Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 10:20 AM
Andy Borowitz has crushed it in two very different worlds. After writing for TV in the 1980s, he created with then-spouse Susan Borowitz The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring a West Philly kid named Will Smith. Fresh Prince ran for six years, helped catapult Smith to global stardom, and is still around on TV, on BET, Centric, and VH1, as well as on streaming channels. Borowitz says, “I attribute its lasting popularity to the fades.”
Ah, but there’s more. Borowitz is perhaps the most widely read satirical writer in the land. The Borowitz Report began as op-ed offerings (the Inquirer was an early adopter) and then became a syndicated daily column in 2001. Each day, Borowitz posts one 250-word satirical piece (“Millions of Americans Demand $130,000 for Not Having Sex with Trump” or “Trump Fears Next Election Will Be Decided By Americans”). In 2012, the New Yorker magazine picked up the Borowitz Report. He’s won the first National Press Club award for humor, and is also a successful author, editor, social media personality, and radio, TV, and podcast host and commentator.
And standup comedian. The Borowitz Report Live with Andy Borowitz is scheduled for a stop at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside at 8 p.m. Thursday. He’ll do some standup, have a conversation with local writer Tara Murtha, and take questions from the audience (“after which I’ll send them out with their marching orders”). He spoke with the Inquirer about Fresh Prince, why he went solo, and the state of satire in this great land.
How much Philly-related research did you do when you were working up Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
It wasn’t like I was walking around West Philly soaking up atmosphere. My main research came from Bennie R. Richburg Jr., a friend of Will Smith’s from Philadelphia. Bennie and Will were the source of whatever local flavor we had. I must admit – and this is probably why I went into the business I’m in now – I’m not very big on shoe-leather reporting. The extent of my research is I google one fact and riff on that.
You can still find Fresh Prince on TV, 28 years after it first aired. That is simply crazy.
When you’re doing a TV show, you never think, ‘How is this going to hold up 28 years later?’ Because TV shows don’t.
The shows that tend to last tend to exist in a timeless universe. When I was little, I loved The Brady Bunch, and my 10-year-old daughter today loves it. It’s a classic of its kind. That house was like, I could never understand how a couple with six kids total move into a house that has only two bedrooms. They should have had a better real estate agent.
Fresh Prince was so cartoony and stylized that it has actually held up better than some other shows from the era. We weren’t trying for too much verisimilitude. Sure, it’s a ’90s show, but it’s a ’90s that never really happened. Its lack of authenticity might have contributed to its longevity. With shows like Fresh Prince or The Brady Bunch or The Beverly Hillbillies, there’s something very reassuring. With the Bradys, I remember as a kid thinking, “Here comes this show, and now I am going to be locked in and be happy for 30 minutes.”
You used to excel as part of a team of comedy writers for TV. But now you’re a one-man syndicate, writing the Borowitz Report. Why did you go solo, and why have you stayed solo?
I was never crazy about the concept of the writers’ room. A bunch of writers sitting around a table pitching ideas always felt dangerously close to a job in advertising. I realize that I’m defining writing in a very narrow way, but I’m happier being the only one in the room.
There didn’t use to be much true satire in this country. Then it seemed to spike in the early 2000s.
There have been ebbs and flows. In the Nixon years, you had the National Lampoon, and I was writing for the Harvard Lampoon in the 1970s, when we had the sense of a government run by a crazy guy – though Nixon now sounds like Nelson Mandela next to the guy we have now. My column is really me circling back to where I began, writing for the Harvard Lampoon, writing “newspaper parodies” of the official Crimson newspaper. I got called into the dean’s office, like in Animal House. That was the very best part of my college career.
There wasn’t much in the reactionary ’80s or self-satisfied ’90s. I think the great era of satire began with Sept. 11, 2001, and especially the war in Iraq; for me, it was really Iraq and what a ridiculous travesty that was. I wish Bush had discovered his love of painting earlier in life and taken it up full-time. And there was still plenty to write about during the Obama years because his opposition was so unhinged. Donald Trump is, like, gaslighting the country.
There’s a great saying by Will Rogers: “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” That’s how I feel a lot of the time. That’s my job. You already have a Sharknado kind of guy with Trump as president, and all I can do is let the craziness speak for itself. So my stuff tends to work by understatement. To me, journalistic understatement is one of the funniest things in the world. The New York Times is not intentionally funny, but they’re the New York Times, so they have this stiff, humorless thing going. Let’s say the story is Stormy Daniels. A Times headline might be ‘Payments to porn star raise questions.’ Oh really? Do they?
Mark Twain had a theory that holds up really well: That sometimes the funniest thing is stating the facts very baldly. Be as direct as possible, and that becomes funny. It’s really pretty much the only option right now. I’ve seen comedy that tries to make Donald Trump even goonier or more burlesque than he already he is. If you do that, though, you’re doing him a favor, as if, “Oh, ho, ho, he’s not that dangerous.” It makes him a figure of fun. That just doesn’t work.
So how do you see what you do as a writer and standup comedian?
I do think I have something of an obligation to be part of the resistance here. Comedy is serving a reactionary purpose if all it does is act as a palliative. But I don’t have a messianic, grandiose view of what I do. Sometimes comics all but see themselves as leaders of a political movement. No: Let’s be realistic. I have a bigger audience than the average guy walking down the street, but let’s just check our egos at the door, shall we? I am trying to lift up the people up who are in such despair and so depressed. There are people who can barely get out of bed the way things are. People say, “Your column is the first time I’ve laughed in weeks.” I say: “Now that you’re feeling better, what are you going to do? I’d love it if you’d do something small, canvassing in a swing state, or write a check to the ACLU.”
This isn’t a normal situation. This is a game-show host being president of the United States of America. It’s a much deeper problem than, ‘Hey, look, a guy with funny hair and small hands is president.’ I want people to ask with me: Where are we now? Are we this racist and this stupid, or are we something better? I am optimistic: If we recognize that we’ve hit bottom, we have an opportunity to get out of this mess and start improving things.
There’s one other thing I’m trying to accomplish. I’d been asked about selling merchandise, and I said I would do it if I could give the profit to something good. So I’m giving the profits from the T-shirts, mugs, and caps, all of it, to the International Rescue Committee, a great organization headed by David Miliband. We have been selling a tremendous number of these things, and all the profits go to this great organization.
Note: As of this writing, Thursday night’s show is still scheduled. Please check with the Keswick to confirm.
Stand-up Comedy The Borowitz Report Live with Andy Borowitz 8 p.m., March 8, at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside, Pa. Tickets: $35-$49. Information: 215-572-7650, keswicktheatre.com.