Authors Michael Ian Black and Kevin Bleyer talk political humor
Any 10th grader worth his or her salt has had to answer the history essay prompt: What would the Founding Fathers think of contemporary America? If that same 10th grader had happened to have read Kevin Bleyer’s “Me, The People” (a comedic history and redrafting of the constitution) and “America, You Sexy Bitch” (a politically mismatched travelogue from comedian Michael Ian Black and pundit/celebuchild Meghan McCain), the answer might defensibly be that the Founding Fathers would probably be too drunk to notice how friendly our strippers are.
That answer, oddly, is one of the reasons books like those from Bleyer or Black/McCain are so important, especially in election season – they both excel at displaying the very human tragicomedy underlying our country, currently and at its inception. Humor is a familiar anesthetic to those with a point to make, and it takes some inordinately potent laughing gas to make a point about a topic as sensitive as our nation’s cartoonishly embattled political egos.
An interview with Michael Ian Black:
Metro: Can you recap how the project came together?
Michael Ian Black: Yeah, I had met Meghan over satellite. I was shooting a pilot for E! and she was the guest and we kind of got along, we spoke for a few minutes. I was following her on twitter and she was following me on twitter I think I was sort of having an existential crisis or more, a career crisis. I didn’t have anything to do, I think I found myself unemployed for the first time since I was a Ninja Turtle and tweeted at Meghan that we should write a book together. She said sure, that she was having her own crisis.
M: So you would suggest for all unemployed Americans to tweet Meghan McCain for a job?
MIB: Yeah, just get on twitter and tweet whichever celebrity you can get to work with. In my experience, I have 100% success rate.
M: What decisions came to play when you were figuring out how to sort together both of your narratives how you wanted to tell the story?
MIB: Well, we figured the simplest and best way to tell it would be to go geographically and have each chapter be a stop along our trip. And the idea was to sort of relate our personal experiences and tie them to various political issues that also came up along the way. So we end up talking about health care and racial relations and military, the second amendment and stereotypes of Democrats and Republicans.
M: The central conceit is that this is a book threading the parallel experiences of a self-identified liberal and self-identified conservative and watching the ways in which their viewpoints come to play in different scenarios. Still, other factors, like differences in age, seemed to play a big role. She’s in her twenties and you’re a father of two. Was it difficult to kind of parse how those issues were present as you were trying to focus on the comparison between the central political question?
MIB: What we found, and what we knew already and tried to confirm for ourselves, is that all of those labels are far less important. They don’t define us, you know? They’re one small aspect of our personalities. And I think that’s true for most everybody, most people don’t walk around saying ‘I’m a liberal’ or ‘I’m a conservative’. You have different opinions about different issues. Sometimes those opinions can come into conflict with each other. Sometimes they can come into conflict with what your sort of natural party affiliation might be. We’re far more nuanced as people than bumper stickers. And the way the media sort of portrays it, you’re either one thing or the other. They treat us as these binary equations and we’re not, we’re a lot more complex than that. So, not everything can be resolved with polls. Not everything can be resolved by talking heads screaming at each other at the table. There’s not a lot of room right now for simple discussion. To me, simple discussion means having dialogue about sort of broader themes and broader ideas than just, ‘where do you stand on Obama care?’
Those very specific issues tend to be very polarizing and to me, feel a little bit off the mark. Because what’s more important is if you’re trying to explore your own identity and try to figure out who you are politically, which I think a lot of people don’t really know, myself included a lot of times. You have to look at broader, simpler, more general questions like, ‘What are my government’s responsibilities to me? What are my responsibilities for my government? What do I think the proper role for my government is for my life?’ And we don’t have those discussions. I mean, those seem like discussions we should be having in school almost. I don’t know if that falls under the rubric of Civics class.
