San Francisco comic Nato Green’s website sports a lot of rapturous quotes from fellow comedians, but it’s not always clear why, at least judging from The Nato Green Party. Maybe his humor, which takes shots at liberal ideals as much as it espouses them, becomes richer with repeated listens. Maybe his sensibilities fit perfectly on stage between his Laughter Against the Machine troupemates W. Kamau Bell and Janine Brito. Who knows? All we have is this album.
Like a lot of Bay Area comics, Green oozes a relaxed professionalism that occasionally threatens to turn smug. His chops have no doubt been honed by appearances at SF Sketchfest and the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, where he’s performed his Iron Chef-spoofing Iron Comic game show.
And indeed, Green enjoys a hero’s welcome upon taking the stage at Oakland’s New Parish Theater. Some audience members even chant his name, Rocky Balboa-style. The pep rally sets a reverent tone, and while few comedians would record their first albums—or any album—in a hostile or untested room, it leaves the impression that very little is at stake. That’s not exactly what you’d expect from someone touted as a bracing and unapologetic political comedian, at least on his first recording.
Green spends half his time essentially dodging the political-comedian tag and the latter half embracing it. He starts off the softball half with a subject he immediately acknowledges as such. “I’m embarrassed to demean all of us with that kind of trashy, flim-flammy subject matter,” he says, referring to a Facebook situation wherein his own page gets confused with an organizing page for the mid-May NATO protests in Chicago. Did we mention the album is being released a month after it was recorded, primarily to promote a Laughter Against The Machine tour that’s also being filmed for a documentary?
He wrings genuine laughs out of the stark comparisons of San Francisco-area Jews with East Coast Jews, who he imagines experience harsher racism at the hands of East Coast anti-Semites. “They have the decency to paint a swastika on your house and break your windows so you sort of know what the deal is.” His gentle disdain for Bay Area liberalism and wholesale embrace of Jewish stereotypes courses through much of the material that follows. And a lot of it rings true, as when he describes liberals’ antipathy toward inconvenience: “If there’s one thing we all know about liberals, it’s that standing up to intolerance is less important than getting a good parking place.”
He matter-of-factly states, “My wife and I are a typical San Francisco couple. We recycle, we are into light bondage, and our safe word is ‘zinfandel.’” It’s an easy shot, made slightly funnier by the fact that he’s pointing the bow at himself, but he fails to build on it in any meaningful way, either by teasing it out or twisting it back on itself.
When people would ask him, “What gender of baby are you having?” he responds with: “People, I’m from San Francisco. They get to pick.” It’s a joke you could easily hear Margaret Cho telling, but at least her profanity and volume would have the potential to beat the listener into slap-happy submission. More well-written jokes fall flat, given that Green neither commits to a monotone nor sells them with histrionics: “Children are very much like free jazz and Christianity: much better on paper.” “I think the abortion controversy would be settled definitively if anytime a politician had to cast a vote on abortion, they had to do it on an airplane next to a 5-year-old.”
Green is an experienced labor organizer, so his political credentials aren’t just window dressing. But he too often uses politics the way historical romances use war: It’s never really explained and mostly serves as background. He’s either wise for not relying too heavily on it or noncommittal for failing to own it. Only Track 9, “Gay Freedom – How Not to Win It,” he finally flashes real passion, as his bit about growing up among the gay-rights movement evolves into a scathing indictment of liberal smugness.
He harps on white guilt and dangles Sarah Silverman-esque lines such as, “For too long, we have looked at the Holocaust as a glass half-empty.” Unfortunately Green ultimately defuses them with over-explanation, like a professor stepping away from a provocative statement during class debate.
As advertised, it’s smart and political stuff. As a writer and thinker, Green is unquestionably practiced and clever. But the net effect is one of chuckles over guffaws. Green and his Laughter tourmates are doing interesting and important things, and certainly we need comics who can ingratiate themselves with bloated, self-important assholes just enough to puncture them. But the jokes rarely carry enough visceral impact to remind us that anything’s truly at stake, even though we all know it is.