Creating New Possibilities: Talking with Nato Green

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Nato Green is a comedian that has a lot to say about politics. This shouldn’t be particularly remarkable, considering the turbulent times that we live in, but it certainly is in the realm of standup, where there is often a distinction between “political comedy” and “comedy.”

The son of left-wing Jewish intellectuals, Green grew up in San Francisco and came of age when the Bay Area’s gay pride movement was gaining traction and Harvey Milk was in office. Green has been involved in politics most of his life and was a union organizer for many years at the same time he was performing standup. His comedy connects wry observations about living in the Bay Area to larger issues in western society.

Which is not to say that his material is biased. Indeed, on his second album, The Whiteness Album, there are deplorables on many sides, and Green spares no one—sniping at the tech industry, bearded hipsters, and white supremacists.

Green mixes his optimistic indignance with wry observations about the world around him and punch lines that could potentially get him run out of whatever city he’s performing in. I’m not saying he’s George Carlin, but he’s definitely Carlin-adjacent.

Recently, I caught up with Green and talked about revolutionaries, growing up, and the way forward for tired capital-L Leftists.

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The Rumpus: Who’s your favorite revolutionary?

Nato Green: My generation of Bay Area leftists held study groups of Amilcar Cabral, who led the PAIGC revolutionary movement in Guinea-Bissau against the Portuguese until he was assassinated in 1973 on the brink of victory (I should note that I don’t mean “left” as “very liberal” as is fashionable nowadays, but “left” as in “card-carrying member of an anti-capitalist revolutionary cadre organization, preferably with “league” or “front” in the name).

Cabral believed other African revolutions against European colonialism had only replaced European elites with African elites while preserving underlying social hierarchies. The PAIGC sought to conduct a revolution that could prevail militarily but also transform society along the way. Cabral famously said, “tell no lies, claim no easy victories, hide no mistakes from the masses.” I aspire to apply this wisdom both to organizing and comedy. Comedy club audiences love being addressed as “the masses” when they’re ordering nachos.

Rumpus: Why’d you move to Cuba?

Green: My wife is doing her dissertation research in Cuba towards her doctorate in medical anthropology, so we enrolled the kids in the Spanish international school in Havana and came along. We had been planning our trip when the news broke about the alleged “sonic attacks” on American embassy staff in Havana. My wife and I spent a day considering changing our plans, and then woke the next morning to the Las Vegas massacre. We saw the news alerts and said, “We’ve got to get the fuck out of the USA.”

Rumpus: I assume there aren’t many English-speaking comedy clubs there, so what are you doing with your time?

Green: I’m just really focused on my napping lately. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours of napping and I think I may be the GOAT of napping.

There is plenty of comedy in Spanish. Cuba has a popular homegrown comedy scene. The most famous guy is called Pánfilo; he’s on tv and packages of peanuts. I met a comedian named Kike Quiñones who told me he’s the only person in the world whose job it is to represent all comedians in his country to the government.

Cuba is not convenient, and unlike everywhere else I’ve ever been, you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them. Sometimes you have to wait in line for two hours. Sometimes the stores are out of toilet paper or milk. I average walking five miles a day, going back and forth to the bread store, the farmer’s market, the butcher, the grocery.

I’m reading and writing a lot. I don’t have Internet or cable, so I’m using my forced isolation to read classic books I should have read earlier, like Treasure Island, Hemingway, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Writing scripts and stories and recording for a podcast that maybe someone will produce. I also have to suffer being present with people. We pop by a friend’s house and two hours later we’re still chatting and no one looks at their phone. All this actual human connection is excruciating.

Rumpus: Has living abroad influenced the way you write?

Green: I haven’t done standup since November, which is my longest stint without performing in twelve years. I have writing projects but no deadlines. I won’t know for sure how it’s affected my writing until I get on stage again.

