Comedy Is Not the Enemy of Seriousness
Author-activist Robert Newman at the Drafthouse
How many hats can a man wear and still stand upright? UK author Robert Newman is laden down with more than most: political activist, comedian, and writer of the new The Fountain at the Center of the World (Soft Skull, $14.95, paper), which immerses his loathing of globalist groups like the WTO and NAFTA in a complex and complexly humorous tale of two long-lost brothers and the divergent paths their lives have taken. Part Douglas Rushkoff (Coercion), part Naomi Klein (No Logo), and part road trip to hell and back, Newman's book pulls none of the punches it frequently aims at the paunchy solar plexus of corporate culture and the eco-activists they love to hate, and vice versa.
One brother, the perfectly named Evan Hatch, spends his life in the ivory towers of the industrialized well-off in upper-class London, while the other, Chano Salgado, is on the run from the powers that be in the wake of an eco-terrorist action gone awry. Both Evan, who's suffering from leukemia, and Chano's son Daniel are desperate to find the missing man, and the book dominos from the guilt-edged seats of UK power to Mexican border towns before finally coming to rest (if you can call it that) amid the explosive anarchy-in-waiting of Seattle's 1999 WTO protests. Liberal, conservative, or black blocker, Newman's book is never anything less than engrossing, and offers more than a few lessons and commentaries on how they are screwing us every step of the way.
Newman, who has gravitated to writing from the razor-sharp political comedy of UK troupe the Mary Whitehouse Experience and managed to sell out the whole of Wembley Arena with his acid-tongued political stand-up, clearly sees a lot and doesn't like much of it. Luckily for us, he has no problem gutting societal sacred cows.
"I think the two roles [of activist and writer] inform each other," says Newman from a New York-bound Amtrak. "I've been very inspired by political things and organizations which were happening in London at the time, such as Reclaim the Streets and various ecological movements, and that was informing my comedy. The catchy title of the stand-up show I've been doing for the past couple of years in the UK was 'From Caliban to the Taliban: 500 Years of Humanitarian Intervention.' How I didn't get the prime-time slot with that I don't know."
The intersection of stand-up comedy and social activism is hardly what you'd call crowded, and in the U.S. it's virtually a dead-end alleyway, populated by no more than the spirit of Newman's friend and fan (and former Austinite) the late, great Bill Hicks.
"With the stand-up, I was trying to be a sort of outreach worker for some of the exciting groups I knew of," says Newman. "At times we can be so good at squabbling and arguing among ourselves that we forget about trying to communicate. Some people fall in love with keeping their politics pure, which is easy to do if you're not trying to engage with people. So I'm always thinking, 'OK, I'm convinced of this idea; now how would I convince my mum?'"
And in today's fractious and factionalized world of global activism, where Grey Panthers march side by side with bandanna-shrouded and Dr. Martens-shod punk rock rebelettes, comedy and a much-prized sense of the absurd often appears to be in woefully short supply, a situation that Newman feels could use some serious rectifying.
"I think those of us involved in grassroots organizing and activism have a tendency to be very po-faced and pompous and comedy is a good way of keeping us human and stopping that sort of sanctimoniousness. Comedy is not the enemy of seriousness, it's its friend and seeks to protect it from pompousness. It always militates against orthodoxies and speaks to the things we're not supposed to think and the things we're not supposed to feel. It's quite integral, actually."
Robert Newman will be at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado) on Monday, March 8, at 7pm. Admission is $6; $4.50 for students, seniors, and Austin Film Society members. The Escapist Bookstore will sell copies of The Fountain at the Center of the World in the lobby. For more information, call 476-1320 or visit www.drafthouse.com.