NEW YORK — People sometimes ask Andy Borowitz, one of America’s finest fake-news creators and political satirists, why he makes fun of Republicans far more often than Democrats. Borowitz usually replies with a variation of Willie Sutton’s line about why he robbed banks: Because that’s where the comedy is.
See, it’s not really a political thing, says Borowitz, who does own up to being a lifelong Dem. Primarily, it’s a funny thing. “I’m a heat-seeking missile,” he says. “I just care about the laugh.” And given the current GOP field, “I’d be crazy to turn them down.”
This might be why Borowitz’s widely followed Twitter feed (nearly 135,000 followers and counting) brims with a rolling stream of quips, digs and mock headlines aimed at the revolving cast of Republican front-runners:
● “Breaking: Rick Perry requests that debate format include Lifeline and 50/50.”
● “Breaking: Newt Gingrich leads GOP field in wives.”
● “Breaking: Romney Admits He is Flip-Flopper, Then Denies It.”
As Republicans mulled over the wisdom of Gingrich’s laissez-faire stance on immigration in Tuesday night’s debate, Borowitz offered his own “breaking” analysis: “Daringly Humane Position on Immigration Could Torpedo Gingrich.”
Such snarky stuff is just a small part of the Borowitz-based satire industry. A former TV sitcom writer — he created “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” in the early 1990s — the 53-year-old humorist is funny in long form and short, and in multiple media. His BorowitzReport.com is his Onion-esque “news” site, with such stories as “Potential Race Between Black Guy and Mormon Poses Dilemma for Bigots” and “Greece Offers to Repay Bailout with Giant Horse.” He’s written five humor books and dozens and dozens of humor pieces for the New Yorker magazine. He does lectures and stand-up comedy, too.
Borowitz’s latest incarnation is as a humor editor. In a collection titled “The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion,” Borowitz plowed through about 1,000 authors to select the best of his kind. There’s the obvious (well, Twain), the obscure (a long-forgotten short story by film director John Hughes that became the basis for the National Lampoon “Vacation” movies) and the never-appreciated (Sinclair Lewis). Plus, Nora Ephron, Dave Barry, H.L. Mencken and others.
But maybe he didn’t get to everyone who deserves to be there. Like, Sinclair Lewis and Langston Hughes, but not Robert Benchley?
“The idea is to get people talking,” Borowitz says one afternoon, languishing over a lunch of pizza and iced black coffee at an Upper East Side restaurant near his apartment. And indeed he has: The book has been a New York Times bestseller, a coup for its publisher, the nonprofit Library of America.
Borowitz is tall, gawky and fit (he runs about six miles a day). He has a long neck, a prominent nose and floppy hair, all of which makes him look like a cross between comedian Andy Dick and actor Owen Wilson. Like many humorists and comics, he’s more thoughtful and reflective in conversation than you’d expect.
The impression is belied by Borowitz’s output, which is prodigious, always topical and machine polished. His comic tweets spiral out at all hours. His Web site is updated daily with a new fake-news story, written in perfect hack style. Such as:
“MINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report) — Herman Cain’s burgeoning sex scandal might actually be the first sign that he is qualified to be a politician. That is the assessment of presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, who believes that news of the sex scandal could convince previously undecided voters that Mr. Cain, a former restaurant executive, is of presidential timbre.”
Borowitz says his parents would have preferred that he become a lawyer — as his father, Albert, and brother Peter were. But Borowitz wanted none of it. He says he became editor of his high school newspaper mostly to do the April Fool’s Day parody issue. At Harvard, he of course joined the Lampoon, the school’s humor magazine, and — of course — produced a parody of the Crimson, the student newspaper. “I look back and realize there has been very little growth,” he says.
In fact, Peter Borowitz says his younger brother had an ideal breeding ground for wit and all-around smart-alecness. Their parents both wrote (Dad did true-crime and murder mysteries; mother Helen produced works on art history and literature). Albert Borowitz also produced satirical songs, in the Tom Lehrer tradition, for the Cleveland Artists against the Vietnam War. With his parents’ encouragement and a Super-8 camera, the preteen Andy produced and directed film parodies, with Peter cast as his leading man.
After college, Borowitz did what other, later Lampoon alumni like Conan O’Brien did: He lit out for Los Angeles to write for TV. He was almost instantly successful, writing for a variety of shows, including “Archie Bunker’s Place” and “The Facts of Life.”
In 1990, NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff introduced Borowitz to an attractive young actor and rapper and asked him to build a show around him. Borowitz, the white kid from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Will Smith, the hip-hop star from the Philadelphia area, collaborated on “Fresh Prince,” which ran for six seasons and made Smith a star and Borowitz a few million dollars.
Borowitz was rich, successful — and unhappy. Of his days writing for “Facts of Life,” he once said bitterly, “I was the worst writer on the worst show on TV. The only thing worse than being a whore is being a whore and totally sucking at it”
So, when “Fresh Prince” was canceled, Borowitz dropped out for a couple of years. He resurfaced in 1998 to co-produce a movie, “Pleasantville,” starring a rising young Reese Witherspoon. Around this time Borowitz published his first book, “The Trillionaire Next Door,” a satire about day trading.
But his current path wasn’t really set until 2001, when he put the Borowitz Report online just as George W. Bush came into office. The site brought together Borowitz’s love of news and his talent for instantly spotting the comic ore in it. Upon learning one morning that the rock star Bono was under consideration to run the World Bank, Borowitz had the perfect take: He wrote a story about Alan Greenspan being named to replace Bono as lead singer of U2.
Borowitz doesn’t edit himself much; one-liners drop from his noggin to his keyboard at regular intervals, without much pruning or trimming. A 250-word piece on the Borowitz Reports takes him no more than 10 or 15 minutes from concept to post. He calls it “muscle memory,” like a major-league hitter swatting fastballs. What’s more, rather than hindering his wit, Twitter’s 140-character limit seems to impose a kind of Henny Youngman-esque discipline on him that sharpens his material. And so you get: “If you’re watching cable TV to get the news, that’s like going to Olive Garden because you want to live in Italy.”
“I’m jealous of Andy in so many ways,” says comedian Judy Gold, a friend and New York neighbor. “He’s brilliant, of course. But the thing I admire most is that he left [Hollywood]. If you have some success there, people are like ‘more, more, more.’ . . . He walked away, did what he liked.”
Gold pegs Borowitz as a comic rarity — a professional funny person who’s actually happy.
Borowitz has two children, a 22-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son, from his first marriage. He has a 2-year-old daughter with his second wife, Olivia Gentile, a writer.
Borowitz thinks his next project might be staying home for a year and hanging out with him family. But not until after the election.
This gig is too good to give up.
“I look at politics now as another TV show or sitcom that you can reliably get laughs from,” he says. “The problem is, right now, it’s all wacky neighbors and no main characters. The thing is, ‘The Ropers’ were fictitious. These people are real. And we’re doomed.”