Topics of discussion include Janeane’s own experience with crazy right-wing protesters, Wanda Sykes, censorship, and being an anti-war voice in the mainstream media. Though she’s a proud liberal, Janeane also has a few harsh words for Barack Obama about his timidity in prosecuting Bush officials for war crimes, and his abandonment of the gay community.
Upcoming guests on Citizen Radio include: Howard Zinn, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Jeremy Scahill.
A transcript of the interview can be found behind the cut and is free for use. Please credit Citizen Radio for the interview.
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Kilstein: What does the word “liberal” mean?
The word liberal is, A: Something to be very proud of, and it is the finest traditions of democracy in this country and any other. In fact, without liberalism, or liberal thinking, we would have none of the things politicians brag about that we have in this country from public schools to public services to social services to voting rights, civil rights, any of these things. That’s from liberal thinking.
Now, about 30 - 35-years ago, right-wingers got it into their mind that they need to make this into a pejorative; they need to turn it into an accusation because all of the social justice issues, all of the empathy that comes along with liberalism flies in the face of Conservative principles, or what Conservative principles have turned into. [Liberal values] are a real obstacle for Conservatism. If people were proud to be liberal - if people utilized the tenants of liberalism, or if it was something that politicians could run on then Conservatism would be completely dead.
Now, it is obviously something that politicians should be proud to call themselves. But because most politicians are cowards, they back down to any bullying no matter how tame the bullying. So now, a large majority of Democrats, and a large majority of political advisers, and media talking heads, are loathe to use the word. Why? Because they’re cowards.
Kilkenny: Why do you think they’re cowards?
Because they’ve been bullied by a right-winger saying - or a moderate, even - saying that you can’t win on it - you can’t run on it. It’s not something that’s good to be. A coward responds to bullying especially in the marketplace of ideas. It’s one thing to back down to someone punching you in the face repeatedly. It’s another thing to back down to somebody using political spin.
So when a news anchor - and I use the word “news” loosely - says something like, ‘Is so-and-so too liberal?’ What the answer should be is ‘that would be a great thing if he, or she, was.’ But no, there’s no people that we could qualify as too liberal anywhere near the halls of power in this country.
Kilstein: [Would Democrats benefit from defining what liberalism means to the public instead of empowering the Republicans by running from the word?]
You’re exactly right. Running from - it’s Joe McCarthy. That stuff has to be nipped in the bud. The average person - the average John and Jane Q. Public tend not to want to rock the boat. That’s unfortunately part of the human condition in any era, in any country. That’s just part of the human conditions, especially if you’re married with children. The last thing you want to do, usually, is rock the boat.
Now, it shouldn’t be considered boat-rocking to tell the truth, to stand up for the truth. Again, “liberal” is something to be proud of. And by the way, and P.S., we’re all socialist. We all are participants of social security, and like I said, the public school system, the public railways, the fire department. When you flush the toilet, do you like it when your poo goes away? Guess what? We’re socialist.
A lot of people don’t even know what Socialism means. They don’t know what liberalism really means. And again, if you want to break it down to basic components, what is a liberal? It means you believe in social justice, gender equality, human rights, it means you care about other people, and about yourself, and about society, and your place in it.
These are all very simple things to be. It takes participating in your own life, but also if most politicians were really, really rugged individualists, or really able to stand up for themselves, and make a good accounting of themselves, they wouldn’t be as high up in the echelons of the people we’re talking about as they are. You have to compromise a hell of a lot along the way to get to the top.
Most journalists, and again I’m using the word very loosely, should not be anywhere near that business. Most of the talking heads, most of the people that calls themselves news anchors, or journalists, should turn in their press cards because they’re not qualified, they don’t have any integrity, they don’t give a shit, basically. So that feeds into this. It’s semantics. It’s all semantics.
Kilkenny/Kilstein: [Journalists are also close to the people who are in power. There's a lot of cronyism in the mainstream media, and they seem preoccupied with maintaining their access to people in power.]
Yeah, a lot of peer pressure. A lot of bad editorial policy. A lot of who’s popular - who’s in, who’s out. It’s like high school…It’s always been that way. If you’re a really good journalist like Amy Goodman, you’re not in the front row [of a White House press conference.] It’s no different than any other crappy high school situation. It’s John Hughes or Cameron Crowe. It’s whatever description of high school peer pressure, or who’s in or who’s out in rock-n’-roll, or who’s in or who’s out in your junior high class. These are still the same high school schmucks who are just grown older, and they’re Twittering each other in the White House press corps. It’s just a bunch of nerds, or bullies, or both. They’re still human beings, and they have all those flaws of human beings.
