Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Jimmy Tingle on the top news stories of 2010

Jimmy Tingle at the Regent Theatre
If you want to catch up on the news stories of 2010, you could do worse than going to see Jimmy Tingle’s shows this week and next week at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. Tingle has been delivering his social and political commentary around Boston since the days of the Ding Ho in the 80s, when he transformed himself from a bartender and street performer into a satirist.

We have covered his activities over the summer, graduating with a masters in public administration from the Kennedy School at Harvard. But Tingle is back to performing and stand-up comedy, and will soon be promoting his new documentary, Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream, for which he interviewed, among others, Howard Zinn, Robert Altman, Barry Crimmins, and Sean Hannity.

Tingle is at the Regent tonight, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and January 2. You can also donate part of your ticket price to charity by tacking on an extra five bucks, which Tingle will match and donate to any one of a list of charities you can find on his site here.

I had a lengthy conversation with Tingle earlier this week on some of the bigger news stories, and his own plans for the coming new year.

How are the shows going at the Regent so far?

Good. I just did one last night. They’re going well. It’s good to be back there. The audiences are great. It’s a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun last night. I’m looking forward to tonight and the rest of this week and then New Year’s Eve. It’s good to just be performing again.

How long had it been? I know you’ve done some stuff over the summer.

Yeah. I did some stuff in Wellfleet over the summer. I’ve been out there. But when I spent the year at school I really didn’t do any public gigs for a year or ten months. A certain thing here and there, a private gig.

Do you feel like there’s been any rust?

No. I wouldn’t say so. I’ve been going to the Hong Kong [The Comedy Studio] a lot. That’s just doing ten minutes. There’s sometimes rust there because you’re just breaking out new stuff all the time, trying to anyway. So that’s probably the bumpiest ones that I have. But when I do these hour or ninety-minute shows or whatever, the bumpiest bits are sandwiched in between other stuff so it doesn’t seem as rusty.

We talked about this over the summer after your graduation. You felt it would affect your comedy to have gotten the degree. How do you find that now that you’ve gone back to gigging and you’ve got a few under your belt?

I think it’s really helped, actually, to get away from something and go back to it. It helps with the writing. Because you’re in school, you’re on deadline, and one thing about comics, most of us are not on deadlines. Unless you’re doing a radio show or a TV show where you’re on deadline that week. But if you’re a freelancer, you have to discipline yourself. I’ve always worked better when there’s a compelling reason to write or to come up with stuff. So I think that the school experience helped with the discipline more than if I hadn’t done it. And also broadened the perspective, so the commentary may become a little more knowledge-based, I think.

Are you writing more now than you did before, do you think?

I don’t know. I think I probably am.

Do you feel there’s more new stuff in this show than there would have been without it?

Oh yeah. Definitely.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a few of the major news stories of the year.

Sure. One of the things is, as we speak, the Senate is debating the START Treaty. A lot of the Republicans, they’re opposing the START Treaty. I heard one of them, I think it was Lindsey Graham, say the holidays is not the time to negotiate the STARTY Treaty. Yes, you don’t want to confuse reducing the threat of nuclear war with the birth of Christ.

They always say, there’s a window of opportunity for bipartisanship, and as soon as Obama starts climbing through the window, they go, “There’s a black guy coming though the window! Shut it!”

What was your take on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Are you surprised that that went through?

I’m not surprised that it went through because in my opinion it’s the right thing to do. But also, it benefits the Republican party, even the moderate Republicans, it benefits them because there’s millions and millions of gay people in the country, and a lot of them are Republicans. The Log Cabin Republicans, for example, support it.

So I’m not surprised that it went through. I think that as time goes on, a lot of the people will probably ashamed of their vote that voted against it. I think ten years from now, we’ll look back after everything settles down and settles in and it shakes out and it’s no big deal, I think the people that voted against it will feel a sense of regret. It’s like voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It did seem like there was a sudden change in the amount of people who came out supporting the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the past few months. And I don’t know if there was actually a sea change, or if nobody had bothered to talk to these people before.

No, I think the culture has changed. The culture is different than it was fifteen years ago when it first came in. It just has. Dick Cheney supports gay marriage because his daughter’s gay. Ted Olson supports gay marriage. I’m not sure what his motivation is but he’s a pretty heavy-duty Bush supporter, I think he was the Solicitor General under Bush, lost his wife in 9/11 on the plane in Pennsylvania. It’s just a sea change in the country, a cultural change. And it’s reflected with the moderate Republicans. And also it helps them, it helps them with their own constituents, many of whom are gay.

