Reggie Brown, the comedian yanked off the stage at the Republican Leadership Conference, gives me his take. (P.S. Republicans love him.)
The big news out of the RLC meeting in New Orleans last weekend didn't involve a candidate, but a president--or rather, a presidential impersonator named Reggie Brown whose comedy set poking fun at the Republican candidates and the president scandalized the organizers, who yanked Brown from the stage mid-set and later put out a statement slamming him for "racially insensitive jokes." It turns out Reggie Brown and I have a friend in common, and yesterday that friend put us in touch. We talked about how the RLC event looked from his vantage point--much different--and what the fallout has been. (Hint: Not too bad--he's got a bunch of new Republican bookings, including Fox News this weekend.) Here's a lightly edited transcript, along with video of his aborted RLC act and another one from his website that I like.
Was a Republican political conference different from the stuff you usually do?
I normally do corporate comedy, so I'll travel around and do everything from medical associations to lawyer groups, things of that nature. This was the first major political event I've ever been invited to, so I was real excited to get up and perform my material. I thought it was cool that a lot of the people in my act--the candidates--were going to be there. Because my latest material is based on the 2012 candidates, and for them to all be there, I thought it would be a great opportunity to make 'em laugh and poke a little fun at them. I thought that showed a lot for the Republican sense of humor.
Did the organizers give you any guidance about what type of humor they were looking for?
No, no guidance was given prior to the show. They booked me to come down based on my website and the links my manager forwarded them of my recent work. I was booked to do my routine.
What was your intention going in? Seemed like you tried to kind of hit every target, Democrat and Republican.
Oh yeah. Our show is designed to be fair and balanced. If we hit the Republicans we hit the Democrats, and then the Tea Party. We want to make it accessible to everyone, and let everyone have a good time.
So walk me through what happened out there on stage? What was your point of view?
So I came out and was going through my material. I was loving it, the audience was loving it--great energy. We're feeding off each other. And I started to get into my set about their candidates for 2012, and the Mitt Romney joke drew a lot of 'oohs' and 'aaahs,' but also a lot of applause and laughter. I delivered a couple more on Pawlenty and Gingrich, and then as I started into my Michele Bachmann joke and her PowerPoint slide came up on the screen, the music came up. I thought it was a technical error, because we do occasionally experience a glitch with the PowerPoint. Then the mike cut out, and the gentleman came on stage and told me my time was up.
Did they indicate that they were unhappy with your performance? What did he say?
No, not at all. He just came out and said, 'Sorry, your time's up.' I thanked the audience, went backstage, and a few of the organizers were saying, great job, very well done, we're all excited for you. I left the stage feeling like I'd done a great job. It was awesome, it was great.
Did you get to talk to any of the folks in the crowd afterward?
We went directly back to the hotel, my manager and me, and I got mobbed by the attendees. They were all saying, "Oh my god! Are you the Obama? Is that the Obama guy?" Because at this point I was in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. They were like, "You were amazing! You were the best part of this conference. Why'd they pull you off?" People were upset that they didn't let me finish. They were just very complimentary. It was amazing. I had an 85-year-old woman tell me it was the funniest performance she'd every seen in her life and that she'd almost wet her pants. It was very well received and I really am sorry to my fans that I wasn't able to finish.
So at what point did you become aware that the organizers considered you a political problem?
When we got back to my hotel room, all these articles started popping up. The first few were saying "Obama impersonator mocks president at GOP function." Then a few started saying there was a controversy over racist jokes and things like that. So it was crazy to see the spin they started to put on it after I left--feeling I'd delivered a great performance, being told I did well. And then the eruption online.
They put out a statement condemning your afterward, right?
Yes, I met the guy before the show, too, and his wife, and he was all excited. He was like "This is great, I'm looking forward to seeing the show." Like most of the clients he was all happy, smiley, taking pictures together beforehand. Then afterward he started releasing these statements that weren't so positive, or accurate.
Anything in that act you regret?
No, I don't regret one joke. That's what I do. We spend a lot of time tailoring my material. I don't mean to offend anyone through my comedy. It is intellegent humor that's pretty much up to the minute on the political scene.
You don't consider that joke about Barney Frank's "soft backside" a little offensive?
No, that was just in reference to him sitting on his big behind while Freddie and Fannie collapsed. It wasn't really in reference to anything else.
Did you have any qualms about taking the gig? Are political crowds tougher than ordinary crowds?
