Nathaniel Augustus Farrakhan Green. Activist. Comedian. Love machine. Nato’s been killing it in the Bay Area with his intelligent, painfully honest, I-don’t-hold-back-with-anybody-so-prepare-yourselves-liberals style of comedy for years. He tours nationwide with socio-political comedy movement, Laughter Against The Machine (along with W. Kamau Bell and myself), and currently writes for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, premiering on FX August 9. Nato recently recorded his first comedy album The Nato Green Party with Rooftop Comedy.
Nato and I recently sat down together, my head nuzzled in his bosom, for a chat about the album, his life as a comic and a union organizer, and his culinary talent.
The Rumpus: Comrade Nato Green, we’ve performed together a lot and, being a fearless socio-political comic, I must say that you illicit some of the greatest reactions I’ve ever seen in an audience. What are some memorable post-show moments? Has anything crazy ever happened during a performance?
Nato Green: I’m always ready to debate the audience. Audiences that disagree with me or simply don’t want to hear ideas tend to look at me blankly until we all feel uncomfortable. People who like about ideas want to participate in the show. I get a unique, educated, feisty heckle that most comics probably don’t get to deal with. “Why aren’t you talking about how we’re all living on stolen Native American land?” “What have you got against yoga?” “You’re letting Senator Baucus off the hook!” “But the problem is the filibuster!” There have been times that I launch into a topic and half the audience boos and half cheers, but it’s not clear what anyone means. If booing and hissing could be transformed into political power, liberals would be invincible.
Rumpus: Who are some of the past greats that have influenced you? Some of today’s comics who inspire you?
Green: HBO used to unscramble their signal during Comic Relief, which was a benefit for homeless services hosted by Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg. So I could watch even though I only had basic cable. I would tape Comic Relief and memorize the routines. One year I also taped George Carlin’s special from 1990, “Doin’ It Again.” The hour is goofy, but keeps coming back to the idea that controlling language means controlling thought. Then in the last ten minutes he argues that the term for the medical condition that we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder got more technical over the twentieth century in order to obscure the suffering that it described. I remember seeing it the first time and getting goosebumps, even choked up. I felt like he had used the whole show to get the audience ready to hear that idea, and it was hilarious and devastating.
It’s also when I started thinking about how the greatest comedy plants a flag in our brains, so we can’t think of that thing without remembering the joke about that thing. I can never hear someone say “PTSD” without recalling Carlin saying, “Maybe if we still called it shellshock, those soldiers would have gotten the help they needed at the time.”
I went through similar processes of re-watching tapes to figure out and reverse engineer comedians’ acts with Robin WIlliams, Bill Cosby, Richard Lewis, Bobcat Goldthwait, Billy Crystal, and Dennis Miller. This is the only nice thing anyone has ever said about Blockbuster Video, but when they opened in my neighborhood it was a good thing because they had all these stand-up specials, and I rented them all. How did other people spend their teenage years?
Now I look for inspiration in many corners. I feel like Louis CK, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford all do amazing comedy by using humor to explore their personal deepest truths, which I find incredibly inspiring. For them, the comedy is all rooted in things that are true rather than fantastical. I’ve been influenced my whole career by Greg Proops, and how he brandishes his intelligence onstage. Once I asked him about his creative process and he talked to me about Cormac Mccarthy. On the other hand, there are comics I love who are very silly, like Matt Braunger and Baron Vaughn. I’ve learned a lot from Will Durst about work ethic and discipline about the craft.
Most of all, I’m inspired my my own comedic community. Working so closely with you and Kamau of course is a constant spur to keep working. Our other friends like Moshe Kasher, Hari Kondabolu, Chris Garcia, Alex Koll, Sean Keane, etc. I feel very fortunate to have developed as a San Francisco native in the San Francisco comedy scene. It’s so collaborative and supportive, which gives me a lot of rope with which to hang myself.
Rumpus: You grew up watching the historic San Francisco comedy scene, tell me about your experiences growing up immersed in standup.
Green: There was a real institutional basis for comedy. We had Alex Bennett’s morning show on KITS, featuring local stand-up comics. We had five full-time standup comedy clubs just within San Francisco proper, and then maybe another half dozen or so in the greater Bay Area, so comics could make a living from headlining regionally. The San Francisco International Comedy Competition used to be a big boost to people’s careers in Hollywood. We had Comedy Tonight broadcasting a local stand-up showcase on KQED television. And we had Comedy Day in the park attracting like 50,000 people at its peak to see five hours of free stand-up comedy.
I started listening to Alex Bennett in junior high, and told my science teacher, who told me that his roommate was the doorman at Cobb’s, one of San Francisco’s A-list clubs. He started letting me into shows under age. Cobb’s bought ads in the newspaper that said you could get 2-for-1 with the ad, so I would collect stacks of them and organize groups of friends to go to the shows.
It was amazing to see so many phenomenal comics, and especially to see so many people develop onstage, become headliners, and sharpen their voice. I loved watching live in small clubs people like Greg Proops, Dana Gould, Greg Behrendt, Margaret Cho, Paula Poundstone, Jake Johannsen, Warren Thomas, Will Durst, Mark Pitta, Johnny Steele, David Feldman, Geechy Guy, Arj Barker, Matt Weinhold, or Tom Kenny. It continues to bother me that there’s not a better record of the work of Clark Taylor when he was at the peak of his powers in the 90s.
Most of the comics I was watching were much older than me, obviously, so when they talked about their lives I laughed without relating to it. Margaret Cho and Arj Barker were the first comics I saw who seemed to be closer to my generation and experience. “People like me can do this too!”
