Man, this always happens: interview someone you’re kind of indifferent to, and it’s easy to tell the story. Interview someone you like, and you talk for an hour and as much of a pleasure as it is to transcribe, no narrative article will do the conversation justice. So here is my hour-long chat with Jamie Kilstein. We talk a heap of politics, a lot of process, but hardly any piss-funny. Yet, if you don’t mind being challenged to sometimes think about the stuff you’re laughing at, if you like seeing good comics because of the opportunity it provides to see the world from their point of view, if you want to see an American who understands irony and sarcasm, see Jamie Kilstein this week at the Comedy Store.
Dom Romeo: In your current show you talk about the internet and modern technology, and how it’s making it a lot easier to interact and communicate a lot less. I’m a little bit disappointed by it all. There was a time when the internet gave a voice to people with an alternate point of view. Now everyone seems to have a voice, but they don’t have to be saying anything interesting.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I think it’s like anything that big, where for as much good as it does, you’re going to get an equal amount of shit. Unfortunately, I think it’s up to people who use it to do research, to find out what’s a viable source and what’s bullshit. And I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that people who may be uncredible or crazy can have their voice heard – they need to have it heard somewhere. I still think it does more good than bad.
Like television: for every Two and a Half Men, there’s a Simpsons; for every hack CNN ‘Meet the Press’ news show, there’s a Bill Maher or real investigative journalism. You’re always gonna have the good with the bad, and it’s not like people who watch Big Brother on TV are going to go on the internet looking for Chomsky. They’re gonna go look for they’re dumbed down shit on the internet, just like they look for it on TV, just like they look for it in their comedy, just like they look for it in their radio… I think it does more good for people who actually care about critical thinking because if you really do have an inquisitive kind of mind and you want to learn and educate yourself, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet that you can’t find anywhere else, that you can’t find on TV, that your’e not gonna see…
I’ve interviewed Chomsky three times and I’ve never seen him once on TV. But clearly, he’s available, because he did my podcast when it was nothing, so it’s not like he’s not around. And he’s totally willing to debate on TV, but you’re not gonna hear voices like that on TV because he threatens the corporate status quo. So the internet’s more important to have a place where you can hear these great intellectuals who are being censored, but yeah, just like anything, there’s gonna be a done of shit which is just unfortunate. But in a perfect world – it may take a while – but this shit will get weeded out and discredited and then we’ll have social Darwinism on the internet.Dom Romeo: We can only hope! You also mention radio as a dying medium. That’s what I’m fearing: that the internet will go the way of radio. That someone powerful will own the outlets and you’ll have to fight to hear the good stuff.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: That’s the only time I would get scared. Luckily, something called ‘Net Neutrality’ passed in America. It was being threatened under the Bush Administration, which was going to let companies take over big chunks of the internet and charge for it. So you’d have to pay a phone company like ATNT for service. And then they could block out sites they wanted. They were indighted for illegal wire tapping under George Bush – so if you wanted to find articles about that through their webservice, you probably wouldn’t. ATNT probably wouldn’t publish articles about ATNT illegally spying on American citizens. So then it would be an issue.Already you’ve got Rupert Murdoch who owns MySpace – we’re kind of getting there. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s going to be a threat until businesses come in, because that’s the problem with the news. We have a station called MSNBC, and that’s supposedly the liberal Fox News, but it’s not, because it’s owned by General Electric, and General Electric makes weapons and they sell weapons that we use in Iraq, and so it’s not in their corporate interest to report both sides of the war, because as long as war’s going on, they profit. So I like your point, but if businesses like GE got into the internet, then we’d be in trouble.
And as for radio, back home, it’s all owned by the same companies and those companies have certain interests in certain record labels, and those record labels aren’t interested in promoting new, independent music, so they will just repeat the same recycled trite garbage over and over again. And actually, the internet right now is sort of a solution to that: my show, Citizen Radio, is on something called Breakthru Radio – btr.com – and it’s totally free and they have all these different stations with totally different genres, and they pay their DJs to pick out independent, unsigned music. There’ll be like a jazz/fusion channel and an indie rock channel and whatever, and you just listen to it all day, and they never censored our content. We’re the first comedy/political show on there and it’s amazing. That’s kind of the ‘fuck you’ to radio: the internet is coming in and filling a really big gap, and there’s no commercials and we don’t have to appease anyone like corporate sponsors.
How long that’ll last, I don’t know. Radio used to be that. And then radio sold out. If the internet sells out, then we’ll have to find something else.
Dom Romeo: Campfire songs!
