Canadian comedian, Ryan Long talks to Jonathan Kay about the nature of comedy in the current political climate. Ryan Long’s recent skit “When Wokes and Racists Actually Agree on Everything” has recently gone viral.
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Jonathan Kay (JK): Welcome to the Quillette podcast. I’m Jonathan Kay. By now a lot of you may have seen a very funny video called, When Wokes and Racists Actually Agree on Everything, in which two guys—one wearing a t-shirt that says “woke” and the other with a t-shirt that says “racist”—turn out to, like the title says, have a lot in common. Well the guy in the racist shirt in that video, who also wrote and directed it, is 34-year-old Canadian born-New York resident comedian Ryan Long, and this week we were lucky enough to get him on the Quillette podcast. In the interview that follows, I’ll ask him about his politics, his comedy, and of course his Canadian roots. But first, here’s a taste of Ryan Long’s stand up.
One thing I loved about that bit is that you made yourself the butt of the joke. Is that sort of a fine line you have to tread? Because you don’t want to be accused of punching down but at the same time you are trying to satirize abstract ideas that do involve real people.
Ryan Long (RL): I mean, I don’t care if I’m accused of punching down, but I think what you described is one technique, so I think a lot of times people like to think of comedy and art in terms of their rules like that. Whereas I consider that one of the things. So when I do my videos a lot of what I do is I take a character make him saying something terrible and then I put music and I cut it and I do everything to make your body feel like he’s a guy you should be rooting for, except for the things he’s saying and I even say the terrible things in a way that someone would be saying something really nice. So, it’s kind of this like juxtaposition. In comedy, when people talk about punching down there, I know that’s become sort of a theme. Everyone says, the idea is that you should be punching up-which is higher than yourself-and they see that those levels are divided by race and gender and they’ve made that a kind of a pyramid of what they consider punching down. But, in reality, the dynamics can be changing in every room, right?
So if I was on the road and I was doing a show somewhere in the deep south and they were the most, you know, racist-sexist place—this place probably doesn’t even exist—and I start doing these kind of really racist jokes and everyone is laughing than that you might kind of feel like punching down. But if I go to the gay pride parade and there are 10,000 gay people, obviously the dynamic changes. So same reason when I do an all black show. The dynamics are different than when I do some super-white liberal show. So a lot of times when you’re making fun of ideas, let’s say it’s kind of like woke social justice stuff, for example, let’s say I’m making fun of that, and they would say, “Oh you’re punching down because of minorities.” I go, “What you’re not realizing is I’m actually making fun of you.”
JK: Okay, so in the category of “Actually, I’m making fun of you,” let’s play a clip from one of your extremely popular pieces, in which you play a character who is a writer for Vice. He’s just been let go, and he’s talking about how sad he is about it.
RL: Vice is my favorite to make fun of.
JK: You kind of feel sorry for this guy. He sounds like a nice guy and I mean these people they’re not in it for the money, right? Like they get paid nothing and they’re being used…And maybe I’m projecting here because this is what I try and do in my writing. I’m trying to separate the person, who might otherwise be a nice reasonable person, from this weird fixations they have, and you’re trying to make fun of one without the other.
RL: I think you’re right on the money and also that comes from trying to give someone an honest synopsis about why they are where they are with empathy, as opposed to just being like, “Look at this idiot.” You’re like “No. This is a human being.” They’ve got to live somehow and you’re able to make an honest critique of their opinions without doing that with venom. When you make them the protagonist of the video, you’re able to honestly get inside their head and try to dissect the way that they actually tick.
JK: We can’t replicate this in audio form, but as the guy is listing off these increasingly crazy article titles in the video, you have screenshots of actual Vice articles. Those are real articles?
RL: This was a real person that worked at Vice and they tweeted something—because you know a couple people send it to me because I’m always kind of hard on Vice—basically saying that, “I just got fired,” and they were really mad about it. So, this person got fired and is just showing that Vice doesn’t care about trans people or that Vice doesn’t care about this, and then you look at her articles, and it was like, “Why animals are transgendered?” “Why men are cutting off their penises even though they’re not trans,” and you were like, “Okay, how much money is there? There’s no way that you are making money on these articles and no one wants to listen this nonsense, and on top of that, [Vice] did say that this department of Vice that does these kind of opinion pieces, was bleeding cash.
