According to right-wing TV host Glenn Beck, standup comedian Jamie Kilstein is a “doofus.” According to comedian Janeane Garofalo, Kilstein is “like watching a combination of Bill Hicks and George Carlin.” Who’s right? That depends on whom you ask.
Kilstein cohosts the web-based “Citizen Radio” with his wife, writer Allison Kilkenny. Much like the hypercharged, progressive political banter that fuels their renegade radio program, Kilstein’s standup act is characterized by provocative and often confrontational commentary on political and social issues. Kilstein wants to get under your skin, to push your buttons. And, much like the late, great Messrs. Hicks and Carlin, his acerbic wit and probing intellect equips him to do exactly that. Just ask Glenn Beck.
Seven Days recently caught up with Kilstein by phone in advance of his upcoming gig at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Friday, January 28.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get started in comedy?
JAMIE KILSTEIN: I started making jokes as a kid because I was being picked on. I think that’s how most comics start, using comedy as a defense mechanism. Also, I wasn’t good at anything else.
SD: Misery seems to be a key character component for a good comic.
JK: The kind of comedy that I hate is the kind of comedy where someone is ... bragging about their good life, like, “Yeah, all these fuckin’ bitches!” And it’s like, wait a second … you’re not a real comic unless you’re miserable.
SD: Are any topics off limits for you?
JK: I think anything can be made funny, and I’m not overly PC. I’m actually super-offensive with my standup. But the kind of comedy that makes me mad is the overtly racist or homophobic shit. Or comics who go after the homeless. It’s like, “Yeah, way to knock them down a peg!” Do we really need to attack these people? It’s so cowardly.
SD: So, what makes great comedy?
JK: I think comedy is this sort of David and Goliath tool for little guys to take down big establishments. Look at what Stephen Colbert did at the White House press correspondents’ dinner [in 2006]. That was a comic completely throwing a wrench into corrupt political and media systems. To me, that’s what comedy should be about.
SD: You were successful in Europe long before you were here. Why is your brand of comedy better received overseas than it is in the U.S.?
JK: The not-as-romantic reason is that the UK and Australia have the same problems we do. I went to Australia and thought I wouldn’t be able to do my gay-rights jokes. But then I found out that gay marriage isn’t legal in Sydney, which has a huge gay population. So, I ended up putting together a fundraiser for this gay-marriage rally. They use America as a whipping boy. But they still make the same mistakes we do. We’re just louder about it. You know in mob movies how there’s always one guy who can’t keep his fucking mouth shut? We’re that guy. We brag about our intolerance. They just do it in much posher accents.
SD: And the romantic reason?
JK: They just respect comedy more. Comedy is seen as a stand-alone art form. The problem with comedy in America is that comedy is not the end goal. Comedy is a stepping-stone — you do comedy to become an actor or become a writer. But when comedy is the end goal, and you play theaters that pay you well and don’t censor you, what’s naturally going to happen is that you’ll push the boundaries as much as possible. Whereas in America, everyone is trying to get their seven-minute Hollywood showcase set where they’re as safe as possible, not pushing any buttons and certainly not offending the networks.
SD: Does originally using comedy as a defense against bullies play a role in your approach to hecklers?
JK: I’ve somehow become notorious for attacking hecklers.
SD: Well, there’s a clip of you ripping into one on the front page of your website.
JK: Is that still up there? I don’t like doing that, necessarily. I work really hard at writing my jokes. So, when that happens, I think the reason that I go into kind of a Hulk rage is because I talk about politics. So, when somebody walks out when I’m talking about gay rights, they’re not just walking out because they don’t think I’m funny, which I’d be fine with. But when you yell “Boring!” when I’m talking about the war, I lose it because you’re being disrespectful, in general. You’re pretty much saying, “I don’t care about the war. I don’t care about the rights of other people.” That puts me over the edge.
SD: Why is heckling so much more prominent in standup than other performance arts?
JK: One, some people do it not knowing they’re ruining the show. All comedy clubs care about is selling drinks, and they don’t police the shows. So, you’ll get these drunk guys coming up to you after the show saying, “Hey, I really helped you out, didn’t I?” And it’s, like, “The bit you interrupted I spent 10 years working on, and it was about my relationship with my father and coming to terms with who he is as a person, and I remember crying over my notebook. But I’m really glad you chimed in with that Mexican joke that had nothing to do with the conversation! That was awesome.”
SD: Are there rules of engagement?
JK: My rule is that I never engage them unless they’re starting to bother the people around them. Then I go after them, because I’m defending the people around them who paid to see my act … and you’re bothering me.
SD: OK. Why did Glenn Beck call you a “doofus”?
JK: My wife and I did an anti-Glenn Beck episode on our show, where besides just making fun of him, we had on two guests who, during the election, he had pretty much blamed for the destruction of society. It was Bertha Lewis from ACORN, a community-organizing group that helps poor people — and was the reason “community organizing” suddenly became a bad term. And we had Bill Ayers who [Beck] called a terrorist because he was part of the Weather Underground during [the Vietnam War]. But it was the most moving episode we’ve ever done. Bertha Lewis coined the term “political necrophilia” — “We’re already dead, and yet you’re still fucking us.” Anyway, [Beck] got wind of it and started going after us on the show — while playing our clips. It’s the best blurb I’ve ever had.
Jamie Kilstein performs at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge on Friday, January 28, at 8 p.m. $12/14. 18+. Martha Tormey opens.