Tune in to Citizen Radio and you might hear Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein make impassioned arguments about the importance of thinking critically, lament the sexist commercialism of Mother’s Day, get angry about the attack on public sector workers’ rights or interview leading political commentators including In These Times regulars like Noam Chomsky, David Sirota, Mike Elk and Greg Palast.
But you might also hear the two relay rambling tales of over-eating and nearly getting into fights at a Vegetarian Food Festival in New York, or catch Jamie singing “Israel commits war crimes” in soft falsetto. The independent, member-sponsored political comedy podcast was formerly known as Drunken Politics, and while Citizen Radio might not always be drunken, it’s usually anarchic and wide-ranging, not to mention hilarious.
What’s most impressive is when its hosts manage to make the absurdist satirical humor and the uncompromising political angle work together, as with Jamie’s recent declaration — just ever so slightly too late — that he was going to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden, “in Iraq,” with his magnifying glass, and Allison’s deadpan attempts to explain that he had been fed misinformation about bin Laden’s whereabouts by Dangles, a (stuffed toy) Amazonian Punching Monkey.
Meanwhile, the pair have ever-more-impressive individual résumés. Kilkenny writes about economics, labor and protest movements regularly for The Nation (among many other progressive publications and websites) and blogs at her own site, while Kilstein’s acclaimed stand-up comedy has taken him on a tour across the globe and led to an appearance on Conan and frequent comparisons to Bill Hicks.
As ever, their conversation with In These Times is not for those who have a problem with profanity…
Citizen Radio is usually full of humor, often very irreverent and/or dark. Is there any issue so bleak you can’t bring yourself to laugh at it?
Allison Kilkenny: No, and I don’t like the “humor police” who oftentimes emerge on Twitter or Facebook to let us know what topics are not appropriate to laugh at. People cope with difficult news in their own ways, and our way is through humor, namely so our audience doesn’t start offing themselves, one-by-one.
Jamie Kilstein: As long as we are not making fun of someone who doesn’t deserve it, I think it’s fair game. I had a lot of rough stuff happen to me as a kid and humor was how I got out of it. Without it I would probably be some serial murderer or Republican. So the more serious an issue is the harder you have to go after it, ‘cause chances are you just cheered someone up who was really bummed. Then once you can laugh at it, you can start to think critically about it.
Your bios on the Citizen Radio website both list insults from right-wing icons as badges of pride. Do you still enjoy antagonizing the right, or does their criticism/invective ever wear you down?
Allison: We really don’t go out of our way to antagonize the right. G. Gordon Liddy contacted me out of the blue on Twitter with that wonderful quote (“Allison Kilkenny’s writing makes me want to vomit”), and Glenn Beck’s people tend to lift sound clips out of context from our shows to put up on his website, but we don’t instigate drama with them. We do, however, enjoy making fun of them when they make fools of themselves.
Jamie: As long as they are assholes we will call them assholes. With that said, we have a very left-wing audience so it’s more important for us to stay after the Democrats and maybe teach our listeners something, instead of every day being like “Hey, remember George Bush! Whaaaaat an idiooooot!!”
What do you think makes for an effective activist or political campaign? Can you name a current one that you admire?
Allison: Creativity is important. It’s very difficult to get Americans interested in activism, so any display of resistance has to be unique: a) to grab the attention of our ADD culture, and b) to grab the attention of our ADD media. Also, it’s important Americans grow a pair and start raising the stakes. It’s not enough to sign online petitions. I really admire the people in Wisconsin who occupied the Capitol in response to Scott Walker’s stripping of collective bargaining. That’s the only type of protest that matters anymore: occupy and refuse to leave. It scares the hell out of the politicians and the media loves the drama, so they’re more likely to cover it.
Jamie: I hate to say it, but make it about “them.” Even the best of us are selfish creatures and sometimes appealing to common decency doesn’t work. I love what Rethink Afghanistan did. They had a calculator on their website where you could figure out how much YOU spent on the war.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?
Jamie: Gay marriage. It’s 2011 and we don’t have equal rights for all citizens. We are fucking disgusting.
Allison: Well, now I look like an asshole if I don’t say gay marriage. Obviously, gay marriage would be awesome, but also campaign finance reform. The way American elections are run, we have to choose between Corporate Shill A or Corporate Shill B, which inevitably screws us when it comes time for something like healthcare reform. Big Pharma practically wrote the legislation because they were one of Obama’s biggest donors. If we had publicly funded elections, we could say (with a straight face) America is a democracy, run by the people and not by corporations.
Tell us about a policy/political debate that you’re still on the fence about.