So Vice’s business model, which is selling clicks by, kind of using their name of, “We’re this cool thing,” was losing money, and they keep having to buy clicks from other websites—because I’ve owned a part of a website, and they were always buying clicks from us and stuff like that. So the whole thing is like a scam from the bottom up, and they hired these people to sort of, you know virtue signal or whatever, and say “Hey we’re going to do these articles, we’re a part of this thing, you know, so let us be the poster child for what wokeness means and hopefully we can kind of be the king of that movement.” And then when that movement started drying up, they dropped you because Vice doesn’t give a crap about you. It doesn’t give a crap about this nonsense, these super radical niche articles about transgender flowers. So, I think this person was like, “Can you believe Vice doesn’t care about trans people anymore?” And you go, “They never cared.”
JK: So, we got the worst of both worlds. You have the performative social justice stuff, which at least is earnest. But you’re telling me it’s a sort of earnestness that is cynically hijacked by the most ruthless capitalist kind of click farmer.
RL: That is exactly what’s happening. Especially at Vice. It’s gotten so much worse at those places in particular because they grow so fast and they took these like insane venture deals, so they were essentially being expected to grow exponentially, like any other company that takes these huge deals, at a time where they invested entirely into a social movement that was obviously going to dry up. But the difference between this movement than other movements is it more wrapped up in people’s identity.
This happens at record labels and TV stations all the time, where rock will be the biggest thing and then rap takes off and all the old guys don’t get it. So they either need to kind of get on board or they get fired and then a lot of times other labels pop up. But with this stuff, if you went to Vice right now, if you go to Comedy Central, and you’re like, “Hey, this woke stuff is sort of going out of style. We need to move into something else.” They’d go, “Out of style?! Helping people is out of style?!’ You might as well come in there and start yelling the n-word at that point. So, I think when you wrap your entire identity around this stuff, there’s no way out. So, the only way to do it would be to clear out the whole regime and bring in another regime.
JK: Usually your videos are just you acting in this hilariously manic way, but in this one you have a co-star in the video.
RL: That’s Danny Polishchuk, @dannyjokes. He’s a comedian from Toronto as well. We’re in New York now, but he’s from Toronto.
JK: So in the video you’re wearing a “racist” shirt and he’s wearing a “woke” shirt and…well, let’s just play the video.
JK: Okay, I think for a lot of people that’s going to hit really close to home.
RL: You know, I think over the last four years there was a lot of people that got wrapped up in this movement a little bit, but then they [were] kind of just like “Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, I’m left wing, but I’m just like a normal person, I don’t care about all that stuff.” But there are some things in that video, when we talk about, like “appropriation” and [the way they talk] about people of color that I’m going to make fun of in that video, that’s “appropriation” of, like, a white chick who just finished first year of college talk. So, they’re appropriating that stuff a lot of times. They’ll be like, “You’re going to lose your black card!” and stuff. And you’re like, “What kind of cult nonsense is this?” Where you are telling a guy if he doesn’t have the right opinion, he’s not black enough. There will literally be white people in the in the comments arguing with a black person, “You just don’t get what’s best for you.”
The reason why I like doing it in video format, and I mean I do it on stage too, over about over the last four years, this was the dominant philosophy that was just accepted in the mainstream media; and if you want to say the opposite, you would start from that being the mainstream philosophy. So, they go like “White males are the problem.” And you’d be like, kind of defending, going like “Woah, like I don’t know.” When you can make fun of them and then you step away, you’re making people defend their beliefs from first principle instead of just accepting that we should think all of these things. And you go, “Well you tell me how you got there,” instead of me telling you why I disagree with it.
JK: Have you heard from people for whom this works? Like this is sort of a wake-up call.
RL: Yeah. There’s a lot of people that message me. But I think more so, the effect that I have on people is when people say, “I’ve been sort of trying to say this for years, you know, maybe arguing with my friends and having conversations, but I walk away feeling like I couldn’t really nail that,” and then I kind of say the point in a cohesive two-minute video where they go, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say!”
JK: Satire works better than anger for this because radicals and extremists feed off of anger. They see anger as a symptom of intolerance or hatred among their enemies.
RL: They also want you to be at war, right? Like they would love for you to be at war. And you go, “I’m not in this war.” Like, I’m not playing this game. And they go, “Well everyone has to play.” And you go, “I don’t think so and I’m doing stand-up every night.”