JAMIE KILSTEIN: You know what? God I hope so! I really do hope so. Because I do think that’s a problem with the internet. I mean, the whole Facebook and MySpace – and I’m guilty about this – it really breeds this kind of narcisism. Especially Twitter – everyone needs to know precisely what I’m doing right now – I’m eating breakfast; I’m doing this. You paint yourself into a Truman Show, where the whole world is watching me and it all revolves around me. We’ve turned into this ‘reality TV’ culture, where we just always imagine that we have cameras on ourselves and there’s a soundtrack. If you break up with a girl and you’re driving, you have to find that perfect song…Dom Romeo: I know what the song is!
JAMIE KILSTEIN: What’s yours?Dom Romeo: ‘Broken Hearts Are For *ssh*les’ by Frank Zappa.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Oh, that’s a good one. That’s far cooler than me. I find, like, the cheesiest, most like abominable one… no, that was actually a cool one.So Facebook and Twitter really does encourage that. But the good is, I’ve hooked up with activists all over the world through the internet radio show, and I’m really open through all the emails and stuff. We have people listening to the show, like 16-year-old gay kids from Texas, who’ll email us and say, ‘I thought I was crazy!’ and we can talk to them. Or there are people who are like, ‘I live in Montana, what do I do?’ and we can be like, ‘go protest this!’ It really has been great for activists and for left-wingers – especially the literate ones. The internet’s really good to communicate and to organise. Left-wing people, our biggest problem is organising so we really need that place where we can all get together and whatnot… I don’t remember what the question was.
Dom Romeo: Neither do I, but I’m enjoying the conversation! One thing I want to bring up – GE used to own the Bertelsmenn Music Group, or BMG, which is now part of Sony/BMG; it’s also a finance company in this country that sponsors the news…JAMIE KILSTEIN: I don’t think a lot of people realise how tangled a lot of these corporations are. A lot of times, left-wing people are given a bad rap and you hear the word ‘corporation’ and you automatically think that it’s a conspiracy because you hear the one crazy dude that the news always shows when they cover a protest. They won’t show the tens of thousands of Jews who are marching against the war crims in Gaza, they won’t show the outcry against the war in Iraq, but they’ll find the one crazy hippie who’s having a weed-in to protest whatever. So a lot of times, when you hear these key words like ‘corporation’, it just sounds very conspiratorial because you’re used to hearing ‘the corporations were behind 9/11, they’re all on an island…’ or whatever. But the reality is, there are something like under 20 giant corporations that own almost everything. You think of Rupert Murdoch just with Fox News, but he also owns giant publishers and tons of newspapers and MySpace; and he’s slowly chipping away at the BBC, trying to get less public funding for it because that’s a threat to him.
There was a time when the news wasn’t supposed to just be a soundboard for the government; it was supposed to be a check on the government. And if you have these giant corporations that profit when the government f*cks over the poor, they’re not going to investigate or call the government out. They’re gonna use their newspapers, they’re gonna use their books, they’re gonna use their social networking sites, they’re gonna use their music labels, they’re gonna use everything they have to come out against it. That’s what Rupert Murdoch’s doing right now in the UK against the BBC. He’s publishing all these anti-BBC articles that are factually inaccurate. Seventy to 80% of people in the UK love the BBC and say they would pay more for it out of their tax dollars, and and he’s having all of his newspapers run this giant propaganda smear against them, and that’s the kind of power they have. And yes, GE, if they’re selling weapons to the war effort, all of their other media outlets are going to promote what makes them money.
Dom Romeo: So are you suggesting that the man who runs the media in the three big western countries that came out in favour of going to war with Iraq, that he might have had some influence in getting certain parties to power in the lead-up to the war?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: The billionaire who profits from the war? He may have done something about it. I mean, see what’s happening right now with Iran – these same stations are having the same people on, who were wrong about Iraq, who were wrong about Afghanistan, and they’re having these “experts” come back onto these news shows and say the exact same thing about Iran that they said about Iraq. And that’s okay? Those people should be fucken shamed. Over a million Iraqis are dead. We killed more Americans than Osama did on September 11 – so he won. If anyone’s wondering who won out of Osama and America, Bin Laden won. And they’re having these same f*ckin assholes who have never served in the military, whose families have enver served in the military, come back on to pedal these wars because wars are profitable. That’s what’s scary: it all comes down to class war; it all comes down to profit. Not giving people health care in America is profitable. War is profitable. That’s the problem with the free market and that’s the problem with capitalism: you can’t have life-or-death situations lead to profit. When people make money off sick people or off weapons that murder people, it’s a f*cked system.
By the way, we should mention: I am a comedian!
Dom Romeo: Good point. But I’m enjoying this discussion, and these are important political issues; how do you make them funny?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Tears.