Another aspect of it that doesn’t really get discussed is how difficult it is for Americans to talk about politics with each other. It almost feels like you’re talking about sex or something where it’s not meant to be discussed in polite company. And I understand that because the danger is that you can offend somebody, or you can say the wrong thing and ruin a friendship, but politics in this country should be a discussion, should be an ongoing national conversation that never ends. But, we don’t even know how to approach each other about those conversations. As a result, most people just end up affiliating with others who are like-minded. That’s okay, but you need to be able to at least hear the other side.
M: Sure. Chamber your argumentative nature for a couple of minutes and maybe you’ll run into someone named G-Cup Bitch as a result of that.
MIB: Exactly. Left to my own devices, I never would have met G-Cup Bitch.
M: Is she going to do a blurb for the book?
MIB: She should.
M: That would be something. Okay, this might come off a little bumper sticker-y, but I kept coming back to this Bill Clinton: ‘There’s nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed by what’s right in America.’ I was wondering how you would respond to that quote in light of this book? Did you find that to be the case?
MIB: You know, I’m willing to be a Pollyanna for America and I’m willing to be naïve and optimistic and uncynical, because I feel like there’s enough cynicism and enough pessimism. Our history shows us that Americans are endlessly adaptable and are capable of reinvention at the drop of a hat. That’s who we are and that’s kind of what we do best. Unfortunately, it only happens in times of crisis. I think you could make a pretty strong argument that we’re in a time of crisis right now and the crisis is manifested in the economy, it’s manifested in political gridlock, it’s manifested in stagnant and falling wages for the middle class. It’s a kind of quiet crisis that we’re experiencing and I do think we’re capable of solving it by our virtues: independence, self-reliance, adaptability, malleability as a nation. But the only way we’re going to do it is from the grassroots up. Change I don’t think comes from Washington, it starts at the bottom and works it’s way up. And that’s how it should be so you start to see that. You see that with the Tea Party, you see that with the Occupy movement. I think there’s a good chance you’ll see it with a third party in the next decade, a viable third party. I’m pessimistic about our federal government’s ability to do anything, to solve anything. I’m optimistic about the sort of long-term prospects for change.
M: And you found those perspectives to be reaffirmed throughout your trip?
MIB: I did, yes. We talked to a lot of people who are entrepreneurs and artists. But nobody’s looking to Washington for answers. I think they’re all looking to from Washington is for a fair shot. And I think a lot of people right now don’t think they’re getting that from their leaders. They’re feeling disengaged from the process and feel like their voices aren’t being heard. And obviously you can look to any number of reasons as to why that might be. So they’re turning inwards a little bit and they’re trying to make their own lives better by pulling up on their own bootstraps and that’s fine. As a liberal, as someone who believes in the possibilities of government, I think our government could be doing more to help those people.
M: So let’s talk about your role as a public figure. Meghan is known as being a pundit or a political celebrity, and you’re coming from a lot of different directions. In one metric you’re Michael Ian Black the author, and then there’s also the amazing body of hilarious comedic film and sketch work that you’ve done.
MIB: You just said I have an amazing body.
M: Someone had to. I guess where I’m going with this is, did it feel like an opportunity to exercise different muscles in front of a ‘cornered’ audience, like the ‘Meghan McCain’ crowd that might have picked up the book. Was there ever a grim satisfaction in being able to deploy your humor or anything like that?
MIB: It wasn’t very calculated. It was more like this is something I’m interested in, this is like a fun idea, let’s go do this. And I don’t claim to be a political expert or political scientist or policy analyst. I’m not. But I’m a guy who talks about Cabbage Patch Kids on VH1, that’s mostly what I do. My interest in this project has to do with my curiosity and interest in my country. I don’t want to sound like a patriot or something although I consider myself a patriot. But I guess I’ve become more and more interested in the political process and interested in the way government works or doesn’t work in this country. Not because I desired a career in political analysis or because I desired a career as a talking head on MSNBC but I’m just interested, as an American, as a father, I’m just interested. I want to know what to believe and why to believe it. So for me it’s more or less a quest that became a religious quest. We’re born into religion and we sort of accept them at face value most of the time, and most people don’t leave their religion. It’s the same with political affiliation. I was born a Democrat because my parents are Democrats. But until I was in my early thirties I didn’t question what that even means. So it’s similar in the way I ended up leaving my Judaism, I feel like I’m kind of leaving the Democratic Party behind.
