Anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people flocked to Lawrence’s Free State Festival events, according to estimates from festival organizers, putting this year’s numbers roughly in the same range as 2015 figures.
Still, it’s an imprecise tally, said festival director and ideas programming coordinator Sarah Bishop, who hopes to have more detailed analysis when results from this year’s survey (it’s distributed to festival attendees) become available later this summer.
The 2016 Free State Festival, which was held June 20 through June 25 in various venues across downtown Lawrence and the city’s Cultural Arts District, drew its biggest numbers at June 25’s free Public Enemy concert outside the Lawrence Arts Center. At final count, approximately 8,500 people attended the show, surpassing the crowd at last year’s free performance by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic by about 500.
“We were really excited to see so many people from out of town coming in for both Public Enemy and Kris Kristofferson,” Bishop said. “It really drew people from a wide swath surrounding the area.”
Fans traveled from as far away as Connecticut, Maryland and even Canada for the Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter’s June 22 concert, she noted. The sold-out concert filled Liberty Hall, where Kristofferson celebrated his 80th birthday the same night with a cake from downtown Lawrence’s Ladybird Diner.
Other festival highlights included June 24’s evening of free live music outside the Lawrence Arts Center (Bishop estimates an attendance of about 2,000) and Monday’s stand-up performance by “Lady Dynamite” star Maria Bamford, whose sold-out gig packed Liberty Hall.
Even free events, like the weeklong “The Art of Conversation” programming at the Watkins Museum of History, did surprisingly well, Bishop said. The talks aligned with this year’s festival theme of activism through art, each day dealing with contemporary topics such as gender and sexuality, health policy, race and law enforcement, and the politics of water.
“People were really engaged and enthusiastic,” Bishop said. “It was really nice to see residents connecting in that way and having great conversations about these important political, social and cultural issues.”
While the festival has focused on Kansas history and culture in the past, the 2017 and 2018 editions will ask “audiences to think about how the global and local connect,” as per a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for Arts to “take the festival to an international level,” Bishop said.
The 2017 festival, which will most likely fall amid June’s Final Friday, will tentatively have a Mexican emphasis, with issues like immigration — and the growing number of immigrants arriving in Kansas each year — being especially timely now, Bishop said.
“We’re thinking about the ways in which Lawrence connects with Mexico, the ways in which Mexican culture manifests here in Lawrence, Kansas, and the really interesting art that’s being (created) in Mexico,” she said. Bishop also plans to include more educational outreach programs in 2017, ideally working with students at Centro Hispano to produce bilingual films.
This year’s festival initially received $60,000 from the City of Lawrence, falling short of the $100,000 requested by festival organizers, but later picked up an additional $7,375 from the city’s transient guest tax (that’s the 6 percent tax charged on all overnight hotel stays in Lawrence) grant program.
Bishop hopes this year’s high attendance, particularly of those visiting from outside Lawrence, will help convince potential funders of the festival’s financial viability. Just as important: “putting Lawrence on the map as a creative hub,” she said.
Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said she had yet to see any detailed information on the 2016 festival’s impact on downtown businesses, but that the event consistently “does wonderful things” for the local economy.
Folks often “rediscover” downtown Lawrence at the Free State Festival, she said.
“I would venture to guess people spent money downtown, whether it’s a bottle of water or an expensive meal or an outfit they’re buying for the event,” Zogry said. “It really does bring people down here who maybe don’t come downtown as often, if they’re living across town or in Eudora or Baldwin City or Topeka or even Kansas City.”
Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad on journalism, the fury of Terry Gross fans and what makes ‘messy’ stories worth telling
The creative process, according to "Radiolab" co-host Jad Abumrad, is marked with uncertainty. Whether that creative queasiness — “gut churn,” he calls it — helps or hinders the operation is the inquiry at the center of Abumrad’s multimedia presentation of the same name, coming to Lawrence this weekend as part of the Free State Festival.
“In many ways, the talk — my life, actually — has been in some sense a study of that phenomenon,” says Abumrad, chatting over the phone from New York City, the town where even the most celebrated public radio personalities can remain incognito. (More on that later.)
Here, in an edited and condensed version of his interview with the Journal-World, the onetime MacArthur Fellow ("Radiolab," which he co-hosts with Robert Krulwich from New York City’s WNYC studios, now reaches more than 500 public radio stations across the country) shares stories from his days as a cub reporter, the fury of Terry Gross fans and what makes the “messy” stories of life worth telling.
“Gut Churn” is slated for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St.
You grew up in Nashville as the child of Lebanese immigrants, and you’ve talked in the past about how this created a sense of not fully belonging here in the U.S. or in Lebanon. How did that experience inform your work as a journalist?
It’s funny — when you are not quite American and not quite Lebanese, or whatever hyphenated identity you find yourself to be, you’re kind of not either. And so it felt important for me to be something that was a third thing and not either. Becoming a journalist was kind of like that thing for me. It was like, here’s this third thing I can be where I can actually ask questions about the first two things. And if I look at all the work I’ve done in my life, it’s actually not about science — I mean, people label the show in various ways that don’t feel right to me — but it’s actually about two different cultures, two different spirits, crashing into each other. I think anyone who is an immigrant feels that (way) — you’re somehow of a place that you’re not really of, and you’re in a place that you’re not really in, and so you are somehow the collision between these two cultures, and that’s the story I do every single day.
You actually got your start not in journalism but as a film composer. How did you learn the ropes?
I sort of stumbled into it. I went to school for creative writing and music, and I got out of school and was trying to do both. I got to this point where I realized that I don’t seem to be good at either of these things. And my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was like, “Well, you could do radio. It’s sort of the middle ground between the two things you’re doing.” So I got involved at a radio station. I got hooked very quickly. I got into it more for the craft, and I didn’t know the first thing about journalism.
