Tell Your Friends at the Left Forum

The Colbert Report isn't the only source of high-meets-low political humor.


Illustration: Kristian Bauthus

Liam McEneaney’s weekly comedy show, Tell Your Friends, isn’t inherently political, but it does have progressive roots. “Our very first headliner was Mr. Andy Borowitz,” says McEneaney. “We had people driving as far as from Georgia to check out the show.” Since its debut in 2005, TYF has become one of the city’s most popular comedy nights, with a weekly gig at Lolita Bar (266 Broome St at Allen St) that regularly features big names like Demetri Martin and Judah Friedlander. This week, the show goes even bigger, with a special edition as part of the Left Forum on Saturday 20. “We’re coming in the middle of a weekend of serious political discussions and speeches,” says McEneaney of the Left Forum, an annual series of earnest, liberal-leaning panels and events. “We’re hoping we can give them a little levity in an otherwise serious time.” (Panels this year include “Envisioning Self-Governance” and “Why Green Capitalism Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis,” and Noam Chomsky will deliver the keynote speech.) According to McEneaney, the timing for political comedy couldn’t be better. “The shine is definitely off the Obama administration, the Teabaggers are going nuts, and the political right is ready to tear down health care,” he says. “People don’t just want to laugh these days—they need to laugh.” Three TYF panelists give us a preview of their presentations.

The Yes Men (theyesmen.org)
“Ridicule can be powerful; Tina Fey’s ridicule of Sarah Palin is a good case in point,” says Yes Agent Joseph HH. The urban political pranksters’ first stunt was a fake website created for future President George W. Bush in 1999; the site’s popularity (which prompted Dubya’s now-infamous line about how “there ought to be limits to freedom”) spawned more satiric websites, as well as a faux edition of The New York Times. Members of the group have even impersonated employees of large companies like Dow Chemical; in a memorable BBC clip, a Yes Agent posed as a Dow executive and suggested that the company accepted blame for the Bhopal gas-leak disaster of 1984. It’s all a means for spreading the group’s message: The bad guys should not win. “People who are familiar with the Yes Men’s work would consider it biting social commentary that also happens to be really funny,” explains HH. Their pranks—which are kept under wraps until they happen (not surprisingly, they won’t reveal plans for this event)—draw attention to larger problems, like corporate greed and corruption, or political ineptitude. “The Yes Men have a history of making journalists laugh,” HH says. “When journalists laugh, we all laugh, and we also get more coverage of serious issues that often get underplayed in the press.”

Lizz Winstead (myspace.com/lizzwinstead)
Winstead has deftly mixed political awareness and humor for much of her career. She left The Daily Show in 1998 (which she cofounded), and has blogged about politics for The Huffington Post and launched the comedy show Shoot the Messenger. “I always feel, with [TYF], that you’re in on something—like a revolution might break out,” she says of the show. “I’m driven by using humor to point out when people abuse their power,” she adds. “I feel like the little guy never has enough voices, so I enjoy when I can be the voice for people who don’t have one.” Winstead’s of-the-moment stand-up is based on the most current events, so she rarely has an idea of what she’ll discuss ahead of time. “I’m always changing up my material. There are jokes that I’ll tell once and once only,” she says. The Left Forum event is no different: Expect rapid-fire bits about whatever big political event is happening that week. The current administration definitely isn’t off limits. “Politics is still politics,” Winstead says. “[President Obama’s] done some stuff that warrants a lot of satiric ridicule, for sure.”

Baratunde Thurston (baratunde.com)
Blogger and comedian Baratunde Thurston’s work often combines three of his passions: technology, humor and politics. Since November 2007, he’s served as the Web and politics editor of The Onion; he also performs stand-up around the city, and blogs for The Huffington Post and Jack & Jill Politics (which he also cofounded). Thurston is one of the many comedians to visit TYF since its inception, and he’s performed with his fellow Onion staffers in the past. “It’s one of the coolest, least expensive comedy shows in the city, and also has some of the coolest, least expensive drink specials,” he says. Thurston has high hopes for the Left Forum spectacle. “It’s a bonus that I get to technically share the stage with Noam Chomsky,” he says. “I’m hoping one of his more radical supporters will get me to sign a petition that will get me booted from a White House job by Glenn Beck five years from now.”

FIGHT THE POWER! Tell Your Friends: The Fair and Balanced Comedy Show, Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, 3 Spruce St between Gold St and Park Row (212-817-2003, leftforum.org). Sat 20 at 8pm, $5--$15.

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