What politics does shine a big light on is human frailty. I think what Conservatism has shined a light on, also, is human frailty. What does it mean to be a Conservative or a Republican anymore? I’m not quite sure, but it clearly shows you’ve got a lot of frailty. You’ve got a lot of flaws. Now, you’re arrogant as fuck about that, and you’re belligerent, and you have very little self-awareness.
What does it mean to be the type of journalist who kowtows to a Conservative? What does it mean to the type of politician who kowtows to a Conservative? These are all character flaws. It is one big character flaw. And because the truly good movers and shakers we don’t hear about or see very much ’cause you can’t get much done if you’re in the mainstream — You know, until the human condition is perfect, this is going to be an imperfect system.
Kilstein: [And the press tends to mock outsiders like Dennis Kunich so they become a joke.]
Mock and marginalize, yeah. [And they're only a joke] to some. They have to mock Kucinich, right? Because if they don’t, they have to admit what they’re not doing. You have to admit Kucinich is right. Failing that — because they have very little integrity, a lot of these people — they’ve got to mock him. And they’ve got to make George McGovern look like a bozo. Years ago, Emma Goldman: mocked and marginalized, Margaret Sanger: mocked and marginalized.
…Our shitty media is not new. It’s just that you guys are experiencing it now more than before. But it’s always been shit. The mainstream media has always been shit. It is not in the business of delivering news. It is not in the business of informing the electorate. That is not what it does, and if you keep expecting it to do that, you’ll get your heart broken every time.
Luckily, though, we have many more options than our parents or our grandparents. That’s a very good thing. But if we still keep looking to the networks, and the cables, to give us satisfaction — except for MSNBC, occasionally, and PBS, and a lot of good radio out there, and a lot of good political writing if — you’ve got to do your homework. That’s what I meant by ‘it takes work to become a good citizen.’ It takes work to be a good liberal. It takes work to be a good Democrat. And there’s a lot of weak Democrats, but thank God there are some good Democrats.
Kilstein: [Most Americans don't have time to seek out that independent news.]
I agree with you. Most people don’t have time — the time that the three of us have. Plus, we have interest in it, and a lot of people don’t have an interest in it. But I’m sick of that “dumb Americans” rap. I’ve travelled enough to know there are smart people and dumb people everywhere. It’s just easy to point the finger at America, and unfortunately our mainstream media makes it easier. But I’m sick of that “dumb Americans” because as you may or may not discover, anywhere you go you will find lunkheads anywhere.
But what can you do if you don’t have time? Take thirty minutes that you can spread out throughout the day. Download DemocracyNow.org’s news headlines in the morning, print it out, put it in your bag. Get to it throughout the day. If you have the ability to leave the radio on in the background throughout the day, do that. Subscribe to Mother Jones. Subscribe to The Nation. Subscribe to The Progressive. Put it in your backpack. Read it when you can.
People make time for flossing their teeth, they make time for working out, they make time for all kinds of wasteful things on the computer. Taking care of your brain muscle is more important than taking care of a lot of other muscles in your body. It’s the main muscle.
Look for a news source that is not for profit. You look for a news source where there’s no gain for the people in it, like [Democracy Now's] Amy Goodman. She barely makes enough money to live, and she’s beholden to no corporate entity. That’s how I know she’s not lying to me…She does it because she’s compelled to do so. And I know she’s not lying to me. I know she cares about her own life as much as other people’s lives, and she’s a good citizen.
…Order books online. Get a library card. Get a public library card, and read books that you can carry with you at all times so you can get to it when you get to it. But always have a book on you because you never know when nothing is going to happen. Always have a book on you.
Kilkenny: Define “feminism,” and what it means to you.
Feminism and liberalism are the same to me. Feminism, to me, means that you believe in gender equality and social justice issues. Same thing. It’s just that gender equality is something that some people may leave out sometimes. Sometimes, I don’t think people see women’s rights and gay rights as human rights. They seem to ghettoize it as some strange thing, but it’s human rights. I think feminism sort of puts a finer point on that sometimes…If you’re a good liberal, you’re a feminist, and vice versa. So they’re the same thing to me.
Kilstein: [Do you see MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow as the left's version of FOX's Bill O'Reilly, and do you think that the news is becoming ghettoized?]
