Jamie Kilstein on Performing in Phoenix, Panic Naps, and Politics
Courtesy Jamie Kilstein
Jamie Kilstein is making his voice heard.
The progressive left-wing comedian can be found sharing his thoughts on war, abortion, gun control, rape culture, religion, veganism, and mainstream media coverage on stage at New York comedy clubs, on his comedy album, What Alive People Do, on his political podcast with Allison Kilkenny, Citizen Radio, and on the pages of their upcoming book #Newfail set for release October 14.
This weekend Kilstein and improvist John Frusciante will perform at Playhouse on the Park to deliver a one-night only show that's part stand-up, part improv, and all parts politcal.
We caught up with Kilstein about how he got here, where he's going, and what's in store for Phoenix.
When we spoke on the phone will Kilstein, he was just waking up from what called "a panic nap."
What are you panicking about? Oh, just everything. I feel like that's sort of how you become a comic. I've yet to meet a comedian who, when you ask them, "How did you get where you did?" they're like, "Oh, everything was just really like stable and healthy and like I had a really good upbringing and my dad had some connections and now I'm famous."
No. It's always like these tragic unfunny tales where its like, "Oh, you used humor so you didn't die." It's not like you're just happy to be the class clown or whatever.
So your a pretty vocal left-wing comedian.... What was the appeal of doing a show in Arizona? When I do shows in New York and Los Angels and Chicago, those are where like I have probably the biggest following, but the shows are more fun in places like Arizona or places like Houston. I feel like very liberal progressive cities can get jaded and, not apathetic, but, you know, they can see that shit whenever they want and their friends agree with them. Whereas when I go to Houston, there is laughter with this side of like, "You have to get me the fuck out of here. "
... Our radio show has such a huge audience... but the emails that make me the happiest are like the "Hey I'm a transgender Mormon vegan living in Utah. Thank you for convincing me that I'm not crazy."
So with this tour what I'm trying to do is see if I have enough people, if there are enough outcasts and artists and progressives and radicals and activists and vegans and stuff like that to be able to fill in [the theater] enough where I can tour these cities a lot. So it's kind of an experimental tour. I would rather come to these places that don't get that much attention.
When we spoke to Al Madrigal he said something very similar... Yeah it's not like I'm doing a show in front of an army of Jan Brewers -- you know, as much as that is a hilarious image. I'm just picturing an army of Jan Brewers. I would so much rather play a place in Phoenix, Arizona, where there are people who want to see me as opposed to some Brooklyn hipster co-op where they only want you to read from McSweeny's.
Will some of your political comedy in this show tailored to Arizona? I mean it's definitely not cheesy topical material like, "In New York we do this. In Arizona..."
Although I'm sure if i did that I would get a Comedy Central pick-up. But yeah, we actually talk about Arizona politics a lot. We have a Jan Brewer character we do on the radio that is probably our most beloved character that we do.
John [Frusciante]'s a really good improvisor but he's also a really good political comic, so what we've been doing on this tour is he'll do his stand-up then I'll do my stand-up and then the last half-hour of the show we talk to the audience about what's happening in their city or state, and we improvise and make a little movie about it.
Which came first: the politics or the comedy? Did you start out as a comedian and gravitate towards politics or were you a political person who began voicing your opinions through comedy? I get really nervous about calling myself a political comic because I think people just think of like that old white comic who looks like Ira Glass who sits cross-legged like reading a newspaper and going "Ah, the midterm elections. Let's talk about it." And it's not like that.
I consider most of life political, so I was a dumb asshole cliche stoner played-in-a-Dave-Matthews-cover-band teenager. My parents hated me. There was alcoholism, there was like so much stuff going on -- the life of an angsty white suburban teenager, but also like a lot of seriously bad stuff happened to me as a kid so I used to use comedy as a form of self-defense. I would use it as a coping mechanism. I got picked on in school. I wasn't popular, so after taking verbal abuse I would make fun of them or go make joke or go write about it or something like that. So I always used comedy politically. Then when I started stand-up, I dropped out of high school so it's not like I got a degree in foreign policy. I didn't go to college and I knew I cared about politics. I really liked George Carlin and Bill Hicks. So even when I started my first political jokes, I would talk a lot about religion and like abortion and I wasn't doing it well by any means. I still had a lot of hacky, shitty jokes
So I was very bad, and then I remember one day I met Cornell West, who is a public intellectual, he taught at Princeton, and we were talking about Richard Pryor and I said, "I wanted to be more political and I want to write more. Do you have any advice?" And he said to read voraciously.
So after I immediately looked up what the word "voraciously" meant, I just started reading more. Because I was definitely that classic kid who had my talking points but then I would use those talking points as sort of an excuse to not do anything. Like, "I'm still not going to vote or care. I'm just going to complain about everything, and drinking will be my act of political revolution."
....The more I read, the more pissed off I got, and the more pissed off I got, the more I wrote. And because i didn't have my own following and I would play comedy clubs and yeah that place may have a bigger audience and sold out every night but most of those tickets were free tickets and there's a bachelor party that thinks this is going to be roast of their friend and then this tiny New Yorker comes up on the stage and says "we need to talk about rape culture , because its bad."
But because I didn't do that in clubs for long because if I was preachy or I talked down to people or was condescending not only would I bomb, which sucks because I have a fragile ego, but I would also kind of do a disservice to the subjects I care about because it's like, "Oh, here's another preachy elitist liberal talking down to me. So I had to be really funny I had to be self-deprecating, I had to be self-aware, I had to be really clever. But my whole thing was never to talk down, never to attack the victim. so yeah it was def an arduous process so comedy came first, and then bad political comedy and then vulnerability and then the and then the merging of the two came, and now I think I'm okay.
Jamie Kilstein and John Frusciante will perform at Playhouse on the Park, Saturday, August 16, at 8 p.m. General admission is $30. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit phoenixtheatre.com.
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