Allison: Nuclear energy. It’s an emotional issue because of what we see happening in Japan (and what we saw happening in Chernobyl before that,) but we needed to get off coal yesterday, and if the world doesn’t immediately start phasing out coal, climate devastation is inevitable. Plus, when compared with the annual deaths caused by the coal industry, the nuclear energy has a much, much better safety record (except when it fails, it fails spectacularly). There’s a ton of problems with regulation in the nuclear industry (regulators being too cozy with industry and politicians). It’s complicated. I could rant on at length.
Jamie: Gay marriage (just kidding). I think charter schools. I know that any time you make something about money, it’s not good. And I know 100 percent you shouldn’t defund these public schools and people with money should not be given better educations, but there seem to be some charter schools that target the poor and do good work. I think I just need to read up on it.
What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
Jamie: Leading us to war? Also that they will have two talking heads come on and scream at each other without saying who is factually full of shit. So fat white pundit number one will say “x” and old white pundit number two will say “y” and the hack TV host will say “I guess we’ll never know.” Well, just look it up, asshole.
Allison: Jay Rosen calls what Jamie describes “The View from Nowhere.” Also, false equivalency. Oftentimes, the media presents the “far left” and “far right” as though they have equal pull in Washington, which is absurd on its face. Our country is broke from the Forever Wars and the GOP is slashing the social safety net. Those were the victories of the far right. What has the left won?
…And how about a mistake that American progressive, independent media keeps making — and what does that say about the American left in general?
Allison: Being afraid of looking uncool when they object to the insanity coming from the right. Liberals are very proud of how detached and awesome we are, and protesting is inherently uncool. It demands passion and screaming, and a lot of lefty hipsters aren’t up for the challenge.
Jamie: Not being as hard on Democrats when they act like Republicans. Being scared into following the rules.
Name a journalist, blogger or writer whose work you read or follow religiously. What makes them a great writer?
Jamie: Glenn Greenwald. The dude has never once strayed from his convictions. Also when he takes someone down, they don’t get up. He is the Sugar Ray Leonard of journalism.
Allison: Greenwald, Digby, John Cole, Atrios and Matt Taibbi. All of these bloggers/journalists are able to take complex issues and break them down in a digestible, entertaining way. Humor is a big thing for me. We deal with such massively depressing topics that it’s important to be able to laugh at this stuff. Glenn Greenwald is the most morally consistent writer I think I’ve ever read, second only to Chomsky.
When did your political awakening occur?
Allison: The first time I read Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I wanted to run up to total strangers, screaming, “HOLY SHIT! EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU BELIEVE IS A LIE!” And then, I started watching Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, which makes you understand how adults can watch the establishment media all day and learn absolutely nothing.
Jamie: I think when we were on the road and just started talking to people about their lives and saw how the corrupt choices our politicians made affected real-life people. OH! Also, I remember the first time I watched Democracy Now! being like… “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?! EVERYONE HAS LIED TO ME!”
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?
Allison: I can’t think of anything from when I was young, but Howard Zinn told us, “If you don’t understand history, you’re a victim.” This stuck with me because American culture doesn’t have a long memory. We forget, for example, what happened when the U.S. armed the Mujahideen to fight the Russians in the ’80s (they became Al-Qaeda) and that 9⁄11 was retaliation for the U.S.‘s presence in the Middle East. Even though that experiment in realpolitik blew up in our faces, Americans still support the government’s policy of imperialism to this day. And the next time blowback hits our shores, everyone will feign surprise all over again.
Jamie: Always go for the throat.
Recommend a book, film or album you enjoyed within the last month (and say why!).
Allison: Nerd alert! I’m reading Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. It’s all about tax havens. I’ve been writing a lot about the budget cuts and US Uncut, which is an anti-corporate-tax-dodging group, so tax havens have been on my mind a lot.
Jamie: Citizen Kane, The Wire and the entire works of Noam Chomsky. (I’m trying to sound cool.)
Name a pop culture guilty pleasure. Can you make the case that is it subtly political or subversive?
Allison: Jamie and I watch Glee, which is a super pro-gay show. They even ran a commercial for the It Gets Better Project during last week’s episode. So that’s my attempted defense of me watching Glee.
Jamie: Oh god, well it’s NOT Glee or The Voice. (It’s both of those.) I could make a case but would sound silly. I was actually afraid Glee would be awful and stereotypical with Kurt being gay, but they have done some really cool stuff especially with his father. The Voice—I got nothing. It was made by the evil dude who made survivor but it has Cee-Lo AND he wears a Misfits shirt. C’mon, dude, that’s fucking cool.
—May 10, 2011