First of all, [Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow] aren’t counter to Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. [Hannity and O'Reilly] are professional liars. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are not liars. Don’t put them as two sides to the same coin. They’re not.FOX News, and their ilk, and their apologists are in the business of disinforming the electorate whether it be for Rupert Murdoch or Pepsi Co, or Monsanto.
Secondly, if you want to call liberal “telling the truth,” good. You do that. I’m proud to have that. That’s fine. There isn’t two sides to every story. It’s not spin, what Rachel Maddow is doing. It’s not spin, what Keith Olbermann is doing. It’s not spin, what Amy Goodman, or Bill Moyers — they are telling you the truth.
Now, does MSNBC break it up into little half hour shows that reflect a similar time span that FOX does for their shows? Yeah, but they’re not the same thing. They’re not doing the same thing. And you know what? I don’t give a shit that Keith Olbermann doesn’t “debate.” There isn’t two sides to every single story. There is a thing called absolute truth. Now, I don’t always love that Keith has the same five people on, and they go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ but you know what? It’s his show, and when you have your show, you’ll do it your way.
But I’ve had enough of listening to whatever we call the other side, which is the lie.
Kilkenny: But Amy Goodman and Bill Moyers are very different than Olbermann and Maddow, two pundits on corporate news channels. So Olbermann and Maddow don’t have the same journalistic freedom as Goodman or Moyers.
Right, but Rachel’s not a liar. Ultimately. I hear what you’re saying, but Rachel will never lie to us. If she accidentally gives us misinformation, then she’s been misinformed because she works hard to get to the bottom of it.
Kilstein: [And Maddow did recently called out GE on something, even though GE owns MSNBC]
If you keep your ratings up, you can do whatever the fuck you want. GE doesn’t give a shit. It’s self-censoring. If there are journalists or reporters, who decide to not call out certain things, that’s self-censoring because if they have the ratings, they can do whatever they want.
Then, if somebody steps in and gives them an even harder time, then hopefully they’ll tell anybody who will listen about it, and shame the person into leaving them alone. The way David Letterman would always do. The more GE tried to censor him, the worse it got for GE. I think that you might be creating a problem in your own mind where there need not be one.
A lot of time, people say [about shows like Olbermann's and Maddow's], ‘Oh, just preach to the converted.’ First of all — if it was indeed preaching, which it is not — it’s giving information. Second, what’s wrong with giving information to the converted? Then shut down every church, then shut down every organization, every rotary club, every club you’ve ever joined, every book club you’ve ever been to where like-minded people get together and share ideas.
What I would say the only problem is that mainstream media is still wired for Republicans. It still tends to serve the message of the Republicans, first and foremost, and it tends to never give a Democrat the benefit of the doubt. Whereas Republicans get away with murder — literally. Literally. George [W.] Bush has to destroy the fucking world to get some criticism. And Democrats can’t do jack shit.
Kilstein: [That was demonstrated in the treatment of John Kerry as a pussy during the 2004 Presidential season.]
The media kept feeding into it. Again I want to go back to…the type of people on these buses, and in the press corps, who want access are the pussies. They’re not very good at their job…They’re lazy!
Kilstein: [Does money or popularity and ratings influence the media more? Right now, Obama is popular, so clearly it isn't just popularity and ratings driving the media coverage because they're being critical of liberal values. Is it driven more by money?]
[Republicans] still have more money and clout. It’s been 30 years in the making. After Watergate went down, there was a concerted effort in the think tanks on the right to make sure that there’s not gonna be a lot of Woodwards and Bernsteins running around. And when Dick Cheney, and [Donald] Rumsfeld, and those guys came in with Gerald Ford, and they had this mantra ‘Never Again,’ they didn’t mean a scandal. They meant transparency.
And there has been so much money and time and energy put in to counteract the ’60s, and counteracting the change of the tenor of the country after Watergate…This has been a project in the making, and it’s highly successful because people are easily bullied. Think about in terms if a network gets five angry e-mails from an angry right-winger. They will respond as if 500,000 people - even though they have no idea how much the other people love it. Networks will run and turn tail in two seconds on a sitcom or on a comedy thing. Look at what Wanda Sykes is having to endure. Look at what happened to [Jamie Kilstein] and I with this Ken Pittman nonsense. And last night we did a comedy show, and they had to hire extra security because — what — maybe two assholes called the club last night?
Kilstein: I did a show in Ohio and there were a thousand people in the theater — a thousand people — and 50 people left, and the comedy tour that they booked me on isn’t allowed back. And it’s like, 950 people stayed.
