He Pillories Pols and Pundits
Will Durst has built a career exploring the confluence of humor and politics. The Milwaukee-born stand-up comedian, who says he’s in his “early mid-50s,— is fresh off a critically acclaimed off-Broadway one-man play “The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing.—
Durst will be in Washington, D.C., Aug. 7, 8, 14 and 15 to perform his new routine, “The Lieutenant Governor from the State of Confusion,— at the DC Improv Comedy Club. We sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to poke fun at the powerful for a living.
ROLL CALL: Why politics? All your comedy has a political bent to it, so what is it that makes politics ripe for comedy?
WILL DURST: Well, you know, where I grew up, it was just the timing. It was kind of forged in the crucible of the Vietnam War. … Everything was political back then. I graduated from high school in ’72 and went to college, and that was my generation. … I didn’t date a lot, so I couldn’t do a lot of relationship humor, and I just naturally gravitated towards politics.
ROLL CALL: You used the word “anti-authoritarian.— What do you think of the role of the work you do? What kind of role do you think that serves for holding public figures accountable?
DURST: I think it’s our job. I think it’s an honorable profession, what we do. We are the canaries in the coal mine, and if we don’t do it, you know, who will? Fortunately, we can get some laughs by doing it. The whole idea is not to proselytize; my first job is to get people to laugh out loud on purpose against their will, hopefully with a little bit of entertainment value at the same time.
ROLL CALL: You write a syndicated column called “Raging Moderate.— How do you find that your personal views inform your material?
DURST: My material comes from my personal views. I try to be a journalist in that I try to be objective, but you know, you can’t, especially with an opinion column. On stage, I’m kind of a stand-up journalist, or a living editorial cartoon. One of the reasons that I did it was because it’s hard. It’s hard because you gotta constantly write new material. You gotta kick your babies out of the nest when you have a great line. You know, my William Howard Taft material doesn’t have the same bite it used to.
ROLL CALL: As a “stand-up journalist,— what kind of preparation or research do you do to keep your routine fresh?
DURST: I try to know what the people know. So I watch the national news, even though it’s kind of a dead art form, and I read the newspapers — you might remember newspapers. They’re big flat white things; you’ve probably read about their demise on the Internet. I have some friends who are political pundits who are poli sci geniuses, and they know so much, and I think it’s my job to stay ahead of the curve, but, you know, I don’t think the audience is interested in which Mossad agent is taking a member of the Foreign Relations Committee out to lunch. … It’s a lot easier these days than it used to be because of the 24-hour news cycles on the cable news channels and the national newspapers, so it is easier, but that’s why I love D.C. audiences, because I can use shortcuts. It’s a company town, and I speak of the company business.
ROLL CALL: So, do you think your stuff plays better in D.C.?
DURST: I do, because comedy is shared references, and I don’t have to explain who Todd Palin is. There’s just so many instances where it’s foreshortening, and economy of language, and I’m able to get by with a lot more.
ROLL CALL: You had a routine at one point where you said, in reference to George W. Bush, “He’s crummy for the world but he’s great for me.— How have you been on finding an angle on President Obama?
DURST: Tell jokes? I can’t even see him; the halo is too bright. But, if I tell jokes about how I can’t tell jokes about him, I end up telling jokes about him. The fact that some people say he’s arrogant but at least he’s smart; we tried arrogant and stupid, but that didn’t work.
ROLL CALL: So what has more weight, your happiness at George Bush not being the president or missing such an easy source of material?
DURST: I’m willing to take a bullet for the country right now. If you go back to 2000 and how lousy my career would have been with Al Gore, because Bush as the gold standard. I mean, 30 years from now, people will be saying, “Yeah, this guy’s an idiot, but he’s no George Bush.— He raised the bar — or lowered the bar.
ROLL CALL: What should people coming out to the show be expecting?
DURST: There’ll be some Obama stuff; anything that’s happening in the news I’ll touch on, you know: pirates, Iran, Sotomayor, whatever’s going on, because if it’s happening and I’m not talking about it, then I’m bogus. And I’m actually taking a question-and-answer session from the audience, so if I don’t touch on what they wanted, they can get back at me.