The number of people who've gone from being a successful full-time union organizer to being a successful full-time comedian is, well, one -- that I know of. And that one is Nato Green, the San Francisco comic who has emerged as one of the Bay Area's top comedic rabble-rousers -- someone who finds a way to make people think (and laugh) about social issues like racism and economic disparity.
Here is Green commenting on the fight over gun control: "There's a whole debate about guns in this country. I think what we need is not to regulate guns so much as white dudes. I think we need a national registry of white dudes."
And here is Green commenting on the right wing's effort to downsize government: "The right -- they have some weird things, like they hate the government. You hear that a lot. 'We need less government. We need to get the government out of people's lives.' But for people who spend all their time talking about how much they hate the government, they put a lot of energy into being involved with the government. And that is not a sign of mental health to devote yourself to things you hate. I mean, I don't like camping, but you don't find me at REI shouting at people, like, 'F--k your sleeping bags!' "
Green says these things on stage, and people laugh. A lot. Green has a conversational style that keeps his audiences at attention and open to whatever comes next. He's not a whiner a la Gilbert Gottfried. He doesn't contort a la John Belushi. And he's never droll a la Steven Wright. Instead, Green delivers a steady stream of intelligent slings and arrows that connect the dots in politics and other volatile areas of American life, including raising kids (Green and his wife are the parents of 5-year-old fraternal girl twins).
Green, who's 38, has been doing comedy for eight years, but only full-time for the past two-and-a-half, and in that time he has established himself as a comic of note not just in the Bay Area but nationally. In Los Angeles, he makes regular appearances on The Iron Comic, the Iron Chef-spoofing comedy game show that he co-hosts. He's a regular podcast guest at Truthdig.org, the liberal media outlet that allows him to opine about anything topical. He recently returned from a six-month stint in New York, where he wrote for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the FX comedy show that his friend, Bell, hosted until its recent cancellation. Life is good for Nato Green. But one reason it's good is that Green has a lot of material to work with. When the world is messed up, and news events that inspire commentary come fast and furious, comedians like Nato Green are in a kind of comic heaven. It's bitter-sweet.
"I think it was Adam McKay, the director, who said that comedy equals rage plus structure. And other comedians have said this about me -- that whenever things are really bad in the world, it's good for my comedy," says Green, who's a San Francisco native. "For example, George Zimmerman being acquitted was the kind of thing that really provoked me. When there's outrage and injustice and confusion and stupidity, those things are fuel on the fire to me. I'm not trying to be clever about my jokes. The way that I live in the world, and watch the news, and participate in my community -- when things fuel with me rage is when I start coming up with funny things to say about them."
On Thursday, Dec. 12, Green appears at San Francisco's Hemlock Tavern for two shows with his regular troupe, The Business, which is headlining with Kyle Kinane. The troupe is also appearing Dec. 30 and 31 at The Dark Room, where it performs every Wednesday. Even before his transition to full-time comic, Green's CV was full of impressive gigs and accolades, as in 2010, when SF Weekly named him the Bay Area's best comedian.
Still, it's Green's full-time union organizing, which he did for 14 years, that really molded him into someone who could go on stage and tell audiences what he thinks is right and wrong with the world. Green founded Young Workers United, which is the United States' first worker center for young and immigrant workers in the low-wage service sector. He spent six years building the labor-community coalition that challenged California Pacific Medical Center's $2 billion hospital development plan for San Francisco until CPMC changed the terms of its plan to better benefit community members. He was an early organizer of the San Francisco chapter of Jobs With Justice.
As a union organizer, Green was an agitator who welcomed confrontation. As a comic, he's still kind of an agitator. "When I'm on stage, I have a fairly adversarial relationship with the audience," he says. "And I'm willing to have a back-and-forth struggle with the audience about my ideas, and deal with their reactions. I'll put myself into a hole on purpose and then get myself out of it."
"It's been a couple of years since I've been in a big fight, and I kind of miss it," says Green, who was arrested during the height of the Occupy San Francisco movement, when he helped barricade a San Francisco bank. "I'm itching for a fight (laughs). Comedy is kind of not enough for me. I want be part of something bigger. I want to make some bullies cry."
On Bell's FX show, Green found his niche in segments that were rooted in serious issues. "On Totally Biased, the segment that is most my brainchild is the man-on-the-street segment on catcalling, where Kamau goes out and talks to women about being catcalled," Green says. "And when I put that segment together and was writing it and figuring out what the perspective and narrative was, I talked to feminist activists about it. It's sort of unheard in the world of comedy for comedy writers to consult with activists and figure out the construction of a joke. I knew from my experience being an activist that people who are deep into an issue have insight into that issue that no one who is watching on the news will have, and helps figure out what the funny part is. And, so there are two women who work in women's organizations that deal with street harassment who were interviewed, including the activists explaining their own experience. There's a moment where Kamau says to one of them, this woman named Nefertiti Martin from Girls for Gender Equity, 'What are we going about these dudes?' And she says, 'You're a dude -- talk to your dudes.' And we spun that into a whole thing of Kamau talking to dudes, and apologizing about street harassment."
By himself on stage, Green has introduced new material about being a parent, as in: "My kids have reached the age where they're asking hard questions. The other day one of them said, 'Daddy, I'm afraid you're going to die first.' I said, 'Honey, I'm planning to die first. If I do a great job as a father, and all of this goes according to plan, I'm going to die first and it's going to be one of the worst days of your life, and I'm trying hard now to give that to you.' "
Says Green: "Even when I'm talking about being a dad, there's a political perspective to it. I'm not like Ray Romano. It's a sort of frustration for me that I can't do a straight observational joke. I have observational thoughts, and things that other comedians turn into observational material, and I can't pull it off. I try. Somehow, just because of the nature of my temperament, I go very quickly into talking about racism, inequality and death (laughs). My humor is really driven by how I'm doing and what feels urgent for me. As much as I've been a political comic, I've never been one of those political comics who reads the newspaper every morning and write jokes about whatever the headlines are. Let me tie it back to The Business. I'm probably more explicitly political than the other comedians on The Business. But we all share this narrative and personal approach to our comedy. All The Business comedians have an approach that's not particularly jokey. Or absurdist. Or relies on misdirections. Or constructing personas. It's all, 'Here's a true story about a thing that happened to me, and how I felt about it.' Maybe that's going to a protest. Or maybe that's being with my family. It's a shared orientation about what comedy should be. Communicating ideas through jokes -- that's what I aspire for my comedy to be all the time."
On Thursday Dec. 12, 2013 Nato Green and The Business perform twice at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco, along with headliner Kyle Kinane. The Business is also appearing Dec. 30-31 at the Dark Room in San Francisco, where they perform every Wednesday. For more information, visit natogreen.com.