Because bullies make a lot of noise, and if you’ve got a person who’s susceptible to that crap — a lot of people are very weak. A lot of people are very weak.
Kilkenny: I feel like this is a larger theme, though, where Republicans are always saying we have to sacrifice our freedom for more security. Would you rather sacrifice your security for more freedom? Meaning, when they say there might be a threat to America out there, should we always constantly be on the offense, and seek them out, and Ken Pittman may have two little cronies come out and shout during your show, should we have extra “security” in case that happens?
I think you’re conflating two unrelated issues. Are you talking about Ken Pittman or are you talking about terrorism?
Kilkenny: Well, it has to do with security.
It’s not an either, or. You don’t have to give up anything to have more security. You really don’t. If somebody’s doing their job right, and if the government and CIA, and all these hundreds and hundreds of people, whose job it is to work on these national security issues — if they are doing their jobs really well, and if they’re doing the best they can ’cause nobody can do everything, then hopefully you don’t need all this take-off-your-shoes at the airport, and all of this stuff that means nothing anyway at the end of the day. It’s an empty gesture.
Secondly, you’ll never really stop a really determined terrorist. I think a really determined terrorist is going to get you, or a building — whatever they want to do. It doesn’t matter. Now, having said that, when it comes to the ridiculous Ken Pittman nonsense, that is all peer theater for him. He just wanted to get on FOX. He’s a real loser. Like, he’s a real loser. You can see it when you met him…listen to his show. He’s a real low-level schmuck, who wanted to get on-
Kilkenny: [And him aside, there are always these asshole Republicans that will threaten you -- threaten Wanda [Sykes] — and I feel like it’s much more important that you two have the freedom to say whatever you want]
But see, we’re not shooting off our mouth either. They get mad over nothing. Wanda Sykes told a joke. It’s fine. People pretend to get angry. Then the mainstream media pretends people are angry. The average Jon, Jane Q. Public, in the same way they don’t have time to look at the news, they don’t give a shit.
Kilstein: There was a rare, brilliant, honest moment on CNN where Wolf Blitzer had some Democratic strategist in, and Wolf goes, ‘Do you think the joke went too far?’ and the guy goes, ‘Wolf, I saw you laughing!’
Oh thank God! And what did Wolf say?
Kilstein: He just laughed!
See?! That’s what I mean! Going back to what we said: people have to start telling the truth and this will all stop. It will all stop. If more and more people sit in the pundit chair, if you will, and say there’s no story here, let’s stop wasting people’s time; no, there’s no story here. Or say, you infantilize us all by bringing that up. Why are you using these lazy talking points? If people started saying that, or just in the genre of “Wolf, you were laughing,” it ends! It ends right there!
And Keith Olbermann should be ashamed of himself for picking on Wanda Sykes. That was absurd. I love Keith Olbermann, but that was bullshit. And it’s lazy. And Wanda Sykes did nothing wrong, and as soon as people start admitting that, it all goes away…Now, the reason Ken Pittman, who’s probably the only guy who’s mad — we’re literally talking about tens of people here, who pretend to be angry.
Kilstein: I believe everyone in that theater stood up at the end of the show [in Boston where Janeane and Jamie performed during the non-protest led by Ken Pittman] — standing ovation. They were quite happy.
Well, not even that. [The audience] didn’t even know what we were talking about when we complain about the tea-baggers.
Kilstein: That was the funniest part. I was on stage and I had one tea-bagger stab, and I was like ‘Yeah! The place is gonna go nuts!’ I heard one person - I heard [Rob] Riggle laugh in the back, and Allison.
Marc [Maron] kept bringing it up, and it slowly dawned on me that [the audience] doesn’t know what we’re talking about. And that’s what I mean. To you and I, it felt personal because we got ambushed, and then they put it on FOX, and it was on MSNBC, and then for me — like last night, when [the owner of the club] came in and said, ‘We got phone calls.’ Now, that could be one phone call. But people overreact.
Kilstein: It also sucks because it’s like who are you hurting? You’re hurting the scared receptionist. You’re hurting the guy who had to come in and do security. You’re going after comics.
…First of all, they’re not well-informed. Your average right-winger is completely disinformed, and their life is not working. Somehow, something’s wrong. You can’t be a happy, well-adjusted person and be a right-winger. You just can’t. It’s mutually exclusive.
