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"I Had Two Career Options: Revolutionary or Comedian" Nato Green On Bringing the Class War to Stand-Up

Nato Green, a union organizer-turned-comedian, talks to AlterNet about bringing race, class and gender analyses to comedy and his work with Laughter Against the Machine.
 
 
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Nato Green isn't a political party or a multilateral military alliance, but he's likely to crack a joke about either of those if you give him half an hour. The Bay Area union-staffer-turned-comedian has been making the funny in the stand-up scene since he hit 30 and realized that his other job as a labor organizer was just as rife with absurdity and slightly more thankless. This week at Netroots Nation he's hawking his CD, “ The Nato Green Party,” just out on Rooftop Comedy, and performing as the Jewish side of the lefty comedy trio Laughter Against the Machine. In this edited interview with CultureStrike editor Michelle Chen, Green discusses his approach to making fun of serious stuff.

Michelle Chen: First things first: what's with your name?

Nato Green: The truth is so much more intolerably tedious than anything your fanciful imagination can conjure up, so go with that instead. Am I an heir to Lockheed fortunes? Am I an ironically code-named super-soldier for the proletariat, engineered in a subterranean laboratory to wage class war from below? Are my brothers named Emerald and Mint? Is my real name something long and embarrassing, like Frusengladje Diaperface? These are all plausible theories.

MC: When's the last time you really offended someone--on stage and off?

NG: I offend people offstage constantly, to such a degree that my loved ones have begun telling people that I have intermittent Asperger’s Syndrome. Fortunately, I’m very good at apologizing. Unfortunately, I’m not good at not being an asshole. If I could figure that out, I wouldn’t have to be so good at apologizing.

Onstage: hard to say. People usually step to me after shows to quibble about something esoteric. “You uncritically accepted the notion of Jewish whiteness.” Once I had a week of shows with Paul Mooney, who opened his set every night with “give it up for the Jew who thinks he’s white. You’re not white. Ask the Klan how white you are.” And then the audience would applaud uproariously. First of all, it was confusing to interpret what it means to have a room full of middle-aged black people applauding my non-whiteness. Second, I thought, “Yes, Mooney, that may be true. But let’s also ask the police how white I am. I live in San Francisco where I have to deal with the police a lot more than the Klan.”

MC: So, you started out as a labor organizer, and when that got depressing, you started telling jokes for a living? Explain the transition.

NG: In my version of urban, red diaper baby, Jewish intellectual family, I was taught that I had only two career options: revolutionary or comedian. I also have the traditional oldest Jewish son vanity/insecurity that if I don’t win a MacArthur (or Nobel or Pulitzer or something), then I’m a complete failure. When, by age 30, I had not yet succeeded in earning my spot in the pantheon of great political organizers, I switched gears.

I started doing stand-up again at 30 after a brief flirtation in college. I started working at the California Nurses Association a month later. I did both until I felt like I couldn’t keep doing both and had reached a point in comedy where I knew I would be haunted if I didn’t really try to have a go of it. When I started stand-up, I advanced more quickly than I might have otherwise because my organizing skills were somewhat transferable. Compared to, say, a strike, it’s relatively easy to get a decent turnout for a comedy show. Having the skills to produce successful shows and build my own audience gave me breathing room to learn how to become a better comedian.

 
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