NEW YORK — In a grungy basement comedy club on West 46th Street, Elon James White, 32, bursts onstage in a hooded sweat shirt, hip-hopistan baseball cap askew, and lobs an opening joke about Rep. Michele Bachmann.
“I’m a fan of Republicans. They are just so damn entertaining. They’re the best reality show — ever. Forget the Kardashians, I want to know what the Bachmanns are up to,” he hoots.
“That’s right, everyone. I’m a Negro in a hoodie, and I know who Michele Bachmann is,” he continues, as the audience claps and roars. “Sorry, but I’m paying attention!”
White is one of a dozen rotating acts in “This Ain’t No Tea Party,” a progressive comedy revue in the midst of a 10-week off-Broadway run. It often draws a packed audience filled with young Midwestern tourists in Uggs, dreadlocked blipsters from the Bronx, retired Upper West Side theater buffs, along with political wonks and human rights activists. The traveling show, Laughing Liberally, plans to tour nationally soon.
Like all good comedy, the show relies on timing. In a cultural moment that finds liberals dismayed by the tea party’s popularity and disheartened by Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm elections, the left is in need of a good laugh.
“Among liberals there’s no euphoria, that’s for sure,” says Laughing Liberally co-founder Justin Krebs, 33, who wears a rumpled suit and sports a loose ponytail as he ushers the audience inside. The goal, he says, is “to energize our base — in the same way the tea party does for the right. The left really needs this. It allows us to vent.”
Laughing Liberally is part of a national volunteer organization called Living Liberally, a social networking organization for like-minded progressives. It is best known for its offshoot, Drinking Liberally, a social club where progressives are invited to cry over a pint in bars and other venues while dishing on politics. “Like many liberals during the George W. Bush years, I realized I needed a drink,” Krebs says. He was not alone. Drinking Liberally grew to have chapters in 50 states.
Laughing Liberally began as a scrappy activist comedy show that entertained liberal protesters and others at St. Paul’s Ordway Center during the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Justin’s father, Eric Krebs, a longtime theater producer, saw more in his son’s project than street theater.
“The tea party movement gives Laughing Liberally more urgency than ever,” says Eric Krebs, a curly-haired professor of theater at Baruch College in New York City.
Conservatives in the early 1990s turned to talk radio as their main venue to hash out politics while liberals dominated fake comedy news shows on television, says Paul Lewis, a Boston College English professor and author of “Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict.”
“Inspired by Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio relies on what I call ‘rage-icule,’ an angry form of mockery that not only criticizes but also scorns its targets,” Lewis says.
Though conservative comedians exist — Dennis Miller or “Saturday Night Live’s” Victoria Jackson — conservative comedy hasn’t had as much mainstream success, Lewis says. In early 2007, Fox News attempted to launch a conservative version of “The Daily Show” called “The ½ Hour News Hour.” But after just 13 episodes, the show was canceled.
The show took lobs at “easy targets,” poking fun at Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Gore and global warming — but a lot of material was off-limits because they feared Republicans being branded racist or insensitive, says a former co-producer.
One of the few right-leaning comics is Nick Di Paolo, who has written for “Saturday Night Live.” Di Paolo, who is socially liberal but economically conservative, has a one-hour special, “Nick Di Paolo Raw Nerve,” airing Saturday on Showtime, in which he takes swipes at favorite targets, such as President Obama and labor unions.
“But comedy has been liberal for so long,” Di Paolo says. “There’s a point of view that is so politically correct that the audience clams up — and laughter is contagious.”
Indeed, the Laughing Liberally show’s young comedians seem to be struggling with the mutable demands of political correctness: Which rules are funny to break and which aren’t?
With her heavy Upper West Side accent and frequent references to Zabar’s, comedian Katie Halper often stuns the audience by giving voice to the Palestinian plight — as a Jewish liberal.
“You’ve heard about the movie ‘Miral’ opening, right?” Halper asks the audience, referring to the recently released film about an orphaned Palestinian girl who finds herself drawn into the conflict.
“Like we really need yet another movie that looks at the conflict from a Palestinian perspective? Way to shatter the stereotype that Hollywood is run by Palestinians. And Palestinian women, specifically,” Halper exhales sarcastically. “Because there are so many Palestinians running Hollywood.”
Some in the audience laugh. But some clearly experience what Halper, a Laughing Liberally co-founder, calls the “PEP Phenomenon,” or Progressive Except on Palestine.
Dean Obeidallah, a boyish-looking Palestinian Italian comic, sees Laughing Liberally as part of a rich American tradition in which performers such as Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce were able to raise sensitive issues such as race and sex.
Obeidallah is also the co-creator of Comedy Central’s Internet series “The Watch List,” which features a cast of Middle Eastern American comedians. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a hipster-pink plaid shirt, he’s an angsty Arab Chris Rock.
“One of the benefits of having a Muslim name in the U.S. is that you are immune to identity theft,” Obeidallah tells the audience. “I have an Arab American friend whose first name is Osama — he can leave his driver’s license and credit cards in a crack house and no one will pretend to be him.”
Many of the evening’s laughs are uneasy, but a central premise soon emerges: When in doubt, make fun of the tea party.
Comic Jamie Jackson flutters onstage in drag — faux Chanel suit, mousy brown bouffant wig — as Lady Margo Barnesly Farnsworth, a visiting Brit struggling to understand tea party politics.
A friend patiently explains to her that guns don’t actually kill people, and she launches into a bring-down-the-house ditty called “Guns Don’t Kill People. People Kill People.”
“It’s wonderful logic, isn’t it?” Lady Farnsworth croons. “So, let’s keep going.” And the audience claps and sings along.