Secondly, you do realize that if they’re not picking on a comic or something, they got nothing. They got nothing. It goes back to — and I’m going to say Republican and Conservative, they call themselves that. They’re not, but they call themselves that, but to be a modern day Republican or Conservative — to be a George [W.] Bush type of Republican or Conservative, to be a [Sean] Hannity type — it’s a character flaw. It’s a character flaw. Or it could also be neurological. I’m not joking at all. Limbic brain: seed of your emotion. Something’s not working, whether it’s your private life or your literal neuroanatomy, something is not working.
Kilstein: When I find myself describing [Conservatism ideology,] I feel like I’m using elementary school rhetoric where I’m like, ‘It’s just fucking mean.’
Kilkenny: It’s selfish. It’s an ideology of selfishness.
Yes, it is.
Kilkenny: You don’t take care of each other, you don’t help the weak –
It’s all about your own.
Kilkenny: Right, “rugged individualism” except when you need help, and then you look to the government.
It’s bootstraps. Bootstraps for people born with great boots and stretchy boot strings, you know what I mean? Really easy bootstraps. All of that stuff — it’s not even relevant because the Conservatism that we thought maybe Barry Goldwater was, or whatever, that doesn’t exist anymore. It is, I think, a neurological issue.
It’s also the part now — big tent party — for racists, or sexists, for homophobes, for closet queens. Whatever, again, is wrong with you. Because a tent full of hate has elastic walls, so it’s a very big tent.
Kilstein: [So what do you make of this talk about bipartisanship and pragmatism where we can't go for Bush official prosecutions because we need Republican votes for healthcare?]
It’s such bullshit. It’s classic just like we gotta pardon Richard Nixon, we can’t prosecute. It’s classic fucking cowardice bullshit, and Obama lets us all down. It’s crap. And you know, if it’s one of those things where they’re protecting some Democrats too — let’s say there’s some Democrats in on the torture thing — then they gotta go down, too. You gotta bring those Democrats down, too. It is fucking political crap. There is no excuse for it.
Now, do I think we need to see pictures — us — on the news? No. But do I think war criminals needs to be prosecuted? Yes. I do not believe that it is in anyone’s interest to see more naked pyramids. I don’t feel like it will do anything but tear us all apart again. Or tear America’s fragile reputation further asunder. But I do think that [the photos] should be in the courts, adjudicated through the courts, the pictures should be shown in the courts. I don’t think anywhere is not aware of what these photos look like. And they will be — if they haven’t been already — leaked, some of them. But I do think it’s illegal what [Obama] is doing, not perusing [the prosecution of Bush officials' crimes].
And this bipartisanship? Fuck it. Bullshit. You cannot bring a tennis racket to a baseball game. These Republicans — again, they call themselves that — now, there may be a handful of moderate Republicans, I’ve heard of them, I think it’s a wonderful idea, it’s adorable. I think it’s like a unicorn. There is no such thing as bipartisanship that’s going to work with the Republican party anymore, or the Conservative movement. They have shown us over the last 30 years that they are not interested in it. They are not willing to do it. They have never reached across the aisle in the last ten years, and Obama does the nation a disservice for trying to be a nice guy about this, and for showing weakness there. I think it’s weak. There’s no reason to think they’ll be pragmatism or bipartisanship from this current incarnation of this Republican party.
Kilkenny: What first inspired you to become politically active? You talk about this a little in your act that your family is not in the same vein as you.
They’re all Republicans. I was always interested in — I was a History major at school. I always had an interest in politics and media. And then in my stand-up — you know, from when I started it enters in, in the way it enters in because it’s part of the fabric of your life. You know, little bits here and there.
But what got me motivated was the stolen election of 2000. Sam Seder and I watched those returns come in, and watched the tragedy unfold and the miscarriage of justice when Antonin Scalia installed [Bush]. And it just got me very, very upset, and more interested in learning about the electoral process, and this, that, and the other.
Then, 9/11 happened and I started volunteering at this warehouse that was providing clean clothes and uncontaminated things to first-responders. And even at the beginning there, right off the bat, they were being — the first-responders were being not given full information on their health care and the toxins — right off the bat.
And then Afghanistan happened, and I was concerned. I mean, I didn’t know enough to know that it was gonna be pulled off so badly, and then I heard about a group called Peaceful Tomorrows that was against [the] Afghanistan [war], which was a very rare, rare thing. And a lot of these were 9/11 families.
Then, of course when Iraq started ramping up. Then it really, really, really did, and I started getting involved — hearing about Air America, and wanting to get involved.