So I’m interested in individuals, I’m interested in ideas. I don’t know if I’m that interested in political parties. Incidentally a thing that you’re born into that generally most people don’t question is your nationality. You’re born into being an American. There’s no real expectation when you’re born as an American as to what that means. What are your responsibilities as an American and what do you get as an American? But what is a compact that you’re sort of forced into as an American? The compact is sort of like being in a union, you pay the union dues and hopefully get something in return for that. But it’s not really clear a lot of the times what we’re paying for and what we’re getting. I wish there was better definition right now about what that means, and an agreement about what that means. It seems like to a large degree right now is the fundamental divide right now in terms of, what are the expectations as an American that we have both in terms of our relationship to the government and the government’s relationship to us. I break it down further and I go, what do you believe in, and to me, it’s kind of foundational. And if you go, ‘I believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ which is a foundational declaration, then you have to look at those individually. What you realize is that those three items inevitably come into contact with each other and there’s tension between them. I think that’s a good thing ultimately, but the sort of fundamental differences are what do you value most? Do you value life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness most? And the way we react to our government is a direct corollary of how we value each of those three things.
M: Sure. And that also reminds me, was there any incidents in the book where one or the other of you would kind of fight to have the first word on it?
MIB: No. I think if you go through it, we do a pretty good job of alternating first voices per chapter, or close to it. I don’t know if it’s exact but I think we did a pretty good job of sort of being even with it, who gets the first word or who gets the last word.
M: That’s the entire challenge of the book. You come into this book and you’re one of three people. You’re a Meghan fan or a Michael fan or you don’t care either way.
MIB: Or you hate us both.
M: Was it more challenging to write this openly about your philosophy as you did in America, You Sexy Bitch, or to write as openly as you have about your personal life in your last memoir?
MIB: In some ways, this was riskier and riskier because I’m not in this world and so I got very nervous and self-conscious and continue to be about even offering my opinion about politics. Part of me is like ‘Who give a s–t?’ And part of me is like… ‘I feel like people need to stand up who aren’t in this world and say ‘I can too’. I want to have an opinion and I want to have a voice and I don’t want to be belittled for it.’ I want to know as much as I can know and I want to feel like I’m a part of this process and I’m a part of the experiment of America. And so I recognized from the conception of the book that I was opening myself up to a lot of ridicule or potential ridicule anyway.
M: Ridicule for what you were saying or ridicule for the audacity to say it?
MIB: For a number of things, ridicule because as I said I feel like the whole book is sort of Pollyannaish and it’s sort of going, ‘Hey, we can all get along.’ And that sort of kumbaya. I hope it doesn’t come off like that. I hope it comes off a little smarter than that.
M: No, it’s smart and it’s tense a lot of the times.
MIB: Oh good I’m glad. And the other aspect of it is, I think Meghan felt that it was risky for her to work with somebody like me. I feel like it was risky for me to work with someone like her. So in some ways I felt like it was riskier than telling my story because I know that story and I figured out how to tell it. I didn’t know how to talk about politics I didn’t know how to talk about patriots and my feelings about my country without looking like a total douche bag.
M: Well most people that are doing it professionally are very happy to look like douche bags when they do it.
MIB: Yeah they are. And you look at them and go, God, you’re a douche bag. But I felt like I was willing to take that risk. I felt like the message was important enough to me personally that I was willing to take those shots for doing it.
An interview with Kevin Bleyer
Metro: I just wanted to say, I loved your book.
Kevin Bleyer: It’s always very gratifying, to use a word that authors often use, I suppose, to hear that people have read it or at least some of it or skimmed through it enough to make the judgment of whether or not they like it and I appreciate that you came out on the affirmative.
M: I did one of those three that you just described and copied down enough quotes to make it look like I read the whole thing.