I don’t know, man. Me and Glenn Wool were talking about this on the radio the other day. It’s not like when I see something bad happen, I look for the joke. You’re like one of the – may the only journalist – most journalists will be like ‘Jamie, as a comedian, is there part of you that misses George Bush? Not as a person; that’d be retarded. But as a comedian, don’t you wish Sarah Palin was Vice President, and then John McCain died from heart failure, and then Sarah Palin became president… as a comedian, do you wish for that to happen?’ And I always have to be like, ‘what sort of f*cken monster do you think I am? That I can only write jokes when there are war crimes being committed, or any time a wedding’s being bombed in Afghanistan, I’m like, ‘honey, bring me my funny pen and hilarious pad!’ It’s not like that. Here’s the honest answer, which unfortunately also isn’t funny.
The honest answer is, the reason I’m a comedian, like all comedians, I had a f*cked up childhood, and comedy happened to be my defence mechanism. Some people’s defense mechanism is drugs or alcohol, and mine happened to be that. So when something really bad happened with my parents, me and my little brothers would run upstairs and would be in our bedroom. It would be really awkward, and we’d be scared and sad and we wouldn’t know what to say, and then once somebody made that first joke – and it would always be inappropriate because the situations were so bad that there was nothing polite that could have been said, so it would be some really heartbreaking joke – that’s when all of us snapped back into it, and not only did we laugh and not only did it break the ice and not only did it cut the tension, but it also just broke us out of that kind of trance, and then we were like, ‘okay, what can we do, how the f*ck do we fix this? Let’s go, let’s figure it out’. And I always thought that was really cool, that humour could diffuse the situation enough that you could finally talk about it.
I have conversations with dudes after every show who disagree with me, and we find out we have more in common than we thought we did, and the media won’t have you believe that. The media just has the right-wing guy and the left-wing guy just scream at each other. And you’re not taught to have conversations, you’re taught to just yell at the opposition. I think humour is one of the tools you can use to get someone on your side just to chill the f*ck out long enough to start a conversation. So that said, I don’t see something terrible happen and then write a joke, I see something terrible happen and I write because I’m angry, and once I start writing, my go-to when I’m angry, subconsciously, is humour. It just kind of comes out that way. And then I’ll start yelling about it on stage and see what gets the laughs, and then start chipping away that way.
Dom Romeo: Sometimes you remind me of when I discovered Jello Biafra’s spoken word albums. Only, he’s not as funny. You’re a comedian, whereas he’s talking politics to a punk rock audience.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yeah. I wish I had his audience. His audience is awesome. I totally stand for what he did. There’s a book coming out soon and I haven’t read it yet, but we’re in the same book, called Sataristas. Paul Provenza, the dude who made The Aristocrats. It’s one of Carlin’s last interviews, and Colbert’s in there, and Jello’s in there and I’m in there. I’m so excited to read it; it’s all about people who like political satire and came out and spoke like that.
I love that culture and I wish that I could figure out how to find that culture. Because it’s not really happening for me with comedy clubs and two-drink minimums. It’s much better here, in Australia, at the Comedy Store – it’s much less corporate than the places I played in the States. But just to be mentioned in the same breath as him is cool.
Dom Romeo: That’s interesting because there’s stuff I saw you do at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier this year that I didn’t find as funny as when I saw you do it now. Did it evolve for the Australian psyche? Do you know what makes it funnier here, on your second visit, than elsewhere?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: You’re giving me much more credit than you should be. Probably subconsciously I do. I wish I sat down and figured it out more, but I do that on stage.
Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t change anything from place to place. So the jokes you saw last night are the same way that I did them the week before in New York, and the month before that I did them in Edinburgh. So when I go place to place, I don’t go, ‘let’s tailor it for the Australians’. It’s the same.
Dom Romeo: Okay. I have another theory then. Maybe I’m better attuned to you now, having seen you once before. Maybe I’m getting better at appreciating you.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Maybe. I’m not denying that the jokes have changed. They probably have, but they haven’t changed in the sense that, I’m not good enough to have different sets for different audiences. There are some people who have a different set for every different audience – they have a club set, they have a corporate set…
JAMIE KILSTEIN: … I have the same set, and it’s either going to work really well or it’s going to go down in flames. There’s no ‘Plan B’. When I started, I had a ‘Plan B’ – I had a bunch of stuff on the war on drugs, which I still think is an important issue, drug prohibition. But a lot of dumber crowds could just see them as ‘weed jokes’, and I stopped doing that. But those were always the jokes I did if the political jokes weren’t working.
Dom Romeo: I love the fact that, because you’re a lefty intellectual, your ‘weed jokes’ are the ‘dick jokes’.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Exactly! ‘I guess I can do jokes about the prison-industrial complex and how we lock away minorities on drug charges while we let white collar criminals get away…’. Yeah, that was my dick joke! But now I don’t have that. Now it’s like, ‘well, if they don’t like the abortion joke, I guess I can do the war crime joke’. There really is no ‘Plan B’, which is kind of cool. But I’m f*cked. I’m stuck. If I’m obligated to do an hour, and 20 minutes in, they hate me, I know that it’s just gonna get worse. But it is interesting, trying to win over audiences and trying to re-work the set around, doing stuff in a different order or whatever.
