For many Americans, the events of Nov. 9, 2016, still seem like some sort of cruel cosmic joke. How could the United States of America — one of the bastions of liberal democracy — elect a man whose campaign was built on fear and hate? While that question remains unanswered, a group of comics is seeking to alleviate the pain with some much-needed lightheartedness.
On Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day — 28 cities across the country (as well as Oxford, England) will be hosting local incarnations of What a Joke, a comedy festival with proceeds benefitting the American Civil Liberties Union. Madison’s event kicks off at 7 p.m. at the Majestic Theater. And, as local producer Alan Talaga, an Isthmus contributor, puts it, “you can’t throw a nationwide protest and not have Madison involved.”
The headliner, Nate Craig, has more than a passing familiarity with Madison’s political legacy. The Los Angeles-based comic is a Madison native, a graduate of both West High and UW-Madison, and someone who believes in comedy as a force for social change.
Craig, who has appeared on Last Comic Standing and MTV’s Ridiculousness, says he doesn’t want to force political comedy on an unwilling audience. “I personally prefer my comedy much more threatening, but when talking about moving people to consider different perspectives, I’m not sure how effective it is,” says Craig. “I can’t say how many Reagan Republicans enjoyed [George] Carlin’s later work.”
The challenge, says Craig, would be to get people who don’t agree already to still enjoy the jokes.
Reena Calm, a Chicago-based comic who will be joining Craig on the bill, agrees. “The longer I do comedy, the more I want my jokes to matter. I mean, of course the point is to have fun and to be funny, but the moment I realized I could be funny and say something I cared about, there was no turning back.”
For Talaga, booking the two comics was a no-brainer.
“It was important to book comedians who cared about the cause of the fundraiser. Nate and Reena both passionately care about civil rights and civil liberties, the issues that the ACLU fights for.”
“Comedians have helped me process everything I know about the world,” adds Calm. “If it weren’t for political humor, I wouldn’t be able to deal with the actual news. Funny is funny, and the world is super messed up. If you can’t find a way to laugh at it, I feel bad for you.”