Ques­tions for Co­me­dian and Union Ne­go­tia­tor Nato Green

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Sheerly Avni ●

Nato Green is a Jewish union or­ga­nizer from San Fran­cisco — cur­rently liv­ing in Cuba — who also hap­pens to be one of the Bay Area’s most suc­cess­ful stand-up comics. He’s toured with Hari Kon­dalobu, Janine Brito and CNN’s W. Ka­mau Bell. He’s been voted best comic in the city, writ­ten for FX and he has writ­ten about all the times he’s been ar­rested.

Green’s dead­pan com­edy may not please ev­ery­one — “SF-born so­cial­ist Jewish union worker comic in Cuba” it­self sounds like a punch­line, and one sus­pects that a White House in­vi­ta­tion is not forth­com­ing. But those who ap­pre­ci­ate the lega­cies of Leon Trot­sky, Saul Alin­sky, Tom Lehrer, Paul Good­man, Irv­ing Howe and of course Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl will rec­og­nize in Green a kin­dred soul.

The 42-year-old fa­ther of two has just re­leased his sec­ond com­edy CD, “The White­ness Al­bum.” He spoke with the For­ward’s Sheerly Avni from Havana, where his wife is com­plet­ing her doc­tor­ate in med­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy.

SHEERY AVNI: The sign you made for the Women’s March last year said, “I was go­ing to make a sign, but I’m not in­ter­ested in what white men have to say any­more.” And yet, here you are, a white man, say­ing stuff, on­stage and on com­edy al­bums. And we’re sup­posed to pay for it! How do you rec­on­cile this?

NATO GREEN: I know. I try to im­pli­cate my­self in my com­edy. What’s the fun of only point­ing the fin­ger at ev­ery­one else? Any­one can make fun of the other guy.

I’ll be happy to stop say­ing stuff if that’s what it would take to end op­pres­sion. I have trou­ble imag­in­ing why me specif­i­cally not say­ing stuff would help, but I’m will­ing to take one for the team.

What’s it like be­ing Jewish in Cuba these days?

I went to the syn­a­gogue in Havana for their Hanukkah party. Like any shul in Berke­ley, the lobby had as big a dis­play of the time Fidel Cas­tro vis­ited as the time Steven Spiel­berg vis­ited. The guy who greeted me said: “Ev­ery­one is wel­come here. We don’t have much, but we share what we have.” I thought, “This Ju­daism sounds a lot like so­cial­ism.” Cuban Jews have some-

thing that’s trag­i­cally miss­ing from our Hanukkah par­ties, which is many syn­chro­nized dance rou­tines. The danc­ing was ba­nanas.

Let’s go to one of the fun­ni­est bits on your new al­bum. Do you con­sider Jews white? Out­side of San Fran­cisco and Cuba, at least?

First of all, let me ac­knowl­edge that I know there are Jews of color, and the bit is not about them.

Jews are white. Some­times. We also choose how white we are. Some of my racist rel­a­tives are re­ally into be­ing white.

And in Is­rael. Are we white there?

My ar­gu­ments about white­ness are spe­cific to Amer­ica. I’m not sure the terms and racial hi­er­ar­chies that shape power re­la­tions in the U.S. are mean­ing­fully trans­fer­able, or that white­ness is the most use­ful way to talk about Is­raeli Jews.

In Is­rael we may or may not be white, but we are stupid.

Stupid in what way?

Trump has done some­thing un­prece­dented by unit­ing Jews and Nazis. He de­serves more credit for that. He can bring to­gether Shel­don Adel­son, [Ben­jamin] Ne­tanyahu and Jared Kush­ner with all his Nazi sup­port­ers around a shared vi­sion of killing ev­ery­one else. It’s al­most in­spir­ing.

And Trump’s peace plan?

I’m the coun­try’s only semi-func­tional hy­brid of co­me­dian and union ne­go­tia­tor. I can’t re­mem­ber any­more which is my main hus­tle and which is my side hus­tle, but I do work with unions as a ne­go­tia­tor. Trump is right in the sense that all ne­go­ti­a­tions are the same: It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re ne­go­ti­at­ing a film de­vel­op­ment deal, which of my twin daugh­ters will have to prac­tice pi­ano first, or peace in the Mid­dle East. It’s all the same.

