No question: Whether you sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum, you have to admit the country’s been going through a hell of a time in the aftermath of the presidential election. You see it in your social media. You see it in the streets. Our country is divided, and the impasse is huge.
L.A. comedian Ken Garr sees it, too, and with creative partner and fellow L.A. comic Michael Malone, he’s been trying to do something about it through a unique, political panel talk show at the Improv. The two created We the People, bringing two liberal and two conservative participants together to discuss the news, in the hopes of helping to bridge the gap with comedy.
“We came up with the concept of We the People after watching CNN one day. They had three pundits from the left and three from the right and everyone was yelling, and then they cut to commercial and nothing got resolved,” Garr told L.A. Weekly after a recent show. “Michael and I just looked at each other dumbfounded.”
The result? A hilarious but thoughtful show with two left-leaning and two right-leaning guests talking about topical and important issues that are affecting us, such as gun control, DACA, gender fluidity and the Trump presidency. After sitting on the panel for one of the shows, Ben Gleib, host of Idiot Test on the Game Show Network and contributor on NBC News and Fox News, joined the team and is now one of the producers and serves as the host.
Like many comedy shows, the stage is set panel-style with chairs and a pull-down screen. From the control room, Garr moves the slideshow along, DJing and emceeing.
“We have live fact-checking that I do in real-time from the back of the room, so the comics can have facts looked up while the argument continues,” Garr said. “To keep it entertaining, we have segments like ‘Can We All Agree?’ where we find topics we can all agree on, like Harvey Weinstein is a pig, and we have ‘Aunt Julie's Fake News,’ where we literally take fake news off of of Michael Malone's aunt's Facebook page and the panelists have to guess which topic is real.”
But let’s face it, Hollywood is a liberal town. Do openly conservative comedians exist? And if so, are they willing to come out onstage, which can be a total showstopper — and not in a good way? To meet the premise of the show, the producers sometimes turn to non-comics, too.
“It's extremely hard,” Garr admits. “Unfortunately, many conservatives are uncomfortable identifying themselves, and I think that is part of the problem. Like it or not, 33 million people voted for Trump and the only voice or source of information that they have is Fox News. We want to invite everyone to the table and let their voices be heard. We had gay, Hispanic, conservative comedian Thai Rivera on one of the first shows. He had some pretty insightful views on gun control and DACA. And Dave Goss, the creator of Trumpsingles.com, a dating site for Trump supporters, was on recently. You wouldn’t have guessed it but when he was asked about gender fluidity, he said, ‘As long as you're happy being who you are, then that's all that matters.’”
The monthly show, which debuted at the Hollywood Improv Lab in August, has featured a range of comics including Helen Hong, Alonzo Bodden, Jen Kober, Mitch Burrows, Adam Yenser and transgender comic Riley Silverman, as well as KOST 103.5 radio host Mark Wallengren. Gleib plays an audio recording of the show on his podcast, Last Week on Earth With Ben Gleib, and We the People recently launched on Instagram and Twitter, where the debate continues between shows. Eventually, the producers would love to see it morph into a TV show.
“We think the show is both entertaining and educational and ultimately we would love to see it on television since there is nothing even close to it on TV right now,” Garr said. “We want to show America that we can have differences but still come up with a resolution together to move the conversation forward.”
The reactions from both audiences and comedians has been supportive. Hong noticed a difference in the makeup of the crowd at We the People when she appeared.
“It's very cool to be performing for an audience that you know is current events–minded and will know what you're talking about when you refer to something political,” Hong said. “A smart crowd is not always guaranteed but here it is.”
The show is resonating with older, conservative audience members as well.
“We recently got a letter from a retired two-star general and former Bush ambassador who was in the audience one night, [saying] that he loved the show and that we were having constructive debates, not just pushing a predetermined agenda,” Garr said. “The topics can be triggering but we push through it.”
Ramsey Badawi, a Palestinian-American comic who will be featured on the next We the People on April 24, along with Jenny Zigrino and Forrest Shaw, is excited by the challenge.
“I'm excited to finally be some place where my Tipper Gore bit might work,” Badawi joked. “I'm not intimidated at all. I've debated the minimum wage on every first date I've ever been on. I've been training my whole life for this.”
Garr, a native of Chicago and former managing director at NASDAQ, left the corporate world, and really his whole world, including his marriage, to pursue comedy in Hollywood five years ago. He aims to get We the People in front of as many people as possible, despite a hectic schedule regularly performing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club, co-hosting and producing two weekly comedy shows at the Improv, Lab Work! with Jeffrey Baldinger and Long Hard Sets with comic Becky Robinson and co-hosting a new podcast with comic Kym Kral, That's F%@Ked Up with Kym and Ken, on Dash Radio.
“Every audience member leaves We the People feeling energized and a little more educated, and people who had no idea before what the show was about are now regulars,” Garr said, “It's truly exciting to watch.”
Catch We the People, featuring host Ben Gleib (host, GSN's Idiot Test) and comics Jenny Zigrino (host/creator of Comedy Central's Badass Bitches of History), Forrest Shaw (Conan, writer for Comedy Central's Jim Jeffries Show) and Ramsey Badawi (Mean Boys podcast, Comedy Central), on Tue., April 24, 7:30 p.m., at the Hollywood Improv Lab, 8162 Melrose Ave., Beverly Grove. Tickets are $8.