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Kate Clinton on the art of political comedy

Political humorist Kate Clinton is approaching three decades in the comedy biz, using her wry humor and intelligence to incite audiences toward engagement and activism. With her concert schedule, her most recent book I Told You So coming out in paperback this spring, and a dynamic Web site that features weekly vlog postings, Clinton's energy and passion for her craft burn brighter than ever.

Kate Clinton :: david rodgers
Kate Clinton 
credit :: david rodgers
Chicago audiences will have the opportunity to get motivated by Clinton on Sunday, Jan. 24, when she brings her Lady HaHa tour to Center on Halsted for a one-night-stand during which she promises to "pop the air out of deniers and disruptors, birthers and derthers, conservadems and bibliocrats, the -stans and the bans, spine flu and whine flu, ex-gays and A-gays, the audacity of nope and, of course, the pope."

Clinton and her longtime partner, national LGBT-rights activist Urvashi Vaid, were in Provincetown, Mass., enjoying a holiday news respite before Clinton begins touring mid-January. "We had a very Hindu Christmas," said Clinton. "Vaid calls herself a HinJew—she goes to a movie and eats Chinese food. We saw It's Complicated. It was pleasant—I love to watch heteronormativity going down."

It is Clinton's practice to keep up with news stories on a daily basis, reading the paper each morning with Vaid. The ritual is "a great barometer—whatever makes both our heads blow up. I think there's a kind of zing or resonance that brings me to talk about a particular issue," she said.

"Vaid has learned never to say to me ‘Oh, that's not funny!' because that is exactly what I'll do. If she gets nervous about something I'm doing I think, ‘excellent, I've done my job.' She's actually getting very crafty these days and won't say when she finds something not funny. If she just ignores it, I might ignore it too.

"My first job is to make everyone laugh and hopefully to have food come out of their ears and mouth. Nose as well," she said. "I love to laugh. It's my favorite—well, okay my second favorite—activity. And that is primarily what I want people to do."

But the point is not to dissipate outrage, but to stimulate action. "I think the danger of political comedy is that sometimes people have such a good time and laugh so hard that they blow off their steam and feel great and walk out and don't feel like they have to do anything," she cautioned. "What I'd like to happen is that yes, we enjoy being together and we have our moment, but they are still fired up enough to do something when they get out of the show."

While Clinton admits that the total immersion in current events can sometimes be overwhelming, she's not concerned personally about information overload. "There's a certain amount of detachment you have to have. After you get your head blown off you have to be able to step back and work and work on it," she said. "It's true for all activism. It's certainly true for the kinds of things you see on Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Rachel Maddow. There's that initial blast, but then they've had to work on it. There's a kind of release."

"I take all the news information and do some filtering and analysis. An example of that would be this past summer. I'm very interested—as we all are—that some people are so angry that we have an African American President.

"I think [the Obama presidency] is so wonderful and so changing on so many levels. But I think that a lot of people thought, ‘Okay, now we elected him and now we're done.' There were a whole lot of things that were happening over the summer and so I strung them together and said that we are having a summer seminar on race," she said, noting news coverage of Michael Jackson's death, the arrest of Harvard Professor Louis Henry "Skip" Gates and the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Racism and sexism are [choices], as is homophobia. So just stop it. And recently, the whole question of poverty and capitalism. Doesn't that sound like fun?

"I mean can you imagine how fun it was to be a comedian after 9/11 and up to the war and during a stolen election? I just thought Bush was so nuts. But people were freaked out about their homeland security so they believed him when he said that we needed to go into Iraq. People left my show because they were so upset. Then I learned to frame it in a personal way. To talk about the ways I identified with Bush: we both like to work out; we don't like to admit when we are wrong; we have a vague notion of history and geography. That was the way that the audiences could hear it.

"Now I am very much focused on reminding people to stay involved. The midterms are coming and as crippling as the [President Bill] Clinton midterms were we don't want that to happen to President Obama. He does have some good ideas," Clinton said.

She worries about voter pessimism and "the total negativity of the Senate and what he's up against. We have to maintain our numbers and people have to be as crazy as they were for the presidential election. In a stunning amount of time one man—Bush—was able to destroy everything. But it is harder and longer to fix things. There are a lot of wonderful things happening that are percolating up. Democracy takes longer than fascism. I'm looking forward to some substantive changes that are coming up slowly through committee. There is some funding and support for LGBT issues loosening up within government departments. People are listening to us. This is no time to get pessimistic. We are just getting going."

Tickets for Clinton's Jan. 24 show—which will take place at 6 p.m. at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted—are $40 each, general admission. Visit www.centeronhalsted.org or call 773-472-6469, ext. 446.

Written by: MICKI LEVENTHAL
 
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