John F. O'Donnell is a Washington, D.C.-based stand-up comedian and political correspondent for Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp on RT America. Since acquiring a Congressional Press credential, he has actively covered the U.S. presidential primary debates on location for Redacted Tonight, racking up memorable encounters with Donald Trump supporters, Republican party members like Lindsey Graham, Rudolph Giulianni, and Karl Rove, as well as Green Party supporters unhappy that candidate Jill Stein was not part of the debates.
O'Donnell co-founded the weekly live comedy show Live From Outer Space (along with comedian/musician Ben Kronberg), which features a lineup of diversely experienced stand-ups every Friday evening at Cobra Club in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The event's name is taken from O'Donnell's website, where he still posts videos of his Redacted Tonight segments and makes selected stand-up sets available for download. The success of Live From Outer Space led to the involvement of comedians Erik Bergstrom, Amber Nelson, and Max Bruno who currently oversee the show with O'Donnell having moved to Washington, D.C. He previously co-founded the first recurring comedy show at The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City, which has since become a favorite venue for stand-up comics in New York City and beyond.
On October 29th at 9:45 PM, O'Donnell will take the stage at the D.C. Improv Comedy Club to tape a one-hour stand-up special during the annual Bentzen Ball (purchase tickets here) with opening act Dave Hill and host Amber Nelson.
On the eve of his on-site coverage of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I interviewed O'Donnell at The Creek and The Cave. We discussed Live From Outer Space, Redacted Tonight, his many friends in the NYC comedy community, his past struggles with mental illness, and converting that experience into material for his stand-up.
On Live From Outer Space
I started the site Live From Outer Space, and I was just DIY-style releasing EPs of different series of 20-minute and 30-minute sets. My cousin Christopher Soprano was doing really interesting artwork for them, and I was just releasing them direct to fans, like the pay-what-you-want model. This was probably back in 2010 moving forward. So I did Live From Outer Space: Volumes 1-8 over the past few years from 2011 to 2014. Basically, I was just trying to have sort of an umbrella brand for what I was doing. Then I would do a one-off live show called Live From Outer Space and try to put on bigger shows. I did some shows at Webster Hall and some other venues and stuff like that.
Me and Ben [Kronberg] always wanted to do a live show together, so we found this small music venue and wine bar called Zirzamin. There was a really rad space in the back, and we had that show for a while. It was called Live From Outer Space. Then that place closed. But right around that time we found Cobra Club, and so we continued it there. When Cobra Club started, we knew the location was dope and we knew the bar was really cool, but that back room at the time was just being used for yoga. So it wasn’t a proper venue. It was just this big vacuous space that was very echoey, but the venue owners and the booker told us that they were going to make all these changes to the room. Over time they were going to fix it up, and we wanted to get in early with them.
As our show was organically building by word of mouth at this point, we brought on Erik Bergstrom to work with us. As more and more people were coming, they were making all the improvements to the room they said they would, and then it just kind of organically by word of mouth became this really fun weekly show. Then at one point, Ben started going on the road constantly, so he would just be there every once in a while. Then sometime later, I ended up getting this job on Redacted Tonight, so I moved to D.C. I was still coming back and running it when I could, and Erik was really holding it down for a while. Then we asked Amber Nelson if she wanted to be involved and help out and host. It was just a great infusion of energy having her involved.
For a long time, I wanted Live From Outer Space to be somewhat of an equivalent of Greg Barris’ Heart of Darkness. It’s sort of his umbrella for everything he does. So I thought it would be a cool thing if my comedy is Live From Outer Space. If I go on a tour—a mini-tour—it’s a Live From Outer Space thing. All my albums are these different things like that. I was getting a podcast off the ground (and I actually have a couple of recordings of it), but then all of that stuff sort of became static for a good reason: I moved a lot energy over to working on Redacted Tonight. So Live From Outer Space still exists and I upload my videos to it. But right now, outside of the live show (which I am so proud to be part of and happy to have that tether to New York at least one weekend a month) that’s pretty much where Live From Outer Space is.
On curating Live From Outer Space lineups
We’re very obviously tapped into this New York City comedy scene—this extended dysfunctional family. We’ve been around for years, all of us, so we’re lucky enough to have friendships and relationships with all these great comics that are more than happy to jump on the L train and come out to Bushwick. Then Ben was constantly making connections with comics all over the country, so we’ve always been really good at throwing a bone to visiting comics and getting them on. We make sure to put on a good show, but at the same time we’re not super exclusionary with who’s getting booked. We’ll put on a good mix of comics at different levels. I’ve always been cool about that. I think Ben is super-cool about that. I mean, every once in a while there would be the slightest bit of friction where I’d be like, “Dude, there are just too many comics on right now because there’s too many out-of-towners.” He’d be like, "Listen, I don’t want to be a gatekeeper icing somebody out,” and I’m like, "OK, but we want to give people more than five minutes.”
