Jamie Kilstein is like a punk-rock standup comedian, and not solely because he recently opened for punk icons Bad Religion. He's a comedic renegade whose brash, unflinching political rants have gotten him invited to perform on — and sometimes uninvited from, canceled and booed off — some of the grandest stages on the planet. Those include "Conan," NPR's "Weekend Edition," "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," to name a few. Janeane Garofalo likened Kilstein to "a combination of George Carlin and Bill Hicks." Glenn Beck called him a doofus.
Kilstein, 33, is the cohost of the podcast "Citizen Radio," which he hosts with his wife, writer Allison Kilkenny. Last year, the duo released an acclaimed book, #Newsfail, that takes aim at some of the most pressing issues of the day from a decidedly far-left vantage point. As he described it in his pitch to his publisher, "We are gonna write a weird, filthy political book. It's gonna be antiwar, pro-vegan, feminist, pro-Palestine, and we are gonna take a big shit on all the news shows we need to get booked on to promote it."
That pretty much sums it up. It should also give you an idea of what you can expect when Kilstein appears at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington this Friday, July 17. In advance of that show, Seven Days spoke with the comedian by phone from New York City.
SEVEN DAYS: You recently opened for Bad Religion and performed with Talib Kweli. Why does your style of comedy fit so well with music?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: My answer is gonna be a little more dickish. I mean, now I'm literally playing guitar in my set. But when I opened for Bad Religion, I was just doing my rants, but those rants always had a musicality to them. And I always wanted to put music to them. But even before that, I would see the crowds at concerts and think, Oh, this is my audience. Because at concerts, you see people who are nerds about whatever artists they're there to see. A lot of times they're passionate outcasts, who are the kinds of people who listen to ["Citizen Radio"]. And a lot of bands are politically savvy. But you go into a comedy club and it's a fucking conga line of white dudes telling rape jokes. And it's black-and-white headshots of guys who died in the '80s from coke overdoses, and a two-drink minimum.
I don't think what I do, whether it's the rants or the music or experimenting with the structure of comedy, attracts the kind of people who would go to a brick-wall comedy club. It's kind of antiquated, and it's not my scene. Whereas,the people who don't know me but would like me are more likely to find me on Tumblr, or opening for a band, or at a pro-choice rally. And music was always my first love, anyway.
SD: How did you decide to incorporate guitar into your act?
JK: I've been playing guitar longer than I've been doing standup. I started doing standup when I was 17 and dropped out of high school to do it, but I was playing guitar long before that. So it was a parent's nightmare: What if music falls through? What's your backup plan? Oh, I'm doing comedy!
So last year, my partner, Allison Kilkenny, and I somehow got a big book deal, and we wrote a book, #Newsfail. Simon & Schuster approached us this year and asked us to throw nonfiction ideas at them for another one. But we didn't. We thought that we're doing well enough right now to just use this year to — this sounds cheesy — try our dreams.
I've always wanted to play music, and things are going well enough right now that I wanted to give it a shot. So I bought a guitar after not having one for five years, and I started writing songs and doing them. And they killed, better than my standup. So for the past six months, I've been locking myself in my room and writing for five or six hours a day. I get nervous when people say musical comedy, because you think of a song-parody guy who's kind of shitty at guitar and kind of shitty as a comic, but he changed the words to a Beach Boys song to involve balls or something. But I didn't want to do this unless the musicality was as good as the comedy.
SD: So it's like the thinking man's Tenacious D?
JK: I love that! That's perfect.
SD: The last time we spoke in 2011, advocating for gay rights was a big part of your act. A lot has changed since then, most notably the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. How have you adapted your material?
JK: I remember, after Obama was elected, a reporter asked me if as a comedian I was upset by it, because it meant having to retire certain jokes. And I was like, "No! I'm not a garbage monster." I will happily write 15 new minutes of material, because it means something good has happened. And I feel the same way about same-sex marriage. I mean, it's not like there is a shortage of things to talk about, even now. Homophobia is still an issue. And even among supposedly progressive people, transphobia is a big issue, even in the LGBT community. So, unfortunately, there's always going to be bigotry, so there will always be assholes to go after.
SD: Your bit on liberal racism on your new album made me both laugh out loud and wince. Living in Vermont, a bastion of smug progressivism, it hit close to home.
JK: I remember the first time I went to San Francisco. I was so excited. Like, finally a liberal community that will embrace me. I talked about the war on drugs and everyone cheered. I talked about same-sex marriage and antiwar stuff and every one cheered. But then I started talking about class and they were like, "Whatever! We can still put a Whole Foods where that affordable housing used to be, right?"
I see sexism and racism and classism from self-proclaimed liberals so much, and it's heartbreaking. It's deep-seated. And I'm really happy to call liberals out on that stuff.
SD: You're a political comedian and you're coming to Vermont, so I'm obligated to ask you about Bernie Sanders. Are you feeling the Bern?
JK: Well, my first take is that I will kill anyone you want me to if you can get Bernie Sanders to my show.
My second take is that I love it. It was scary when everyone was blindly supporting Hillary Clinton. Her positions on the war, on Wall Street, on gay marriage two years ago, they're terrible. But what's great about Bernie Sanders ... is that he forces Hillary Clinton to go left. Hillary wouldn't be talking about class, or call the South Carolina shooting terrorism. No way! But she knows now that there is a progressive in her way and she has to go left.
If all she has to debate is fucking Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney and there's no one to the left of them, where does she go? She has to go to the right. But the right is just fucking insane and the center is now the right. So if Bernie is gaining traction, which he is, even if Hillary wins — and I'm starting to think Bernie Sanders has a fucking chance — even if she wins, now there are all of these promises she's made to the left, which is hugely important. That's how you move the bar.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Rant and Rave"