It felt like an earthquake in 1991 when Rick Reynolds started doing a one-man show called “Only the Truth Is Funny” at the now-defunct San Francisco Improv. It eventually moved into a bigger theater, but it seemed to be first of the migrations of San Francisco comics into solo shows. I saw it live several times. It had a single narrative and set of themes, and was simultaneously gut-bustingly funny and poignant and sad and profound. Most of all, it was very hopeful. (Years later, Rick’s personality got the better of him and the hopes laid out in that show were dashed. But at the time I enjoyed being inspired.)
I found I had a good memory for people’s acts. Then, at school, when it seemed pertinent to the conversation, I would try to use the jokes with my classmates. This is a horrible idea and kids should be suspended for inflicting comedians’ jokes on their peers, but I wasn’t naturally funny. I was somewhat consciously trying out comics’ material to see what it feels like in my face to say funny things and learn about timing and tagging and delivery.
Rumpus: When did you finally decide to give performing a try? What was your first time onstage like?
Green: I first did standup at 21 at the Comedy Underground in Seattle. One of my best friends in college at Reed in Portland was Nic, the son of Carl Warmenhoven, the beloved and recently-retired assistant manager of the Underground. Carl had been a comic, and Nic had grown up in a comedy world. For Nic’s 21st birthday we decided we’d go to the club and both do the showcase that night.
First, I had the awful idea to get “San Francisco-style” burritos in Seattle for dinner before the show. These burritos were very dodgy and I was close to literally shitting my pants while I was onstage. I might have been crowning during my set. Second, it was one of the scariest days of my life. I didn’t have anything to say, so I decided to do a cop-out “meta comedy,” and basically make fun of comedy. I was horrible. My best joke was: “I’ve been on a crime spree, breaking into cars across the country and stealing The Club.” Ugh. Nic and I did sets at the Underground one or two more times, and got better. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I finally had the confidence to try again, and tolerate sucking until I got better.
Rumpus: Being an organizer and an on-the-ground activist for many years has given you a unique perspective as a comedian who can talk about many issues from deep, personal experience. Now that you’re focusing on your comedy, what role do you think comedy plays in the movement (how is that role different from organizing and more “traditional” activism)?
Green: The first assumption people make when they think about comedy and social movements is that our role is to change the minds of people who disagree with us politically, but that’s both incorrect and simplistic. I see comedy’s relationship to social movements as dynamic on several levels. In no particular order:
First, comedian is an identity around which people can be organized to participate. For example, the most probable way many comedians will get healthcare will be single payer, so we should at least work for that. I’m not sure comedians need a traditional union, but I do think comedians should insert ourselves into the arts world, because claiming the mantle of artist can help us to access a range of public and private funding that comedians tend not to look for.
Second, comedy shows can be sites of political activity. We can do benefit shows and put on shows in partnership with organizations that leave literature, sign people up, etc.
Third, every social current finds an expression in the arts. I heard a quote attributed to the civil rights movement to the effect that, “you know there’s a new movement being born when you hear it singing.” Similarly, I think you know there’s a new movement being born when you hear its jokes. There is no movement without movement culture. Nobody is first politicized because of a statistic or a study they read. It starts with something that affects their heart, which is what the arts do, including comedy. Listening to punk rock and political hip-hop and comedians both had a huge effect on the development of my politics well before I started reading history books. This happens because people on the frontlines of struggle, by hearing comedy that’s relevant to their experience, feel rejuvenated and inspired. Because social change is such hard work and often so discouraging, comedy fosters a feeling of community to keep doing the big work.
Finally, what we do onstage can matter, but not so much at changing people’s minds. Like I said about that Carlin bit, we give ammunition to people who already agree with us. We give people tools of new ways to talk about things and make arguments. Because our only responsibility is to be funny and true to ourselves, we can say anything. We don’t need to worry about fitting into a strategy, polling, focus groups, mission statements, the parameters of acceptable discourse. We’re free to go off the deep end and move the goalposts of public discussion of a topic.
Rumpus: What led you to record a comedy album? What do you want to accomplish with it?
Green: Last fall was so busy. We had the Laughter Against the Machine tour, I had several club weeks, and we finished the pilot presentation of what we now know as Totally Biased. At the beginning of this year, I found myself waiting for the Laughter Against the Machine film to be edited and to find out about if I had a future with Totally Biased, so I felt bereft of projects and climbing the walls. Kamau had been encouraging us both to do CDs. I decided to do a CD, just to have a project to work towards that was totally under my control and didn’t depend on anyone else.
I really savored the challenge of methodically getting the material together and working it out. In the months leading up to the taping, I swung on an almost-daily basis between the depths of self-doubt and the heights of hubris and determination. I wanted to have a record of some of my “hits” as well as put on a good show for my loyal local fans who would expect new material. Working out new material, resuscitating old stale material, thinking through the order, etc. It felt good to build that muscle.
I actively did not make a CD that tried to be accessible. There are limitless opportunities in show business to blunt your edges and fit into someone else’s box. I need to learn how to do that better too, but that wasn’t my project on this album. I believe there’s an audience out there for me, of smart, politically-engaged, passionate people who may not yet see themselves as comedy fans. I wanted to give them my purest form of me.
Rumpus: You’re also quite the gourmand. Let’s say this CD gets into the hands of your favorite restaurant and the chef wants to design a dish in your name, please describe in delicious detail the NatoGreen.
Green: Easy. Coffee and chile-rubbed sous vide brisket with carmelized truffled brussels sprouts and crispy potato cakes.2] I’m guessing.