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Is It Okay to Laugh? We Talk Comedy in a Time of Covid and Rising Fascism with Political Comedian Francesca Fiorentini

Issue 269

With the pandemic entering its third year in a country exhausted by a dysfunctional political system, how do we regain a healthy sense of humor to help see us through this mess?

John Tarleton Feb 14

Every weekday at 6 p.m., CNN viewers can tune into The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, the self-described “command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.”

Somewhere in a distant news galaxy far from the centers of power, The Bitchuation Room podcast rounds up political comics, activists and thinkers every Sunday evening on YouTube and Twitch for conversations at once irreverent and far more illuminating than anything on cable news. Presiding over this mashup is Francesca Fiorentini. The show is the latest endeavor of the former New York City-based anti-war activist turned constantly-hustling political comedian and commentator. She also appears on The Damage Report on The Young Turks Network and is the host and lead writer of AJ+’s Newsbroke, which airs short, entertaining videos that use a light-hearted touch to unpack complex topics such as white fragility in the workplace and the history of socialism in America. Think John Oliver but with more explicitly anti-capitalist politics.

With the pandemic entering its third year in a country exhausted by a dysfunctional political system, endless culture wars and looming climate change, laughter is in short supply. So, how can we regain a healthy sense of humor to help see us through this mess? I checked in with Fiorentini to get some answers.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed, among other things, her journey from some of the more hidebound corners of the left to a career in comedy, how to step into the absurdity of our times and what progressives can learn from Donald Trump, the stand-up performer.

Illustration: Lynne Foster.

THE INDYPENDENT: Tell us about your evolution from the mid-2000s when you were a young antiwar activist and an editor at Left Turn Magazine to the present day? It seems like an unlikely beginning to a career in comedy.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: The left has been very self-isolating for a long time, and can be insular on purpose. I think it is so necessary to make our movements and our politics attractive and fun to be around — and enticing. Through my work in independent media and left media spaces, it became clear to me that there have to be content creators who are leftists, who are bringing our message to a wider audience in a way that is accessible. Because so much of left politics is inaccessible.

Coming up as a young activist, it was a badge of honor on the left to be esoteric and know all the different Trotskyist splits or other obscure points like that. It showed you were down for the cause. But that doesn’t attract anybody. For me, I decided I’m on the propaganda team when it comes to being for broader social change, for democratic socialism, the revolution, whatever you want to call it. I’m good at it, and I have fun. On the left, we pride ourselves on working ourselves to the bone. And that’s not always good. However one chooses to engage in politics, let it be sustainable. Comedy has made it sustainable for me, and has made it enjoyable and hopefully attractive and interesting and compelling to others as they see my work.

So how did you go into comedy?

I lived abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for five years. I was writing about Latin American politics for various outlets. I was also doing weird YouTube vid- eos in my apartment that were political comedy. In 2009, I did stand-up comedy for the first time. It was for a foreign, English-speaking crowd. So most of my jokes were about being an expat — like the time a Latin lover sweeps an unassuming gringa off her feet, or when a tourist gets robbed for the first time.

On the left we are often taught to suppress the creative side. So I had put that on the back burner. But then when I was living in another country, it was a perfect opportunity. And to be honest, it was a low-stakes place to try out being a comedian. Either you do well on stage or you eat shit and then retool.

So you moved to San Francisco in 2013 and continued to do stand-up comedy while also producing and hosting a show for Al Jazeera Plus. And then 2016 and Donald Trump happened.

I decided I really wanted to do a show that wasn’t just a snarky remark every once in a while, but one that was actually funny and written to have a punchline, but that also educated people. That’s how Newsbroke came about. Our biggest hit was a segment on white fragility in the workplace which is still so relevant. We also explored topics like socialism and why Americans are so afraid of it.

I used to write 2,500-word articles. With video, you really learn how to economize and, sadly, learn how to write for a distracted, severely online not just generation but culture — and that comes with good and bad.

What makes for good political comedy?

The best political comedy punches up, not down. Also, it doesn’t always hit you over the head and doesn’t assume that you’re on board. You still have to make an argument, whether it’s a setup in a joke before a punchline, or whether the argument is a comedic monologue. Nobody wants to hear a smug insider like Bill Maher. He’s become so self-satisfied it’s like he enjoys the smell of his own farts.

Trump spawned so many different comedy shows, which was really good but at the same time [it] became kind of safe making the same Trump jokes. Like regular journalists, a lot of comedy journalists don’t want to lose their access. So they’re afraid to ask hard or weird questions. I’ve had some big gets, and I always try to push them and make them feel a little uncomfortable.

