An Interview with Paul Provenza: Finding the Funny in Authentic Atheism

This is an article by Becky Garrison. It appears in the 3rd Quarter 2013 issue of American Atheist magazine. American Atheist magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the U.S. and at Chapters Indigo bookstores in Canada. Go to Atheists.org/magazine to see a map of store locations, to subscribe, or to join American Atheists. Members receive free digital subscription.

Paul Provenza at the Reason Rally (John Welte)

Why in no god’s name did a comic emcee the Reason Rally? Has Atheism now de-evolved into a punch line that’s past its prime replete with watered down cocktails, stock sitcom characters, and right leaning puppetry? Paul Provenza riffs via telephone with Becky Garrison on the evolution of comedy, Atheism, and all that jazz as he points the way forward for those seeking authenticity and truth in a culture driven by Christianity and commerce.

Who were the seminal figures in your evolution as an Atheist?

Number one on my list is Penn Jillette, as he really crystalized a lot of things I hadn’t seen so clearly and helped Atheism become more meaningful to me. I had been an Atheist since I was a teenager, but Penn helped me to be open and proud about my Atheism. Also, he introduced me to a whole community that altered my experience of being Atheist. Through Penn, I got to know James Randi and became connected with people in the movement like [American Atheists president] David Silverman, who became a good friend.

Even though George Carlin never self-identified as an Atheist, his perceptions on critical thinking had a profound influence [on] me. When I was a young comic just starting out, I was very cautious, as I didn’t want to alienate people. George Carlin’s bravery became a benchmark. I became perfectly fine with alienating some people in the audience. That just comes with the territory. I had a conversation once with George Wallace after a show where, as usual, he won everyone over in the room with such fervor. I wondered how he was always able to create such a love in the room and asked him what his motivation was in doing comedy in the first place. He said, “I just want to make them happy that they were in the room that night.” That’s when I realized what I really wanted for the audience was for them to get into arguments on the car ride home. I’m not sure why, but that just makes it more interesting for me.

I struggle with the tension of wanting to claim the right to say whatever I want with the desire not to further victimize an already oppressed group. For example, when I report on transgender people who suffer physical violence fueled in large part by hate speech, I know my work is diminished if I use trans slurs. But then, when I did a piece on the involvement of the trans community at Stonewall for the very irreverent web site “Killing the Buddha,” a trans activist found a tag line on the site that read “99% fatwa-free” to be fatphobic and Islamaphobic. Seems you can’t win.

Yeah, that’s tricky. You don’t want to further screw the very people who are already screwed. George Carlin maintained that anything and everything is funny given the right context. This context also includes your own history with a given group. What I can get away with and where I can go is not a problem with my audience because they know me. It also has to do with your fearlessness. For example, when you do a corporate gig, they’ll hand you a list of topics you’re not supposed to cover because they might be offensive. But every good comic knows that’s actually a list of what to open with.

And that’s when the sparks start to fly.

Comedy is inherently subversive because it turns the normal reality on its head. The art form is all about these questions and contradictions. In comedy, we’re dealing with language that we all understand, but words can have a dozen other things around them that alter or affect meaning. Andy Kaufman was a great example of this dynamic. What made him the Picasso of stand-up comedy is that he played with two- and three-dimensionality, in a way. Part of what made Andy so funny is that half the audience didn’t understand what was going on, which was the “punch line” for the other half of the audience. He moved the joke from being onstage to being the experience of it in the audience.

Also, the line that everyone talks about crossing is different for each individual. When we screened The Aristocrats, we observed that every person in that room had different lines where the joke became too much for them. What offended one person didn’t necessarily offend everyone else.

So you no longer care if you cross that line that prevents you from doing commercial television?

When I did The Tonight Show for the first time in 1983, it was back in that day when you needed to appease the arbiters of taste for millions of viewers so you could reach the 150 people that will come see you playing in their town the next week. If you want the big money, then yes, you need to play by the rules of the late-night hosts and movie executives. It’s only greed that makes anyone concede to any gatekeepers.

Social media allows comics to bypass the gatekeepers and connect directly with people who will want to come see them. I tell young comics that you now can be who you are and not compromise for anybody. The Internet opened doors and changed what now actually functions as entertainment. You can be exactly who and what you are, do exactly the kind of work you want to do, and there’s an audience for it somewhere.

As Bill Hicks proved when he got booted from Letterman, there’s a major cost to pay when one bucks the system. Unfortunately, he died from cancer in the ‘90s without the following he deserved. Also, we never had a chance to see how his comedy would have evolved in this digital era even though his bits are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Definitely. Doug Stanhope ran into similar problems when he first started out. But unlike Hicks, he has survived long enough — so far — to get an internet following. Now he doesn’t have to listen to anybody. He puts out there on his Twitter feed where he’ll be appearing, even if it’s someone’s backyard, and fans just show up.

The internet can produce a lot of garbage.

We live in a world when someone can upload a video of a gerbil that gets a look in its eye and that video gets 75 million hits. There’s no telling what turns somebody on. Garbage for you is gold for someone else. And it’s all there for you to make your own decisions about.

You have comics like Richard Pryor who was a maestro at taking taboo topics and garnering laughs. But most comics take this same material and it seems to come off as dirty, racist, and sexist.

Richard Pryor’s vulgarity was authentic to him and who he is. But when some other young comics came along, they missed the key to his act, which was his quest for authenticity on stage. Thinking they were edgy, they used the superficial bits like swearing and using the N-word, but their work lacked Pryor’s authenticity.

How do you define a satirist?