KB: That’s all we do [at The Daily Show]. Jon Stewart’s often accused of being a very well-read host and he is. I worked for Bill Maher for many years and Dennis Miller and Jon reads far more books than any host should have time to do. But even he will admit when he says, “I love your book, I read it,” sometimes that means he speed-read it. Nonetheless, he does in fact read it enough.
M: Have any of your employers had read Me, The People yet? Jon Stewart? President Barack Obama? Anyone along those lines?
KB: The shortest answer to that is: I don’t think we’re in danger of this getting ratified any time soon by the President. In other words, the policies I’ve demanded of our country in the pages here, I don’t think we will see enacted in the next round of congress or by executive order, no. Whether or not the President has read it, I don’t think we will ever know for certain.
M: Sure, sure until we see Rhode Island getting jettisoned off the side of the continent.
KB: Yep, as soon as we ratify Article VII of my new constitution. Good riddance to Rhode Island. They know why! They know what they’ve done!
M: Are you using your list of state seniority to benefit you in your own work environment? Like, if you have someone from Montana across the desk trying to make a suggestion…
KB: Oh yes, I’m getting no end of guff from smaller states, or the states I have somehow decided are less Texan. I do believe the entire state of Nebraska is upset with me, or at the very least, the section of Nebraska that does not have a sense of humor. Because you’re right, I did somewhat arbitrary rank them second-to-last. Not entirely arbitrary, because my point being that states with so few numbers of population, and let’s not forget that the founders themselves did not, could not, have predicted that there would be such a discrepancy between the most populous and least populous states when they put out the notion that there should be two senators from every state. So I do try to, as you know from the book, make the case for why we might reconsider that particular phenomenon of the Great Compromise, that you have two senators. But you’re right, I somewhat arbitrary take them to task, and poor, poor Nebraska. And my only consolation to Nebraska is, hey, you’re not Rhode Island.
M: And I noticed that all four of your home states are in the top 20.
KB: Well of course they are, naturally. And I’m not going to say which is the cart and which is the horse. Did I live there because they were so spectacular or were they so spectacular because I lived there? The answer is: do we really care? It doesn’t matter. Either one works for me.
M: You stepped forward to be the luminance in these dark, politically tumultuous times. Are you of the idea that it’s more important to make history or make fun of history?
KB: Ah, that’s a tough question. And I will say first of all, I agree with your premise, that I am trying to be illuminant in these dark times, but I guess the point is grander than even that. Which is, as you say, I’m hoping to bring light to the heat we’ve had in the argument about the constitution. Certainly there’s been a lot of heat about the constitution. It is hot. It’s hot across the board. The only thing that would make it hotter is if James Madison were a vampire. This is a hot document. People are debating it right and left, which is, of course, why I like to think of my book as ‘Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue.’ Very hot. But I do think that I do try to bring light to the heat of the conversation because people cozy up to the constitution, people claim to know what it says, people use it as a weapon in their debate and presume that it’s going to defend their argument even if it doesn’t sometimes. So I hope that what I’ve done, if I’ve made any history here – and thank you for at least recognizing my authority to do so – it’s in attempt to make people look back into history a bit, read the source code, go ahead and look at the constitution with fresh eyes as opposed to what the debate’s been for the last ten years, and decide for themselves if they still think it resonates and protects us as a society. I don’t want to spoil the ending too much about what I think but it won’t surprise you too much to say that the butler didn’t do it, that of course I revered the document and it just takes me one written preamble, seven re-written articles and 27 re-written amendments to think, ‘Oh, they did kinda know what they were doing. Even if they were drinking beer for breakfast.’
M: Beer for breakfast was a revelation (and a good suggestion). I really love that list that accompanies that passage. It reads like rejects from a seven dwarfs casting call. And I quote: “… what began as a measured, deliberate effort to rescue a beleaguered country became a perpetual unresolved-motion machine – a maddening cycle of nonbinding votes by a parade of toothless committees, marked by fits and starts, fights and “full stops,” conducted by a combative group of exhausted, drunken, broke, petty, partisan, scheming, squabbling, bloviating, backstabbing, grandstanding, godforsaken, posturing, restless, cow-tipping, homesick, cloistered, claustrophobic, sensory-deprived, under-oxygenated, fed-up, talked-out, overheated delegates…”. You certainly make a colorful context for this era.