It depends. A lot of it has to do with the energy, but this was a great audience. You have to be able to poke fun at yourself. It's amazing how things blew up. We've gotten like 500 emails, and news reports from as far away as Europe and South Africa. We already have a lot more bookings that have come in since then, and actually more on the Republican side than the Democratic side. I'll be on Mike Huckabee's Fox show on Saturday, in fact.
Just to clear this up, I'd seen some of your earlier clips and interview on YouTube and you didn't strike me as someone who has any animosity toward President Obama.
Not at all, I love our president. He has changed my life in ways I wouldn't have imagined. I have the best job in the world, I'm able to use my striking physical resemblance to him and my talents to develop this character that the world has been very receptive to. He's given me the opportunity to--and this may sound cheezy--but to live out my dreams. And it's been awesome. I love it.
You mentioned they yanked you before your Michele Bachmann joke. Want to finish your act for me? What was the joke?
[Speaking in the voice of Obama] What can I say about Michele Bachmann that she hasn't already said about herself? Now, last week she called me a one-term president. Uhh, now look. I may be a one-term president, but that's better than your former leader, George W. Bush, who was a one-syllable president.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Women engage in indirect aggression and slut-shaming, even in clinical research studies. Why?
One day in Ontario, 86 straight women were paired off into groups of two—either with a friend or a stranger—and taken to a lab at McMaster University. There, a researcher told them they were about to take part in a study about female friendships. But they were soon interrupted by one of two women.
Half the participants were interrupted by a thin, blond, attractive woman with her hair in a bun, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and khaki pants, whom the researchers called “the conservative confederate."
The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.
There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.
A man who served the regime recounts his efforts to bring it down.
The theory of Jung Gwang Il’s work is essentially this: Tiny packets of information just might bring an end to decades of tyranny in his homeland. From his base in South Korea, he sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices—loaded with Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows, and testimonials from North Korean defectors—across North Korea’s borders. His weapons against North Korea’s repressive, nuclear-armed regime are Skyfalland South Korean soaps. His battlefield is a country with no free press, virtually no internet (there’s an intranet), and minimal relations with much of the planet. Jung’s mission, in other words, is to funnel fragments of the outside world into the most information-starved nation on earth—and to thereby undermine a government for which he was once willing to sacrifice his life.
Recently I sat down with Vice President Joe Biden to explore whether his approach to foreign policy challenges, and his patterns of interaction with global leaders, constituted something distinctive enough to call “The Biden Doctrine,” which I wrote about here in The Atlantic. In a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion that touched on America’s current political contest, the vice president shared some of what he believes are Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses. And in a powerful ending to our chat, Biden indicted the leadership elites of both parties for looking down on and leaving behind Americans who deserve better. I felt that this material deserved its own space, and wanted to share the larger conversation with readers. The transcript, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.
City dwellers spend nearly every moment of every day awash in Wi-Fi signals. Homes, streets, businesses, and office buildings are constantly blasting wireless signals every which way for the benefit of nearby phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, and other connected paraphernalia.
When those devices connect to a router, they send requests for information—a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, a news article—and, in turn, receive that data, all over the air. As it communicates with the devices, the router is also gathering information about how its signals are traveling through the air, and whether they’re being disrupted by obstacles or interference. With that data, the router can make small adjustments to communicate more reliably with the devices it’s connected to.
One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.
It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.
As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.
A 160,000-mile quest to visit all 59 of the country's natural treasures
Mark Burns spent five years visiting all 59 of the United States' national parks. Captured in stirring black and white images, his landscape photography project was completed just in time for the National Park Service's centennial celebration. “It's a time to reflect on the rich history of our national parks,” Burns said of his 160,000-mile journey, “but it's also a time to plan wisely for the next 100 years.” Glacier Bay's wild coastline, Death Valley's parched terrain, and Yellowstone's surging geysers are all pictured in searing detail. One image from each park is currently being exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until September 5th. A selection can be found below.
The health benefits are clear. The political benefits are newly relevant.
Next time you enter an elevator, walk in and keep facing the back wall. If you stay that way, in my experience, people will laugh or ask if you’re okay. (That’s an opportunity, if you want, to say you would love for someone to define “okay.”)
Standing this way breaks unstated rules of how we’re supposed to behave in elevators. Detaching from expectations gives people an excuse to talk, to acknowledge one another’s humanity. Absent a break in the order, the expectation is silence.
(Of course, you can make a quick joke—my favorite is, if the elevator is stopping frequently, “What is this, the local train?”—and expect a modicum of laughter. But even if the joke goes over well, the rule seems to be that you can’t say it more than once in the same ride.)