But place to place, I really don’t change anything. The jokes have probably changed, and the jokes have probably have gotten funnier because I’ve had time with those jokes, but they’ve changed for me, they haven’t changed for any audience.
If I came over here and did a different set than I did in America, it would be like, ‘here’s me in another country, getting away with making fun of America’. Which is why I don’t do that. And I think, so many of the issues are global. Like religion: here it’s easier because it’s a much bigger chunk of people who are openly secular. But at the same time, I still have people walk out. People still walked out during my Jesus joke at the Opera House. People still get pissed, people are still homophobic. Just because your politicians aren’t as openly homophobic, doesn’t mean you don’t still have the f*cken douche-bag guys who are threatened by their own masculinity and they still have to call everyone a faggot, or they still have to call everyone gay. It still exists here, it still exists in the UK.
Yeah, we started the war, and that’s bad, but people went from Australia, Tony Blair was just as bad as George Bush, Howard was bad. These are definitely issues that effect everyone and I almost think that it needs to be talked about here a lot too, because it’s so easy to point at America as the ultimate bad guy – which we are – but I don’t think that scape-goating America is an excuse to be apathetic in other parts of the world.
Dom Romeo: Having the ability to make these important thoughts funny is brilliant, and you’ve explained how that process began for you, but getting into comedy and the comedy circuit, a lot of people start with autobiography and self-deprecation – that’s how a lot of people start out. Did you have to go through that? Did you have to go through the ‘popular topics’ before you found your voice and found the way to do the stuff that matters to you that you do so well?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I have a friend who’s an amazing journalist and he wanted to do stand-up. He sent me some stuff and it was exactly what you said: it was self-deprecating and it was personal. Which is weird, because when he writes about politics he’s hilarious.
Yeah, there are people who just assume they can’t talk about that stuff on stage, so they start with self-deprecation and whatnot.With me, it was much sadder than that. I wasn’t into politics when I started in comedy. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew that my gay friends shouldn’t be discriminated against, I knew that we probably shouldn’t be killing people all over the world, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world we were killing people, and I couldn’t tell you why, legally, my gay friends were being discriminated against, or which clause in the Constitution was being violated. I just didn’t know about any of that stuff.
I started when I was 17. I dropped out of high school. I was a young *ssh*le. I was high all the time. I probably started writing about the drug material, but not because I thought the war on drugs adversely affected minorities, but because I wanted to get high. So I was like, ‘fuck that!’ I just wrote about what I knew, which was nothing!
What ended up happening was, when I dropped out of high school and ended up living in the real world and not in White Middle Class Land, I started becoming friends with more poor people, and friends with minorities, and friends with more gay people, and talking to more people and finding out how badly they were being f*cked. I met this guy in America called Cornell West. Cornell West is a huge black intellectual, probably the biggest black intellectual of our generation, and he’s a professor at Princeton University. You’d recognise him: big afro, he’s always on Real Time with Bill Maher and every news show. He’s awesome.
I met him, and we had a really long conversation at this book store about Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks and comics. I told him I was thinking about being a writer, and asked him what advice he had, and he said, ‘read voraciously’. That was the only advice.Dom Romeo: Good on him! Nobody tells kids that anymore. You can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader, and people don’t read anymore. So they’re not gonna write.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Absolutely right. I had a complex after dropping out of high school, where I just thought I was really dumb, because the stuff in high school I was given to read, I just didn’t give a sh*t about. So up until I was 25, I literally thought I couldn’t read. It’s so funny. I would read the pages, and I knew what the words were, and I could sound out the words, but then I would get through a page and go, I don’t know what the fuck that was! So I was convinced I couldn’t read.
So Cornell tells me to start reading, and I start reading stuff I actually cared about, and I remember looking at my girlfriend one day and saying, ‘I can read!’ She was like, ‘You’re 25, of course you can read!’ It was great. That just started informing me.
And it’s hard at first, and I think even a lot of people who didn’t drop out of high school will have that same problem. You watch the news, and the news is geared towards rich white people, and you read newspapers and they’re geared towards people who already have a grasp on current affairs.
I knew more about war crimes that were committed in East Timor than I knew what the three branches of government are in the US because I was so stoned out of my mind through high school that I missed a lot of the basics. So how am I supposed to learn about foreign policy if I don’t know about the basics? But it just takes time. You start reading and becoming more informed and that gives you more information and more things to be angry about and I think it’s really good, because a lot of passionate liberal – or ‘left wing’ people, here – are disenfranchised and feel dumb, or feel there’s nothing they can do, and that’s what the opposition wants you to feel. They want you to feel helpless. The more you arm yourself with that information, the more seriously people will take you and the more outraged you’ll become, and you’ll find that it’s much more important to go out there and protest than go to the pub and just drink and bitch about how fucked up the government is.