But I think, ultimately, I deferred to his mentality about it. So we’ve always been cool like that. When it was Ben, Erik, and myself, we all really like each other’s comedy a lot even though our styles are kind of differentiated. But I think we like that we are doing our own thing. There is still an offbeat kind of comedy to what we do, and I think Amber fits in perfectly to that as well. We have been putting up a fun, good show, and it’s just been a great thing. All these years in New York, I’ve produced so many different shows at so many venues, and I always wanted that weekly show where audiences come out organically and they have a high comedy I.Q.—they’re good crowds, they’re open to you being experimental—and we have that. I mean, these crowds that come out to the show, they really want to have a good time, and I think they’re smart and openminded and interesting people. So it’s great to get to perform for them.
On Live From Outer Space hosts
I knew Erik Bergstrom right when he started comedy. I'm pretty sure the first show he did—his first set—was the open mic at the Kingdom of Heaven at The Creek and The Cave—mine and Timmy Williams's show. When Erik first started, he was still figuring it out. But I knew. I was like, "This guy is going to be so fucking funny," because he had such a unique take. Being able to do these weird, dark one-liners, and the way that his mind works in order to come up with this stuff, the amount of material that he has—he's one of those rare comics who has jokes that I'm happy to hear again and again. I'm not saying that he's not making new content. I'm saying, "Oh, that joke! Oh, that joke!" A lot of times with comics, we're like, "Yeah, that's funny, but I've heard that." But he's got a couple where I still think about them. I tell people his jokes. His joke about Jell-O where he's like, "Did you guys hear that Jell-O has a new campaign to try make them seem cool again? Oh, come on, Jell-O. You don't need to try so hard. You had me at Kool-Aid mixed with horse bones." I can just listen to that forever. Then he's like, "Tried to make butterscotch the other day. Turns out it's more than just those two ingredients. Still delicious." I love that. I think that's what I love so much about Live From Outer Space and the comedians involved. I truly find them all to be so funny. They really are amongst my favorite comedians, so it's just really cool to get to work with them.
Ben Kronberg makes me laugh so much. Interpersonally, socially, hanging out with him—he's one of my favorite people to be around. We really get each other, and it's clear that we've got each other's backs. I really learned something about comedy from Ben. His first year in New York, he was experimenting with how much laughter he could get in silence. He developed that persona. It would be this thing where he would do jokes, and a lot of times it would work. But if it didn't work, he would be so OK with the silence before he would go on to his next thing, where I was like, "How can he possibly be OK with this?" It really showed me if you hold your ground, and really trust yourself, and know what you're doing—even if you're not getting laughs for a while—and you can hold on, you can bring it back around. And fuck it, why not do that? He really pushed through, and I watched him do it in so many shows. Because we were doing a lot of shows together—this was 4-5 years ago—and it was just cool as hell to see. It was just beautiful to learn that from him.
Amber Nelson is such a good comedian. Her presence on stage is amazing. She's very honest, and she's hilarious and really fun. There's no pretension with her. There's no bullshit at all. She can always crack open a room. If she's hosting the show, it's always going to be a good time. All these people, too, they're really good people. They're people that I trust. They're people that I'm glad to be friends with. They're some of my best friends, and we all get to do a comedy show together.
Max Bruno is fucking hilarious. Max has been in the city for a couple of years, so he's newer to this scene. But he's got these great comedy chops. He'd always come around and just be hanging out at Cobra Club. He was never pushy for spots or anything like that. I wouldn't hold that against him, but it's just not his way. Clearly, he likes what's going on there. So the dude who was doing our sound, he wasn't going to be able to do it anymore. We wanted to bring somebody in that would be a good fit. Also somebody who, while doing that, we can throw them spots. So we asked Max if he wanted to do it, and he was like, "Yes, absolutely." Then he was doing so well in the show that now we have him host sometimes, and he does spots. So he's become part of it. What's so cool is he's happy to be a part of Live From Outer Space. I'm excited to see the things that he's going to do in his career because he's very, very funny.
On The Creek and The Cave
I’m fortunate enough to have an interesting role in the development of this place. The Creek and The Cave is a very important comedy venue in New York because it’s such a nurturing and cultivating ground for so many comics moving in to New York. They can find a sense of community here, and I think they put on really great shows. But some time ago in 2007, myself and Timmy Williams from Whitest Kids U' Know—we’re good pals and we wanted to start a show together—we were bouncing around. He was living in Greenpoint at the time, and I was living in LIC, actually a few blocks away from The Creek and The Cave. We were just looking at different spaces to try and put on the show. We actually wanted to have an open mic. We thought that would be cool.
So we were looking at all these different places, and we saw this bar and Mexican restaurant, The Creek and The Cave. We walked in, we saw they had this black box theater in there, and so we talked to the owner, Rebecca [Trent], and we were like, “Hey, would you be interested in having a comedy show?” She was like, “Oh, we’ve never done comedy here. Yeah, sure, let’s try it out.” Then it became this thing where all these comedians were coming every week, and it was really our place, and it felt like our comedy clubhouse, and we put on great shows. We did this thing where we had a mic, we’d pick the names out of a bucket—so it would be like 10 names would get pulled—and everybody would get five minutes. Then there would be a bucket spot—we called it something like The Funny Come Lately, where we would pull another name out right before. We would have a headliner every week called the Comedian of Merit that would do like 15-20 minutes. It was so fun.
