Volume 16, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 9-16, 2003
Comedians becoming ever more political Florida columnist and musical comedy performer brought ‘Bushwacking America’ and ‘Blind Judges’ to the Piano Museum
By Timothy Lavin
When Stephen Goldstein performed his satiric cabaret recently at the Museum of the American Piano, at 291 Broadway in Tribeca, he delivered something rare in the world of modern comedy acts: an incisive, topical, musically adroit routine that remained, for a performance titled “Screw You,” mercifully free of profanity. He also delivered something else, rather less mercifully: an overt political agenda.
Goldstein sings or offers conversational cultural commentary while accompanying himself on piano. His act flowed through 16 original songs, veering from contemplative musings about dining with his genetic clone to the dubious aesthetic charms of “Botox Gals.”
It included a truly inspired tribute to the departed brothers Hussein and their elusive father, and a sympathetic lament for repressed and pensive Muslim bachelors pondering their soon-to-be uncovered brides. He also tackled more serious issues, such as American apathy, in “Damn Afghanistan,” and racism and bigotry, in “Bigot’s Ballad.”
And yet, a risqué resurrection of the Monica Lewinsky debacle aside, the bulk of Goldstein’s act, in songs such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger-inspired “Pumping the Economy Up,” comprised standard liberal invective, even if it was performed with uncommon flair.
Despite Goldstein’s wit and geniality, his audience remained a regrettably wooden lot for much of the show. Perhaps, like many of us, they were simply weary of contentious politics: what David Brooks described in the New York Times recently as “the partisan war…that poisons our airwaves, clogs our best-seller lists and stagnates our politics.” Indeed, though political humor has always inhered in stand-up acts, increasingly many comedians are resorting to rigidly ideological routines to draw like-minded, and thus more appreciative, audiences.
Goldstein himself, a columnist for the Florida Sun-Sentinel, from which perch he has bravely supported the Dennis Kucinich campaign, insists that he’s an objective critic of all things unjust and hypocritical in American political life.
“I really think that opinion based on evidence, on solid information—that that is missing from most of the public dialogue,” he said. “I’m not partisan going in, I’m partisan going out. I’m partisan once I have explored the background. I don’t care who you are when you’re doing the right thing.”
Problematically, the “right thing” is obviously subject to his personal, and generally left-leaning, interpretation. Whether observing the executive branch, as in “Bushwhacking America,” or the Supreme Court, as in the carefully wrought “Blind Judges,” Goldstein levied his harshest criticism—indeed, seemingly his only criticism—on conservatives.
Julia Gorin, a Fox News columnist and veteran New York City stand-up comedian, has taken the opposite approach. “I roll my eyes when comedians say, ‘I’m neither this nor that,’” she said. “Whenever I hear, ‘I’m neither this nor that,’ that person’s clearly a Democrat.”
A few months ago, Gorin established a routine called “Republican Riot” at the Don’t Tell Momma Cabaret. Along with New York Post columnist and comedian Robert George, she has billed the act as unequivocally conservative comedy for Republican audiences. “I’ve always been Republican,” Gorin said. “I just recently started billing myself that way. Because even though I have a bunch of stand up material that’s not political, it’s my favorite stuff to do. And I think my most educational material is the political stuff. It’s just because my point of view is conservative, that’s what my political humor is.”
Even so, she admits of another motive. “I know that there are Republicans out there that are just hungry for this stuff. It’s so rare to have conservative-geared entertainment.”
Indeed, rancorous political commentary may be more marketable today than ever—and thus more profitable for the commentators. Books by outspoken pundits from both parties, such as Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly, have dominated the bestseller lists in recent months. Translating this success onto the comedy club stage may simply be smart economics.
“I think it’s quite literally a reaction along the lines of, ‘If Al Franken is the bestseller on the New York Times with his book trashing the right, I’m gonna do the same thing and use comedy, stand up comedy, to trash the left,’” said Salvatore Attardo, an English professor at Youngstown State University who specializes in humor research. “In a sense, it’s a clever move on the part of the comedian, to sense that there is a market and to try to serve it. I don’t see it so much as an issue of comedy but more as an issue of business.”
Gorin agreed, to an extent, based on her experience in the New York stand-up circuit. “Before the Bush White House, comics were less prone to categorizing themselves or others politically,” she said. “We didn’t hear the words ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ tossed around so rigidly. Then leading up to Bush’s win and all that happened his first year, including 9/11, I would say that everyone was sort of galvanized, everyone felt compelled to choose sides. And yes, I would say that comedians are capitalizing on that.”
Taking a strong point of view is a necessity for a successful stand-up act. But could the comedy of the future be party-based and party-sanctioned? Gorin hopes her act will be hired to entertain political groups and corporations that share her views—like, say, the Republican convention coming to town next year.
Stephen Goldstein views his cabaret differently. “It’s very important that people self-select to come to my show. It’s not good for me to go into some organization and be their night’s entertainment for their national convention. Because I’m gonna piss a lot of people off.”
Doing so, for comics broadly defined, is certainly nothing novel. “Partisan humor is as American as apple pie,” said Dr. David E. E. Sloane, a professor at the University of New Haven and former president of the American Humor Studies Association. He sees such explicitly political stand-up routines as part of the same American comedy tradition that produced the party-based satirical magazines of the 18th century and the diatribes of Thomas Nast and Mark Twain. “This is not a new thing in American political experience or in American humorous experience,” he said.
Goldstein, who also hosts several public affairs television shows in Florida, has long been politically active. And his cabaret, he claims, is of mystical origin: about a year and a half ago, lyrics and melodies started emerging in his head while he slept. He would awake and scribble them down. Eventually, he transferred the tunes to a CD and now hopes to tour his show nationally. He aims high. “I’m not there just to make the people laugh,” he said. “I’m there to make people change the world by laughing, that’s where this all comes from. It’s the pursuit of justice and the American way. I am, in other words, the champion of truth.”