Conservatives are out there every day with their crazy signs and their ‘Obama’s Hitler’ and calling people socialist and telling them they’re ‘being gay’ or saying ‘you’ll go to hell’. They’re crazy, but they’re organised. I’m like, ‘we’re right, but we’re high’ and that’s why they’re the ones who get all the media coverage, and we can just sit at home and be pretentious and self-satisfied and be, like, ‘those idiots!’ But those idiots are in the street and they’re actually doing stuff. I started going to the gym again because I found out that Condalisa Rice would wake up at four in the morning to go to the gym and read all the newspapers before she went and took on her Secretary of State duties. I’m like, ‘if they’re up at four in the morning, I need to be up at four in the morning!’ Me and my girlfriend Allison started going to the gym, and any time we’d get tired on the treadmill, Allison would be like, ‘I’m coming for ya, Condie!’ That was our motivation. I hate to say this, but I think a lot of lefties don’t have that republican drive. Because we’re right, so why the f*ck should we have to? But we do.
Dom Romeo: When you’re on stage saying that you’re family hates you because you never went to university, I’m sitting there going, ‘that’s hard to believe, that you don’t have a tertiary education’. But now you’re saying you got your knowledge by reading, that’s education for education’s sake; that’s more important than, nowadays, going to a tertiary institution funded by a corporation looking for their next tier of employment…
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I think it’s a matter of ‘find what you love, and study that like it’s your job’. I think that that’s not given enough credit.
It’s sad. Two of the smartest dudes that I knew, who were the best musicians I knew, were talked out of playing in bands because ‘that’s not what you do’. So one of them joined the military right before the Iraq war, so he could get money for college, and came back with a drinking problem, came back a mess. The other one went to business school, and let’s face it, they have their own war going on right now, and I was the outcast, I was the one who was shit on for dropping out of high school.
This isn’t a ‘go me, I made the right decision’ because at the time it was dumb, but there is certainly something to be said for – ah, don’t say ‘following your dreams’ – but, following your dreams. Everything else is just as risky.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yeah, that’s a much better way of putting it.
The world will make you feel dumb if you don’t believe their bullshit. It’s not fair. I felt dumb for so f*cken long. But it’s just because I didn’t have access to the right people, or to people I believed in, or to people who shared my ideals. And I think once you find that, I think so many people will be amazed at how much they can do and how many of their thoughts that they thought were crazy will be validated and how much new information they’ll learn.
I can’t say it enough: you’ve got to just find what you care about and if you’re learning about something in school and you disagree with it and the teacher says you’re supposed to agree with it, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid or wrong, it just means you disagree with this one guy. It means you should go find the counter-argument to that and study that, or whatever. That’s what schooling’s supposed to teach you. It’s not supposed to teach you to memorise what circle to fill in for standardised tests, it’s supposed to teach you how to think critically and how to question authority.
I also just got this really big Calvin & Hobbes tattoo on my calf and so I was researching Bill Waterson, just because I got reall nostalgic just thinking about it. Bill Waterson, author of Calvin & Hobbes, the only dude who never sold merchandising rights. They never made t-shirts, they never made Hobbes tiger dolls. He completely refused to sell out. His publishers were furious. They just did this piece on him on BBC, where he got very reclusive. He didn’t do interviews, he just disappeared and it’s awesome. That’s so bad-ass. That’s a hero. He could have been a billionaire, if he sold the merchandising rights, and he didn’t. That, to me is so much heroic…
…I don’t know where I’m going. I’ve gotten lost in Crazy Digression Land. Oh, here, I can make that make sense.
With that said, I’m not telling everyone to drop out of high school. My best teacher in high school actually convinced me to drop out, which he would have gotten fired for. But he took me aside and said, ‘you’re really smart. You’ve a 14 in this class.’ To get an F was a 50 or below. I had a 14. He just kind of told me that school’s not for everybody. ‘If this isn’t what you love and you know what you want to do, bail. But don’t stop learning.’
I think the mistake lots of people make is, once they drop out or decide not to go to university, they kind of just wait for opportunities to come to them. I think you need to finding what you love – some guitar player will be reading this and going, ‘Done! Easy!’ – but the hard part is treating that like a ‘job’. And I use the word ‘job’ loosely. Because if it’s what you love, technically it’s a job, but it’s f*cken easy.
Dom Romeo: That feels like an ending, but I’ve got a couple more questions. Do you mind if we keep going?JAMIE KILSTEIN: Go ahead.
Dom Romeo: At some point, someone who’s writing about comedy is going to ask you this question. I’m sure you’ve answered it a number of times, and I’m certain I know what the answer is. But I want to know what your answer is.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I hope I’m right!