Living abroad is changing me, so I must assume it’s changing my writing. There are no notifications beeping my phone every ten seconds. I’m not rushing between plans, and my Spanish isn’t quite robust enough to pull off my normal pedantic verbosity. In short, everything my identity is based on is diminished. I find I don’t miss it. I’m content with quiet stillness, spending time with my family, turning inwards.

Being outside the USA is so good. You know when you’re in a toxic situation and you finally get out and look back and realize just how vile it was and you can’t understand how you endured it for so long and you feel like you can breathe again? That’s what it feels like living outside of the USA during the Trump regime. It’s so great never having to hear his voice. The world is carrying on without us. The way Americans live doesn’t have to be the only way.

Cuba and America both claim a historic project. Cuba has a story about building a socialist paradise and America has a story about the beacon of freedom, liberty, and opportunity. Obviously, both stories are fantasies. Not every country tells stories about itself like that. I love Ecuador, but that country has no overarching national narrative of Ecuador’s historic contribution to humanity. Cuba has its problems, but it’s profound living in a completely different paradigm for the USA.

Rumpus: Is there any formative moment from early in your life where you took on an authority figure that has stuck with you?

Green: I wonder how my parents would answer that question. I suspect they’d say, “Any moments? How about all the moments?”

I was kicked out of several preschools for attacking other children or wrecking people’s finger-painting projects. Later, I remember stealing light bulbs from the supply closet at elementary school to shatter them against the outside walls, and peeing on rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. People told my parents that I was a problem child who would end up a criminal.

While it’s true that I deeply and fervently believe in justice and want to end all oppression and create the beloved community, it’s not all altruistic. I’m motivated by values and ideology but never forget that it’s so much more fun to wreck the proverbial finger-painting projects of powerful corporations and dominant ideologies than of other children in my Montessori school.

I started learning how to channel my antiauthoritarian impulses in high school. When I was a junior, a friend of mine came out as a lesbian and caught hell for it. Even in San Francisco, even in a private high school, in 1991, there was still overt homophobia. I wrote about this last year in my regular column in the San Francisco Examiner. I learned an enduring lesson I still apply—if you create a crisis, the system responds.

The friend dropped out of the school and I didn’t see her again for twenty-five years. I was afraid that she had a less romantic recollection and resented me, as a straight man, writing her story. Finally, I found an email address and reached out. A few months later, we met for lunch and it was amazing. Our moment of resistance was her only positive memory of that hard time in her life, when she felt powerful. It mattered to her to have an ally. She reminded me that I’d come to school one day wearing a summer dress. Lacrosse dudes gave me a hard time for being in drag, and I told them I wasn’t in drag; I was just wearing a dress.

This reinforced another great lesson of social change—we usually don’t find out how our good works endure. It’s easy to get demoralized when you try to make a difference and it seems like it never works. We don’t always get to see the part where we did something that gave someone hope or solidarity when they needed it, and then the lives they touch and the positive ripples from their choices.

Rumpus: What made you want to get into politics, and then, as a community organizer what made you want to get into comedy?

Green: When I was in middle school, my grandfather started sending me political cartoons. Once a week [he’d] mail me a packet and we’d talk on the phone about the news stories the cartoons were commenting on and how they worked both as satire and as commentary.

In San Francisco, a childhood summer ritual was seeing the Mime Troupe, the venerable left-wing musical comedy troupe that’s been doing original productions live in the parks for fifty years. One of my friend’s parents was part of the Modern Times Bookstore collective, where we devoured the Vietnam and Watergate-era Doonesbury compendiums.

All this is to say that, I learned about politics by learning about making fun of politics. [Politics and comedy are both] about dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and seeking ways to involve others in a conversation about creating new possibilities. I would be more successful as a comedian or an organizer if I were capable of picking one over the other, but then I’d be killing part of myself.

Rumpus: How come the right can get on the same page but the left can’t?

Green: The right won in 2016 because of a coherent and successful long-term strategy to weaken the political power of core Democratic constituencies through mass incarceration, voter ID laws, gerrymandering, Citizen’s United, defunding higher education, and breaking public-sector unions. It’s not an accident that Wisconsin and Michigan went red in the first presidential election after they broke public unions. The right knows that they’re stuck as a long-term structural minority, and have no way to enact their version of sharia law—let’s call it Shania Law—without changing the rules in their favor.