In the book ¡Satiristas!, I talk about a much broader definition, one which refers to any comedy around social issues or politics. But satire in the purest sense is taking a point of view and embracing it so fully that its absurdity becomes self-evident. Such commitment often results in confusion between what’s reality and what’s satire. I learned from Tom Lehrer that in 1729, journalists of the day took Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” about eating children seriously, as if it were being put forth as a viable, realistic solution. Stories from The Onion get picked up and distributed around the world by people who don’t bother to do any fact-checking, because they are so committed that they feel real.

When you joke about religion, how do you move from doing rather silly no-god kind of jokes to really deconstructing the big topics like the problem of evil?

When I get a heckler who tries to proselytize me, I tell them I would respond but I have to take my girlfriend for an abortion because we think the baby is gay. My work tends to be more three-dimensional, trying to explore the conundrums that shape critical thinking in all different kinds of contexts. When people critique me for placing god and Jesus in all kinds of settings, I argue that it’s not blasphemy at all unless you believe.

How does your Atheism inform your comedy and activism?

I engage more in “inactivism.” My participation has been limited to attending the American Atheist conventions, lobbying Congress with David Silverman and emceeing the Reason Rally. Lee Camp and Jamie Kilstein are two passionate and funny comics whose comedy is very much a part of their real, genuine activism.

How does your Atheism come into play on Set List and The Green Room?

They’re both all about what’s happening in the moment. The Green Room creates an environment where comedians can be themselves, which most of the time means critical thinkers. And when you get Atheists like Martin Mull and Penn Jillette, Atheism will become a topic of conversation when they discuss their points of view. On Set List, comics are often put into situations where they have to deal with the tensions inherent in topics like religion, the pope, Nazis, Jews, and race. This format puts them in a place where one of the elements we can deal with is the tension of the topic alone.

How do we change the media conversation toward more authentic voices given the proclivity of the mainstream media to put forth false equivalencies by promoting debunked science and leaders of hate groups as credible sources?

George Carlin said, “If you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show.” He adds, “And if you’re born in the US, you’re given a front-row seat. Some of us are allowed notebooks and pencils, and I’m one of them. I get to make notes and review the show from time to time.” There’s at least a generation of people who have been weaned on what now passes for news. They have no reference point to recognize sincerity and authenticity.

I know so many people who are craving authenticity. They connect with it when it arrives. We need to bring back the term “World Wide Web” to describe the Internet; its best feature is that “Web” part — just keep putting it out there. Even if a podcast only has 400 listeners, it’s still putting it out there. There might be people in, say, Singapore who will connect with what you’re doing in your bedroom in your underwear. I used to try to convince people over to my side but I’m finding much more creative freedom in just being an example. This is particularly helpful with people who are doubting their faith. Just be who you are and let your values and art speak for themselves.

Given the proliferation of online hubs where you can connect virtually, why did you agree to show up in person to emcee the Reason Rally?

The Reason Rally was a demonstration to show how meaningful this is. Tens of thousands of people got off their keyboards and came to stand in the rain. A number of Atheists are loners and not joiners, so it’s interesting to see them come together and identify as a group. This symbolism was meaningful, as it inspired a lot of people and showed Washington a sizable presence of people who do not believe.

What do you think of humanist chaplaincies and other similar communities of nonbelievers?

We know that a lot of people classify themselves as Christian or Jewish, but they only belong to a church or a synagogue for the community — and the brunch afterward. But I can do the same thing at the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles by going to a nice lecture on Sunday and then hanging around for coffee. In a similar vein, I’m looking forward to showcasing “¡Satiristas! LIVE” again at The Amazing Meeting because this event brings people together for a different kind of exchange than just going to hear lectures.

How do you see comedy interacting with the anger one finds present at times in Atheist circles?

If a conversation gets too heated and personalized, then people get so angry they are unable to get together over issues of common concern. If we can laugh about a situation, this can serve to diffuse the problems. Can we come together to work on issues of common concern without having to be perfect? I’m paraphrasing the late Steve Allen who said something along the lines of, “A lot of battles are fought between the good and the good.” For example, if feminists want more women to be included, it doesn’t make much sense to exclude themselves and ask women to boycott an event where Richard Dawkins is going to be present. How does self-exclusion serve the goal of inclusion?

Then there’s the whole “Christian versus Atheist” faith fights. These battles might make for good television but it’s ignoring the reality that there are plenty of Christians who fight the Religious Right and champion LGBT rights.

Most Atheists just want a country with a clear distinction between church and state, as it is meant to be. Such separation safeguards the religious as much as non believers to practice their beliefs without any governmental interference. LGBT people would receive the same civil rights as other people, and no one could object on religious grounds. I see no reason why Christians and Atheists who both agree on these issues can’t work together for that same end. It’s only the extremists who are the problem. Most Americans — religious and non believers — agree on civil rights for all.

Can I get an Amen?… Uh, never mind.

To connect with Paul, follow him on Twitter (@PaulProvenza) and like his Facebook page.

Becky Garrison is a storyteller and religion satirist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Publishers Weekly Starred Review). Her website is BeckyGarrison.com and she’s on Twitter (@Becky_Garrison).

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Mitch

    I always enjoy hearing the “funny people” get serious once in a while. They typically turn out to be very intelligent, well-spoken individuals. Great interview!

    • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

      You might enjoy the Ardent Atheist podcast. The guests are mostly comedians, though the discussion is a mix of seriousness and silliness.

      • Mitch

        I like. Thanks for the link.

  • flyb

    New atheists, militant atheists, now… authentic atheists….. when will it end??

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Have David Silverman and Sarah Silverman ever been seen in the same room together?

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    Set List was mentioned in the post, so I thought I would link it for anyone interested. It’s part of Nerdist’s content on YouTube.


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