But of course, they always have a caveat. I’ll support it as long as it doesn’t interfere with military preparedness. How is it… “We have to take the hill.” “Yes, Captain, but first, one question – will you marry me?” “Of course I’ll marry you! Burt first, let’s take the hill!”

“It’s the perfect setting.”

Exactly. So you have that, and that’s progress. And I think they’ll probably get the START Treaty through, that’s going to be progress.

What do you think of the nature of bipartisanship in Congress right now? It seems to be one of the nastier times. One side says, we’re just digging in for what we believe in, and the other side will say they’re not compromising.

I think things are going to change after the New Year. We’ll see what happens. Let me just say that.

Do you have a sense of what you think will happen?

Here’s an example – the earmarks. The brouhaha over the earmarks. The people who are opposing the earmarks, let’s just say the economy is not doing as well as everybody hopes it’s going to do. So then you take all of these federal projects out of all these congressional districts around the country. That’s less jobs. It’s less employment. It’s less business activity. It’s not going to be good for people. Yes, you technically save eight billion dollars, but you also lose a lot of economic activity in a lot of congressional districts around the country.

And it might look good on paper to say “no earmarks,” but I think the residual effect of that is, there’s less work, there’s less employment, there’s less growth, there’s less infrastructure repairing and new construction. And I think after a year or two of that if you go to your constituents and say, we’ve reduced the deficit by eight billion dollars, but the bridge or the tunnel or the highway still needs to be repaired, I don’t think that’s a recipe for re-election. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to encourage people to say, yes, we want two more years of this austerity measure in our congressional district.

So I think what may very well happen is that the novelty of less government in congressional districts around the country is going to wear off quickly when the people – the people, not the members of Congress but the people in those districts – have to actually feel the results of having less economic activity in their districts.

There’s also the back and forth about Obama himself. The left feels that he’s compromised too much and the right is trying to say he has not compromised on anything, that he’s too far to the left.

The right’s not going to say anything positive about him at all. That’s their whole strategy, to demonize, demonize, demonize. That’s been their strategy since he got in.

Does that make legitimate criticism of Obama more difficult?

It just makes it harder to discern what is legitimate criticism and what isn’t. If everything with the guy is wrong, then what’s really wrong is not going to be apparent because they don’t like anything. How can you not like the fact that General Motors is on the rebound after the infusing of government money and restructuring. And they paid back most of the money. A major American company is up and running as a result of that particular investment or bailout or whatever you want to call it.

You know what it is? It seems there’s a lack of authenticity and a lack of honesty. And that’s the biggest thing about the bipartisanship. People aren’t intellectually honest. If you have to side with your “quote” side or your team regardless of the weight of the argument, but because your team either put forth that argument or is opposed to that argument because it was put forth or opposed by the other side, then there’s an intellectual dishonesty there.

It does seem that all of that is positioning for the next election. The talk about actually solving problems seems to be secondary to, how do we get elected next time. And that’s probably nor something that’s a huge change from the way it’s always been. But it feels worse now for some reason.

Yeah. I think everybody would say that. From what I’ve read and heard and from what people have said, I think that’s true. But you’re also dealing with 65 new members of Congress coming in for the first time. Many of these people have never held public office. It could be a breath of fresh air. Who knows? So that’s a wild card, as well.

Do you have any official opinion on the Tea Party?

Let’s see what they do. I like the fact that people get involved and get active in their neighborhood and their government, and that they’re active and people are engaged in the political process. I think it’s healthy. I think it’s been a healthy thing, basically, for the country to have more political engagement. We’ll see.

Sometimes I wonder, is it really deficit reduction or is it really stopping Obama, and deficit reduction is another excuse to stop Obama. And also to deny the continued funding of social programs. One of the things about the deficit is, they say the deficit is the number one thing, and you say, do we have money for the hospitals, do we have money for the schools, do we have money for education, do we have money for this and that program, no no no no no because that’ll increase the deficit. That’ll increase the debt. So it can be used as a weapon to squash social programs and social spending that some people don’t like.

What would you say is a legitimate criticism of Obama? Is there anything out there that he deserves to be criticized for?

I think it’s really effective when he’s aggressive, and he think he should have engaged on Fox Television. In the early days, he made a decision not to go on Fox, and I think it was a mistake not to go on Fox. Because he can sit down with Bill O’Reilly one on one, just like he sat down with other people, and he knows the nuances of the policy way better, in my estimation, than any of these commentators who are going to grill him on a policy. I think he would do himself well to dispel their arguments to their face on television. And I think that takes the wind out f their sails. And by not going on there, they have the open field. They can do whatever they want.