JK: Well, you’re either racist or anti-racist and there’s no middle ground. And to be fair, you give it to conservatives, too. Let’s listen to another clip. So, in this one, your alter-ego is a freelance videographer who goes around taking footage of protests, and he’s trying to maximize his revenue.
JK: In this one, you’re skewering both sides. Do you intentionally set out to intentionally say “I’m going to be fair-minded here?” Or do you just have this exasperated reaction when you watch both CNN and FOX?
RL: I more think of it is like this is a game, and I go this is Right, this is Left, and I’m not playing the game. I’m the kid in the back of the class making fun of you people playing the game. With the protest stuff, I was here in New York watching it. So, I’m watching, and one night it was all black people rioting and stuff, and then the other night there was a different riot where there was all white people. Then you listen to FOX News, they’re like, “It’s just black people doing this,” and you listen to CNN and they go, “It’s just white people ruining the movement.” I go: It was both. I was there. Both of those things happened, and they both only want to tell you one side of the story.
Right now, conservatives are feeling like they are counterculture, because they’re not in charge of the media. So, their people haven’t been able to sink their teeth into being puritanical. But rest assured that if conservatives were back in control, they’d start to try to do the exact same thing.
JK: It’s a fundamental human characteristic, people like to shut down. One thing that is interesting about you is I went back, and I looked at some of your earlier work, which was not always political, you played this character called Sublo …
RL: Oh, that’s my cousin’s show. So, my cousin [Aaron Long] is a very talented director. He’s a director on BoJack Horseman and stuff like. And so that’s his cartoon and I’m the voice of one of the characters. Everyone in my family’s really funny, and they’ve got some of the same sensibilities comedically, but it’s not so much about politics. It’s kind of about finding things that no one is saying that I really agree with…things that I’m noticing in the culture that everyone is saying, and I go, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s true.”
So, I used to do that with music—something that needs to be said and it’s kind of about finding where there’s power…They talk about “Do you know who controls [you]? The ones you can’t talk about.” So I try to find those. I was the creator of the video department for this satire website called thehardtimes.net and I was doing a lot of stuff about music culture. And then I made this show at CBC called Torontopia, and it was kind of making fun of Toronto stuff. So in my own perspective and my comedy, I’ve always been talking about this stuff and I’ve always been kind of, you know, liberty-minded to some degree, even when I was in high school and in college and played in punk bands. When I moved to New York, I was able to get involved in the culture here and then grow my own thing, because now I’m in in the context of the United States, whereas in Toronto, it’s very hard to grow your own thing. So I was sort of playing the industry game and doing other people’s things. That is just kind of the nature of the beast of being a Canadian entertainer versus American.
JK: So this is two Toronto people talking, and I know all about the limitations here. And I was actually very surprised that you had been at the CBC, or at least had any involvement in the CBC, because we’re having this conversation in 2020, and I realized this was a few years back, but people who are now at the CBC will report that it is beyond stifling in terms of what you can say and do.
RL: Oh, I have had a lot of those conversations with people that work there off the record. I used to be in a band called The Johnstones and we used get grants, government grants, right? So, when I was at getting those band grants, we had to submit our lyrics to the government, which was the [Stephen] Harper government, and they had a body that would tell us what lyrics could be there if we wanted to get these grants. So, we would be making fun of religion and we would say stuff on that [vein]. We had one line “Jesus Christ is a bastard” or something like that, right? And they’re like you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Anything like sex stuff that’s too aggressive, that would be a problem for them. And then fast forward to eight years later and all of that stuff is completely fine. The CBC and the government can fund a sketch of you having sex with Baby Jesus and they wouldn’t care. But if you mention anything making fun of women or you talk about gender, you won’t be able to get your grants. It’s funny that in that 10-year span, the government money that you get, the taboo topics that you’re not allowed to talk about, have swung around completely the opposite direction. And it makes me laugh because I was there to witness both of them…
JK: I’m from Canada, and I thought nothing shock me. But you had to submit your lyrics to a bureaucrat?
