Badly Needed Humor and the Left: An Interview and a Few History Notes

Have we ever needed radical humor more than now, when the anticipated defeat of a blustering racist/sexist will bring a hawkish neoliberal into power? Actually, there has been a need for bitter irony as well as good hearty laughter as long as there has been organized society — in this case, the US. I admire greatly a little book published in 2015 that didn’t get enough play, Socialism… Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, by Danny Katch. It instantly reminded me, at least on some pages, of that forgotten socialist bestseller, Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam, by the “Socialist Mark Twain,” Oscar Ameringer (1909), a satirical history of the nation. Here he is on Puritanism: “After landing at Plymouth Rock they held a prayer meeting to thank the lord for deliverance … Next day they caught a Quaker and burned a hole through his tongue … Witchburning was their only amusement and when other folks put a stop to this practice, they invented Thanksgiving and got even.”

Danny Katch finds himself, then, in a long line of great left-wing humorists including Ameringer, who reach the readers and listeners, but too rarely get the respect and admiration from political leaders that they deserve … and that we all need for them to receive, because of the great political value of their work. Forgive me, reader, for a few serious words about radical humor, here in the home of modern Roman Empire, where we often laugh in order not to cry — especially during the electoral season. A little context helps.

A little under a century ago, a shrewd proto-feminist scholar, Constance Rourke, published a classic of its field, American Humor. This book is still worth reading today, most of all because of its central point. Behind the humor, she learned, is great tragedy and great fear. The first genre of popular literary comedy, called the “Humor of the Old Southwest,” appeared in the weekly “story” papers of the 1830s-50s, and it was brutal stuff by any standards. As the cotton-and-slave frontier moved west, just behind the expulsion-and-extermination of Indigenous tribes at the behest of Andrew Jackson, the backwoods lives of the whites became a sensational object for short stories and theatrical presentations as far away as London. Frontiersmen were proud to say that they lived short, violent lives, knocking down everything and everybody in their way, “n*****s” emphatically included. In this short story literature, they brag about the quantities of food and alcohol consumed, make jokes about babies’ corpses boiled up for meals by accident, and brag more about the toughness of their women, who go about gouging out the eyes of other wives and widows, proudly keeping souvenirs of previous fights in a hand bag for show. Sound a little like a Trump Rally fantasy? With the same nagging fear of nihilism behind the howling.

Rourke wrote that they were more savage, more distant from real civilization, than any Indigenous person they would ever meet. She also had some harsh words for that incredibly popular and enduring US institution, the minstrel show. But never mind, reader, you get the point. Violence, mockery, crude humor … My antecedents came with Abe Lincoln’s from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, so I think I have a right to a sense of it. And why the humor of the other side, the left-wing side, has had a hard row to hoe.

Happily, that other side had some real genius talent. Along with the super-serious Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Lincoln had David Locke aka Petroleum V. Nasby, the funniest newspaper writer in the US during the Civil War and the militant enemy of the Slave Republic. Lincoln would sit down White House visitors and compel them to listen to him read sections of Nasby’s writings, narrating them himself with raising and lowering voice, facial and hand gestures.

Locke/Nasby was a straight-faced comic, and so was Lincoln. The funniest stories were, then and most still now, offered to audiences of all kinds without a single indication of humor. In the postwar era, here comes Mark Twain, whose biographers note that he experienced such horrors in his childhood, fresh corpses along with slavery, that his comedic stories were a way of keeping his sanity. The funniest lines are often the most horrible, and he knew it. All we socialists urgently need to remember about Twain is that he spent the last era of his life attacking imperialism, that is the imperial war on the Philippines, that is the precursor to Vietnam and all the rest. The Twain sentimentalists and fans in the mainstream pretended that he had gone off his rocker. His writings on the mass murder of Filipinos proves otherwise. Some say he called himself a socialist, in those last years, but perhaps that would be too optimistic for his main temperament.

We’ve lost quite a lot of the funny socialistic stories, skits and even poems against capitalism, for the simple reason that they were spoken or written in languages not English. Finns and Bulgarians were famous for their rude attacks on capitalism, often delivered in folk theater. Jewish comics sometimes warmed up Yiddish-language crowds by making fun of the oratorical delivery styles of the left-wing agitators who followed them on stage. Imagine that: a Left that had no trouble laughing at itself, even in moments of fierce struggle. Wobblies — the Industrial Workers of the World and their followers — created a whole view of civilization based on the psychic as well as economic miseries of the system, and the miserableness of those workers who blindly accepted its logic. Songs especially, taken from traditional melodies or current vaudeville tunes, served the purpose and got the audience involved. Perhaps nobody has ever been quite as radically funny as the Wobblies, very likely because the optimism about ultimate victory drained out of the movement with the coming of World War I and the ferocious repression by the Woodrow Wilson administration and the new Bureau of Investigation, 1917-21. Still today, we suffer from ostensible liberals who turn vicious when the empire is on the rampage.