KB: In the same way that we make some fun of serious headlines from 2012, I tried to make some fun of the serious headlines of 1787 and try to address the real issues that still resonate today.
M: And I think you also frame them as flesh and blood politicians that we would recognize today.
KB: Let me tell ya, that was the most enjoyable part of me for this entire research. I obviously wanted to address the issues of today, whether it be gun rights, first amendments, quartering solders, which we all know is a crucial issue this day and age. The joyful part of this research for me was learning about these colorful characters of the constitutional convention and learning what is incredibly rollicking and yes, dysfunctional in every way too, of four months they had in the heated humid assembly room of Philadelphia’s state hall. And I hope that my joy in learning about this is reflected, especially in the first third when I retell a lot of stories about the constitutional convention and how they were, yes, an “assembly of demagogues” as Thomas Jefferson described them, but I also make a case that we’re all flawed. We all contain multitudes and these flaws were both amusing and also maybe we can look into them to determine if that means, is it because we’re all human that the constitution has faltered in some ways and what can we learn about that, and who ended up everyday Americans like I am and say, ‘well hey, let’s look at it again.’ And if every single one of us rewrites it, well then maybe we’ll have something.
M: That is a good point. And I’m speaking as a newly endowed congressman.
KB: Not newly endowed, you just didn’t know it. You were a congressman the moment you were born in my constitution. It’s just you’ve been slacking and you need to get to DC as quickly as possible.
M: There’s a lot of scandal waiting in the Fenner campaign, let me tell ya. So not to be overly grim, but you mentioned that there’s a life expectancy of 19 years to a constitution. Or you didn’t, was it Thomas Jefferson?
KB: Even my constitution will only last 19 years.
M: So you have a built-in sequel here.
KB: Trust me, I put it in my day planner for 18 years from now to pull another trigger. Either I or someone to follow me of course will have to rewrite the constitution in 19 years. In the meantime, there’s a number of pre-historical documents that I should probably tend to, I suppose. At the very least it seems to me that I should probably rewrite the Federalist Papers next because in the same way that the Federalist Papers were at least an excuse or a plea to the Americans at the time to go ahead and ratify the constitution, they basically had to explain themselves. I’m sure I, too, will have to explain myself when people read this and think, “Really? He’s suggesting that Rhode Island should no longer be part of the union? I may need to be a little more swayed.” So maybe that’s the next book. I have visited both Nebraska and Rhode Island and I do explain that I actually find these places glorious and they’re all very lucky to be there but historically speaking, they have some explaining to do.
M: That’s a good point. There’s dirty laundry in that hamper.
KB: There’s a good phrase. They have dirty laundry that I’m happy to air out on their backs.
M: So let me ask you, one of the things that’s pulling a lot of press from this book is your sit down with Antonin Scalia who you describe as both Darth Vader and Patch Adams. At the center of those two lays Antonin Scalia. Discuss.
KB: Yeah, and I think he would agree with that too. The man knows that he has a reputation of being the Darth Vader of the court, but also, as I point out in the book and elsewhere, I’m happy to talk about it, he has an incredibly good sense of humor. This is evidenced by that fact that he not only agreed to meet with me, a professional smartass, but he also knew that what I was doing was in fact grander than just making fun of the constitution. In fact, I was making fun WITH the constitution to make fun OF the people that don’t know what’s in it. So he kind of understood that, which is why I think he agreed to meet with me, and I was flattered and honored by his agreeing to do so. Early on, not only did he get the joke, but he was the one telling the jokes.
M: I was going to say, I’m glad that he’s open to the possibility of witches.