RL: Yeah, and the funniest part was, you know, we were a very funny band. We had these like crazy lyrics and we used to have these conference calls with people that worked at essentially the government and we would have these conference calls with some lady in her sixties being like, “I don’t like this line,” and we would be like “Which one?” And she’d have to like essentially say, ‘The lines we don’t like is…”
A couple of bands would get the grants and [granting officials would] give them too many notes, and they’d say, “You know what, we’re big enough so you can take your money back,” and they would make a stand and try to make a publicity stunt about it. But it was a very big kind of racket where you had to play this game if you wanted to get paid, which is the same thing happening on the left, which is the biggest problem with Canada. They say, we’re going to give all this money to artists to try to make them compete with America. And then if you want the money we want to tie your hands behind your back and you go, “So what’s the point?” Why not just not give any more money if it’s doing more harm than good?
What these places do is they give you this money, but because they have a monopoly on it, and they have all this free government money, no other networks can compete. So, it’s like if CBC just didn’t exist, there would be other networks popping up the way Bite TV popped up before, and the same with comedy, and the same with these other things. A lot of times, this money that they give to labels and stuff actually hurts people, because all it does is shut down people’s ability to start another label because you can’t compete with these. Either give artists money and let them make things that can compete, or stay out of it altogether. The in-between [policy] is a real problem for Canada.
JK: I’m familiar with this a little bit from the Canadian literary scene, where the whole industry survives on grants and subsidies, so it’s the same kind of dynamic in play. One thing I notice in the literary sector is that the few people who are legitimately popular and would survive without subsidies rather than being heroes, they’re actually the subject of embittered resentment because they’re not playing within the system…like, you’re supposed to be a mediocrity who just takes government money.
But you were able to avail yourself of electronic media, where you’re able to go online, publish your content and say, “Look everybody, I got 5-million hits. That’s what actual comedy is, when people laugh, and they like it.” Did the people you were working with within Canada…Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they applauded you…”
RL: No, it’s exactly what you said. I mean I had this video go viral. And in Canada, the two big comedians who work in television posted a big thing about why I’m the problem and why this is bad.
JK: What was their basis for criticism? How are you the problem?
RL: They just disagreed with what I said where, you know, woke people, a lot of their arguments are the same as racist people. He wrote this big thing being like, “You’re a problem,” and then he linked to a book and like, “You should read read this book,” and it was like how to not be racist.
JK: Wait, this is … a comedian?
RL: Yeah, I don’t want to call him out by name—
JK: No, let’s not call him out by name. But… this is a comedian giving you assigned bible school reading based on the content of your comedy?
RL: Yes, a comedian. Which was a bummer, and [a comedian] that I know, too! You know, this was the biggest video on the internet and your friend made it, so just be “Yeah, sick dude.” Like, you don’t have to have the same exact opinion. But I know the reason why. I’ve kind of thought about this a lot and I chose not to respond and I chose not to engage in any of this, and I don’t even live in that country anymore, so 99% of the people in that country messaged me being like, it’s so funny.
The reason this happens is because he and these [other Canadian performers] are forced to play an arena where they’re only allowed to have a very, very rigid opinion and perspective. And if you look at what these people were making four years ago, and what they’re making now, there are things you are now allowed to say. And the truth is that people don’t think that, for the most part. People know when they’re being sold propaganda and they’re sick of hearing it. It’s very hard to have an original take artistically, regardless of your politics.
So when there’s other people who don’t have to play by those rules, and they get to just go on stage and say what they want to, that’s threatening to them because if I’m making fun of this woke stuff, and then they have to go on stage and be like, “this woke stuff is awesome,” I already made the audience turn against it. So it makes it harder for them to do their job. The same reason why a lot of these big comedians that used to do edgy stuff, now they’re all, you know, they all have to kind of say that like, “Oh, edgy stuff is bad,” even though they got popular doing it, because now they have big movie careers; they’re sort of in Hollywood hobnobbing with people who think that, and they can’t do that anymore. And they know that people want that, and then when they can’t do it, so they try to shut the door on people that are doing it because it threatens their livelihood. It threatens their ability to be at the top of this pile. I think that’s probably the best way to describe why these people [do this], and I try not to take it personally.
JK: There’s been a number of books written about the comedy industry. If you haven’t read her book, Ali Wong’s book, I thought it was both funny and poignant. She also emphasized what a brutal world stand-up comedy is. She describes how like, even when she was a pretty big name, she was like playing these clubs and everybody was smoking and she was staying at crap hotels, she was away from her family. Even at your level of success, do you find it’s a grind the tough life?