I was volunteering at a radio station down the street from where I’m now sitting called WBAI. The first day I show up, the news director, who’s about to have a sex change — and I didn’t know (about it) — has just suddenly disappeared, and suddenly I’m there and there’s no one to teach me, and somebody just hands me a recorder. They’re like, “Go out and record this protest at City Hall.” So, I did this awful 12-minute piece of people rah-rah-ing about who the (expletive) knows what. But WBAI was so crazy at that moment that, literally, I walked in there and I was on the air not that day, maybe, but the next day. There was no barrier. I literally started figuring it out as I went. Basic stuff like, "How do I ask a question so that I get an answer I can use? And how do I create conversation between two different voices?"
It was very disorganized — I didn’t have anyone who was mentoring me in journalism. Honestly, I feel like I’ve only really been a good journalist in the last three or four years. I feel like, "OK, I can kind of deal with almost any scenario right now." I would’ve blown a lot of money but saved myself a lot of time had I gone to J School.
What’s happened within those three or four years, do you think, that’s taken you to the next level?
Maybe in 2011 or 2012, I kind of got fed up a little bit (with "Radiolab"). We were just doing this story where we’d talk to somebody who was really smart, and he or she would paint a picture of some imaginary thing and then we’d make it. And I just kind of felt like, “I’m sitting on my (expletive) in front of Pro Tools all day long, not actually having experiences.” The show works in a certain way, but it needs to be messier. It needs to be more engaged in the world. Like, I’m tired of these very clean, expansive studio conversations that lead you to that very predictable moment. As much as I love all that, I got tired of it.
I wanted to start looking into the messiness of human beings living in a messy world, while still focusing on the complexities of life, which is ultimately why I feel I have a job. That’s what I feel I’ve been put here to do. Long story short, we began to do stories that were maybe more about politics, more about cultures clashing, things that get lost in translation. That forced me into a situation where I almost felt like I had to start over. Doing a lot of science reporting puts you in a position of having to get really good at technical writing and you’ve got to figure out a way to explain things to people, but it can be a very limited journalistic space. When you’re dealing with people who are sometimes traumatized or sometimes yelling at you, there’s a different set of skills that are involved, and I learned all that stuff.
We just did a huge investigation into the global surrogacy market, and that’s a situation where every radioactive issue was there in one story, you know? Like, LGBT issues were there, race was there, cultural imperialism was there. And as a journalist, I have to wade through all that, and it’s demanded more of me. We’ve gone through enough of those hard stories where I feel like I’ve gotten my feet under me as a journalist. And I like that. Every story feels like it’s harder than I’m able to do right now, and yet, we do it, and I feel a little bit bigger at the end of it.
There’s been a crazy surge in podcasts over the last few years, thanks to shows like yours and “Serial,” to name one recent example. What does this say about the way we’re consuming media and stories now?
I don’t know. Here’s my sort of idealistic answer, which I’m not sure I buy, but I’ll just say it: We want everything at once, you know? And our tastes and our predilections exist as a series of paradoxes. Like, we want (stuff) that’s small and sugary and sound bitey and vapid. We want that. I want that. I want stuff that’s stupid, as much as I think I’m a smart person. But the more dumb stuff I want, the more stuff I want that’s challenging and long and rich and complicated. I feel like the shorter my attention span gets, the longer my attention span gets. And I see that in the world — everybody wants everything.
And so in some sense, the poles are pulling against each other. Stuff is getting stupider at the very moment it’s getting smarter, and in some way I can’t articulate to you right now, I feel like they’re related. The trends toward stupidity and toward brilliance seem to be related to me. I’ll work that out at some point and give you a better answer.
NPR has a very niche fandom. Any strange encounters with fans you’d like to share?
I saw somebody had a tattoo of my name on their shoulder, and I was like, “OK, that’s weird.” Kind of flattering but a little creepy, you know? And then I saw my name on a bathroom wall once. But that’s as strange as it gets.
I spend most of my life in this tiny room interacting with pretty much no one except my staff, so most of the time I have no idea what the outside world is doing or thinking about what we’re up to. I definitely don’t get on social media anymore, just because life’s too short — at least not for getting feedback — so I’m usually pretty oblivious. And also, people in New York just keep it so cool, you know? Even if they recognize you, they would never let you know.
As someone who listens to a lot of "Radiolab," it seems like each of those episodes must take a long time to produce. What’s that process like? And how much time does it take to produce an hour-long episode?
I would say maybe anywhere from six months to two years. Most of what we’re doing these days is actually on the podcast. It’s not one-hour shows anymore; it’s 40-minute pieces of one kind or another. And even those take us a year. But, you know, from the moment someone has the idea until the moment it hits the air, it doesn’t ever seem to happen faster than six months. And it’s not like six months of solid work. You’ve got the idea, you’re scheduling interviews, you’re doing second and third and fourth rounds of interviews, then you’re going through endless edits trying to get the story shape to work, and there’s a way in which that process never lasts anything shorter than six months. And you’re working on 20 of those at once. Maybe each of the producers has three or four they’re working on, and so we’re doing edits throughout the week on each of these different stories, and one of them will kind of go on the shelf on the while because maybe something fell through, but then maybe something will happen in the world and we’re like, “Oh, we should bring that piece back,” and we yank it off the shelf.
"Radiolab" has been on the air for about 15 years now. In that time, it’s been critically lauded for its experimental use of sound and music. But when it premiered, did you get that universal praise? Was there any sort of pushback from the old guard of radio?
Oh yeah, definitely pushback. When we debuted, it started out at 8 p.m. on the AM frequency here in New York, which for various technical reasons, nobody listens to (at that hour). Nobody. So I was in this kind of desert for a long time, which was, looking back on it, a good thing. I needed to be in that desert where I was ignored so I could learn a few things.
At our first home on FM, which is where the audience was, the program director put us at, I think, 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, for a week. He did this because Terry Gross was going on vacation. She takes a vacation once a year or whatever, and in that time, they just run re-runs. And so he’s thinking, “Rather than re-runs, we’ll just put this new show on.” So, they put us on, and people in Terry Town were pissed. They hated it. The listener services people send you these Excel spreadsheets of every single call that comes in, good or bad. And they sent us this Excel spreadsheet, and I naively thought, “Oh, we’re beautiful. People will think we’re beautiful.” And I remember opening this Excel spreadsheet up, and it was just pages and pages and pages of (criticism). Category 1 was like, “Where is Terry Gross? What have you done with Terry Gross?” And the other category was like, “Where is Terry Gross, and who the (expletive) are these guys?” In that, there were a lot of the criticisms that we still get, frankly, which are, “Quit editing 10,000 things together at once. Just tell the story. Why do you have to put all the sounds in?” That criticism was very, very loud at the beginning.