But why did I get involved as a public face of it? Not because I wanted to, believe me. Not because I wanted to. I was asked to by Robert Greenwald, who is the director of Outfoxed, and WALMART, the Wal-mart movie. He had directed me in [Steal This Movie,] a movie about Abbie Hoffman’s life, so I was friends with him. And he had gotten in touch with me a couple times saying, look we are having a great deal of difficulty getting anybody booked on these shows — on these news shows — to speak out against the war, who are actually involved in the military and involved in the government because the assholes, who work at these networks, will only book an actor.
Now, there’s a couple reasons for that: A) They think it’s gonna make for more interesting TV, but mostly it’s to mock and marginalize the anti-war position. They want to put people from the military, from the Pentagon, from the CIA for the pro-war position, and then opposite that, here’s this person from that TV show…so that you, as a viewer, go, ‘Ew! I’m for the war!’
If you flip-flop that, say you had people from the Pentagon — there’s plenty of them from the CIA, Pentagon, who were against Iraq, believe me there were plenty of them…This is way back in 2000. The former head of [the United Nations Special Commission, UNSCOM] was trying to get on to say that they were lying about Iraq. If you had all those people that people could respect against this war, and the only people for it were Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris, what would the public idea be? “EW!” It’s an editorial process, it’s rigged from the beginning, but if the “actor” won’t go on, nobody will say anything, you know what I mean? That’s your only option.
So Robert Greenwald asked myself, and Tim Robbins, and Mike Farrell, and others that I’m forgetting their names now, but don’t mean that disrespectfully. And he said, look, it’s gonna be bad. It’s gonna be bad, but we have to do this, and I didn’t want to do it because I was scared, and I also thought if I’m the person speaking, no one’s gonna listen. And I knew it would be bad. I had no idea how many assholes are out there. I had no idea what was gonna come.
Kilkenny: So what were the immediate ramifications of doing that?
Immediate castigation. Immediate posting of my address and phone number on things like redstate.com. The amount of death threats and hate mail coming in was so much that I had to hire a security person to go through it. And not just coming to me, but they would print where my manger’s office, and phone number, and agent. I had a development deal at ABC at the time — that was printed, who to get in touch with there. That deal was dropped, luckily though because that sitcom sucked. Tour gigs were cancelled…This is hatemail and death threats coming from citizens because you’re trying to tell them that their government is lying to them. I had no idea how fucking stupid and mean that many people could be.
Now, granted, the majority were always very supportive. The majority of citizens I would run into even at that time were very nice at the street level and stuff like that. But the majority of cowards I met in my own peer group — my own family — in my own fellow comedians…I heard a story, I don’t know if this is true — secondhand — that Dennis Miller (just being one) and a couple of other comedians called my manager, Dave Rath, and said, ‘You’ve got to get Janeane off TV, man, she’s embarrassing herself. That’s really unpatriotic.’ And then Dave won’t tell me who some of the other names are. You would be shocked at how many cowards you know in your own peer group, who A) Wouldn’t take a stand, and B) Blindly supported this thing.
A lot of my friendships have not recovered because I got no respect — no respect — for the way they acted, especially at the height of the death threats and the mocking, and FOX News on a regular basis shitting on me, or morning drive guys just shitting on me. And then the glee that Bill O’Reilly would say, ‘And she can’t get a job!’ and ‘She lost her old job!’ And that my own friends, who could have given me a job just to say in their face ‘bullshit, we’re gonna hire her to do this,’ who didn’t.
It really separates the chaff from the wheat in times of war, if you will. You really learn who’s really awesome. And then I got the same thing on the other side. I learned who the great people are. Sean Penn called. Woody Harrelson called. And I’m not just saying that because they’re actors. They called just to say keep it up the good work, I know what it’s like, we’re getting it too. And then just friends from high school, who I hadn’t talked to in years [called] to say the same thing.
So I have to say that the majority of people were great. But the people who were cowards, it’s ridiculous and stupid.
[Kilstein: A lot of those people who were angry with you may have now lost someone in the wars, and all you were saying is that you didn't want people to die.]
Not just die, but I don’t want to be lied to. I don’t want to be fucking lied to, and I don’t like being treated like a chump. And I don’t want to have to pay for this. Literally. Our culture and society will be paying for this for years, years, years, years, years. Not just with money. Emotionally. All the [soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSDs]. All the marriages that will fall apart. All the children that will go unparented. All the social ramifications of this. And then some people spent that time to write hate mail to the Dixie Chicks, or spent that time shitting on peace activists, who stood alone with a sign in the rain in Washington Square Park.
