Photograph by Kimberly Sandie.
As a metropolitan Jewish kid growing up in an intellectual family, you feel like you have limited career options: show business and the left," says Nato Green, who — as it happens — has pursed both avenues.
In April 2011, after a 14-year career working on behalf of organized labor, Green began what he calls "an extended leave of absence [from] the class struggle" to focus on his stand-up comedy. He has performed for Bay Area audiences for five or six years, and is seen around town frequently, opening for headliners like Maria Bamford and Will Durst. He's been a Huffington Post blogger, created the Iron Comic live game show, and is a member of the political stand-up trio Laughter Against the Machine.
Green and his act are decidedly — and vocally — left of center. He takes on current social and political trends, both local and national, with biting wit. Here he is on San Francisco's infamous sit-lie law, which makes it illegal to sprawl out on the sidewalk: "What the chief of police seems to be unaware of is that 100 percent of crime is committed by people who are not lying down." And here are his thoughts on the rise of the Tea Party: "White people cannot handle hope. We experience hope as a down payment on things to come. As in, 'I feel hopeful, so where is my shit?'"
Green grew up in San Francisco at a time when there were five full-time comedy clubs in the city and Alex Bennett hosted the morning show on Live 105, where the guests were a mix of local comics as well as bigger names in town to play at the Punch Line or the Holy City Zoo. He says the comedy boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a major influence on his youth.
"I tried [stand-up] in college," he recalls. "I went to these open mikes in Seattle. Being a comedian, you have to eat shit for a while. You have to go onstage and fail catastrophically. I didn't have the confidence to do that at that point. But after spending my 20s in these bruising political fights in the labor movement, the comedy stage didn't seem quite as threatening."
As a labor activist, he found himself writing "an entire keynote speech on something like minimum-wage enforcement around the jokes I wanted to deliver. Finally I said, 'I've got to get this out of my system,' and started going to open mikes."
Initially, Green felt that he would exorcise the comic impulse at an event or two, and go back to full-time organizing. But something unexpected happened.
"What I wasn't prepared for," he says, "was being part of the world of comedians. It was the first community where I felt normal. The way I wanted to talk to people and talk about ideas was kind of a problem in regular civilian life. [Sometimes] there's not a lot of room to be like, 'Let's just consider the possibility that we may be full of shit. We may not be, but let's just thought-experiment for a minute.'"
Inspired by the comedy gold mine provided by the Bush administration and the 2008 presidential election, Green started Laughter Against the Machine with fellow comedian (and contributor to SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog ) W. Kamau Bell. Shortly thereafter they were joined by Janine Brito, who had recently relocated to San Francisco.
Green explains that the group's topical and controversial subject matter still requires the traditional, experiential approach to developing new material.
"[Experience] is your raw data, and as a comedian you respond to it," he says. "Laughter Against the Machine does the same thing, except in this case the raw data is visiting the border, or going to an immigrant detention facility in Arizona, and touring public housing projects in New Orleans."
Their shows have enjoyed three years of success in the Bay Area. While Laughter Against the Machine has toured the West Coast, the group wants to explore the wider world. This September, they will embark upon a large-scale experiment in taking this plays-in-the-Bay style of political comedy across the heartland.
"We'd initially talked about targeting the typical blue dots on the map," explains Green. "For my part, reframing the tour was accelerated by Gabrielle Giffords' shooting in Arizona. Whenever Arizona is in the news, they're doing something horrible. And I was like, 'There have got to be some cool people in Arizona trying to save their state from this intense right-wing offensive. Those people could probably use a laugh.'"
The tour is also inspired by the country's deep political and cultural divide.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that our country is divided at the same time there's a huge economic recession happening," says Brito. "The right has done a very effective job of tapping into that anger that a lot of Americans feel right now."
The trio sees the tour as an opportunity not only to connect with new audiences, but to push themselves as comedians.
"I think people recognize that comedians were part of the cultural discourse in the past," says Green. "Mort Sahl, the Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin, and Laugh-In. They didn't cause the counterculture, but they expressed it. And I think that's an important distinction. Social currents always find expression in the arts."