How do you recover from a thing like that? One small answer to start: Charlie Chaplin, the most beloved of all film stars and a notorious supporter of unions, Russia and so on. Woody Guthrie dug deeper into specific working class cultures, mostly the ones that he knew the best, to haul up responses to the Dust Bowl poverty, to the sense of homelessness, and to the sense of betrayal that was felt by so many Americans in the Depression. A new generation of stage and screen comics, drawn leftward by the struggle for unions and against fascism, included Groucho Marx, Zero Mostel and a host of others. My favorites would include the people I met while doing my books on Blacklisted Hollywood: Robert Lees, screenwriter for Abbott and Costello’s heavily proletarian comedies, and Ring Lardner, Jr., the writer of clever scripts for Katharine Hepburn. These two got themselves blacklisted, but exacted a small successful revenge writing for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” the very funny and very popular British TV show seen by US audiences (1956-60), and in Lardner’s case, MASH, the film that became the most popular (in residuals) as well as the most antiwar television show, in the medium’s history, at least for the 20th century.

And then again, there’s Mad Comics (1952-55) guided by Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of what I call comedy’s “immanent criticism,” because Harvey and his artists seized upon the details of daily life, newspaper comic strips to magazine advertisements to current films and television, “unpacking” them by exposing the lies and banality. One of the founders of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” worked with Harvey on his last magazine, Help!, and the creators of “Saturday Night Live” early years often testified that they were following the methods established by Kurtzman. So were the creators of “The Simpsons,” and now we are in the 21st century, with apologies to all the great comedy left out in this small and mostly literary survey — Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and so many, many others puncturing the pretensions of the status quo.

I interviewed Danny Katch about humor and radical politics via email between August and September 2016.

Paul Buhle: Danny, I am an oral historian by training, and I always start with some autobiography. How did you get to be a radical and how did you get to be a radical humorist?

Danny Katch: I got radical the mid-’90s, and it was actually Hillary Clinton who helped start me on my journey. I was a college freshman during the fall of 1992, when Bill was running for president against George Bush Sr. Reagan and Bush had been president for my entire conscious life, and even though I wasn’t old enough to vote, I was psyched for a Democrat to win.

So I was excited when Hillary came to town for a big speech. Having never watched more than two minutes of a politician speaking before, I was completely unprepared for the tedium of standing through over an hour of platitudes and unadulterated bullshit — and of course Clinton’s dry speaking style didn’t help.

But it wasn’t the speech that radicalized me. It was the rapturous approval of the crowd — including some of my new friends. Some of this was excitement at seeing a strong confident woman, but a lot of it was what I could come to realize in later years was that liberal desperation that imbues anything a Democrat says with all of our deepest dreams for the future.

I ended up becoming a radical for better reasons than a bad Hillary Clinton speech, of course. But for some strange reason, it really was an important moment for me suddenly feeling alone in that crowd, and thinking that the issues I considered important, which I didn’t know much about, but instinctively knew were systematic and required radical change, had little to do with the clichés everybody around me was cheering for. But it took a few years for me to find any political direction. I’m sure I would have voted for Bill that year if I had been old enough.

As for how I became a radical humorist, I’d love to have a Donald Trump anecdote for the sake of symmetry, but it’s more boring. I’ve always been a wise-ass (we prefer the term “sincerity-challenged”), and when I starting to organize with socialists, I was relieved to find plenty of other jokers. I remember telling a skeptical friend about this and he was like, “Really? I thought socialists would be like, nothing is funny until everybody is fed!”

But for many years, the only way I knew how to combine humor and politics was by alternating between the two — making joking asides to reassure people that radicals aren’t scary. I see lots of younger leftists doing this today and it’s fine, but eventually I became confident enough in my ideas to throw away that crutch.

In the early 2000s, I joined the New York City improv craze, took classes at Upright Citizens Brigade, and joined a sketch comedy group that lasted for one show. Only 30 people showed up, but one day, that show will get the credit its due for changing the face of American comedy. It was fun and it gave me some confidence in my comedic chops, but I was never going to prioritize comedy over political organizing.

Finally, around 2010, I decided to start writing left-wing satire when realized I was going to burn out as an activist if I couldn’t find an outlet. I had written straight articles over the years for Socialist Worker, which gave me the crucial knowledge that someone might actually publish this stuff.

My first piece was about Arne Duncan saying that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that had ever happened to New Orleans public schools, then I went after the anti-abortion movement, and soon I find one of my favorite targets in Michael Bloomberg. But the next year was a real turning point—for the world but more importantly for my writing.

2011 saw the Egyptian revolution, the Wisconsin capitol occupation, and Occupy Wall Street, giving me a chance to write political humor that wasn’t just acidic takedowns of the bad guys, but self-deprecating celebrations of we little guys can accomplish when we set our minds to it and don’t get our heads blown off. The years since 2011 have been rough, but I’ve tried to maintain the perspective I learned then of not just laughing at their side, but laughing with ours.

How about the traditions of literary humor — where do you place yourself and why? How much influence did he have on your understanding of humor?