We got awesome comedians in here and did that. Pete Holmes did it, Reggie Watts did it, Anthony Jeselnik did it, Kumail [Nanjiani] did it. I’m pretty sure [Amy] Schumer did it. It was great. It was a mic where regular folks would come out and watch. It was such a fun time. Even though not every comic who came out was getting up there, they knew they would get up eventually and it ended up being pretty equitable. We put on a good show, and it became really popular. We were doing every other Wednesday, and the opposite Wednesday was this great sketch group called The Jerk Practice. Over time, programming got expanded and a lot of other people got involved. A lot of really great comics also helped cultivate and build this place, and obviously Rebecca has become very ingrained in the comedy community. I joke with her sometimes, like, “You know, we drastically changed the trajectory of your life,” and she’s like, “Yeah, I know.” So now it’s this venue where all this great stuff happens. The Legion of Skanks has that podcast with Jay Oakerson, Dave Smith, and Luis J. Gomez. They had Skankfest here, this big comedy festival. It was so fun, and this was of course the natural place to do it because this is a lot of comedians' favorite place to be. So just to know that I got to be part of the first show that was here—that’s a cool thing.
On the Washington, D.C. comedy scene
I knew there were going to be good comics in D.C., but I was pleasantly surprised with how cool the scene is. I think I got there at a good time because things had really been cultivating over the past few years. There has always been stuff around. There’s always been the DC Improv, which is one of the best clubs in the country. So it’s really cool how, with all these other things that are happening in this scene, there is that anchor of that club where the crowds are great, it’s run so well, and it’s got that history there. There is all this kind of alt-comedy and DIY stuff happening.
There’s this thing called Underground Comedy run by Sean Joyce, and he’s put together different shows at different venues like every night of the week. Sometimes multiple shows, and some of those shows are booked shows, but a lot of them are booked mics. Some of them get really big audiences. So it’s pretty cool for me, being very busy with a job, that when I have time I know I can bounce around and do my spots. So that’s appreciated. There’s a venue called The Big Hunt where a lot of people hang out because it’s not just a comedy club, but there is a comedy room downstairs that’s awesome. So I wouldn’t say it’s the equivalent to The Creek and The Cave, but it’s sort of a hang like that.
Then the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse is a beautiful venue, super cool, run very well. They just opened a second venue in D.C. proper called Drafthouse Comedy Theater that’s more of a black box theater comedy space. So there’s shows going on there. There’s a lot of rad comedy opportunities. The Black Cat, which is this great music venue that's been around for a long time, does cool shows. So I’ve gotten to do some spots there. There’s multiple awesome comedy festivals. The Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival, which is curated by Tig Notaro and Brightest Young Things, which is this culture and live-event site based in D.C. They cover a lot of different things, they do a lot of live events, and they put on this awesome festival. I’ve been lucky enough to get to be a part of that for the last couple of years. I get to perform at the Lincoln Theatre, which is this beautiful historic theater where Dave Chappelle recorded Killing Them Softly. So D.C. is a cool scene. Honestly, it’s a feeder scene to New York and L.A. So you’ll find comics, as they’re getting really strong, sometimes they’ll move. So for me, it was kind of a weird reverse thing where I’ve been grinding away in New York for a decade like this comedy rat, and then I moved down to D.C, which is like a different-tier city. So it’s been fun. I was a little worried, but I’m actually pleasantly surprised.
Now I'm recording an hour special in late October. This is a big deal for me. I'm recording it during the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival at the D.C. Improv in their side lounge. It's like a 60-seater—cool, low ceilings. Two shows. It's being directed by Brendan Canty from Fugazi, which is blowing my mind. He likes my comedy and he likes Redacted Tonight. Amber is going to come host. I was going to have Erik and Ben do opening spots, but they weren't available. The opener is Dave Hill. I was just in Ann Arbor doing a headline set, so I kind of ran a version of it that I'm working on. Honestly, I used to talk about my bipolar disorder for a long time, and then I went away from it. So I'm going back to that stuff. I've kind of culled the best material from that. But I used to ease the crowd into that stuff. Now, for this special, I'm essentially opening with all of that. I've got one bit that's more of a silly, broader thing, then I'm getting right into the mental illness stuff. Then I'm going to transition into some different political stuff. Then it goes into some stuff about other different social things, but stays sort of political. Then it's just different jobs I did to get to where I am. Right now, we just want to try to get something solid and interesting, and then we'll figure out distribution afterwards.