Dom Romeo: Can comedy change anything?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yes.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
And so many people say ‘no’. Comics I really admire, who wouldn’t consider themselves political comics, but have some really hard-hitting stuff about politics, they always say, ‘if I could write dick jokes, I would write dick jokes, I just happen to like politics and it doesn’t influence anybody, and comedy comes before the message, and blah blah blah’, but no. I’m the complete opposite. I know I’m supposed to say that comedy comes first, and I’ve been screamed at by managers and whatnot, but it is one hundred percent my agenda first. Because it does work.It’s like I was saying before: dudes come up to me after shows I do in the South, in America, and they’ll be like, ‘I disagree with everything you said, but you were really funny,’ or ‘I’m a Conservative… but you were really funny,’ and instead of me saying, ‘oh, thanks buddy, see you later’, I will say, ‘why are you a conservative?’ And they go, ‘well, you know, the gay rights thing doesn’t bother me that much, that’s more like old school; I have a gay friend and he’s pretty cool’. And I’m like, ‘all right, but what if someone comes back from the war in Iraq and they need government help and they don’t have any money and they have post-traumatic stress syndrome?’ and they go, ‘oh, well the government should totally help then’. And you start going through all these issues and by the end of it you’re like, ‘so why are you conservative?’ and they’re like, ‘my dad is!’ That’s really it.
I’ve had conversations where they’ve emailed me after – I have the evidence saved on my Facebook – where they have changed their mind on an issue. I did this show in Indiana and these three giant white dudes in fatigues, one wearing a crucifix, were sitting in the front row. I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to fight them’, and I did the drug stuff first and it went really well and they really liked me for that, and they really liked the stuff on the war and the stuff on religion, and they stayed with it, because they were cool kids. So we stayed after the show, and they had beer and I had my water, and we started talking and it was right during the election, and they said they were going to vote for McCain still, and I said, ‘why are you going to vote for McCain?’ It was really sad and sweet. They go, ‘well, he was the only one who came to visit us in Iraq, and he was a soldier; he fought in Viet Nam.’
What they didn’t know, because they weren’t told this while they were overseas, was that literally that week – and I got lucky that it was that week – John McCain was one of the only people who voted against the new GI Bill. And the new GI Bill was similar to what happened in World War II, which was, if you serve for four years, you get a free ride to college. That’s part of the reason there was this economic boom after the war, because these people came back and they could get an education and they could get great jobs.
And John McCain, whose campaign was based on ‘I love the troops’ – he said, ‘I served, Barrack Obama didn’t serve, blah blah blah blah’, he voted against it. That seemed crazy, particularly since it had been passed by an overwhelming bipartisan support, too. So most Republicans voted for it, but McCain didn’t. And the reason McCain didn’t vote for it was he put his own bill forward, that said, if you serve for 12 years – 12 might not have been the number, but it was more than 4 – you can get a free ride. People go, ‘why would you do that?’ and the reason is, if John McCain was president, John McCain was planning on a lot more war, so he didn’t want to lose good soldiers leaving after four years because then the military becomes depleted, and if you’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, possibly Pakistan, possibly Iran, you need all of the soldiers you can get.
So I told them that and offered to send them whatever they needed, to prove it to them. And then one of them goes, ‘f*ck that guy!’ and I go, ‘yep, f*ck that guy!’ And that was it. His vote changed. All he needed was the information. Now, I’m not saying I’m this genius, the only one who can give you the information, but I am saying, comedy disarmed him enough to talk to a giant lefty like me, and then I told him a fact that he didn’t hear on the news because the news didn’t want report on that because you can’t question John McCain’s patriotism because John McCain got kidnapped like an *ssh*l* and so that was it.
Every journalist should have reported on that. Every journalist should have said, ‘how can you say that, and then you’re not going to fund their schooling?’ They should have run on that, but they didn’t because they’re all in the pockets and they just want access to the Whitehouse.
Another piece of evidence I can point to, of comedy changing somebody – I hate bringing this up; it makes me more uncomfortable than anything else on the planet, but I don’t see how I can possibly not bring this up or not mention it and make this point, which I think is more important.
A lot of reviews of my work have mentioned Hicks. I don’t agree with it at all, and I think it’s weird. But they have. So a lot of people will subsequently ask me if I was influenced comedically by Bill Hicks. I’m so used to that question that I’ve just sort of tuned it out. But for some reason, somebody asked me in Edinburgh, when I was doing press, and I actually had this moment where I stopped to think about it. And the answer is ‘no’. We talk about the same issues, but comedically, we’re very different. In the sense of religion, I’m an atheist and I think that people aren’t living their lives to the fullest. Whereas Hicks believed in god, believed in a higher power and saw all of these extremists destroying the thing that he believed in the most; that’s where his outrage came from. Which I can actually see being angrier in his sense. It’s like when Barrack Obama f*cks over progressives – I’m more mad at Obama than I was at Bush because I’m like, ‘you say you f*cken represent me, but you f*cked over my friends’.
