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Funnyman Will Durst, who is probably best known to Metro Times readers through his frequently appearing column, was born in Milwaukee. He left for San Francisco in the early 1970s, claiming "comedy was illegal" in his hometown.
He is the only comic ever to be invited to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, writes a daily Internet column at http:// wald.com/durst.html, and hosts "The Durst Amendment," which airs on public television. His latest effort is the PBS series "Livelyhood," about work in America.
The Metro Times woke Durst from his slumber at a Sacramento hotel for an early morning interview.
Metro Times: You're a political comedian and you've said "your material is delivered to your doorstep every morning; you can't make stuff up like this." Is it harder or easier to find jokes in the age of Monicagate?
Will Durst: When the Starr Report first came out, I was working in San Francisco and I would just read directly verbatim from the report and got huge laughs. Then, I went to Minneapolis and people were tired of hearing about it and it was only a week later. I think our sleaze threshold has been reached.
MT: Are we in a period of depoliticalization where the focus on Bill and Monica has blotted out other important considerations?
Durst: It's all cycles. This is an off-year election and political comedians are stuck with the ebb and flow of the tides. Sometimes there's nothing to talk about, and then there's other times -- and this is one of them. Politicians are already positioning themselves to run for president in the next election. Dan Quayle moved to Arizona to establish residency for their early primary. Between him and Bill Clinton, they're the Full Employment Act for comedians.
MT: Wasn't Quayle's problem that he couldn't spell "potato?"
Durst: He had a couple of problems. He has gray hair now so he thinks he's distinguished. ... I met Al Gore and got to shake his hand. I opened up for him at a convention, but he had to split because it was Earth Day and he had about 80 places to appear, so they hired me to open up the crowd. I had to tell jokes, but couldn't use Democrat jokes, which was hideous. I had to focus only on the Republicans. ... (At the National Governors' Convention) I made fun of the electorate. The American people want lower taxes. Well, duh, the American people want nickel beer night; the American people want to lose weight by eating ice cream. So I got applause because I was making fun of the electorate instead of politicians.
MT: Since most of the governors are Republicans, how did you gear your material that night?
Durst: I'm an equal opportunity offender. I hit a little bit on the left and a little bit on the right. I'm a bipartisan smart-ass.
MT: Do you think the era of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl was the golden age of political comedy?
Durst: That time back in the 1950s when everything was so complacent, they needed somebody to stir things up. I think the time was right. Mort still has a great following, and he's even doing Broadway. Unfortunately, he speaks to a different audience. The audience right now has an MTV attention span of high-speed lint. You can't do long involved stories, at least I can't doing comedy clubs ... you have to come up with jokes fast, capture their attention. We're a nation of squirrels; we need that bright shiny object.
MT: Are you a comic that does political material, or a political comic in the sense that you have an agenda put forth through comedy?
Durst: My only agenda is to translate, to pull up the rock, and allow the light of justice to scare away the little termites of hypocrisy. I'm kind of an exterminator.
MT: Let's look at the presidential elections again and at the Republicans. Did you see Michael Moore's film The Big One, where he notes that Steve Forbes never blinks?
Durst: Forbes truly is a lizard. He seems like one of those science fiction pod people who woke up an hour early and not everything is connected. ... I'm not sure America is ready to elect a magazine publisher; the presidency shouldn't be an entry-level position. Although if we are going to elect a magazine publisher, it's not going to be Forbes; it's going to be Hugh Hefner. That way we get a new First Lady every month.