On Redacted Tonight
I’ve known Lee Camp for a very long time. We were both starting in the city around the same period, and at the time I was in that West Village scene. I was barking outside the Boston Comedy Club, handing out flyers to get stage time. The Boston Comedy Club was this club right around the block from the Comedy Cellar. It had always been an underdog club, because it was called the Boston Comedy Club and it was in New York City, but so many comics got their start there. So Lee would always be bouncing around that scene, and we would cross paths and chat. Here and there we would be on the same show, but our comedy paths went in very different directions. So we would just cross paths here and there, but we always had a mutual respect for each other’s comedy. So maybe four or five years ago, he was offered potentially a pilot that was kind of the equivalent of VH1’s talking-head shows, but about political issues, and so he asked me to come in and audition for that. We both actually forgot about that when it came back around and he asked me to audition for Redacted Tonight. But we have a close mutual friend, Negin Farsad, who is a comedian and filmmaker. So Lee was like, “Who should I ask to submit for this thing?” And she was like, “Oh, what about John?” I was living with her at the time. He’s like, “Oh, that would be great.” It was the sort of thing where our comedy paths met after all of these years, and now we are super tight, and I love getting to work with him. It’s a great thing to get to be a part of, and I am very proud of the work we’re doing.
"We just passed 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, which is exciting for us. I think that the election year has helped us a lot because more people seem to be tuned in to politics."
I’ve finally maybe cracked the code a little bit on the desk segment thing, like within the past three desk segments I did. I do those every other week, and then the other weeks I do a pre-taped package segment. I finally think I cracked the code on having a little bit more confidence in the content, in the words, and in the writing, so I don’t feel like I have to sell it as much. I’m playing it a little more low energy, a little more deadpan, and it’s actually been very fun to write from that perspective. In terms of the show evolving, I think that it’s just our ability to wrap our head around these stories, push out the "redacted angles" as we call it (the information that is not necessarily prevalent), and then figuring out how to put it through some funny lenses so it’s a comedy show.
What’s nice is that we’ve gotten some traction. It’s been a slow build for us to find our audience. So now it’s at a point where a good amount of people are watching the videos. We just passed 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, which is exciting for us. I think that the election year has helped us a lot because more people seem to be tuned in to politics. So we’re hoping we don’t take a big dip after that. But I think we’re good. I think format-wise, we’ve changed a bit, but we’ve stayed pretty consistent. Lee has his opening rant segment, then news stories, and then generally the desk segment. For a while we were doing these fake ads, like this sillier part of the show, because we can go after any corporations or advertisers. We don’t have to worry about any of that, so we were directly mocking them. Some of those things earlier on were some of our videos that were getting the most traction. But now it’s sort of changed, where that more silly thing isn’t as much working with our sensibility for what we’re doing, so we don’t even really do that part anymore. The videos that are getting more hits are the substantive pieces, the pre-taped packages, and obviously Lee’s segments.
One of the cool things is that, because we’re on a news channel, I’ve been able to get a congressional press credential. If you have that press credential, then you can apply to get credentialed for all these different political events. I look at some of the things I’ve been through in my life, and the idea that I have this thing is bonkers to me, and it’s so exciting. So I’ve gotten to go in, and I covered a bunch of the presidential primary debates. I’m in my suit. I got my right-wing narc haircut. I look like a CIA agent from the 1950s, so I look the part. What’s good is the show is under the radar enough that people don’t know who I am, so it’s the perfect kind of angle to troll them without them knowing it.
"...if I am talking to really reactionary people, folks that I think are putting up a message or ideology that is hurtful for our country and for the world, I will kill them with kindness. I will drown them in their own arrogance and ego."
Basically, I have two sort of styles. If I am talking to somebody that I think has an interesting point of view and I want to help amplify what they’re talking about and kind of facilitate them to be able to speak at length about what they want to speak about, I’ll oftentimes be like, “Listen, I’m going to play the heel right now. I’m going to be villainous towards you, but it’s just so you can open up and do your thing.” But if I am talking to really reactionary people, folks that I think are putting up a message or ideology that is hurtful for our country and for the world, I will kill them with kindness. I will drown them in their own arrogance and ego. I’ll know enough about them that I can be super-geeked about what they’re about, to the point where they really think that I am on their side. I'll ask them initial questions that I know they are going to want to answer, and then I figure out ways to mess with them without them really knowing it.
For example, Lindsey Graham, who is a senator from South Carolina. There was this side event at one of the debates called Politics on Tap. So CNN was trying to do these kind of informal, fun things where there is going to be a loose interview with a political person and it’s going to take place in a brew pub. So I was in Boulder, Colorado at this microbrewery, and I know this interview is going to happen, and it’s all basically journalists and reporters. Before it starts, the guy who’s running the event is like, “OK, you guys want to get a great thrill before we start? Lindsey Graham is going to pour pints for you,” and I’m like, "Holy shit, I’ve got to record this in some way and mess with this guy." So my camera dude was in there, and I was like, "All right, dude, just line up on the side of the bar, give me this little mic here, I’m going to talk to him, and let’s just get this."
