Andy Borowitz is that guy from college riding shotgun and pointing out funny and maddening things beyond the headlights. He’s clever but not overpowering, a sharp-eyed jokester who glides on astute asides. His satire in the New Yorker falls under headlines such as: “Trump’s Budget Contains Twenty Million Dollars for Bail.”
It makes you wonder: Is there cash hidden in an arcane line item to bail out the president and his children? Then you smile or, if you don’t like Borowitz’s brand of humor, you scowl, reach for Twitter and curse those socialist, liberal wackos out to destroy the country.
This is fine with Borowitz. He doesn’t mind agitating, although he rarely ventures into Trumpland, choosing instead the company of those who might nominate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for sainthood.
The Borowitz Report in the New Yorker is at once venom and antidote for these politically troubled times. It pricks at the hubris and ridiculousness of those in power and skewers the schemers and strivers at its fringes. It distills the news of the day into a few paragraphs that in their brevity offer a pleasant, if unnerving, sting: “Bezos Says Amazon Drones Ready to Deliver Mueller Report to Every American Household.”
Borowitz’s comedy and cutting observations have made him an ideological brother to Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and a descendant of Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He co-created the hit TV show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and wrote for “The Facts of Life.” But these days one can find him on the road with a new stand-up show calibrated to a moment in history when headlines read surreal and leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, appear as confounding caricatures hatching endless mischief.
He performs April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dolby Theatre. The following conversation with Borowitz has been edited for space.
Your show is called the ‘Make America Not Embarrassing Again.’ How do we do that?
It’s a serious question. Some people have said to me, “Well, when was America not embarrassing?” That’s the contrarian point of view. I point out that it was not embarrassing between the years 2009 and 2017, which coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency. I don’t know if you want to draw any conclusions based on that. It’s now really kind of a buffet of embarrassments. You can decide what is most embarrassing about the country today, but it all has a relationship to having a society that’s pretty much based on a rigged system. There’s a lot of rigging going on and rigging has embarrassing results.
The Trump presidency and today’s politics are ripe for satire, but at the same time comics and writers suggest the president is beyond satire. Is that true?
People come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, Trump has made your life so easy.’ But that shows the fundamental misunderstanding of what my life is. The whole job of satire is to take reality and make it slightly more ridiculous as a way of pointing out a point you’re trying to make. But with Trump that’s impossible.
You can’t make things more ridiculous because when your premise is that the president of the United States is a former game-show host that’s kind of a bad 1990s Chris Farley movie. That’s one you probably wouldn’t even have rented at Blockbuster. That’s high concept, but you’re going to run out of this joke 20 minutes in. But that’s the reality we’re living in. People have forgotten that that’s who this is. This guy who’s trying to build a wall and lock up children at the border is a game-show host.
Are we forever changed by this era? How will historians and satirists see it when they look back on this time?
I like the optimism inherent in that question, which is we’re still going to be around 30 or 40 years from now. I question your premise slightly, but I’m very grateful you have such a balmy view of our survival prospects.
The best guide would be to ask people in Minnesota now that they’re about 20 years out of having a professional wrestler as their governor. Jesse Ventura. How did that change Minnesota? Does it lower the bar for future leaders or is there a backlash of people saying we actually want the next president to be someone who is literate? Who can read and write and do things we customarily associate with the job of president? Or do we continue to circle the drain and strictly get our president from TV shows? Are we going to look at some of the Real Housewives?”
Or “Desperate Housewives”. . .
Yes, the “Desperate Housewives” are back in the news. That’s right. I tend to think that Trump was an extreme reaction to Obama, not just in terms of racism but a reaction to elitism because Obama was so well-educated and so eloquent.
That’s frustrating to a lot of people because we’ve had the George W. Bush philosophy of leadership, where you dumb everything down and you sound maybe even dumber than you actually are as a way of seeming like you are the guy people want to have a beer with.