RL: You know, I mean, for me it becomes your normal, right? If you look at someone that works out five hours a day as a bodybuilder, you’d be like, “that’s crazy.” But for them, they’re just like, “that’s my life,” right? I’d like to put myself in a position where I don’t take a gig where the reason is for money. I try to be pointed about how I think of my artistic process. I don’t go do a weekend of shows for no reason except for the money. If you’re popular, why are you doing it?…Go back and sit in your pad and write and worry about that. For me, if I’m in a situation where I go, “this sucks,” I think I would just remove myself from that, you know?
JK: If people want to find your best work, your extended work, where can I find it?
RL: I have two specials right now on my YouTube channel. I was going to do a third one and release it before COVID happened. When this ends, I’ll probably do another hour because I have another hour ready to go.
JK: So last question before I let you go. COVID-19 and the comedy business. On one hand, the viral character of these videos you’re putting out shows the good side, which is a bunch of people at home in front of their computers consuming your stuff, sending you fan mail. On the other hand, you can’t play in clubs. From an economic point of view, how have the last few months worked out for comedians?
RL: I mean for me specifically, I moved to New York to do stand-up comedy after essentially practicing in Toronto for 10 years, and then I got about four months [in], and then they shut it down. For me, that was my business card: my stand-up comedy. But at least I had four months to get in the scene. People are doing park shows and there are odd weekends here and there. [But] from an efficiency standpoint, I don’t think it makes sense. It’s kind of like if you think of yourself as an athlete, and they’re like, “Hey you want to do all the training so you can play one exhibition game?” You’re not. For me to get into shape to do that, it is difficult.
JK: But can you monetize YouTube in the way you monetize live shows?
RL: I mean, I’m at a different point in my life. When I moved here, I came with some cash and I have a bunch of different streams of income. So I mean for me I’ve set myself up in a way financially that over the last, you know, 15 years of my life, that for me this isn’t particularly affecting me financially in a way that’s like devastation. But it does suck that a lot of these clubs are shutting down and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. My hope is that it comes back as soon as possible and New York gets back to thriving. But my worry is that New York and LA might kind of lock it down for so long that there might be real people leaving to other places and businesses might shut down. A lot of businesses can sustain 4 to 6 months [closure], but a year of not being in business…I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. I hope I hope it works the other way. I’ll just try to make the best of whatever the situation is.
JK: Please tell me you’re not coming back to Canada.
RL: I want to, but I can’t! I don’t want to come back permanently, but just to visit my friends and family or whatever because I thought this would be an okay time. But then there’s a two-week mandatory quarantine that you’re not allowed to leave the house for, and they take it seriously too. So, they actually say If you do this quarantine, you can’t leave your house and they put in a tracking app, and they said they’ve already given 700 tickets. And if you go to Canada for less than two weeks and try to go back to the airport, they’ll give you the ticket there. So, I’m like, what am I going to go to Canada for three weeks? Where I’ll have to sit in a house for two weeks. And so, I guess I’m just staying here.
JK: Maybe you could come apply for more grants or something?
RL: One last thing on the grants…The other reason I hate these grants is because I go, You’re just subsidizing my competitors, because I’m not about to get them. They’re not about to give [it to] me [or] people [who] act like me. They have a very specific politicized type of person they’re giving this grant to, and it ain’t me. So, whenever I hear that like, oh, we’re giving more funding to the arts, I go: “I’d rather zero funding to the arts so we can compete on a level playing field.” If you’re not going to do it fairly, I’d rather have begun zero money [rather than] this corrupt granting system that subsidizes some people and not the others.
JK: But then the only people who would be able to make a living as comedians are actually funny people, I mean that’s crazy.
Thanks very much. We’ve been listening to Ryan long. If you want to find out more, visit www.ryanlongcomedy.com.
RL: And The Boyscast with Ryan Long is my podcast. So that’s the main one on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, everything. Also, congrats on you guys, you guys have been killing it, too. I remember my buddy always likes to share your articles and stuff. I know you guys are kind of crushing it right now. So that’s cool.
JK: Well we work in different sphere, but I like to think there’s some ideological crossover. Good luck and I hope you get back on stage soon.
RL: Thanks buddy. Appreciate it.
This transcript was prepared by Ari Blaff. Follow him on Twitter at @ariblaff.