"Shooting fish in a barrel made out of fish"
The What A Joke comedy fest counter-programs Trump's inauguration.
Here we go, people. You’ve been emotionally preparing for this day for two months now, but it’s about to get real. Really real. In just a couple of days we’re going to watch Donald J. Trump take the oath of office before a crowd of adoring supporters, literally dozens of them from what I hear.
There are lots of reasons to be scared and frustrated by our incoming Commander-in-Chief: His lack of consistent international policy stances, his willfully strained relationship with the intelligence community, his indifference to legitimate conflicts of interest, his long history of degrading minorities, women, and the lower class... the laundry list gets longer and longer every day. In the wake of his election there was an unprecedented uptick in donations to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among a great many other organizations. Some of us, though, might have been asking the questions “But what’s in it for me [other than staving off a descent into authoritarianism and bigotry]?” and for those of you among us, the answer has arrived: What A Joke: A National Comedy Festival. The Madison edition takes place Friday night at the Majestic.
Organized nationally by New York comedians Emily Winter (a UW-Madison graduate and former editor at The Daily Cardinal) and Jenn Welch, the event has wrangled dozens of promoters across the nation behind the common goal of counter-programming Trump’s inauguration weekend with comedy shows from coast to coast that will benefit the ACLU.
On the ground in Madison, we have veteran local comedian Alan Talaga and Anthony Siraguse behind the wheel and they put together a show that will host Nate Craig, Reena Calm, Esteban Touma, and Cynthia Marie, with Siraguse hosting throughout.
According to Talaga, who in the past organized events that brought comics like Paul F. Tompkins and james Adomian to Madison, this event came together incredibly fast and shockingly easily. “We created our list of people that we wanted to get, and Nate Craig was right there at the top, and Reena was right there at the top of our feature list, and we wanted to do three locals, and the ones we got, Esteban Touma, and Cynthia Marie, were all our first asks,” he says.
For Nate Craig, who was raised in Madison and now lives in Los Angeles, benefit shows like this are part of what makes comedy worthwhile. “I’m happy to do stuff like this, it’s the least I can do," Craig says. "I love it. I think it’s so necessary, it’s so cathartic for me as an audience member, as a fan of standup comedy, it’s all i want, to be good at at it to where I can entertain people, for them, but there’s an element of it that’s so indulgent and the business side of it, making a career out of it, is very self-involved and any time I can do a show for something more important than my own ridiculous career I am honored to do it.”
In LA Craig has performed on shows that raised money for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and every Christmas in Madison he hosts a benefit for the Aaron J. Meyer Foundation, which provides housing options and activity opportunities for college students in substance use recovery.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the evening balances the message with the entertainment. “We’re not going to subject them to a 90-minute polemic,” Talaga told me, but the function here is bound to drive the form to a point. When asked about how Trump-heavy his set is going to be, Craig told me, “I’m going to do some structured material about Donald Trump, yes, and it’s not going to be nice to Donald Trump. But I’m not going to sit there for 45 minutes and preach to the choir. I’m gonna do a set, but I’m going to tie everything into what’s happening. I definitely have fun Trump material. It’s shooting fish in a barrel made out of fish!” He paused before laughing and summing his approach to this show up with a succinct “Yes, I have Trump jokes.”
The immediate effect of the show will hopefully generate a bunch of money for the ACLU, but in talking with Talaga, there’s a sense going forward that this sort of national/regional-style comedy event could be a powerful tool moving forward. “The thing that could come out of this, the legacy, would be how fast it happened," Talaga says. "It came together quickly in a time of national panic-slash-mourning, but this model could succeed in the future, especially if you’re not doing it in a time of crisis. The national model gets you a much bigger boost than if I was just putting on a local fundraiser for the ACLU in Madison as me alone.”
While this is likely going to be an excellent show, and benefit a great and increasingly necessary cause, What A Joke might also be the first in a whole series of national events that will give comics across America a venue to use their craft to directly support the institutions capable of fighting Trump.