And I feel the same way about talk radio. The Democrats… you have to engage your critics. And I think direct engagement earns their respect and I think it also allows your supporters to see you defend your positions. And I think it’s a mistake for the Democrats not to engage on talk radio and not to engage on Fox, given the opportunity to do so. It’s one thing if they don’t invite you. But if they invite you and as a matter of principle because you don’t like what they stand for you don’t go on, I think you’re ceding the territory. And I don’t think it serves a good purpose because it’s just the drumbeat of the message.

If he went on Sean Hannity and talked about being a Marxist, being a socialist, he could just lay out the agenda and explain why it’s not socialism. And Fox could play that a thousand times, and it would sink in that what he’s proposing is not socialism, when you bail out Wall Street. But by not doing it, you cede the territory and it’s wide open. On a whole host of issues, to go on there and sell health care on Fox, or the bailouts, to make your arguments just like you make your arguments on the other stations.

It’s part of a bigger problem of messaging. When he went to the Republican retreat in, I don’t know if it was his first six months, but he was great. They asked him questions and he was able to engage every single question. And he did himself a great service. They never invited him back, but he was dynamite. Because he’s very smart and he’s articulate and he’ sincere and he’s authentic in what he’s trying to do, and he can lay out the argument for the other side to hear. The reason I support Obama and the Democrats is because on most of the issues, they’re right. In my estimation.

So you feel their faults have mainly been strategic ones.

I think the health care thing, the idea that you have to buy insurance, I think is what freaked people out. Because in Massachusetts, it was less of a shock because we went through a debate in the state about it. The legislature, Romney, it was bipartisan. It was a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature that came up with this Massachusetts system where you’re going to cover everybody in the state and everybody has to buy it. But it was debated, it was laid out.

When Obama got there, they were imposing it from the top down on states that had no such debate. So people freaked out because a lot of people don’t have insurance because they can’t afford it. Or they were happy with what they had. It scared people. And not getting a public option led to the next phase of this thing where you have to buy insurance.

But I think he was bending over backwards to accommodate insurance companies and the business community and stay true to free enterprise and not be portrayed as complicit in the “quote” government take-over of health care. And in doing so, he still got slammed on the issue. It didn’t stop them from saying [it was] the government take-over of health care. But they didn’t have the government take over health care that he was paying the price for. He’s paying the price for socialized medicine without the socialized medicine.

Everything seems to be pushing towards presidential electoral politics, as well. What are your feelings on what 2012 might bring?

I don’t think Obama will be challenged as a Democrat, and I think he’s going to be able to, at the end of the year, say listen, we passed health care, we ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, we got a START Treaty, we extended the unemployment benefits. So there’s some positive things that he’s done. I don’t think he’s going to be challenged from the left in the party.

And the Republicans, who knows who they’ll put up. I don’t think Sarah Palin is a favorite in the party. She quit halfway through her first term and she does not have the backing of the Republican establishment from what I can see. But she’ll be a factor because they’ve figured out a way to message without actually doing interviews with a lot of people. It’s a form of entertainment. On her reality show, when she said, I’d much rather be up here and out in the wilderness being free than some stuffy old political office in Washington. And you know what, Sarah? Millions of people agree with you. Half of them are in the Republican party.

What about locally? We had an election here that bucked the trend for the rest of the country. What do you think happened there?

The people of Massachusetts, I think most of them like the state of Massachusetts, and although there’s big problems in certain areas of one-party rule, there’s definitely an issue with that, I think most of the people in Massachusetts are Democrats for a reason. And they support the principles of the Democratic party that are more politically progressive than the principles of the Republican party. I think that has a lot to do with it. And also they outnumber the Republicans two to one or three to one.

And we faired well relative to the rest of the country and the economy because of the universities up here. It’s not good when the economy is bad for universities but at least they’re not shutting down and moving. That sustains us through economic hard times, unlike a lot of other places that don’t have that advantage. So our unemployment was less. We actually had more job creation, we’re in the top five states in the country, I believe, since 2008, I think. So we had some things going for us here.

And what will you be up to in 2011?

My film, Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream, is done and I look forward to getting that out there in 2011. It’s a documentary, about 70 minutes long. We’re putting it in film festivals. We’re trying to generate some interest. I’m psyched to get it out this year, and I’m psyched to get around the country and around the world with the film.

What would you say is the synopsis of the film for those who aren’t familiar?

It’s basically the American Dream, what does it mean, seen through my eyes as a comic and an entrepreneur and a business owner who had a theatre. And interviews with other people and their interpretation of the American Dream, focusing on, what is the American Dream, what are the components of it, and what do we stand for as a country, what do we stand for as a people. Obviously there’s humor involved, there are performances involved. And a lot of interviews with a lot of great people.

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