I’m tough to buy for, because I can never say what I really want: land.
Americans keep asking why my country revolted against rule from Europe. With zero irony.
The U.K. has made a seismic choice to leave Europe. Let me reassure my fans: I will still be at the Hartford Funny Bone on July 21. #Brexit
I was a teenage communist. And, frankly, I was the real fucking deal.
I was not a poser. Not one of those corduroy-wearing tossers who talked about world peace to get into indie-rock girls’ pants. I was militant. I had read Marx for Beginners. Twice. I would walk alone through my London suburb, thinking deeply about socialist currency systems. I would not hang out at the shopping center. That was collaborating with consumerist false consciousness. I would not talk to girls. They smelled too good and were scary.
I was radicalized by a 42 year-old named Carol in Edinburgh during 1998. I was 17 and acting in a play at the Festival. Obligatory throwback picture:
Carol was a leathery, tea-stained Australian who shared my opposition to capitalism and fun. Also, as a gay woman, she was guaranteed to have total contempt for my male sexual urges, which felt very reassuring at the time. Carol invited me to join Workers’ Fight, part of the Trotskyite Internationalist Communist Union. They still have a website, which I presume is maintained on a communal, non-hierarchical, democratic basis. Because it’s complete shit.
We got talking. She was earnest and passionate. I said how alienated I felt at school. She empathized, “but at the end of the day,” she said, “who wants to be popular, when you can be RIGHT?” I was skeptical about Carol, but I loved being right. After that, I started to care a great deal about “The Party”. Bear in mind, I had still never been to a party.
Back in London, I began selling copies of the Workers’ Fight bi-monthly magazine — Class Struggle — on the street during weekends. The articles were dense, earnest, and tinged with resentment. And the headlines were pure 1920’s propaganda. For a donation of just one British pound, you could read such gems as:
The Scottish Socialist Party — from an electoralist scratch to the danger of reformist gangrene
The crisis of post-Soviet agriculture is aggravated by “reforms” and Western “food relief”
You could tell when Class Struggle hated an idea, because they put “quotation marks” around it. “Quotation marks” was code for rolling their eyes and jerking their wrist back and forth. Class Struggle also spent just as much time (if not more) attacking other groups on the Left than they did denouncing capitalists. They particularly loathed the Scottish Socialist Party, who are so tiny, they received just 875 total votes in Scotland’s last election, out of 2.9 million cast.
Class Struggle was never intentionally funny. But sometimes laughs crept in. I enjoyed the classified ads, which said things like:
Housemate wanted. Pref. non-smoker. No Maoists.
My magazine-selling went on for a few months, until a few friends and I applied for an obscure local government travel grant to visit anywhere in Latin America. Somehow, we got the cash, and decided to visit Cuba (of course). Carol was thrilled. She should not have been.
Nothing will strip you of Communist beliefs quicker than visiting a Communist country. I always enjoyed lecturing people that Cuba “had the best health care system in the world, with more doctors per capita than any other nation”. And that was true. In the Cuban city of Trinidad, I saw a boy with a gleaming white cast on his recently fractured arm. Great! Sure, the rest of him was covered in literal rags, and he was stick thin from the socialist paradise’s chronic food shortages. And he lived in a corrugated shack. But his healthcare was super duper! The next day, we offered a taxi driver $20 U.S. to take us to another city. He said it was strictly illegal. We offered double. He reluctantly agreed. Halfway through the trip, he was pulled over by an aggressively humorless state policeman, and fined what he said was three months’ wages for “unauthorized entrepreneurial activity.” We all thought he was going to cry. It was devastating.
And the final nail in my Communist coffin? I saw Fidel Castro speak.
July 26th is a Cuban public holiday, honoring the movement that swept Castro into power. We heard he was going to be speaking at an outdoor event in Cienfuegos. We took the train. He was an hour late, but we saw his helicopter touch down near the town square, where thousands had gathered to hear El Comandante. Then it began pouring with rain. He didn’t come out. Another hour went by. When the rain stopped, he emerged. We were all drenched to the bone, but he looked immaculate in army fatigues. This was not the behavior of a class warrior or an anti-imperialist freedom fighter. It was the behavior of an entitled jerk. (Oh, and thanks to the internet, you can read his speech that day. Don’t, though. It’s very dull.)
We listened politely for a few minutes, but we barely understood a word. Our Spanish was bad, and we were right at the back of a huge crowd of diehard party loyalists, about 500 yards from a 72 year-old Fidel, amplified only by crappy, 1950s loudspeakers. We were bored. We were 18. One by one, we slunk away to explore the town.
We were gone maybe two hours, and on our way back to the train station, we had to pass by the same town square. And Fidel was STILL TALKING. The crowd was distraught with boredom and probably contracting pneumonia from their wet clothes. Castro did not care. He was just another entitled bully who loved the sound of his own voice and the feeling of telling other people how to live.
My communism was already gravely wounded. But Castro killed it.
I never spoke to Carol again.
Don’t talk to me before I have my meth.
Last year I launched a podcast. It was called Special People. The log line was:
Special People: the podcast about the most important people in our lives.
I wanted to interview people about the most important people in their lives. The ‘special people’ my guests talked about could be… absolutely anyone. Good people. Bad people. People they needed to meet.