A lot of people said of Obama, “Enough of this guy and his annoyingly complete sentences. Let’s have somebody out there who I will not feel inferior to.” And we wind up with Donald Trump. We came close to have a vice president Sarah Palin. People forget about that. We’ve been flirting with idiocy now for the last 10 years at least and now we finally went and did it.
Why don’t some people want a president smarter than they are?
The message I’m bringing across the country in this show is one of unabashed elitism. I’m responding to our country’s current infatuation with populism by embracing the exact opposite.
Elitism doesn’t have the same negative connotation in other arenas. I’m a Cleveland Browns fan and we just picked up a wide receiver named Odell Beckham Jr., and in all of the reporting about him he’s referred to as an “elite” wide receiver. In sports, when we talk about elite players it’s a good thing. So why is that a good thing when we’re talking about somebody who’s catching a football but it’s somehow a negative when it comes to somebody who gets the nuclear codes?
In the 1930s we actually elected one of our most elitist presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He wore a top hat and had a cigarette holder. The working man was fine with that, partially for the reason that he was smart enough to fix stuff.
In all the rancor, divisiveness and political insanity have we lost our sense of humor?
The audiences I’ve been in front of are very eager to find something to laugh at. All the clichés about laughter being the best medicine are true. You can either wallow in a fetal position all day. That’s very tempting. A lot of us do that. Or you can laugh, which is a cathartic response that makes you feel better.
My hope is that by cheering people up they will get out of bed and take action to do something positive, to work for a candidate or canvas for an election. I don’t want my comedy to be just palliative. I want people to laugh but continue to worry. We’re living in a state of emergency.
What’s the toughest house you’ve played in terms of your message?
By the time somebody comes to one of my shows they’re so familiar with who I am. It’s a 99.99% Democratic crowd. So there really hasn’t been a tough crowd. I haven’t, say, been to North Dakota to do a show. I’ve been doing liberal hotbeds and that’s by design. I do not think I have the right personality to change a lot of people’s minds. But I do like to get people to think outside the box.
One of the problems the Democratic Party is wrestling with is: What is its soul and identity? What’s the biggest danger the party faces in 2020?
I think it faces every danger. Democrats are always capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If ever we should have won an election it was 2016. We were running against a game-show host who had a recently released sex tape, OK, and by sex tape I mean he’s talking about sex.
Fortunately we were spared the spectacle of him at the Moscow Ritz. If you could lose that election, you’re pretty good at losing elections. So don’t leave anything to chance. Tighten those bolts ahead of this one. We can’t let this become an immediately divisive race where it’s the progressive wing versus the pragmatic wing.
Why don’t you tweet anymore?
I had this conversation with my wife where she really felt Twitter had become a third party in our relationship. We’d be in bed and be chatting and I’d say something that would make her laugh and I’d immediately say, “Oh my God, I should tweet that.”
It’d be 11 at night. I was sick. There’s no other way to describe it. Twitter can be really dangerous for people in comedy. They’re trying stuff and checking how many likes they get. It was a bad lifestyle decision to be on Twitter.
The other reason is of all the social media platforms, I feel that Twitter has done the worst job of trying to rein in bullying, misogyny, neo-Nazism. I feel it’s a part of their business model. The nastiness of Twitter is what people like about it. I didn’t like the fact that I was in anyway contributing to that.
What lessons has Mark Twain taught us as both an American and a satirist?
The first lesson is that there will never be another Mark Twain. Twain said something like there is nothing funnier than the truth stated nakedly. I don’t always live up to that, and who does live up to his standards? No one. But I like the notion that if you just communicate what you perceive to be the truth, that can often be the funniest thing.
We’re in this big debate about fake news versus real news. A lot of times the stories I write really aren’t fake news. I’m reporting on exactly what’s happening, but just stating it more baldly. So to the extent that I’ve learned anything from Twain it’s that: Speak the truth. The truth can be so ridiculous that that in and of itself it’s going to be funny.
Andy Borowitz Live
Where: Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: April 24, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $29.75 to $75
Info: (323) 308-6300, dolbytheatre.com