I think listening habits and styles have changed, and now I don’t think we sound that experimental anymore. I think there are a lot of people who are doing stuff probably taking it even farther than us. Like, "Love + Radio" — if you hear an average, run-of-the-mill episode of theirs, they’re doing (stuff) that is like, “Wow, you can do that? You’re allowed to do that?” I feel like we could be better, or more experimental.
Monday brings the arrival of this year's Free State Festival and its fully stocked lineup of music, art, film and ideas. Among the many attractions: "Lady Dynamite" star Maria Bamford (you can read our interview with her here), Radiolab co-founder Jad Abumrad, film screenings galore and a solo acoustic show from Grammy winner (and birthday boy!) Kris Kristofferson.
We've rounded up a few of the many noteworthy Free State Fest happenings here, but you can always peruse the full schedule at www.freestatefestival.org.
This interactive sculpture, constructed from 6,000 incandescent light bulbs by Canadian artists and collaborators Caitlind r.c. Brown & Wayne Garrett, utilizes pull string switches and everyday domestic light bulbs, “re-imagining their potential to catalyze collaborative moments and create an enveloping, experimental environment.”
It’s interactive, too: Viewers work together as a collective to animate “lightning” on the surface of the sculpture in “impromptu collaborations,” turning the entire cloud on and off.
The artists will be on hand to discuss their work during a free INSIGHT Art Talk from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Lawrence Arts Center’s black box theater. The exhibition itself opens at the end of the talk and will remain at the Arts Center through June 25.
If you missed last year’s critically acclaimed musical satire about gun violence in Chicago, here’s your chance to see it on the big screen.
Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Spike Lee and co-written by Lawrence's own Kevin Willmott (the filmmaker is also an associate professor of film and media studies at Kansas University), “Chi-Raq” is a modern adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” in which the women of Greece hold a sex strike in the hopes of ending the Peloponnesian War.
Tuesday’s screening, slated for 8 to 10:30 p.m., will also include the short film “Juvenile Justice: The Road to Reform.” Tickets are $8.
An Evening with Kris Kristofferson
The Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter rings in his 80th birthday Wednesday from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. in a sold-out solo acoustic show at Liberty Hall.
Miss out on tickets? Catch “Uncle Howard,” Aaron Brookner’s tribute to his late uncle (director Howard Brookner’s body of work, buried for 30 years in the bunker belonging to Beat Generation icon and one-time Lawrencian William S. Burroughs, finally gets its due), at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Lawrence Arts Center main stage. Tickets are $8.
A Journal-World-adjacent activity kicks off the docket Thursday: “Telling Stories that Matter: Journalism in the New Media World” from 7:30 to 8:45 p.m. at the Cider Gallery.
Featuring Roy Wenzl of the Wichita Eagle, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman, Kate Mather of the Los Angeles Times and the Journal-World’s own Karen Dillon, this panel “takes on hard questions to prophesy what investigate reporters and their readers have in store” in today’s (and tomorrow’s, perhaps) media landscape of “sound bites, social media and free online news sites with less-than-stellar reporting credentials.” Journal-World managing editor Chad Lawhorn moderates.
Next up: Patricia Lockwood, the poet who the New York Times Magazine once dubbed “The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas,” gives her hometown a sneak peek of her new memoir, "Priestdaddy," from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Lawrence Arts Center’s large gallery. The reading will be followed by an audience Q&A and book signing, with copies of Lockwood’s latest poetry collection being sold by the Raven Book Store.
Outdoor Music: The Americans and more!
LA-based rock-and-rollers The Americans (claims to fame include gigs on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and the first dance at Reese Witherspoon’s wedding) headline an evening of free live music from 5 to 11 p.m. outside the Lawrence Arts Center.
The group, whose sound boasts “deep roots in traditional American music,” take the stage at 9 p.m. following the 6 p.m. screening of “American Epic,” the new documentary executive-produced by T Bone Burnett, Jack White and Robert Redford.
Other acts include 40 Watt Dreams at 5 p.m., Little Soldier Singers at 6 p.m., Katy Guillen at 6:45 p.m., Arthur Dodge at 8 p.m. and Son Venezuela at 10:15 p.m.
Saturday promises two festival headliners amid an already-packed schedule. First up (in an anachronistic sort of way) is Radiolab co-founder and MacArthur Genius Award recipient Jad Abumrad, presenting his multi-media talk, “Gut Churn” at Liberty Hall. Slated for 7 to 8:30 p.m., this “engaging” presentation delves into the anxieties of the creative process, and will be followed by a Q&A. Tickets cost $25.
Elsewhere in downtown Lawrence, hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy (featuring Chuck D and Flavor Flav) will perform a free concert on the Lawrence Arts Center’s outdoor stage from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Gates open at 6:30 p.m., and if last year’s free George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic concert is any indication, the crowd will be packed.
Free State Festival headliner Maria Bamford on getting older, saying no and the many endearing qualities of pugs
In her critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical Netflix series "Lady Dynamite," comedian Maria Bamford mines her very real struggles with mental illness (the Minnesota native checked herself into a psych ward a few years back after being diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, and subsequently checked out, at least partly, from Hollywood) for very quirky, very frenetic, at times very poignant laughs.
On Monday, she'll stop by Lawrence for a co-headlining appearance at the Free State Festival. Slated for 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., "An Evening with Maria Bamford" entails a stand-up performance by the funny lady in question, followed by a short film screening and Q&A.
Here, in an edited and condensed version of our interview with Bamford, the "Lady Dynamite" star and executive producer shares her thoughts on getting older, saying no and the many endearing qualities of pugs.
