do you prefer a different one to describe what you do?

    Nato: There are great people who are political comedians. Strangely, the people who are thought of as the all-time greats of comedy have pretty compelling political points of view. There’s a weird way that political comedians get sequestered away from the rest of comedy. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks were not political. When people think of political comedy — I’m not trying to start fights with anybody — but like Mark Russell or the Capitol Steps. Something very safe and quippy that you would find on PBS. Ideology and a worldview and a critique of society and culture in the moment includes politics. It has an expansive notion of politics that includes race and gender and class. For me, I end up getting called a political comic a lot. I tend to think of myself — and I might be trying to be cute — as a political person who is a comedian. I was a union organizer for a long time. I hang out with a lot of activists. I feel like that a lot of what people do as political comedy, their relationship to the subject matter, is that they watch the news and write better or worse jokes about it. It means that their relationship to the subject matter is relatively the same as someone who is making fun of ‘American Idol.’ My relationship to my subject matter is as a participant and someone who has experienced significant parts of it first-hand. Quite frankly, I feel like there is a fairly unique point of view that I bring to my comedy. As far as I know, the list of comedians who have also been activists in the trenches is very short. It’s almost, not entirely, but almost, me and Dick Gregory. To me, that’s how I understand it to be a political comedian.

    Corey: As a former activist, now a comedian, how would you like to change things?

    Nato: There is certainly a thing that occurs where people who were full-time activists get older and have kids and don’t want to deal with the grinding schedule of campaigns anymore. They become teachers or nurses or electricians. I became a comedian. I’m trying to figure out what it means to be a comedian who has politics. That may mean thinking about comedians as a class of people who can be organized to participate in things. It may mean using comedy shows as points of activity — giving out literature or doing benefits and whatnot for other things. Also, I’m very aware of when my politics were in formation and I was a teenager listening to punk rock and hip-hop, and comedy played significant roles in the development of my consciousness. That it helps people sharpen their analysis and it reenergizes people and gives people a sense of community and a cultural frame of reference, where just reading papers about how messed up things are doesn’t.

    Corey: Is it a fair statement that as jobs you could have chosen as a former activist, as a comedian, you probably have more of a free speech microphone than a teacher who can get fired for something they post on their Facebook page?

    Nato: People keep talking about how comedians are in some ways the last public intellectuals, the only people paid to tell the truth in public — with the caveat that you can’t just tell the truth, you have to be funny. As long as I am able to do that part of the job, there’s sort of no limit to what I can get away with saying. When I think about comedians and the relationship of comedians and social change, I think about what Dan Savage did to Rick Santorum. Do you know what I’m talking about?

    Corey: Yes.

    Nato: It’s not our job to be cheerleaders or spokespeople or propagandists for people — even for people whose agenda we share. It’s our job to charge off the deep end of the discourse and say the unsayable and push the envelope. If someone had sought proposals, ‘How do we come up with a way to tarnish someone’s candidacy?’ no one would have come up with what Dan Savage came up with. Frankly, I think the Democrats are a little afraid of it because they suspect it’s a double-edged sword. The relationship between comedians or humorists or satirists and the political process is best when we can afford to be crazy — and fearless.

    Corey: On the album, you talk a little about how Bay Area folks will do when the revolution comes. How do you think you will fare?

    Nato: Honestly, I think I have some helpful skills. My collapse of civilization survivability is not good so I am trying to fatten myself up so my children have something to eat when the revolution comes. There will be some very tender meat from the daddy carcass to feed my daughters.

    For more on Nato Green, visit natogreen.com.

    Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago.

    If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to coreywrites@yahoo.com and follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.