[Kilstein: I think the most heartbreaking example of that is how Cindy Sheehan became a late show punchline.]
It’s embarrassing. And it’s not just this country. It’s human nature. Until human nature is cleansed of frailty, we will always have this. It’s gonna happen again. People thought it couldn’t happen after Vietnam, we couldn’t be lied to like that again, this, that, and the other. It will happen again. Give it time.
[Kilstein: That's the power of reading. I think the majority of people are good, and once they have that knowledge, they'd find it difficult not to act.]
Well, also, what’s the point of living an unexamined life? What is the point? There’s a phrase I just heard recently: If you don’t do politics, politics do you. And it’s true. It’s am more interesting way to live your life, to actually pay attention.
Now, granted, there are a million things going on that we don’t know about, never will know about, and just the scams that we know about are the ones we know about. We’ll never know about a million others that go on behind our backs, and the people that are really in charge we’ll never see their face, we’ll never know their names — the people that really pull the strings, internationally and domestically. We’ve never met them. We’ll never see them.
[Kilstein: Atheists always get a bad rap for being heathens, but do you think religion actually harms humanity because it places the burden of caring for people on God instead of on society?]
It’s not mutually exclusive. You can have God and you can have eternity. Agnosticism is playing it safe in a way, meaning you don’t know whether there is or there isn’t. It’s Pascal’s Wager. You’re gonna hedge your bets that there might be [a God] so that I can go to heaven.
But just because there’s a heaven, and there’s another life beyond that may be a paradise, if you will, doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to help others. Saying that God has a plan is a way to let yourself off the hook. It’s just a way to let yourself off the hook. Also, it’s a way to deal with universal contingency. Universal contingency means that anything can happen at any time. That’s a little too much for some people. It’s too random. If you think about it, we live — say we’re on 23rd street here in New York [City]. Now, what prevents any of us from dying any day from just an idle toss of a rock out a window? Every single day on the streets of Manhattan, how is it that more of us aren’t getting clocked on the head? Think about just children playing. Just think about an accident — an air conditioner falling off [a window sill].
…Now, how to some people deal with that fear? …God. You go, ‘God would not allow me, and my children, to be hit on the head by a rock that somebody else threw. That’s not a part of God’s plan.’ Or, if something happens and that’s how your friend dies, it’s so awful you gotta say, ‘That must have been God’s plan.’ Because that’s the only way to get through it.
Now, I personally don’t have a religion that makes me think that way. I just feel like bad things happen sometimes, good things happen sometimes, nobody’s special enough to avoid that. And that’s just the way it is. I also don’t fear death. I don’t fear mortality…I don’t remember what it was like in my mind before I exited my mother’s womb. I was presentient. There was nothing. There was no consciousness. Then I exited my mother’s womb, and there was consciousness. When I die, I will be post-sentient. There will be no more consciousness. I’m not gonna miss it. I didn’t miss pre-womb, right? I’m not gonna miss post-womb.
…How I deal with my anxieties is through science, or I try to learn about something. Or I just get eaten up by anxiety…Because of God’s plan, I don’t think the homeless thing fits into that because I don’t think people walk past homeless people and think, ‘God has a plan for that homeless guy.’ They either do or don’t give him a dollar, or a quarter.
Kilkenny: Or they blame the homeless person.
Or they blame the homeless person. That’s what a Conservative does. A Conservative blames a homeless person themselves. That’s Conservatism in a nutshell.
[Kilstein: I wonder if they use that anger as a defense mechanism.]
It’s a defense mechanism! It is a defense mechanism against having to feel. Now, I don’t know whether they feel bad or not, but it’s a defense mechanism against having to feel. You just accuse the victim of being somehow responsible for their plight.
…Are some homeless people responsible for their plight? Sure. I don’t know, though. See, I can’t say…until I know for sure. And I don’t always give homeless people money — at all — by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If a person has a dog or child, I always do because I feel sorry for the dog or the child. But I’m sure plenty of homeless people have gotten themselves into a hell of a mess, but them I’m sure there’s just as many — if not more — who have nothing to do with getting into that mess.
[Kilstein: You're credited with being one of the founders of alternative comedy.]