Your show is very upfront about your experience with mental illness. Do you think “Lady Dynamite,” and other current shows tackling mental illness, would have been possible a generation ago? Are we undergoing some sort of shift that’s allowed a show like yours to be produced and be successful?
I think there’s been a huge shift in terms of hearing so many more people talking about it. I felt relatively comfortable talking about it. So many different shows are addressing different parts of it, whether it’s PTSD or OCD or bipolar. I haven’t seen a show featuring schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia, but I can’t wait until that’s addressed. A main character with schizophrenia would be wonderful.
Your parents, or fictionalized versions of them, get a lot of screen time on “Lady Dynamite.” How do they feel about the show?
My parents called me after they’d seen most of it, and they just loved it and were really excited. I think my dad had some friends at the lake watch it and had sort of a party, which I think had been a mistake (laughs), because it’s not for everybody. But I know they’re very proud. My sister is very proud of it and thinks that it’s great. They were all just very happy for me. Obviously I couldn’t have done that show or any other stand-up or whatever without their support and love. I’m so grateful that this happened now in my life, because I have so much unconditional love around me that even if it was just a giant flop, it would have been OK.
The show does a great job of capturing this sort of quintessential Midwestern-ness, from your omnipresent politeness and cheery attitude to your dad taking you to the Dairy Queen for a pick-me-up after a rough day. But you actually spent your hospitalization in LA and not in your real-life hometown of Duluth, unlike what we see in the show. Why make that change in setting?
I didn’t do all the heavy lifting in the writing of the show, but I think it was more interesting to go back to Duluth and have this feeling of a different space to go into entirely. In real life, it was more complicated. I also wanted to be among friends — my friends are very important to me — so my parents came to visit me in LA when I was hospitalized rather than me going there. But there are some great mental health facilities in my hometown. They have a great psychiatric facility for kids, which I’m sure I would have taken part of when I was a kid. But when I was there, I think there were just nuns. And I would go sit on the couch and talk to a nun, which can be therapeutic in its own way.
Your character seems to really be living under the thumb of her own passivity and tendency to be overly polite in all situations — including one in which a therapy leader is unsuccessfully baiting her to get angry during a game of badminton — which I recognized as an issue that a lot of women in particular struggle with. Is that something you’ve experienced personally, this compulsion to always please and be polite?
I think it was definitely an observation of the writers. I, of course, like to think of myself as this direct, confident person, and it was funny to see the reflection of probably more of what I really am. I’m definitely passive aggressive. My husband’s from Philadelphia, and it’s funny how he’ll just say how he feels about something, and it’ll take me a few days to say, “Hey!” Or I’ll just kind of dance around it.
My dad sent me to a Dale Carnegie course when I was 16, and one of the primary (tenets) was “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain — compliment.” My father also told me, “If you want a man to love you, just listen.” What I interpreted that as is “Don’t talk, and always be positive,” which is so funny because my mom is not like that. My mom is a megaphone (laughs).
One thing I was concerned about in the portrayal of the hospitalization was that it would be realistic. Playing a game — like, that could never happen in a psych ward. There aren’t a lot of planned activities. If there are, they’re super depressing. They’re like, “We can have a dance class, but we all have to stay seated in our chairs.” What!? I was feeling bad before, but now you’re going to play REO Speedwagon, and I can’t stand up? (laughs)
That's weird. You’d think they’d be very encouraging about movement in alleviating depression…
Nope. I think, at least from what I could tell, it was a legal issue. There weren’t enough people to watch everybody, and maybe the disparity of ages of everybody in the ward. It was literally insanity, and very funny, in retrospect.
I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the awful but hilarious jobs that your character takes on despite some very serious misgivings — like, for example, a cartoon about Sea World produced by Bill Cosby, or “Lock Up a Broad,” the game show where women are literally caged until they apologize for their alleged transgressions. Do any of these come from real job offers you’ve received?
I have a very champagne problem of getting all these job offers. And I’m so grateful to have job offers, and also, I think, having the work ethic or the willingness to earn, like, “OK, yes, get out there. Hustle!” This is what it’s about — you do a job and be of service and be pleasant. But then what happened in terms of when I got the job (as the “Crazy Target Lady” in a series of ads in 2010) for Target, I realized the job itself was really fun, but I couldn’t disconnect myself from what I was saying, which is basically encouraging people to buy enormous amounts of consumer goods that they don’t necessarily need or want.
The joke on the show was “Nobody says no.” Now, I’ve turned down and will continue to turn down commercial jobs, just because I know myself. Which is really a lot of (the reason) why commercials pay so much, is because there’s sort of a gag going on criticizing anything about the corporation. And any employee can tell you that about working for a corporation — you’re paid to be a part of the team. But now I don’t take those jobs because I know that it will affect me emotionally. I know I’ll start to feel bad if it isn’t something I believe in.
Your character makes this remark in the very first episode about “what a great late-in-life opportunity” her new show is for her — you’re 45, not old at all — along with some other jokes about not having kids at her age because it’s too dangerous. How does it feel finding all this success at this point in your life?
It feels great. There’s no pressure. I don’t feel that thing I felt when I was younger of like, “Oh, this is going to make me or break me,” or “This is the be all end all.” I think that’s one gift of getting older — you just keep going. There’s highs and lows, and there’s another day. It’s been really fun just to enjoy it and pay off our house and prepare for retirement in an “Abundant Now.” We’re doing a lot of affirmations in our family (laughs).
Your dog Bert is also a character on the show, which is funny because the first time I remember seeing you was during a bit on “Kroll Show,” where you also played a woman who was really, really into pugs. What is it about these little dogs that you’re so drawn to?
They’re super affectionate, pugs. Although those pugs on the show are professional, so they weren’t as affectionate because they were always working. But my unprofessional dogs at home are just so loving and so soft and don’t need any exercise, for the most part. It’s also a nice reflection of, you know, when you think, “What am I like?” And I hope I’m like this. I hope I’m slightly adorable and useless.