And as a pro­fes­sional ne­go­tia­tor, it of­fends me that Trump can swan around talk­ing about his great deals when he’s ob­vi­ously so bad at mak­ing deals. He clearly doesn’t un­der­stand the very ba­sic things any­one who ac­tu­ally ne­go­ti­ates deals has to do.

For ex­am­ple, deals are all about de­tails. Trump doesn’t have the in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity, in­ter­est or at­ten­tion span to un­der­stand the de­tails of any of the deals he’s in­volved in. He keeps declar­ing that Obama ne­go­ti­ated bad deals, but you’re hard-pressed to find him iden­ti­fy­ing any spe­cific pro­vi­sion he finds ob­jec­tion­able.

And so it is with Is­rael. Every ne­go­tia­tor in the gal­axy knows that there aren’t that many vari­a­tions of how this story ends.

Be­fore you went to Cuba, you tried out life as a New York Jew. How was it?

It was amaz­ing to be in a place with so many Jews and such a di­ver­sity of Jews that it didn’t mat­ter for me to be a Jew. In a way, there are such vis­i­ble Jews in New York, and such Jewy Jews, that I al­most didn’t seem Jewish. I al­most felt like an ac­tual hu­man in­stead of a Jew.

Also, in San Fran­cisco, even if you’re not gay, you have to be lit­er­ate in gay cul­ture. New York was like that for Jews. In San Fran­cisco, peo­ple mainly un­der­stood Jews in the­ory.

What thoughts do you have about the #MeToo move­ment and its im­pact on com­edy?

The thing, I think, that gets glossed over in talk­ing about #MeToo in com­edy is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sex­ual as­sault and ha­rass­ment (what re­porters are adorably call­ing “al­leged in­ap­pro­pri­ate mis­con­duct”) and power. There is ob­vi­ously a link be­tween sex­ual as­sault of women in show busi­ness and the num­ber of fe­male di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers and late-night hosts and showrun­ners, and the per­cent­age of women in writ­ers’ rooms and the doc­u­mented gen­der pay dis­par­i­ties.

It’s an op­por­tu­nity for me, not just to feel smug be­cause I have man­aged to get through this life with­out show­ing my pe­nis to any­one at work, but to move more women into po­si­tions of power in en­ter­tain­ment. This isn’t only self­less on my part, it makes ev­ery­one bet­ter.


When I end up on a show with all straight white guy co­me­di­ans, I get bored. The au­di­ence is never 100% straight white guys, and any­one who isn’t is no­tice­ably more in­vested in car­ing about a di­verse show. And when a show is di­verse, it makes me step my game up: Am I ex­plain­ing things clearly to peo­ple who don’t share my ex­pe­ri­ence? Am I re­ally say­ing what I mean? Am I tak­ing lazy short­cuts at some­one’s ex­pense in­stead of writ­ing a bet­ter joke?

Does this new ad­min­is­tra­tion make it easy to do lazy com­edy?

For me as a comic, Trump is the best of times and the worst of times. I mostly stopped writ­ing ma­te­rial about na­tional pol­i­tics dur­ing Obama’s sec­ond term. I was bored. It felt like writ­ing this year’s ver­sion of last year’s jokes. Same ar­gu­ments, same themes. This mo­ment is great for me. A lot of comics feel like they have to talk about na­tional pol­i­tics whether or not they have an in­ter­est­ing take. But for me, it was like be­ing a sleeper agent who got ac­ti­vated. The chal­lenge of writ­ing com­edy about what’s hap­pen­ing now, be­sides the pace and in­ten­sity of the news that I ad­dress on the al­bum, is that sud­denly every co­me­dian is a po­lit­i­cal co­me­dian — in­clud­ing the en­tire in­ter­net. I had jokes I’d writ­ten in the last five years that got dumped be­cause the same idea later be­came a vi­ral meme or some­thing. Now I have to work harder to write more unique jokes be­cause your aunt shared a meme from Ge­orge Takei.

The speed of in­for­ma­tion trans­fer makes it harder.

Yeah, and the other chal­lenge is com­ing up with ma­te­rial that won’t be stale in a week, has an an­gle that only I can do and, hardest of all, can make peo­ple laugh while rec­og­niz­ing how gen­uinely ter­ri­fied they are. When white su­prem­a­cists are mur­der­ing peaceful marchers, and im­mi­grants are be­ing de­ported, do­ing jokes about Trump’s hair feels triv­ial.

‘Trump has done some­thing un­prece­dented by unit­ing Jews and Nazis. He de­serves more credit for that.’

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