Who are comedians who inspire you?

John Oliver has done an excellent job at breaking down otherwise boring concepts using jokes. He doesn’t really talk about capitalism. He’s working with HBO, and they rely on corporate money just as anyone else in corporate media. Michelle Wolf is an incredible stand-up comic. Her short-lived show on Netflix had some of the funniest, smartest segments and sketches that I’ve seen. I love Roy Wood Jr. He’s part of The Daily Show, but he’s got such a great political sensibility that is still funny and attractive.

“You have to laugh not to cry. But first you have to allow yourself to feel the anger before you can step into the absurdity of the moment.”

Talk about the challenges of being a female comic.

Successful comics say it takes many years to find your voice. In my case, I’ve always had a really strong voice. The question is: how do I temper it? You can’t always lead with anger — though white men are generally afforded more leeway to be angry on stage, and they are the ones for whom the most prestigious roles in political comedy have traditionally been reserved. It’s a lot more difficult for people of color and especially women to go full throttle into political comedy, because they are immediately seen as unlikeable.

You want to be likable, right? Well, there’s a stigma if you are a woman who’s talking about politics or feminism or whatever. At the same time, a lot of women and people of color get pigeonholed into only talking about women’s issues, or only talking about people of color issues. That has its own sort of cynical, essentialist identity politics that I’m not a huge lover of, as someone who’s always had passion for talking about war and militarism and capitalism.

When I was growing up, comedy was associated with guys like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Rodney Dangerfield.

Which is coming back. There’s a backlash in comedy against the presence of more comedians of color and women, even though it’s still not an even playing field. It mirrors the backlash in politics where white men feel aggrieved, that the world is against them just being a dude. So they make fun of women and make fun of abortion rights, or just make fun of trans people. And that gives them a sense of power and belonging and identity. It’s straight-up white identity politics, and their audience loves it.

The avatar of this has to be Donald Trump himself. What do you make of Trump as a fellow stand-up performer, and the way he develops new material?

He’s always on tour. And as much as I hate to say it, he’s funny. His callousness is funny, because it’s so stupid. And so crass. One lesson we can learn from him is to say what’s on your mind. Let it all hang out instead of couching it. MAGA wants a white ethnostate. I want socialist democracy.

How do you find humor in these grim times?

You have to laugh not to cry. But first you have to allow yourself to feel the anger before you can step into the absurdity of the moment. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently enacted a straight-up white fragility bill that says nothing taught in a public school or in a private business can cause discomfort among, let’s be real, white people. It’s like a parody of a satirical video I made five years ago about white fragility in the workplace. But it’s really happening.

Your thoughts on doing political comedy for broadcast versus actual live stand-up?

It’s so different. When I produce a video for Newsbroke, the goal is to lay out an argument about a particular topic I’m doing a deep dive on. On stage, the goal is to get the laughs without, of course, compromising your values. You get immediate feedback. During the pandemic, I’ve missed hearing people’s laughter.

“Say what’s on your mind instead of couching it. MAGA wants a white ethnostate. I want socialist democracy.”

What’s wonderful about The Bitchuation Room podcast is I get to bring my full self to it. I get to be inane and irreverent and be deeply interested in the topics — climate change, capitalism, rewriting the Constitution, etc. In left spaces, there’s often a demand you either be a clown or a super-serious militant. When you can mix the two it’s a beautiful combo. Imagine, for example, facilitating a climate change discussion between Bill McKibben and a political comic and seeing where it goes. There aren’t many spaces for that, but I’ve been able to carve one out.

You’ve become a brand.

Ugh, I hate the journey into brandhood. There’s good things about starting your own podcast and being independent. I am grateful for the support I get from people who like my show and my comedy. But, there’s also the reality that being an influencer or a brand is kind of just another way that capitalism has created a gig economy for the entertainment world.

The algorithms of places like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are very demanding. I often find myself making more promotional content than writing or doing something creative. You have to vie for shrinking attention spans. There’s not a lot of glamor or protection in that.

What do you see as the future of comedy?

I think we’re heading for a “shit-is-getting-real” moment where the window for whether things are still funny is closing and the window for real fascism is getting wider, especially with Biden not rising to the task at hand. What that means for comedy is people will have more of an appetite for comedy that honestly sounds like political speech, like rabble rousing. It won’t feel stale, because we’ll be like, “I have my pitchfork. Let’s go.”

Francesca Fiorentini will host a live Bitchuation Room podcast Thursday March 10 at The Bell House in Brooklyn. Special guests will include City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, Sam Seder of The Majority Report and political comic Matt Lieb. For more see, www.bitchuationroom.com.

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