Thomas Frank on the evolving Democratic Party, Hillary’s Midwestern roots and Kansas’ enduring ‘populist streak’
Critically acclaimed author, Mission Hills native and Kansas University alumnus — Thomas Frank took the Republican Party to task in books like “The Wrecking Crew” and “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”. On Wednesday, more than a decade after Frank’s bestselling account of the rise of conservatism in his once-progressive home state first hit bookshelves, he’ll revisit his old stomping grounds to discuss his newest work, “Listen, Liberal.”
In it, Frank analyzes the failures of his own party, the Democrats, and how, by his argument, the once pro-labor “Party of the People” has abandoned the working class in favor of the elite professional class.
He’ll chat about the book (and sign copies) from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. The event, brought to you by the Lawrence Public Library as an appetizer of sorts to this month’s upcoming Free State Festival, will be free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
You write at length about the professional class in the book. It’s a class that you grew up in and, having gone on to earn a PhD and living in the Washington, D.C., area, still belong to.
Oh yeah, I’m completely surrounded by it (laughs).
Exactly. So, for those who maybe aren’t familiar with that term, could you describe just who these “professional” people are?
They tend to be very neat and clean (laughs). They tend to be people with advanced degrees. It’s affluent, white-collar workers. They generally don’t think of themselves as a class, like the working class or business class or something like that. They think of themselves as “the talented.” They are where they are because they’re so smart. And smart is a word you hear a lot among these people. It tends to be their ultimate term of approbation. When they really like something, that’s the word they use to describe it. Or when they really like a person — they’re “smart,” or alternately “brilliant.”
Right, or “sharp.”
Yeah, but that’s pretty Midwestern, though (laughs). Look, one of the things I realized while writing “Listen, Liberal” is that you could fill a set of encyclopedias with observations about this social group. These are the people who write our books. This is the group that everything in our society is written for, this is who the audience is, this is who consumes cultural products. And what’s funny is that you start to consider them as their own class — as a sociological class rather than just as, you know, high-achieving people — your understanding of them changes a lot. And also your understanding of our politics.
You look at President Obama’s inner circle of advisers, these very high-achieving people, almost all of whom went to a very small number of colleges of graduate schools, most of them Harvard. He thinks he’s choosing the very best and the very brightest, and getting the very best advice there is. And when he came into office, I was in full agreement with that strategy. But since then, it has become clear that when you fill an administration with all of these people who come from the same background that they actually are acting on behalf of members of this class. They’re not just doing their best for us as a nation — they are acting on behalf of their social cohorts. And once you figure that out, all sorts of other things follow.
I think all future historians are going to wonder why Obama dealt with the Wall Street banks in the way he did. That’s the big mystery of his presidency. He’s elected to do one thing, and he does the opposite. Why did he do that? Why did he choose that course? Once you throw in this understanding of his advisers as representatives of this class, it all becomes clear. Because these people look at the Wall Street bankers, the investment bankers, the hedge fund managers that they are supposed to be getting tough with — they look at these people and say, “These are our peers.They’re good people. They made one mistake, you know? Let them off the hook.”
So, you have an administration that was incapable of getting tough with people at the top, but had no hesitation in prosecuting people at the bottom.
I wanted to talk a bit about how you’ve explored the history of the Democratic Party as “The Party of the People,” which is a sort of unofficial motto that you’ve said goes back to the days of Jefferson and Jackson. How does the Democratic Party of Jackson or Jefferson differ from the Democratic Party of today?
It’s evolved in many different ways over the years, and in a lot of ways, it’s evolved for the better. I mean, the party of Jefferson and Jackson — these are two people who really believed in democracy, but not for everybody. They were both slave owners, and the Democratic Party was deeply implicated in that. Thankfully, they’ve (the Democrats) put that behind them. But beginning in the 1930s or even before that, they were identified as the party of labor, of working people, and especially of the middle class.
I’m old enough — I’m 51 now — to remember when protecting the middle class was this kind of sacred duty for Democrats. You know, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter — this is what they lived to do. And today, we read in the paper that the middle class in this country is shrinking, not growing, and that for many people, a majority of the American public, the recession has not ended; it’s still going. A lot of people are never going to get the standard of living back that they had before the recession. This is shocking stuff. If headlines like that had come out in the 1970s, it would have been enormous. This would be the worst possible development. And this is the kind of thing when Democrats would have swung into action. They would have known what to do. But today, they don’t.
You watch Hillary Clinton talk about it, and the answer’s always the same: education. Everybody needs to go back to school, or something like that. We need more innovation. That’s what they say. And it is not an answer. It’s not a solution. It’s a way of evading the question. It’s a way of rationalizing what’s happened.
Now that Hillary’s the presumptive Democratic nominee, do you think she’ll make much of an effort to bring those working class voters who may have left the party and are now leaning more toward Trump, back into the fold?
Well, she should, because that’s obviously Trump’s strength. Trump is the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” phenomenon on an enormous scale. But the Democratic reaction to that book was to basically blow it off and ignore what I was saying and to deny what was happening. The leadership faction of the Democratic Party — the group here in Washington that basically gets listened to — have a different theory on politics. Their theory is incredibly simple, and you’ve probably heard it a million times in your life: The voters that you have to reach out to are the moderates — the swing voters who are in between two parties. You have to reach out to them, and the way you do that is by moving to the right. So, once you’ve got the nomination locked down, a Democrat, anyway, has to pivot to the right and win those voters who are in the middle.
But that’s actually not where we are these days. The swing voters are not these people in between the two parties. It’s this white, working class group that is deeply embittered and angry, and is watching their way of life drain away. The way that Democrats reach out to these people is not by moving to the right but by embracing sort of New Deal programs and New Deal solutions that were the reason these people once voted for Democrats in the first place. But — and I’ve been saying this for a long time — you cannot persuade Democrats of this. It is impossible. I have tried and tried and tried. They don't want to hear it.
You’ve been a supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign throughout the election. Even though it seems very unlikely that he’ll win the nomination at this point, do you think his system-bucking campaign will ultimately create lasting change?
