In Satiristas!, his new book of interviews with Stephen Colbert, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Randy Newman and over fifty others, veteran comic Paul Provenza engages in revealing, surprising conversation with a diverse group of comic thinkers about comedy’s role in revealing uncomfortable truths about our world and ourselves. But, one question comes up repeatedly: “Do you think anything anyone does in comedy makes any kind of difference?” The search for that answer has inspired much of Provenza’s recent remarkable work, from the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats to his freeform talk show The Green Room, premiering on Showtime in June. The interviews in Satiristas!, and the accompanying striking comedian portrait photos by Dan Dion, make a passionate, insistent, and joyous case for comedy as an art form. I spoke to Provenza at his home in Venice, California.
One unique thing about Satiristas! is that you dispense with the usual interview questions about background, and you go right into some very difficult topics. Why go that way?
I felt like it wasn’t about the mechanics of comedy, although some of that certainly comes through, but it’s more about the experience of comedy. It’s about the experience of these people finding their voices, committing to who they are, grabbing onto that by the balls, for better or worse, and making art out of it. Overall, this isn’t so much about comedy, politics, or society as it is about being an individual and owning who you are.
That relates to another thing about satire and comedy that’s not often acknowledged. How eye opening it can be in the sense of community it creates.
Carlin says something about that: “If I send money or all my old sweaters to Darfur, I will not have the effect on them that I may have on one person sitting and listening to something when he’s twelve years old.” That was like he was talking to me! I agree with that. Anything that you do, somewhere out there, somebody is going to relate to it, and that person is not alone all of a sudden.
There is value in speaking truth to power. When I was growing up, I’d get shit all of the time from my parents, because whenever I was the odd man out, whenever I said, “This makes no sense,” they’d always go, “Oh, I see. Everybody else is out of step. You’re the one person who is in step.” Now, I understand that the truth is that, yes, that is entirely fucking possible. Maybe not in the specific but in the abstract. And, somebody has got to say that.
What do you make of Penn Jillette’s point that he doesn’t enjoy satire because there’s too much ironic distance?
What’s interesting is that you can keep going in the direction that Penn was going. Penn was talking about the ironic distance in somebody like Stephen Colbert as opposed to Jon Stewart, but ironic distance is not the same as something else that I think is more insidious, which is ironic detachment. Colbert, while he is distanced and has put a layer of character between himself and his emotional state, is not detached from actually having an emotional response. Whereas the overwhelming trend in stand-up now is one of ironic detachment, which can ultimately be cynical and really shut down.