During the busiest week in New York City’s comedy calendar, five comics spent a Saturday afternoon at Sony Hall in Times Square to talk about making jokes in a fraught political moment.
The diverse panel included Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas), Jordan Klepper (The Daily Show, The Opposition), Sabrina Jalees (The Comedy Lineup), Mo Amer (The Vagabond, Late Show with Stephen Colbert) and David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show). Moderated by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fear, the midday panel drew an attentive crowd as questions touched on everything from the relentless news cycle to whether or not Jalees was a vampire. Here are five things that we learned from the event.
The best to way to eliminate fear of ‘the other’ is to fall in love with it.
During a conversation about laughing with those in red states, Jalees shared a related anecdote involving her wife Shauna. As she came from a Virginian household of traditional Christian values, Shauna reportedly had a rough time coming out to her parents. (Jalees mentioned that Shauna’s mother kicked Shauna out of the car they were in, saying Shauna was “from the Devil.”) Jalees — who was raised Muslim, from Pakistani heritage — was the first girlfriend Shauna’s family had ever met. Now that the two are married and the relationship has proved to be “everything their daughter wanted,” Jalees says, “my mother-in-law is obsessed with me.” Her advice to the crowd is to go out, get as close to “the other” as possible by “marrying Republicans’ daughters.” Or at least, buy the guy in a John Deere hat a gin-and-tonic. If you do, you might find out “he’s kinda gay.”
Amer’s mother wanted him to be a citizen before telling people he was Muslim onstage.
Amer talked about what it means to be a “Mohammed in America” that arrived as a refugee with his parents after fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War. While he doesn’t shy away from talking about his identity these days, when he started doing comedy in Texas, his mother was concerned. “They’re going to send us back!” Amer remembers his mother saying. His response: “Ma, we’re stateless, there’s nowhere to send us back to.” Still, once he got his U.S. citizenship, he did feel a bit of relief when talking politics onstage.
Former Trump aide Carter Page tried to get a job at The Opposition.
Klepper was surprised to find out that Carter Page wanted a sit-down with him and the team at his satirical Comedy Central news show. While Klepper played a larger-than-life character modeled after Infowars’ red-faced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, it was hard for the staff to know if and when conservatives missed the irony in Klepper’s bloviating. So several Opposition staff members listened to Page hold forth about what he thought was funny for 45 minutes, and tried to convince them that he, Page, would be the perfect correspondent to go after Trump on legal issues. (It’s worth mentioning that Page was being surveilled at the time, and had been questioned by the FBI about Russia on multiple occasions.) Klepper sensed that there might have been an attraction between Page’s sense of conservatism and the ostensible cruelty of the show, but then again, he “could have been playing us the whole time.”
David Cross convinced the Secret Service he wasn’t really going to defecate in Trump’s mouth.
Cross — who played the final date of his “Oh Come On” tour in Brooklyn just hours after this discussion — visited Salt Lake City in August. Before that show, he tweeted an image of himself as Tobias Fünke in sacred Mormon underwear that demanded Utahans “get ready to hear the truth.” Offended locals tweeted back; Cross doubled down. Then, at the show, he did 10 minutes about why Mormonism is a “scam” and a “con job.” The Salt Lake Tribune’s review was, uh, mixed, and reported that there were bits about “abortion, Nazis, the Holocaust, terrorist bombings, AIDS and beating President Donald Trump to a bloody pulp and then urinating and defecating on him.” These details were picked up by conservative outlets including Breitbart, and Secret Service members were dispatched to “assess the threat level.” Cross describes the visit as basically perfunctory, however, and said the Secret Service members “could not have been cooler.”
The personal is always political.
While this may not be news, it was reinforced repeatedly during the panel — especially considering that many of the participants are minorities in the U.S. Cenac said it outright, that personal stories can’t help but be political if “you are ‘the other.’” A comic’s job, he said, is to get an audience to look past any preconceived notions about labels such as “immigrant,” and just break down barriers with a laugh. As an openly gay, half-Pakistani Muslim, Jalees agreed that just telling her jokes was a statement. “Just drinking this wine,” she said, swishing her glass of red, “is a political act.” She got a laugh, but in a sense, she’s not wrong.