So my whole angle was, I’m going to pretend to be a Lindsey Graham super fan. Like who the fuck is a Lindsey Graham super fan? So when I’m in line with all these other people, I’m like, “Oh my God, guys, Lindsey Graham is going to pour us beers! Isn’t that cool?!” and everyone’s like, “Yeah, I guess so.” I was in character the whole time. This was the Republican primary. He was running for president, but he wasn’t polling high enough for that 1% threshold to get on the main stage of the debate, so he was on the undercard, as it was called. They had these JV debates that would air earlier that no one would watch. You wouldn’t get coverage. Those candidates were so mad to not get access to the main debate, so I knew he was upset about it. And because he was on this foreign relations subcommittee, he was like, “This is ridiculous! I have more national security experience than everybody combined!” That was like his tagline, so I knew that.
So I go up to him and I'm like, “Lindsey, this is ridiculous! I can’t believe it! You have more security experience than everybody combined! It’s so ridiculous that you are on the undercard for these debates! They keep saying there is not enough room for all the trolls underneath the bridge! That’s awful!” And he is like, “Oh, thank you very much." That was my way of calling him a troll without him knowing it. I was like the last person he poured a beer for. So he was about to walk away, and I was like, “Wait, Lindsey! Can I get a walnut dark brown? Can I get a walnut dark brown?” It was some weird beer, and he is like, “Yeah, OK." So he came back and poured it, but it was one of those that you’ve got to let settle. So I’m like, “You’ve got to let it settle! You’ve got to let it settle!” and he is like, “Yeah, I know.” Then he poured it, and it had a lot of head, and I’m like,” Lindsey Graham pours a beer with a lot of head!” and he walked away. It was so friggin' weird.
I try to figure out a narrative and an angle for these things. So, for example, I covered this thing Democracy Spring. These people marched from Philly to D.C. in order to protest and spread awareness about trying to get money out of politics and restoring voting rights for people. They did a mass civil disobedience thing where they all got arrested on the capitol. So like over 1,000 people got arrested, and it wasn’t getting much mainstream media coverage. So a lot of times when these men-on-the-street people are talking to protestors and activists, they try to find the quirkiest, weirdest person, or low information person to be like, "Look at these guys. They’re ridiculous. They’re just angry for nothing," or "They’re lazy,” or whatever. So I wanted to flip that on its head. So I pretended to be that condescending person, but used it as a way to speak to people who really had a very strong grasp of the issues and were able to eloquently explain their position. So that was a fun thing to bounce around. It was cool because a lot of people in that community really appreciated that. They were like, "OK, cool." Every once in a while, someone didn’t know I was messing around and they were like, "This is ridiculous you're here." Then someone would be like, “No, no, no, he is on your side.” That was a cool experience.
It’s usually me and a camera person. At some of the primary debates we had a producer, but usually not. So I’m covering the first presidential debate, and it’s just going to be me and the camera person. I’m still trying to figure it out—what angle I want to do for this debate. Me and Lee are going to have a phone conversation to try to sort that out. I’m thinking maybe the theme will be about all the stuff that is not covered in this debate because I feel like there are so many important issues going on, but my instinct is that they are not going to be covering everything. Like it’s going to be done in a very narrow sense. So we’ll see if that happens. It’s interesting right now for Redacted Tonight because we’re left of the two-party system. We’re left of the Democrats. So it’s a strange thing when we’ve got this whole monstrosity of Donald Trump, but at the same time ideologically we are different politically from Hillary Clinton’s politics. So it kind of sucks a little bit. Because if we’re critiquing Hillary (and not cheap shots, but in substantive ways), is that in a sense helping Donald Trump even though we’re definitely going after him as well? Maybe that’s OK. I don’t necessarily think our job is not to do that. I think our job is to just call out all of this stuff.
On each Presidential candidate's "redacted angle"
Donald Trump—one of the things that can get to him is questioning if he really is as rich as he says he is. Because he very well may not have as much money as he says he has, but that is something that is off-limits. I read an article about how when Comedy Central had the roast of him, one of the writers said they found out what topics were off-limits, and pretty much the only thing was you couldn’t talk about him not having as much money as he said he did. So the fact that that's not really hounded on is one. Another redacted angle, in a more politically substantive way, is that the bill of goods that he is selling to a lot of his supporters is bullshit. I think he is assessing the problem of what neoliberal policies on free trade has done to certain people in our country. There’s winners and losers from global trade, and a lot of hardworking people in America have been really negatively affected by it. But his solution of saying he's just going to bring back all these manufacturing jobs, and that he's going to unleash the energy of America, and unleash the energy of "beautiful clean coal" as he calls it—there are so many market forces and things that aren’t going to allow for that. So he's just playing these people.