Dom Romeo: And his friends, one would have thought…
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I know, totally. ‘You grew up as a community organiser and now you’re f*cking over the poor while appeasing Wall Street?’ Awful. But what I realised about Hicks: he didn’t influence me comedically; I had all of his albums when I was 16, I listened to them, but I never sounded like Hicks. Although lots of comedians have this thing where instead of writing prolifically like Hicks, what they’ll do is they’ll just get up and yell at the audience before even trying to joke. They’re like, ‘yeah, I’m like Hicks!’ Really? That’s what he did? He just yelled at audiences? Hicks put a f*ckload of work into the jokes, and then when they didn’t get the jokes, he was so outraged comedically and politically; that’s what would make him snap. These people are forgetting the essential middleman: the joke! You write the jokes first, and try to make the jokes work, and then you yell at the audience.
I probably had that phase when I was 18: you’d bomb, and be like, ‘Hicks bombed; I’m like Hicks’. It’s like, ‘you *ssh*le!That’s what Hicks wanted to do: he just wanted to bomb every night.
I listened to him a lot before I did comedy, and my comedy never sounded like him. But I must have been influenced somehow. And here’s the really neat realisation that I made: when I listen to him now, I don’t even laugh. I kind of nod along. But what my girl friend and I realised when we weren’t laughing was that he didn’t influence me comedically, he influenced me to care about politics. When I wanted to care about politics, I’d listen to the news and think, ‘this is boring’ or ‘this is bullshit’; but then I listened to Hicks, and how he talked about the war and how he talked about religion, and I thought, this makes me care about politics. He didn’t make me wanna do comedy, he made me care about politics. So I can say absolutely, from firsthand experience, that comedy can change you. Because it can phrase things in a way and a language that I understood.
Even a crowd that mostly agrees with you: if I got up and was pretentious or just yelled my beliefs, they would’t give a shit. It’d just be boring. Because as much as those people agreed with me on the war, on torture, on gay rights, maybe ten of them are active, so they don’t have to be preached at, necessarily. I at least hope I taught somebody something. People will talk about ‘coming to Australia and preaching to the choir’. I think Penn Gillette said, ‘sometimes the choir needs preaching to’, and you have to rile them up a bit.
Dom Romeo: But then there’s the aspect of comedy where people only go to relax and unwind and laugh without having to think.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Those people are always disappointed when they see me.
Dom Romeo: But the ‘trick’ that a good comic gets to play, and I say ‘trick’ in inverted commas, is that you do make them relax and entertain them, and you just happen to make them think. It’s almost a sleight-of-hand when you’re a good comic who’s got something to say.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I got really lucky with that. I think I found out, when I was younger and I was trying to be the angry comic, it never worked. And then I realised it was because I wasn’t being myself. Which is weird. You spend your first 10 years of comedy not being yourself, and then you realise that all you had to do was just be you – you try to manufacture this character, not purposefully, you just assume that this person you happen to be offstage has to be different.
But it’s also a way of learning how to relax enough to capture whatever it is that they have when they’re just being themselves, to present it on stage. Some of the funniest people I know, who happen to be comics, are hilarious on Facebook and Twitter, but haven’t managed to learn how to be that funny person on stage. They don’t know how to make that person that they are, when they’re relaxed and in their element, come out in front of an audience when they’re on stage.
One of my best friends is the best writer, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone, but he just hasn’t figured out how to put it on stage. It’ll happen.
It was weird for me, because I was yelling at the audience, and I realised I don’t yell in real life. I am kind of shy and nerdy. If you can combine your flaws as a person with your passionate thoughts on stage, it’s this really cool juxtaposition, where they see the humility and you as a person and they see that you’re still thinking stuff and still questioning things and still not sure of yourself, and that you have strong convictions, which I also think they admire. If I walked up there all cocky, it wouldn’t work.
And here’s the thing, man: a lot of people disagree with me. They disagree with me on the subjects, not because they’re idiots, but because they’re scared, or because they’ve been given the wrong information. There probably are a lot of people who just want to kill brown people, but a lot of people who supported the war were really scared and they were tricked that they were gonna be nuked or that they were gonna be attacked, or that there’s this Islamic revolution coming, like New York. I understand that. I’m so protective of my girlfriend – not that she needs it – that I can see if you had children, you’d vote out of fear.
On the news, people say torture works. So if people say torture works, and you think, either we torture that guy or my kid might die, I can understand where people are coming from.
