Nato Green on His San Francisco Childhood and Life as a Comic

Nato Green on stage

Nato Green doesn't care for chit-chat. It's not that he's short on time; it's just that if he's going to talk to someone, even a friend, it should be about something that matters.

"I'm familiar with manners, but they're a foreign language to me," Green says. "If I start finding it exhausting to get someone to be interesting, I'll just tap out."

Green describes himself as a misanthropic extrovert ("I'm really excited about getting to know people and finding out why I don't like them"), which is probably why his former Totally Biased boss W. Kamau Bell had to tell him to uncross his arms before going to a meeting with HBO, and remind him to smile when they were touring the South.

It's also probably why, after performing standup in San Francisco for over a decade, he's one of the Bay Area's best comics -- and, as Bell once put it, "the country’s preeminent political comedian, even if the country doesn’t know it yet."

Before opening a few shows for comic whirlwind Todd Glass at Doc's Lab on Friday, Dec. 18 and Saturday, Dec. 19, Green took some time to talk to KQED about growing up in San Francisco, what drew him into comedy, and the realities of trying to make a living as a comic in the Bay Area.

Nato Green being subtle
Nato Green being subtle (Courtesy: Nato Green)

You once described yourself as being "Tarzan of gays." What did you mean by that?

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I was born in 1975, and my earliest memory of life is of being at a gay pride rally that is portrayed in the movie Milk. My parents were in and around San Francisco's gay scene when I was growing up. Also, there was an apartment downstairs in our house and my parents would rent it to people that would help take care of me, so throughout my entire life there were adults other than my parents that were really involved in my upbringing, and usually they were gay.

So you were more like the "Mowgli" of the gay Jungle Book?

Exactly. And there were bears that would sing songs. At one point their nickname for me was "The Contessa."

You've had a long career in union organizing (14 years) and political activism. Do you remember the first time you took on an authority figure over what you saw as injustice?

The first time I confronted an authority figure that wasn't my parents was in fifth grade, when my teacher put a Christmas tree in the classroom. The school was covered in Christmas decorations and we were asked to sing Christmas carols. I'm Jewish and didn't have anything to do with Christmas, so the teacher's weird idea of an attempt at inclusion was to invite me to make the star at the top of the tree a Star of David. [Laughs] I was like, "No! That's not acceptable!" And it escalated to the point of my parents having to talk to the principal about it and stuff like that.

Green on Stage
Green on stage. (Courtesy: Nato Green)

Do you remember a specific moment that inspired you to want to be a comedian?

I saw a lot of people come up through the ranks in San Francisco and launch, including Arj Barker and Margaret Cho. When they came up, they were the first people that I felt like were from my generation and were talking about a world that I lived in. Other comics I recognized as being funny but because they were older than me, they would talk about when they were kids and it was not something I had experienced. Arj and Margaret were a big part of showing me that people like me could do this.

There are a lot of moments that come to mind, where I remember being really impressed how powerful comedy can be. Will Durst released a political comedy album called Strange Bedfellows in 1987 that was amazing, and I memorized it. One time at Cobb's I was watching Greg Behrendt middle for Greg Proops and during Behrendt's set, there was an old couple of tourists who were angry about the two-drink minimum. They were complaining to their waitress and she was like "Sorry, but there are signs everywhere when you come in."

It blew up; the man threatened the waitress and then, in the middle of Behrendt's set, the man went up to the stage and started yelling about the injustice of a two-drink minimum. It really upset the audience and they couldn't get back into the show. Then Greg Proops came on, and he unleashed a full 10 minutes about the kind of horrible person that ignores the signs about a two-drink minimum and decides the best course of action is to threaten the waitress.

People laughed so hard -- I was practically in tears. It was catharsis; something horrible had happened and people needed to laugh. He plowed right into it -- the confusion, the upset -- and addressed it with the craft of comedy, making it so they could laugh and go on with the rest of the show.

You've left San Francisco once for your career -- when you were writing for Totally Biased in New York. Though you're such a notable figure in the San Francisco comedy scene, do you see yourself ever moving for your career?

For me, the future is a big question mark at the moment. The answer depends on my wife, who is currently in a PhD program, and at some point she may go into the academic job market. But I started pursuing comedy late in my life, and most of the peer group I started with has moved away already.

Also, I feel that culturally, San Francisco doesn't support building up our indigenous art community. When I moved to New York with Kamau to work on Totally Biased, there were media outlets based in the Bay Area that didn't pay attention to me until I moved. I've had a totally pointless, one-sided public feud going with Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle -- and when I say feud, I mean I wrote one column about him -- about how periodically the Chronicle will run a retrospective about the glory days of San Francisco comedy in the '80s, focusing on Robin Williams, the Holy City Zoo, Bobby Slayton, and all that stuff. But how about going to a comedy show now?

Whenever someone is in from out of town that's successful and I open for them, invariably people come up to me at the show and ask, "Are you from San Francisco? Why haven't I heard of you?" Literally, you can see me all the time around here; there are times when I do five shows a week. And often it's for free!

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Nato Green performs with Todd Glass at Doc's Lab, 124 Columbus Ave. in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 18 and Saturday, Dec. 19. For more information, visit the website for Doc's Lab.

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