The sad truth is that I knew almost nothing about the traditions of literary humor when I started doing this. I hadn’t even heard of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal — the foundation of modern satire. A friend told me about it when I was telling him I was thinking about trying my hand at satire — I generally like to talk about doing something for years before actually doing it — and it was incredible.

Then I started reading some of Twain’s later political writings — brilliantly bitter denunciations of the US war in the Philippines. But I’m still sadly under-read in most of Twain’s earlier classics…. But my political humor has also been shaped by many left-wing writers who don’t necessary tell jokes, but certainly employ wit. I’m talking about everyone from historical giants like Marx and Engels — whose sense of irony is unparalleled — to current writers like Arundhati Roy. Tom Engelhardt, editor of TomDispatch, has a wonderful book called The American Way of War with a chapter about how the media ignores air wars — it’s called “On Not Looking Up.” That kind of thing.

As I’ve become more conscious of developing my own style, I’d say it begins with looking for the irony or hidden-in-plain-sight absurdity in a political situation, and then taking it over the top with some plain old jokes.

Let’s talk about socialism and humor. What is it that a socialist humorist does that seems to be unique? Why are we still inspired by Wobbly songs and jokes, a century later? Are socialists out of luck with the coming of radio and movies, content controlled by the corporations? If not, why not?

The greedy corporations are actually airing lots of incredible content these days along with the usual crap — on television at least. The explosion of channels has produced opportunities for new voices and there are far more interesting shows than I can keep up with: “Transparent,” “Veep,” “Bojack Horseman” — I’m hearing great things about “Atlanta,” but it’s hard to keep up.

Similarly, I can’t keep up with all the stand-ups out there being both hilarious and subversive. Hari Kondbalu is a particularly political comic with great stuff, but you can listen to the Two Dope Queens podcast and hear at least one or two new comedians every week that you want to know more about.

I don’t occupy this universe, however, because I’m not a socialist humorist, but a humorous socialist (or at least that’s the goal). Comedy is a way for me to achieve my primary objective of exposing a new generation to radical ideas and traditions.

Of course, that was also true of the Wobblies, who brilliantly used humor in songs and cartoons. They reflected and helped to shape an irreverent American working-class humor that still exists in millions of workplaces, but has been driven out of popular culture — probably since movies like 9 to 5 in the late ’70s.

One of my favorite aspects of the occupation of the capitol building in Madison was the explosion of this kind of gallows humor in the signs that public sector workers had made, such as “My Kindergarteners Are Better Listeners Than My Governor” and “Hey Walker WI Ranger. Who’s Gonna’ Wipe Your Ass When You Have a Stroke?”

Gregg Shotwell is a retired autoworker and longtime UAW dissident whose shop floor newsletters and essays crackle this kind of fighting wit. I should have mentioned him before, actually, as one of the writers who has influenced me.

Perhaps we should talk about TV talk-show comedy and the historic role, now apparently exhausted, of Jon Stewart. Steven Colbert and Larry Wilmore. What do you think? Is there something else socially cutting and funny on television these days (I admit to really enjoying “BrainDead” … and now it’s gone). What about stand-up, the breakthrough of Richard Pryor and black comedy, not to mention other forms that found no mass audience in earlier days? Does the Literary Comic take notes (Uncle Miltie, that is, Milton Berle, quipped that he laughed so hard, watching another comic work, he almost dropped his pencil)?

Jon Stewart defined political comedy during the Bush years. He wasn’t a radical politically or comically. He was, in many ways, a traditional liberal Jewish comedian — and I mean Jewish as a comedic style of self-deprecation and exquisite timing. But he was a very good liberal — honest and non-partisan — and he was a fantastic comedian.

“The Daily Show” was a beacon not just of humor, but sanity for everybody on the left half of the political spectrum — from moderate liberals to flaming communists — at a time when Republicans were setting the world on fire and Democrats were handing them the match while saying, “I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t.” And Stewart and his writers popularized using video clips to let politicians and pundits hang themselves with their own words, which I would argue showed a generation of developing satirists that if you do diligent research, some jokes will write themselves.

When Obama became president, Stewart was still good, but in many ways the baton passed to Steven Colbert, because his right-wing blowhard character was perfect for an era defined by a Republican Party absolutely losing its goddamned mind at a majority of the country electing a Black former community organizer. And like Stewart, and in some ways even more so, Colbert is an absolutely brilliant performer.

Stewart and Colbert set a standard for political humor that’s hard to match, and many people have noted the void now that Stewart is retired and Colbert is doing a different show. But I don’t think it’s just that they’re gone. It also feels like this new era needs a different kind of comedy, and I have no idea what it will look like.

Donald Trump is such a ridiculous figure that making fun of him or imitating him somehow seems insufficient. On the other side, there is hopefully an emerging left developing out of Black Lives Matter protests and the Bernie Sanders campaign, and young people are going to want comedy that openly identifies with this left, rather than Stewart’s persona of being the reasonable centrist who doesn’t like screaming on either the left or right.