Dom Romeo: But torture doesn’t work. Torture makes people say what they think you want to hear, once you’ve broken them.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: And that’s the key. Finding those arguments that appeal to selfishness. That’s what I’ve been trying to do recently. If I find someone who’s pro-torture, there’s no point going, ‘we’re better than that as human beings’. They don’t give a shit. That answer, ‘not only does it not work, but it produces false information that then takes away time for pursuing the actual evidence – so you’re actually putting yourself in more danger pursuing these false leads when you could be spending that time actually find the bad guys or whatever…’ that’s what you have to do. Once you realise we’re all selfish, you have to appeal to a person’s selfishness to convince them the other way. Those are the arguments I’ve started to look for.
Dom Romeo: You’ve finally found the antidote to Murdoch: you have to appeal to a different selfishness than he does, to undo his work.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yeah. And I think it’s honesty. I think a lot of left-wing people think we’re better than we are, and that’s because they’re not honest with themselves. People are selfish. Lots of people are selfish. And you have to fight being selfish. And it’s not a good thing. You shouldn’t just accept it. But once you realise that, you can realise how to appeal to other people. Maybe.
Dom Romeo: Was there a comedian who influenced you? Because you appear kind of sui generis.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: It was other people’s stories. There are comedians now who I see, who blow me away. Glenn Wool’s bit about going after the bankers. That blew me away. But that doesn’t man I’m going to go write about bankers. I see that and I think he did that perfect. Other comedians who are nothing like me… Daniel Kitson’s made me cry three times during his stand-up set. As an artist, I can watch that an appreciate it.
You don’t want to be inspired by it. That’s probably why I don’t watch as much comedy as I probably should, because then you run the risk of emulating it. I really try to find comedy in other things. I’m inspired by musicians, I’m inspired by artists, I’m inspired by Calvin & Hobbes. I’m inspired by people who listen to our radio show and email us their stories of how they stood up for themselves against a teacher, or a police officer or a military recruiter.
That shit inspires me, and that’s what moulded me and that’s what got me into comedy: just telling stories with my friends. Quoting from The Simpsons. You know, The Simpsons inspired me more than any comedian inspired me.
Dom Romeo: Do you ever want to be able to make a television show? An animation or something that gets the message across through a different medium?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yeah! I would totally do that. I wouldn’t be in someone else’s show or sitcom or commercial or anything like that, but we’re actually working on an animation right now that we’re gonna start pitching to networks when I go home. There are a lot of ways to do it and I think it’s cool to attack from all sorts of mediums… – that sounded militant! – but I’m working on stuff. And there’s the radio show – radio really is an under-appreciated medium and it’s really intimate and great.
Me and Allison started Citizen Radio for fun, and then it blew up and we’ve got this global audience and it’s great. We’ve had Chomsky on three times, and Howard Zinn’s doing it, and we had Garofalo on a bunch. Just really cool people. And what we do, like with Chomsky, we tell him our audience is young and new to politics, so we had Chomsky talk about drugs, and talk about religion, and then that’ll get people into Chomsky and they’ll start reading Chomsky, and next time we had him on, we had him talk about South America and headier topics. And our audience just went with it. That’s something I could not do on the stand-up stage, but I can do it through radio. So now it’s ‘what can I do on television that I can’t do on radio?’ And if it’s nothing, if it’s just for a paycheque, I’m not gonna do it. But if there’s stuff that we can do – an animation that can be really subversive, then we’re gonna do it. If we pitch it to a network and they do what networks do, which is say, ‘we love everything about it, now let’s change it’, then we’re gonna walk away, and stay underground on the radio show.
Unless we get fired from BreakThru, we’re gonna keep it there. We’ve had meetings with CNN, we’ve had meetings elsewhere, but we’re not gonna do it. We’re gonna stay underground. It’s worked, only because of word of mouth. Only because our fans are really cool and will burn CDs for each other and whatnot.
But any medium that lets us stay true to ourselves, we’ll do.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: The artwork is Jesus, holding a flaming brain. It’s a zombie Jesus, but not in a cute way; it’s a decaying corpse. It is so filthy.
Dom Romeo: But it’s classic parody, because it’s based on the Catholic iconography of the ‘Secred Heart of Jesus’, where instead of a flaming heart, it’s a flaming brain.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: It sure is. It’s one of my favourite things ever, and kudos to the people at Stand-Up Records for doing that. I like the cover too, because I didn’t realise how offensive this CD was until I listened to it.
I gave it to Germaine Greer, and I realised, there’s the anti-war stuff, and the anti-religion stuff, that she loved, but oh my god, I think I advocate for political assassination and it opens with ‘abortion’ and ‘c*nt’; it’s so f*cken filthy that I don’t think I can get away with giving it to any more intellectuals. I also trash a bunch of comedians on there, so it’s just going to hurt me more in America, so it’s just ridiculous.
Dom Romeo: Intellectuals are allowed to be challenged, too, though. And by stuff they consider is beneath them.
JAMIE KILSTEIN: That’s actually a f*cken great point! Let’s roll with that. That makes me feel better. That’s a very good call!