There’s a really important point that he has made, which is that you can run a presidential campaign without the backing of a billionaire, without the backing of big money. Sanders has shown that in fact it’s possible, and that is a huge development.
Now, whether he’s able to transform his campaign into a movement that somehow persists within the Democratic Party remains to be seen. I hope he does. I would like to see that. And I assume there will be another Sanders in four years, (though) I think Hillary will probably be elected president. There will also be another Trump. And that’s kind of frightening. So, ultimately, Hillary might turn out to be this great success and turn the economic situation around and build the middle class and bring back good jobs. I mean, maybe she could do it. Wouldn’t that be great? But I don’t think she can.
Were you surprised to see Bernie win by such a wide margin in the Kansas caucus earlier this year?
Not really. Kansas has a real populist streak to it. It’s the kind of place that would warm to a guy like Bernie, if they hear him. Bernie’s problem was getting his message out, and there’s a lot of places that just weren’t receptive or weren’t interested. But Kansas is the sort of place where, deep down, there is that kind of populist sentiment.
And it hasn’t died out despite everything?
Well, I mean, it became a movement of the right. It’s everywhere now, but the conservatives in Kansas — I mean, the ones that I interviewed way back 12 years ago — are the inheritors of this populist mantle. Though they themselves probably don’t know it, and they certainly wouldn’t agree with the old-time Populists on a lot of issues, they certainly understand the world in the same way as “the little guy versus power.”
Going back to our talk about Bernie’s turnout in the Kansas caucus, Cruz also beat Trump by a fairly wide margin. Will those Cruz supporters stand by Trump come November?
Oh, I don’t know. When I was a kid, there was this real animosity or antagonism between Kansas and New York City. They were like opposite poles on some kind of cosmic spectrum. A lot of it came from sports, because the Royals were always playing the Yankees in the playoffs and were forever losing to them. But it was deeper than that, too, of course.
Trump is not a Kansas type. He’s not the kind of person that people in Kansas go for, but at the same time, the idea of Kansas going for a Democrat seems really hard to ... it will not happen, let’s put it that way (laughs).
Especially not for Hillary?
You know, Hillary has this very interesting Midwestern life story. She comes from the ‘burbs in Chicago. If you really listen closely to her, she has a distinct northern Midwest accent. But she never plays up that part of her life story. She never talks about it. She never tries to humanize herself that way. I’m not saying that she could win Kansas — of course, that seems impossible — but she could certainly make herself more human to Midwestern voters if she wanted to.
Why do you think that is, that we rarely hear about that aspect of her life?
She thinks of herself in different terms. She is a professional woman. This is who she is. It’s very important to her.
Hillary is in some ways the perfect kind of Democrat that I’m describing in “Listen, Liberal.” She has no understanding of the problems of working people. She might say the right thing from time to time because she’s been told to say it, or she’s figured it out somehow, but it’s not instinctive to her. Her natural understanding of the problems people are facing is, the problems that women have rising in the professions. What is her candidacy about? She always says it’s about breaking down artificial barriers that stop people from rising in life as high as their talents will take them. It’s about people not being stopped by racism or sexism but instead rising as high as their talents will take them. It’s what she believes in above everything else.
How do you think history will look back on Obama’s presidency, when all’s said and done?
He has achieved some very big things. Obamacare was big and the Dodd-Frank (Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) was pretty big. I also think that, unlike so many other politicians, his charm has never really worn off. Being hopeful about Obama and then being disappointed by him is really what led me to write this book. But even as I say that, I still like the guy. I’d still like to have a beer with him, you know, like they’re always talking about (laughs).
The problem is that our admiration for the guy as a person gets in the way of our assessment of him as a historical actor, and it also really messes with the way Democrats think about him. The party will basically not tolerate any criticism of him. They’re in some ways dragged down by the hope of 2008, that they can’t allow themselves to see where he went wrong and that he made mistakes, because they want to think that he’s great. And he’s pretty damn good, let me say that. No, he hasn’t been a great president. But we are captive of our longing for him to be a great president, and so we find it very difficult to admit the truth about him to ourselves. I’m speaking of liberals here. Conservatives think he’s some kind of devil figure, which I just don’t understand (laughs).
I do think that ultimately the failings of his administration — a lot of them — are his responsibility. Those failures belong to him — not to Eric Holder, not to Tim Geithner, not to Larry Summers, but ultimately to him.
Barry Crimmins won over audiences at last year's Free State Festival, where the veteran stand-up comedian, political satirist and activist joined director and comic Bobcat Goldthwait for a screening of "Call Me Lucky." Goldthwait's critically acclaimed documentary chronicles Crimmins' story of survival, from his brutal rape as a boy growing up in upstate New York to his later advocacy against child sex abuse and online child pornography.
The film also serves as a "testament" of sorts, Crimmins says, to the relationships he's forged with fellow comedians over the years, as a peer and as an owner of the legendary Ding Ho and Stitches comedy clubs in Boston. Among the many now-famous funny people on his "Thank-God I was nice to that kid" list: Louis C.K. The superstar's production company, Pig Newton, is set to produce Crimmins' one-hour comedy special, for which Crimmins will return to the Lawrence Arts Center stage June 4.
Lawrence has treated him well over the years, and the comedy special (Crimmins has opted to keep prices low, at $10 for general admission) is his "thank you" to the many friends he's made here — "It's my way of saying, 'I think your town's the greatest.' I mean, I just do," he says. "I really do."
In advance of the big night, Crimmins chatted with the Journal-World about "Call Me Lucky," political correctness, the state of comedy today and way, way more insightful and provocative stuff than we could include here. Read on for an edited and condensed version of our interview.
What’s life been like since “Call Me Lucky” came out?
It’s been very busy. I’ve been on the road a lot, doing a lot of smaller dates to get my act together, because I spent almost two years on the movie before that. And in particular since “Call Me Lucky” hit Netflix, I spend a lot of time just sorting through mail and communications from abuse survivors who felt like, I guess, from watching the movie, that I was someone they could talk to. That takes up a chunk of every day. For the first several months (the movie) was on Netflix, it was a big chunk of every day. That’s now quieted down a bit, but it’s still a daily obligation I make every effort to try to keep up on.