I’m not. There’s always been “alternative comedy.” It’s just a journalistic construct. I don’t know what alt comedy means. It’s something that happened — this is my recollection of what happened — when Nirvana broke and alt music became what it was called (it used to be called college radio when I was younger,) then it called alt radio, or alt rock. At the time, some journalists started doing articles about some stand-up [comics] in the early ’90s, who were doing stand-up shows that were not in comedy clubs proper, and they were titled alternative comedians.
It just so happened that a couple of the articles were written — that I was included in more than one article. I don’t know what it means. What it means to me is a comedian who is not writing jokes, per say, punchline, punchline, punchline, bang, bang, bang. They’re more of a storyteller, if you will…What they tell is true for the most part, embellished for humorous purposes, but true. It’s a more thoughtful approach to the medium of stand-up comedy. A lot of people use it as a pejorative. A lot of people resent the title, and they’re like, ‘Aw, all that means alt comedy is that they’re not funny’ like I’ve heard people say that all the time. Or ‘they can’t write jokes,’ or blah, blah, blah.
But I certainly didn’t coin the phrase. I certainly didn’t invent it. It was popular in the 1960s, and early ’70s.
[Kilstein: It seems like alt comedy is doing very well right now like with Patton Oswalt and the Comedians of Comedy selling out massive rock clubs.]
Not me. They’re doing much more than me…I can’t count myself among the hot, new– like Tim and Eric and Patton [Oswalt], and Zach Galifianakis, and Mike Birbiglia. These people have — are even more alt. It’s a web presence. They’ve used a whole new medium in a new way whereas in the early ’90s, there were comics who wanted to go outside of the comedy club proper, and they wanted to do shows in venues that were not for comedy traditionally. Now, what’s happening is it’s a whole new wave of comedians who are using new technology to build huge followings. I am not selling out huge venues, and I’m not saying that in a way like ‘[Wah, wah] I’m not selling out huge venues,’ you do me too much credit to put me in the same category as those guys you were mentioning.
Kilstein: What would you say to a comic who is trying to do something different and isn’t getting work in mainstream clubs?
In this current stand-up comedy world that we live in, it’s not like the ’80s and early to mid-’90s where there were so many open mikes, so many venues to do stand-up, so many places to do it that even if you weren’t getting any time in the mainstream clubs, there were places you could get time.
I would say, now, expand your web presence. You post and post, you do whatever it takes to get people to start — whether it be a Youtube video, or you start your own night somewhere. And that’s where you will get time. You will ask a proprietor of some venue, ‘Can I have Tuesday nights? You can have the door.’
Kilstein: Books, music, or comedians that have inspired you to be you.
Howard Zinn books have inspired me to learn about the official story for history. He has been instrumental in me wanting to get more involved in my own history, and the stories that are told to me. And also his biography, You Can’t [Be Neutral] On A Moving Train, that you can’t. That is literally true. And a biography I just read — that I just finished — has been so inspirational to me, Sean Penn’s biography, the authorized biography of Sean Penn. Fascinating and inspirational. I couldn’t put it down. You’ve got to read it. Fantastic.
Music that has inspired me? I don’t know if it’s inspired me to be me, but during the Riot Grrrl era — and I don’t blame those ladies for hating and loathing that term — I’m so sorry, but that DIY girl band era was really inspiring, and also magazines likeBust and Bitch . And Punk Planet, the late Punk Planet…Magazines like Found inspire me in strange ways. SCTV [Second Ciy Television] inspired me unbelievably. SCTV as a kid, Woody Allen as a kid, Albert Brooks when I got older, and George Carlin really, really inspired me, the late Bill Hicks, Paula Poundstone. And then as I got older, more of my contemporaries: Mr. Show with Bob and David, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Zach Galifianakis, and Patton Oswalt, and Jamie Kilstein.
Kilkenny: What makes you happy?
Dog-walking. I love walking my dog. When people that I admire, I get to meet them, and they’re as wonderful as I could have ever imagined. Reading makes me very happy, but when I get into a bum book — because I feel obligated to finish it, and so I hate getting stuck in a mediocre book…I will skim…I have to finish it, but then I will not consciously really, really read it anymore. But I do feel obligated to go to the end. Oh, it ruins my day ’cause I know almost immediately I’m in a lemon…by the end of the first chapter, I’ll know this writing style — and a lot of the time with fiction — I love reading fiction.
As much as I love reading factual books, I enjoy more than anything a great fictional read, and I love collections of short stories, and I also love Victorian era novels — just love them. And you must read Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, which just came out. It’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with zombies. I loved it so much. It’s just a great fictional fluff read, but you’ll enjoy it. It’ll put a little spring in your step.