KB: Exactly right. He knows where the humor is in conversation. He knows how to avail himself of it. And I think I mentioned pretty clearly, he’s officially the funniest Supreme Court justice. Even beyond the objective experience I had, or subjective experiences I had. The New York Times and others have proven that he gets more laughs in the court chamber by counting the number of times ‘laughter’ was annotated in the stenographer’s notes. And it was certainly an experience I had. While I was trying to outsmart him with my legal understanding, he was clearly out-comedying me! At the same time that I was trying to trump him of my understanding of lifetime tenure and the fact that John Roberts actually suggested lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices should be a thing of the past, which he didn’t know, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a genius,’ he came back at me with both a better argument and also a better laugh. He beat me on both fronts. For about 45 minutes I’m thinking I out-smarted the longest standing associate justice of the Supreme Court even though he probably had in his back pocket, ‘I’m going to outsmart this comedy guy and also make better jokes than he did.’ Two big laughs on my front was when he said ‘Did John Roberts really believe that?’ I said ‘yeah.’ He said ‘really?’ I said ‘yeah.’ He said ‘Well, I doubt he does anymore.’ That got a big laugh. And also the end when he says, you know, ‘Alright, so you want a supreme Supreme Court justice? How long will they serve?’ He got me.
M: It’s hard not to be persuaded by someone that jowly.
KB: Man I know, you get lost in those jowls. But I will say this sincerely, he’s truly a charming fellow. Irascible in many ways and put politics aside, he has a lot of detractors, a lot of fans, but when you sit across from him, he seemed guileless. At that point he was eager to be a part of this project even for an hour because he knew that the overall point of what I was doing was something that should be supported which is to ask the country to take a breath and actually instead of site the constitution based on what your particular partisans have told you it says, go ahead and take an outsider view as I’ve done, and if that inspires you to be amused while you’re, I don’t want to say learning a lesson or learning about the constitution, but that inspires you to be amused when you think well heck I can go back and read 4,000 words, that’s a worthwhile goal.
M: You spoke about using a “wash of cynical acid,” as a means to critique and improve. Is that the best way to clean something off a lot of times, to really put it against an assault and see what remains?
KB: You’re right, I think I have, to some degree, put this to an acid bath of cynicism, which by the way, is hard to say four times fast, but I sprinkled that in and got a few laughs and I think that that’s hopefully something an audience of readers can appreciate. Now the question is whether or not the people I would hope to read this would read this. I don’t know, it’s hard to say, ‘put down your protest signs and read this Daily Show writer’s book, but if I get just one soul…
M: As a political comedy writer, which of the figures from the convention do you wish was currently kicking around? I loved the Luther Martin description. Which guy do you think would fit in best currently and who would you want to be writing about?
KB: Well you certainly want to go out on a Friday night with Luther Martin because not only would he take you to a bar, he’d pick up the tab. You also can’t go wrong with the one two punch of James Madison and Gouvernor Morris because on one end, I obviously have to, and I think to some degree I describe this in the beginning of the book, feel like Madison is a kindred spirit. Let me say this. James Madison is my ego. Gouvernor Morris is my id. James Madison is the one who said ‘I feel like I want to tell the world that the Articles of Confederation should be rewritten entirely’ even though you weren’t allowed to do it. Clearly I have not been allowed to rewrite the constitution, but I’m suggesting it anyway. And not to mention the other interests and particular criteria about Madison. He’s a short man and so am I so I often say ‘I see only as far as I do because I stand on the shoulders of a short man.’ Between the two of us, we can see into history and the future.
M: You guys can put on a trench coat and a hat to go to the convention.
KB: That’s what we’ll do next time. Forget George Washington, the tall indispensable man, now there’s a 9 foot guy walking around. But I also think Gouvernor Morris is a fascinating character. He wrote the preamble majored in poetry in college and wrote a thesis on poetry in college, and, as you know was enough of a ladies’ man that he got a peg leg jumping out of a window to escape the jealous husband of one of the women he was bedding. So, while I probably am more of a Madison, I fancy myself a Morris. And the three of us would get into some trouble, and Madison would drive us all home.