The Hillary Clinton thing—the primary was such a bloodbath and so ugly. Say what you will about Bernie Sanders, but it does really seem like he got done wrong. You saw what happened in New York. So many people got purged off those voter rolls. Yeah, fair enough, not all of them were voting for Bernie Sanders. But guess what? A large majority were. Because it was the first time they were registered, and it was the first time they were voting, and a lot of those first-time voters were voting for him. So all that stuff happened. The DNC leaks came out, and then people didn't focus much on the substance of the leaks. They just focused on the alleged origins of the leaks. Also, the Debbie Wasserman Schultz thing. She had to step down. Obviously, something was bad in these things if she had to step down as the head of the DNC, and then within the same day she got hired as an honorary co-chair of Hillary's campaign. I mean, how is that appealing to the entire progressive wing of all these energized, interested folks that are engaged in politics, some for the first time? Doing something like that is really a kick in the face. You look at the funding of her campaign, this Hillary Victory Fund, this sort of joint committee PAC. It's not breaking the law, but it's really bending campaign finance laws to their breaking point. So things like that can bother people.
In terms of foreign policy stuff, I watched her speech at AIPAC, American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Big event, and it was like a right-wing Netanyahu talking-point sort of thing. There are a lot of people in the Israeli government who think what's going on with Netanyahu and the Likud party is so right-wing. Their secretary of defense resigned a few months ago saying, "This is getting crazy and fascist," and stuff like that. I listened to Bernie's speech—he wasn't there, but he gave a foreign policy speech, and I read the transcript. People would always say he didn't have the experience. But what he wrote there, the nuance and really trying to implement some diplomacy—to me it resonated a lot more.
On Redacted Tonight stories and staff
We come up with the stories that we want to do. Sometimes we have a meeting with the news director and we're like, "Hey, we want to do this," and then he's like, "OK," and then we do it. It’s unbelievable. Because of that, we can do really in-depth, more politically dense wonky stuff. It’s always a challenge to try to make it funny. So, for example, I just covered a story that hadn't gotten much coverage about this UK hacktivist and political organizer, Lauri Love, who the U.S. is trying to extradite. He could face up to 99 years in prison for hacks of U.S. government agency computers, but there was really no actual malicious fallout from it. It wasn't done for malicious self-gain. It was done as a political protest and action in response to Aaron Swartz being pushed to suicide because of over-prosecutorial behavior, and because of a vindictive criminal justice system.
Aaron Swartz was very instrumental in stopping SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which kept the Internet open and free. He also was very instrumental in so many other things. He's a co-founder of Reddit, Creative Commons, and he was just a brilliant, brilliant person. He released academic journals from MIT that were behind a pay wall, that unless you had a lot of resources you couldn't even get access to this wealth of information. Was it illegal? Yes. But should he have faced 35 years in prison for that? I don't think so. So this was in response to that, and we got to really talk about this law called the CFAA, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and how it doesn't differentiate between hacks that are malicious and for personal gain and ones that are for a political statement or for the greater good even. That law’s been around since the '80s.
So I really got to go into depth about that. I think that's somewhat unique to our show. Obviously, John Oliver does these long-form things and goes very in-depth. Obviously, The Daily Show covers very important shit. So does Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I thought The Nightly Show was doing really interesting stuff, and they were talking about race and identity in a really cool way, among other things, so I was sad to see that go. I kind of look at it like we're all in the same sandbox, but the idea of progressive, humanistic political satire shows being in competition with each other, to me, is ridiculous. We're all kind of a team, even if we don't know each other. There's so much information constantly swirling around, if you can kind of package and present it in this satirical funny way, it resonates with people.
We have a very skeleton crew. It's Lee, myself, and we have another correspondent who essentially has the same job I do, Naomi Karavani, who's doing a great job. She's the newest cast member. We had Carlos Delgado, and he left recently, so we're actually in the hunt for a new person right now. Then we have our producer, Phillip Chang, who kind of organizes the show, does all the graphics, a lot of the editing, and keeps the wheels on the whole thing. Lee writes the lion's share of his stuff, and then we all write our own stuff. I write my stuff, Naomi writes her stuff, and then we all help each other out. We all look at the different drafts after that, and we give each other [notes]. Usually, it's a joke idea that's punched up, and we go back and forth, and we really get into it about that. It's fun, but at times it gets pretty fiery. We take it very seriously.
"It took me almost fifteen years to get a steady gig in comedy. I feel prepared for it, and I think it's some of the best work that I've ever done."
Me and Lee at this point are like a bickering married couple. Sometimes we’ll be screaming at each other, and it's about some ridiculous joke, like, “You really want to say taint there, really?!” and we're yelling at each other in this newsroom, and people are like, “What the hell is going on?” But at the end of the day, we really care about what we're doing. Naomi is great. She brings a great energy to it all, and she's really tough. So we constantly keep each other sharp. But it is pretty amazing what we are able to do with how few people there are on the staff because we have to do a lot of jobs that would be somebody else's whole position. So we also take care of some of the less glamorous aspects like the administrative stuff. We have to write the metadata, all the information about the full episode and the individual clips that are going to go online on YouTube and Facebook and all that sort of stuff.