I did 36 episodes of it in the space of 12 months. I am proud-ish of it. I’ll explain the “proud” part, then the “-ish” part.
- I’m proud that I actually put it up. The technical demands of bringing it into the world were difficult. I’m not a tech natural. Buying the right equipment was a financial sacrifice. Even the basic act of recording it (in what I will generously call “reasonable” audio quality) was a challenge. Creating an evergreen place for it to live online — using Libsyn to host and Squarespace to showcase the content — was not the easiest choice. But I powered through and made it happen. We should high-five anyone in the world who has actually made a fucking thing happen. Making a thing is always so much harder than we can possibly fathom from the outside.
- I became a decent interviewer. I learned when to shut up and let someone talk. I learned how to keep an hour of conversation loose enough to be spontaneous, but structured enough to help a listener stay connected. I learned how not to go for an easy joke. I learned how to stay present in a moment, and ask the question a listener, yelling at me through their headphones, would ask. I learned how not to miss an opportunity. I learned how to respect a guest. I also learned how not to respect a guest. Too much respect leads to boring talk. I got better at that balance. I’m proud of those new skills.
- I talked with real award winners. My conversation with ex-Daily Show writer and 8-time Emmy winner J.R. Havlan was a doozie. We walked home together that night, too. And during the course of the walk, he answered every single juicy question I *should* have asked when the mics were on, but didn’t, like an idiot. I also loved my talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. And I learned a few things about making news at the highest possible level. (While we were talking, at that very moment, Donald Trump was publicly insulting Serge — by name — to every news outlet that would listen to him. So, all of them.
- I actually connected with people I love. I got to hear how future comedy legend Jo Firestone was almost destroyed by an ex-con in St. Louis. And how Matt Ruby uses Tom Petty as a personal lodestar. I cemented what I hope will be a lifetime of friendship with people like Kyle Ayers, Jeff Simmermon, Casey James Salengo, Doug Smith, Ahri Findling, Ryan Beck, Selena Coppock, , Tovah Silvermann, Jenn Welch, and Joe Zimmerman.
Amazing people went deep.
D. Perafan talked about being committed to Bushwick psych ward on Christmas Eve.
An anonymous friend talked about the end of his marriage, with no detail spared.
Monroe Martin explained how he survived a childhood spent in 15 different foster homes over 14 years (sic).
Wonderful people surprised me.
Diego Martin taught me a different way to approach regret, and how to get punched in the face.
Bob Hansen told me what it takes to be a professional wrestler.
Brooke Arnold and Dave Ebert took me inside the heart-breaking derangement of Christian cults.
Oliver Chin walked me through the process of female to male transition.
And I learned from the best interviewer the comedy world has ever known: Mike Sacks.
I’m proud of all of that.
Here comes the “-ish”.
- I called the show “Special People”. So it sounded like a show by and for the mentally handicapped. The first time someone pointed it out, it was funny. By the 17th time? I wanted to kill myself. Every time I saw the title, a stabbing needle of shame pushed deeper into my soul-nuts.
- The audio quality. Oh, the audio quality. I had no dedicated show intro music, I had no “stings”, I had no reliable way (or skill-set) to level my output post-recording, and I had nothing better than Garageband to record the podcast on. That’s the 2009 edition of Garageband… the Garageband that is such a poor platform for podcasting, Apple actually DELETED podcast functionality from subsequent versions. I’m amazed the show is listenable. Also, on at least two occasions, I DID NOT PLUG MY MICS IN. That’s right. I set up all my fancy equipment, but neglected to plug the jack from the mixer into my laptop. Both my and my guests’ audio was just taken from the MacBook in-built mic. I have a master’s degree.
- I didn’t prepare enough. Every interview felt like a Hail Mary Pass. Getting a guest booked and the equipment set up and all the technical aspects squared away felt like such a major achievement every week, my self-sabotaging brain left no time to actually prepare for the interview, and think about the CONTENT of the damn thing. Go back and listen to the Mike Sacks episode. He has built a career on scrupulous preparation, and I pledge from now on I will adopt his high standards or not bother interviewing at all.
- The format was a problem. I was asking a lot of my guests, basically hoping that they would arrive with a perfectly formed anecdote about a person who changed their life forever. Most of them did, thank God. But not everyone is lucky (or unlucky) enough to have such specific heroes/villains in their lives, or willing to discuss them in public, or able to put the importance of those relationships into words. These things go beyond words sometimes. This, I have decided, was the fatal flaw of the show.
- I say “fatal”, because I have decided to end the show. It was a great “sketch” for something else. A study. A first pancake, if you will. (You always throw away the first pancake.)
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. I’m going to launch another show at the end of summer 2016. And I’m going to pin this post to my forehead until then, to remind me of what I achieved, what I learned, and what mistakes I should not repeat. If you would like to know when that podcast is launched, give me your email and I will let you know.
Special People will never go away. I’ll host it in perpetuity. It will live here until I’m dead, I guess. Feel free to enjoy it forever. I’m extremely proud-ish of it.
“How are you?” is such a tough question to answer. “Well, I’m not a wealthy celebrity, and I’m not currently on fire. I’m somewhere between those two things.”
It’s amazing how much you have to lie to be considered a nice person.