Was that a surprise to you, to get that huge influx of messages from survivors?
No, because I’ve been public for almost a quarter century now. I wrote about this in the Boston Phoenix years ago and from that point on. I did the work exposing the child pornography trafficking on AOL, and that kept me in the public eye. I would continue to comment on things, including particularly the scandals of the Catholic Church. I don’t have scientific information about child abuse, but I have an incredible wealth of anecdotal information because I feel like everybody tells me everything, you know? I’m used to it. I knew before we did the movie that this would happen, but it still became even overwhelming for me. It just adds up. You add up five or six really tough stories in a row, and you get a little weary. But then when you hear from people you spoke to a couple weeks ago, and they’re gaining ground and doing well, you get a little shot in the arm. It’s two steps forward and one step back sometimes, but I’ve gotten better also with finding other resources for people and trying not to handle everything myself. But if anybody writes me, I really do try to get back to them.
Do you think we as a society have a problem verbalizing the word “rape” and what constitutes it?
Sure, we do. We really need to call rape, “rape.” We really need to describe what it is and we really need to be able to live with that. People who use the term “political correctness” all the time tend to be some of the biggest censors, even though they’re allegedly fighting for free speech. As Mark Twain said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.”
You remarked in the documentary — and have continued to discuss this issue since — that a lot of these people who pride themselves on being so politically incorrect regard themselves as cutting-edge rebels, but really they’re just reinforcing the “oppressive status quo.”
Well, that’s it. You’re this brave, cutting-edge rebel, and all you’re doing is what’s most convenient for yourself and your narrow view of things. I’m in the comedy business, and I’ll talk about this in the show, but it’s the guys who say, “The world used to be 99 percent based around people like me. Now it’s only 97 percent based around people like me. What’s up with that?” They lose a little tiny bit of work over it, and they’re all upset. I’ve been losing work for decades because of how I speak. I’m not calling myself a martyr over it, but I’m just saying that if their soap pollutes the river, they’re probably not going to let me stand on their soapbox.
What are your thoughts on the current state of comedy?
When I got into it, there weren’t very many comedians. I don’t know if there were 100 comedians when I got into it in the early '70s. I mean, there are far more comedians in Lawrence than there were in the United States when I started doing comedy. When I was a kid, we all wanted to be rock 'n' roll stars, but it turns out you had to be able to do something. Well, there’s not that kind of a threshold for comedy. You just need to be able to think you can do something. I think there’s a problem in comedy right now, in that there are so many people calling themselves comedians that they’re really creating this sort of enormous mountain for the people with some real talent and making it much harder for the people with real talent to be seen and get stage time. There’s really good young comics who are getting buried in this, and that’s who I’m most concerned about. These kids go out and do open mic nights, so they have two minutes. When you’re putting your act together two minutes at a time, it’s going to look like a ransom note. In a way, it’s this huge vindication for those of us who got into it a while back and really sort of made it into something that other people wanted to do. On the other hand, it’s created a real economic crisis for the workers, because basically, everybody’s a scab. There’s a million people waiting to do what you do. It’s like Syria’s taking in comics now. It’s a refugee crisis.
At one point in your career, I think it was the '80s, you said you were almost ashamed to call yourself a stand-up comedian.
What happened was the comedy boom came and really, at that point, the problem was everybody wanted to open up a comedy club but there weren’t enough comics. There were suddenly 600 comedy clubs in the country, and on a Saturday night, there weren’t 600 people that could headline a show, unless you allowed the headliner to be someone who used every hack premise and lowest-common-denominator thing. And that’s what they did. And the audience that digs that became the audience at comedy clubs. But we didn’t come with a laugh track, you know? It was like, “Come on, when are you going to talk about airline peanuts or women going to the bathroom in pairs?” I’d go out and play the clubs — and I’d just done the HBO young comedians special or something — and they’d put some local, real hacky act on in front of me, just doing all this crotch stuff and whatever, and I would follow and struggle. But fortunately when the comedy clubs got stupider and stupider, I got lucky — Jackson Browne took me on tour with him, Billy Bragg took me on tour with him, and Dar Williams, and I always went out with Steven Wright. And then I was able to develop audiences in these towns kind of free of the comedy clubs, and I could go back and play places like the Lawrence Arts Center.
Mark Twain once said, “the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow.” Do you think a person has to go through immense pain in order to be a truly great comic?
No (laughs). And if I said yes, there would be people out there hurting themselves right now, so I’d better say no (laughs). I don’t think there are a lot of people in this life who don’t go through some sort of immense pain sooner or later. What Twain’s talking about is sort of constructing humor and not necessarily being eligible to write it or speak it. He’s saying that there’s a dark underside to things that generally the real strong stuff comes from. I agree with that. We all go through some things, but the idea that it’s necessary to comedy. ... You could do the same (thing) with insurance salespeople and say, “Well, it turns out every insurance salesperson has been through some crap, which explains why they screwed you out of that annuity” (laughs). I don’t know. Maybe I should be smart enough not to even answer that, because I’m sort of a “see the ball, hit the ball” kind of comic and don’t take it apart that much, you know? I guess sometimes I know more than I realize, but I like to keep it that way.
Recently you tweeted about Jared Fogle and really spoke out about poking fun at the hypothetical situation of him being assaulted in prison.
I abhor all rape, and if I say it’s OK to rape this guy in prison, then a kid who’s in prison on a marijuana rap is going to get raped, too. And that just means there’s going to be more rage and more violence, and it means that I’ve OK’d rape on any level, and I don’t. It’s a horrible thing. I’ve been raped; no one should ever be raped. If I had my way, that would be it. Snickering about Bubba and the soap in the shower and all that crap — forget it. People say that to me all the time and really think I’m going to light up. They couldn’t be more wrong. I’m disgusted. I’m just like, “Why do you presume I’m in favor of rape? I’m not.”
Do you see any situation where it might be OK to joke about sexual assault? Like, for instance, if a survivor wanted to talk about their personal experience?