We had a great intern for a little while, Jessy Morner-Ritt, and she did great. She was rocking the whole social media thing for us, and we were really building. But now she’s gone and, until we get somebody else, that falls on us again. So we’re doing all of that stuff. We’re writing it, we're researching it, and we're performing it. I’ve talked to friends of mine that write on The Daily Show, and they're like, “Yeah, I'm the comedy side as a writer, and then there’s the people who know about politics who do that. They put it together, and then there are the on-air correspondents." So we’re doing it all.
I spend a lot of time at the office. Lee can write a lot faster than I can. Sometimes it's hard for me to focus in the space that we're in. It's not totally ideal for comedy writing, so sometimes I stay real late. It's a lot of hours, but it's joyful. Even though it gets very stressful, I'm not complaining because it's exactly what I want to be doing. It took me almost fifteen years to get a steady gig in comedy. I feel prepared for it, and I think it's some of the best work that I've ever done.
On his reading habits
One of the casualties of me reading political articles all day at work is that I can't finish a book anymore. I'm in the middle of three books. I've been in the middle of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for way too long. I've been in the middle of Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins for way too long. I've also been in the middle of Phil Oakes's biography for way too long. Phil Oakes was a great protest musician, a contemporary of Dylan's, whose shit is much edgier than Dylan's. I was frustrated. I only found out about him within the past year or so and I was like, "Why don't I know who this guy is?" So I've been trying to read his biography.
But what I do read is a number of alternative media sources. When it comes to foreign policy stuff, The Intercept is really doing interesting stuff. Glenn Greenwald is part of that outfit. There's this great site—it's building a following, but it's totally under the radar—called The District Sentinal that is doing a lot of original reporting. They're based in D.C., and they're constantly looking at different kinds of government reports and stuff like that. Things that are just sitting there that people aren't really getting into, and they do good stuff. What's pretty cool is that one of the dudes who started that, this guy Sam Sacks who was one of the original cast members of Redacted Tonight, he comes from a journalist background, and he just happened to have this great comedic timing. But he always wanted to move over to do his own venture. So they do that site.
There's a very helpful site called Popular Resistance that aggregates news from all sorts of alternative media sites. You can really find good stories there, so a lot of times we go to that. So I think there's good critical analysis there. But also—I'll be honest—here and there, you'll definitely find great pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post and stuff like that. There's a great site for foreign policy, too, that not everybody knows about called Mint Press News that does really interesting stuff. We're constantly just scouring, finding the stories that are interesting, and trying to push out that Redacted perspective.
On his Washington, D.C. comedy
In my D.C. sets lately, I've been addressing what D.C. is because it's a very strange town. It's a government town. It's very political. There are also people who are trying to live their lives, have fun, and just be people. But then they know they're involved in all of this weird political stuff. They have these contracting jobs, they're lobbyists, they're young staffers trying to get involved, all these media people, news folks. So everybody, by default, I think they're a little bit uptight and a little bit frayed. Everybody's having fun, but they know to a certain extent it's controlled fun. So I'll just acknowledge that like, "D.C., huh, guys? A pretty cool town to live in, huh? It's not New York, but, hey, it's not Florida." Then when I talk about it, I'm like, "So, you guys have a lot of jobs that are morally ambiguous, but you don't define yourself by that because you're nice to your friends and family, and interpersonally, so that's how you justify your existence." And they laugh at that because it resonates with them.
There's another thing that's interesting. I've done this bit about Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed our massive surveillance state. When I tell this joke outside of D.C., I have to tell the joke like, "Hey, here's what happens when I tell this joke in D.C." When I do it in D.C., I go, "Round of applause if you think Edward Snowden is a hero." I get this little trickle of nothing and people are horrified, like, "Oh my God, this is my nightmare to have to reveal my opinion on this." Then I go, "Round of applause if you think he's a traitor," and it's the equivalent little trickle of a few other people. Then I go, "Round of applause if you didn't applaud because you're maneuvering for a political position and you're not sure who's around, so you don't want to reveal how you feel about the situation," and they all start clapping, cheering, and going fucking nuts. I'm like, "Guys, why are you so comfortable with your broken moral compass about this thing here?"
On his Ireland comedy
"I had people wearing full Levi's denim outfits, smoking Marlboro Light cigarettes, drinking Budweiser, and eating McDonald's telling me how much they hated America."
I've done comedy there a couple times over the years. But the first time that I went, it was weird because I was maybe only three years in. I was doing stand-up in Ann Arbor, and I would do okay, but I was figuring it out. But I started having good sets at this place called The International Bar on Grafton Street in Dublin. Somehow I think it was me being in this separate, different culture, and being able to kind of observe how I was being treated—it made me figure something out, and I think I kind of found how to be funny, a little bit. It was an interesting time to be over there because it was 2002 into 2003, so it was during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. So at the time, when George W. Bush was president, Europeans hated Americans. You were a serious asshole until proven otherwise. People were very comfortable immediately asking you what your politics were. Being like, "Oh, you're American? Did you vote for George W. Bush?" At the time, the Irish economy was doing really well. It was the later part of the "Celtic Tiger." So it was really weird because all these Irish people have money for the first time in Dublin. I had people wearing full Levi's denim outfits, smoking Marlboro Light cigarettes, drinking Budweiser, and eating McDonald's telling me how much they hated America. I'm like, "You are more American than I have ever been one day in my fucking life." I would talk about that and call them out for how they were treating an American. So they got a kick out of that.