The left gets very sentimental about power. We think the world should be fair and spend a great deal of energy being heartbroken and disappointed. In the absence of a plan to struggle for power, so much progressivism is performance of righteousness rather than strategy. I don’t want to speak truth to power. We speak truth to power and then power evicts everyone in my neighborhood and hides the profits in the Cayman Islands. Fuck that. I want oppressed people to seize power.

Rumpus: You spend a lot of time on stage talking about difficult subjects. The lawyer dog joke is probably one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever laughed at and I want to know if getting up on stage and hearing gasps and sighs as often as laughs from the audience changes your approach to the material.

Green: Comedy is so hard and it takes so much work to create material, and it requires leaving my family, that I couldn’t be bothered to do it if it felt frivolous. I love comedy that’s ridiculous, but that’s not me. I want to follow confusion and fear and anguish.

I heard an interview once where Sherman Alexie mentioned the “inherent humor of genocide.” He was commenting on how Jews and Black people and Native Americans have incredible sense of humor. It’s “slit your wrists funny” as opposed to “slap your knee funny.” Activists use this kind of humor among ourselves when we’re drowning in futility or impossible odds or the unceasing frustrations of a campaign.

The mechanics of comedy is tension and release, juxtaposition and exaggeration, so pain lends itself to the structure of jokes. I’m always looking for ways to discuss heartbreaking topics that don’t require wallowing in something horrible in the exposition before we finally arrive at a punch line. The audience is reluctant to laugh at a silly punch line if they have to slog through, for example, innocent Black people being murdered with impunity by police, to get there.

Rumpus: Are you worried about the future?

Green: In the proud tradition of the Jewish people, I have anxiety. My worry has affixed itself to the climate crisis. The undeniable scientific evidence of looming civilizational collapse with all our knowledge and complicity will, to whatever scraps of humanity survive another hundred years to reflect upon history, make the Holocaust look quaint by comparison. Future people will look back at who was responsible and decided to ignore the warnings of science, and wonder why the Whites were willing to end civilization because they felt threatened by the idea of a Black stormtrooper and didn’t want to upset the good people of the Exxon Corporation.

Rumpus: Any advice for the dumbfounded, exhausted leftists out there?

Green: Here’s the dirty secret of social change—the way to stop feeling discouraged and powerless is to stop acting discouraged and powerless. The antidote to being dumbfounded and exhausted is getting involved in a movement. Getting with other people to dream about freedom. The basis for inspiration for my dumbfounded and exhausted comrades is everywhere, but you literally won’t be able to notice until you first decide to rise to the occasion history has laid before you.

There are people around who never expected America to be fair or just but they fought for their survival and sometimes won. We have so much to learn from heroes like the surviving generation of 1980s gay AIDS activists, undocumented immigrant organizers, southern unions, Black radicals. Watch them and be ready to follow. And watch the young people who keep not knowing that there’s no hope and nothing they do matters.

I for one find it incredibly exciting that the future is so uncertain. We’re menaced on the one side by the Scylla of a shrinking minority of angry bigots who are afraid of the future, and on the other by the Charybdis of the 1% who are no longer capable of managing global capitalism and are coping by treating the world like it’s on a fire sale. No one has faced challenges quite like this before! No one is in charge! The future is wide open! The stakes couldn’t be higher! Either we’re at the end of history or humanity will evolve.

Can you imagine a more interesting set of problems to solve? It’s exhilarating. When hedge fund execs get dragged from their mansions to face justice before Emma Gonzalez’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, I just want to get booked to be the warm-up comic.


Anthony S. Carter lives in Minneapolis, MN. He writes songs and scripts but no one has heard or read them, so it’s unclear whether they exist. Listen to his Soundcloud here or follow him on Twitter here. More from this author →