Published on May 18th, 2010 | by Sharilyn Johnson0
Satiristas Uncut, Part 2: The Love
Satiristas, a collection of interviews with comedians by Paul Provenza and photography by Dan Dion, is the type of book that people visiting comedy blogs (that’s you) would want to take note of.
Part 1 of my interview with Paul and Dan can be found here.
THIRD BEAT: Is there someone you desperately wanted to get but couldn’t? Or someone that was close to happening but didn’t?
PAUL: A few. The most notable omission I think is Jon Stewart. And that’s just because… good luck trying to get ahold of Jon Stewart.
DAN: And Rock.
PAUL: And Chris Rock. We tracked a schedule with Chris for almost the entire three-year period.
DAN: He was the first “yes”.
PAUL: Yeah, he was one of the first people to say “yeah, sounds great, I’d love to do it”. And after three years of trying to make it happen… people are just so busy. Most of the interviews actually came about when we were able to bump into them someplace. Like be at a festival or something and go“oh there’s so and so”. And just sit and talk. That’s really how most of it happened.
DAN: I think 90% were a direct call or face to face with them, versus through managers or agents.
PAUL: And given that there’s no way we could do something definitive in terms of everyone who’s working in this area or even necessarily even the most prominent ones, just the vagaries of their schedules and the logistics of it, as well as the natural course of “well, it’s been three years, we could do this forever, let’s stop and look at the collection that we have and just live with whatever randomness there is”. Which actually turned out to be beneficial. It’s a really nice cross-section of a lot of different kinds of people. Some of whom are very very famous, some of whom you’ve never heard of.
THIRD BEAT: Was there anyone you interviewed that you didn’t have a relationship with beforehand?
DAN: Lily [Tomlin]. I ended up having a lot of contact with her, and she wrote to congratulate me about the book.
PAUL: She’s really lovely.
DAN: We’re not friends, but she sends me nice things once in a while.
PAUL: I had never met her, but we had a great conversation. Randy Newman. Tom Lehrer. Henry Rollins. And those are people we just really loved. And Lily Tomlin, you don’t really think of her as a satirist, but there is a satirical aspect to what she does. She embodies people who don’t normally have a voice, and there’s an aspect to that we thought was really interesting. So she came at it from a humanistic point, not necessarily a politicized point. We’re just fans of hers. I had never met Mike Nichols before, but turns out he’s a really big fan of the Aristocrats. Tom Lehrer, who I don’t think had given an interview since the early 90s or something like that. He’s very publicity-shy and doesn’t really do anything. He teaches university. And it turns out he was a fan of the Aristocrats. As soon as we could get ahold of him, he was like “yeah, I’m in!”
THIRD BEAT: Did anyone give you a perspective on their work that completely mirrors the way you view yourself and your own work?
PAUL: Perhaps the last interview with George Carlin. He died about a week and a half after I talked to him. And listening to his journey, and listening to his evolution of him in relation to his work, that’s a little startling. So many comedian friends of mine who’ve read it go “wow, that’s like final validation. All this craziness, and all these changes and things that I’m going through, might actually make me a better comic. Ok, I can relax a little bit about that.” So reading George Carlin’s journey is really powerful for me.
DAN: For me, I’ve had a lot of compliments on my work from comics, but when Carlin said that I “photographed from the inside out”, it was one of the greatest – if not the greatest – compliment I’ve ever been given as a portrait photographer. So that didn’t suck.
PAUL: Also I loved how Jay Leno just sort of explains himself. He’s been getting crap from comics for years about being non-committal and not really taking a stand and not really saying anything in his monologues. That he talks about the news of the day but never really says anything. I love his explanation. It says so much about the business that we’re in, and how he is a business man at that point. He’s a great standup comic when you see him live in clubs and when he’s not answering to a big corporation. But when he’s on the Tonight Show he’s answering to a big corporation. I thought his self-awareness and his acknowledgement of the criticism that he gets was really honest and interesting. I think you walk away feeling a little more understanding of him and appreciative.
THIRD BEAT: One of the common questions raised in the book is whether satire can cause change. What’s your personal opinion on that?
PAUL: There will never actually be an answer. Somebody quotes the old Peter Cook thing, like “oh sure of course satire makes a difference, all that satire they did during Weimar in Germany, look how it stopped Hitler.” Does it change anything? I don’t know. But I feel like it doesn’t matter if it changes anything, you’re at least keeping it alive. You’re not letting the fire go out. Historically there have come times for many people in many places where those little embers of people speaking their minds and telling the truth and fighting against the power are all they have.
DAN: I think it changes individuals, and it would be impossible to refute that, both just by nature of the performers that have changed, and then individual people they affect. Can you point at something and say “satire changed this” or “satire stopped this individual issue?” Probably not. But certainly the shift that something like Saturday Night Live did for the entire culture is a shift in a few different generations because of satire and comedy.
PAUL: And also just the fact that so much discourse takes place there. In the world of comedy, you get to hear discourse about race, about sexuality, about politics, about every aspect of human life. You get to hear it discussed where you’re not supposed to say this in this context or say that in that context. There’s all these rules and regulations. Journalists can’t write about these things, academia can’t talk about certain things. There’s so many rules and regulations, there’s so many things that keep us from really communicating – good or bad – and in comedy all that discourse takes place. So there’s tremendous value in that.
THIRD BEAT: How did you sell this project to people you were trying to get interviews with? I know not every comedian likes to analyze comedy and talk about their own work.
PAUL: There were quite a lot of situations where you had to break down somebody’s reluctance to talk about their work, which I understand tremendously. I get that. Dave Attell’s a great example. You see Dave Attell in the book fighting, not wanting to admit that what he does actually operates on any sort of a higher level. He makes comedy out of it, so we included a lot of that in his piece. But being a comic myself, [it’s] different than talking to a journalist about it, or talking to a fan about it. They know you have a different relationship to it, so the conversation gets a little more meaty and juicy. And almost all the comics were aware of Dan’s work, and appreciated his work. They were aware of some of the work that I’ve done and were able to go “well, these are guys who aren’t just doing schlock, they’re doing something with some heart and soul.”
DAN: I think they got pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be your standard “we’re going to do a book about comedy”. I think they understood that it wasn’t going to be that. It wasn’t going to be another one of those. It was going to be something different.
Paul Provenza on why Satiristas should be an Oprah Book Club selection.