Collectively, the three comedians starring in “Laughter Against the Machine” have one Huffington Post blog, several alt-weekly columns, a degree in comparative politics, a degree in history, one long-running radio-show-turned-webcast, and three ongoing critiques about hegemony and the fallacy of a “post-racial” America. Theirs might be the brainiest, most literate comedy tour to hit the Bay Area this January. It’s smart, it’s heady, it gets to the very edge of what’s tolerable for a left-wing, politically correct audience. In fact, the comedians don’t ever clarify which machine they’re attacking. Sometimes it’s an obvious target (Joe Lieberman, the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, the state of Oregon). Other times, it’s a sacred cow (Tyler Perry, Kwanzaa, the movie Precious). Such wide-ranging assaults make the show more interesting. But they also require a little suspension of liberal mores.
Take Nato Green, who opened the New Year’s Eve show at San Francisco’s Phoenix Theatre. Raised in Bernal Heights, Green attended gay pride parades as a toddler (he calls himself a heterosexual “Tarzan among gays”). He listened to Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce records as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. Green says he has a “borderline Asperger compulsion” to challenge conventional wisdom — whether it be about Blue Dog Democrats or foodie fascism. (Green has written humorous tirades in defense of meat, and about the “Healthy San Francisco” surcharge for restaurant worker health care). Right off the bat, Green absolves himself from the “cool white guy” role that awaits him. He’s not an equal-opportunity writer of insults (Green mostly derides Jewish politicians, fellow Democrats, epicureans, and countercultural snobs) but he does have a knack for pushing boundaries. His Holocaust jokes require a bit of exposition, as does the one about wanting to fuck Joe Lieberman in the eye with a blunt instrument (it’s named in the show, but shan’t be committed to print). Nonetheless, it takes a pretty hip audience to get the humor.
Hari Kondabolu, who followed Green, was the night’s most acerbic comedian. Following the rule that everyone gets to make fun of his own ethnicity — and white people — he based most of his routine on colonialism. Not just the old-fashioned kind (though he did have a hilarious joke about an abusive girlfriend who symbolizes the British empire), but also the contemporary kind — that thing we call “cultural appropriation.” Kondabolu’s favorite examples occur in Portland, Oregon, which, he says, is ground zero for tepid chai, misuse of the red dot on the forehead, and bookstore parties where not one but two didgeridoo players compete for stage time.
Now, there’s nothing too extraordinary about tearing Portland a new asshole, but few comics do it with such vehemence. And Kondabolu doesn’t stop there. He also denigrates white chocolate (“from the same people who brought you white Jesus”) and vegan soul food (“It’s like a heavy metal cover album of Motown classics.”) He offers a new “modest proposal” that would allow us to slaughter rich people for their organs. Most importantly, Kondabolu is not above heckling his audience. “You’ve been lukewarm so far, audience,” he announced midway through a New Year’s set. Audience members chuckled politely in agreement.
Featured comic W. Kamau Bell made fun of Tyler Perry and the girl from Precious (who, he argues, should get dibs on Reese Witherspoon’s next five movie roles). He had the best jokes of the evening. He also went from the pop cultural to the personal, offering anecdotes about his interracial marriage and strained relationship with his in-laws — which were as enlightening as they were funny. Style-wise, Bell has a lot in common with Green. Both of them speak with a lot of asides. Both are prolific bloggers, to the extent that there’s not much disconnect between their writing and speaking voices. (In fact, it’s not always clear whether most of their jokes generate on a legal pad or onstage.) Both enjoy reflexive irony, even if it means deriding the groups to which they claim membership.
“Laughter Against the Machine” is actually an ongoing tour that launched in October 2008, when Bell, Green, and Kondabolu did a spate of election-year shows together. They delivered a tidy package with a lot of overlapping themes and squirmy political topics. The show was such a success that they continued through 2009, finding new things to be angry about, even in the wake of Obama’s victory. (Once the contact high wore off, Glenn Beck and other right-wing militia started coming out of the woodwork.) Host Emily Heller provided a little respite with fifteen minutes of genuinely self-deprecating material. Otherwise, the show made good on its name. Despite a lukewarm audience, its New Year’s Eve edition delivered a few big laughs and a lot of hard-hitting social commentary. That bodes well for this week’s run in Oakland.