On mental illness
"...when I had this big manic episode, my comedy for a long time was addressing and talking about that, and that forced me to become a more personal comic. That actually made me become a better comic."
Another big part of my life and my comedy career has been dealing with manic depression, with bipolar disorder. So I've had some setbacks, some really big episodes over the years, especially a really big one in 2008 that for a while burned a lot of comedy bridges. But thank goodness, I'd always been so kind and given out such good will in the scene, that when I came back around I was able to rebuild things and people were helpful and happy to see me. I'm really happy and proud that I've been able to come through that stuff and that I've been able to keep it together, and that I've not let that defeat me. I've not let that make me a pitiable person, or a bitter person, or a broken person, or anything like that.
Now, to be in the position that I'm in, doing this type of work, it's awesome. When I first started doing comedy in college, I was also for the first time sort of learning the real history of America, and I was really getting political. So I was learning about Bill Hicks, and reading Noam Chomsky, and trying to be like that. Then the comedy I was writing sort of changed, and I was doing more autobiographical stuff, or absurdist stuff, or stream-of-consciousness stuff. When I was first starting off in comedy, I was trying to pull off these political things. I really didn't have the experience, or the tools in my bag, because it's hard to make that stuff funny compared to preachy. Then when I had this big manic episode, my comedy for a long time was addressing and talking about that, and that forced me to become a more personal comic. That actually made me become a better comic.
I'd had manic episodes before, but my biggest nightmare came true that I would have one when I was already establishing myself in New York. So, five years in I had it, and it was rough. Things got so hairy that the show I was running with Timmy Williams at The Creek and The Cave was still happening, but I got banned from the venue for acting inappropriately. All sorts of fucking horrifying shit. Even when I came back into the scene, I was so sheepish about coming back [to The Creek and The Cave], because at the time I was feeling a lot of shame and humiliation. But what's so cool is that Sean Patton and Rebecca and other friends—they threw a roast for me. So the first time that I walked back in after this thing, it was to be roasted. So I didn't have to come hobbling in. Instead, it was this great thing, like a mutual respect. My roommate in college, and one of my best friends, Andrew, who knew me right before I started doing comedy, and when I started trying to do this political thing, we're still in touch. He's like, "If you could have told yourself in college that all these years later you'd be doing this job—it's like you manifested this reality." It's become this full-circle thing, where now I'm doing this leftist political satire thing and I had to have all these other experiences and do comedy in all of these other different ways in order to have enough experience to be able to pull this off. So it's a great time right now.
When I came back into the scene, after all the fallout of this manic episode, I didn't really have any money. So I was living with my grandmother and my uncle in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is on the other side of the Hudson River just south of Jersey City. So you can get into New York, but you have to take the Light Rail to the PATH train in Hoboken, so it's kind of draining. The PATH train runs 24 hours, but the Light Rail doesn't. It stops at about two o'clock in the morning. If you miss that last Light Rail, you can't get it again until about six o'clock in the morning. So you have two options. You can either hang out inside the Hoboken train terminal with a bunch of homeless people, or you can pay 40 bucks for a cab. You can always haggle them down to 30, but they're mad at you for the ride, even though they agreed to it. Sometimes I wouldn't have the money, so I would just be in there. I used to do a joke about that, like, "Listen, when you're existing amongst homeless people for four hours, you don't necessarily feel homeless. But you definitely feel like your comedy career is not going as well as you want it to go." There was a shoe-shine station off to the side and the seat was raised up really high. So I would sit on it and pretend to be a king surveying the world's saddest kingdom. So there were some hairy days. It was fucking grinding shit.
"I've dealt with thresholds of psychological energy and pain that have been very, very difficult, so I guess I don't get freaked out about a lot of things."
I've dealt with thresholds of psychological energy and pain that have been very, very difficult, so I guess I don't get freaked out about a lot of things. When I first started this job, I was continually paying attention to politics. But now I'm hyper paying attention to this stuff. So for maybe the first year of the job, I would get kind of angry and depressed because it's like, "Oh, this is such a bummer, this story." But now I'm in this place where somehow I have this little bit of narrative distance and I feel like I look at it all separate from me. I look at it as a narrative, some sort of play or a horror film unfolding, or just a never-ending stream of running shit. Then I have a bunch of gumdrops, and I just throw gumdrops into the shit stream. I don't expect anything to happen. But what am I going to do, not throw them in? So that's kind of how I look at it. I can somehow care about these issues, but have a sense of detachment.