I think it’s OK to joke about the hypocrisy, the cowardice surrounding it, the injustice for the victims — all those things are good things to go after. Go after the hypocrisy, go after the cowardice, go after the institutions that cover it up, go after the rapists and facilitators, but the minute you get a snickering little joke in there about some child or some woman or man getting raped, you’ve lost me. You have a First Amendment right to do whatever you want. I have a First Amendment right to take you apart after you do it.
Speaking of using comedy to go after institutions, you describe your two big life goals in the documentary as dismantling A, the Catholic Church and B, the United States government.
I do (talk about) it as a peaceful overthrow, but that got left out of it, I guess (laughs). But, yeah. It just means I want to take down oppressive institutions that are not what they seem to be.
Are you any closer to accomplishing those goals?
In a way, the (Bernie) Sanders campaign is encouraging, and as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, I think the new pope’s job is to change the subject and not the Church. I mean, it recently came out that they’re teaching new bishops that it’s not necessarily their job to turn in (suspected abusers) to civil authorities, and I’m a big “render unto Caesar” man on that one. And he sent his representatives to a U.N. hearing on torture to assert that the rape of children, particularly by the clergy, is not torture. I disagree. I’m glad that he’s concerned about climate change. So am I. But he’s not doing anything to change the climate of the Church. He could really make a difference. There haven’t been any of the major fundamental changes the Church needs. I’m glad the guy pays lip service to socialism. If he wants to redistribute the wealth, he could give me the keys to the Vatican vault, and I would be happy to fly over to Rome and start helping on that front.
But I’m a heretic, former altar boy who was abused and humiliated on the altar every morning by a priest who hated me because he knew I probably wasn’t a good prospect to rape, so he was trying to drive me off every day. And he humiliated me in front of a group of people who, had they noticed or said anything, maybe someone would have looked into this guy and found out he was one of the most savage pedophile priests who has ever been documented. He was the guy who would orally rape little boys and tell them they had to swallow because it was like the Eucharist, because he was God’s representative on Earth. I know several people who committed suicide because of that priest, and there’s a lot more stories like that out there.
But we’re getting places. “Spotlight” won the Academy Award (for Best Picture). Granted, it was about journalism, but it won the Academy Award. Things are moving along.
Political satirist Barry Crimmins to film comedy special in Lawrence next month; Louis C.K.’s Pig Newton to produce
Well, comedy fans, here's a spot of sunny news for you on a rainy day:
Barry Crimmins, the veteran political satirist and activist who "won hearts" during last year's Free State Festival with his critically acclaimed documentary "Call Me Lucky," returns to Lawrence next month — this time to film his one-hour comedy special, the Lawrence Arts Center announced Monday.
The action will go down June 4 at the Arts Center's main stage, 940 New Hampshire St., with shows slated for 7 and 9:30 p.m. In another fun tidbit, Louis C.K.'s production company, Pig Newton, will produce the show.
For those of you not in the know, Crimmins' satirical writings and comedy routines have largely focused on the need for political and social change over the years. In the 1990s, this led him to spearhead a crusade against images of child abuse on the internet, calling for police investigations of ISPs. His work has earned him the “Peace Leadership Award” from Boston Mobilization for Survival, a Community Works “Artist for Social Change Award" and the “Courage of Conscience Award” from Wellesley College and Massachusetts' The Life Experience School.
Crimmins is also the founder of the Ding Ho and Stitches comedy clubs, which have hosted performances, among others, by Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Tingle and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait, who chronicled Crimmins' personal life in the "Call Me Lucky."
Podcast nerds may also recognize Crimmins from comedian Marc Maron's popular "WTF" podcast.
We've reached out to Crimmins to see if an interview might be in the cards before his Lawrence visit, and are hopeful at the prospects. In the meantime, you can purchase tickets (they run $10 for general admission) for Crimmins' big show(s) at www.lawrenceartscenter.org.
- In other artsy news, Tuesday is the last day to catch Kansas University's visual art department's annual senior show. The send-off to graduates, which kicked off Sunday, will feature work from students in painting, drawing, sculpture, new media, installation, textiles, ceramics, metals and printmaking. Check it out anytime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the Art and Design Gallery (and also rooms 412 and 421) of Chalmers Hall, 1467 Jayhawk Blvd.
Free State Festival headliner Maria Bamford reverses course after threat to cancel over Kansas lawmakers’ LGBTQ limits
After announcing on Twitter Thursday night that she planned to cancel Kansas performances in support of LGBTQ rights — and in protest of state lawmakers' efforts to limit them — Free State Festival headliner Maria Bamford has apparently decided to reverse course and use her Lawrence gig as a "fundraiser for local LGBTQ."
The comedian, whose Netflix series “Lady Dynamite” premieres in May, originally tweeted that she would cancel performances in Kansas, North Carolina and "any other state not allowing access to lgbtq."
The Kansas House and Senate last month introduced legislation that would require transgender students at Kansas public schools and universities to use restrooms, showers and locker rooms designated for the gender listed on their birth certificates. North Carolina recently passed a similar law.
After speaking with Bamford's agent Friday morning, Free State Festival director Sarah Bishop confirmed Bamford had recommitted to the festival.
"I think it's really worked out for the best for everyone involved. We're thrilled," Bishop said, adding, "It's been an exciting 24 hours."
Details of the fundraiser, including whom it will benefit ("presumably an LGBTQ rights advocacy organization," Bishop said) and how it will work are yet to be determined, but Bamford's standup, short film screening and Q&A remain scheduled for June 20 at Liberty Hall as planned, Bishop confirmed.
Earlier Friday, Bishop issued a statement via email expressing the festival's support for the LGBTQ community:
"We strongly feel that her appearance in Kansas has the potential to build support for the LGBTQ community and to draw attention to LGBTQ civil rights issues throughout the state," Bishop said of the comedian. "We are committed to the Free State Festival as a means of celebrating Kansas’ history as a progressive, free state that honors and embraces all individuals regardless of gender, race, sexuality, class or creed."
I've reached out to Bamford's team for comment and will keep you in the loop if we learn anything new.