Ann Coulter interrupta, Chelsea Handler, Roger Stone & more at Politicon
Photo: L to R, the "Egyptian Jon Stewart" Bassem Yousseff and "The Daily Show's" part-Mexican Al Madrigal took part in the "Is It Funny or Offensive? Presents: Humor, Satire & Speech in the Age of Trump” | Ed Rampell

PASADENA, Calif.—Featuring heavy hitters from the realms of cable news and punditry, Politicon—which is to politics what Comic-Con is to superheroes and comic books—took place July 29-30 at the Pasadena Convention Center. This “politi-palooza” attracted prominent speakers, performers and audiences from across the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. Highlights of the chattering classes’ chitchat at Politicon included:

“Po-Crazy”

One panel I attended at “Independence Hall” was entitled “Trump: Genius or Lunatic?” Sally Kohn, an openly gay, reliably lefty commentator who has opinionated on Fox News and CNN, moderated the discussion with pro- and anti-Trump participants. Referring to the president and his, uh, state of mind, Kohn set the stage for the weekend talkfest by paraphrasing the old Gershwin Bros.’ song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” quipping: “You say potato, I say ‘po-crazy.’”

Coulter interrupta

Next up at Independence Hall was the “Censorship on Campus” panel, featuring author and professional provocateur Ann “Helter Skelter” Coulter. As soon as the venomous Fräulein was introduced, two activists costumed as brownshirts with swastika armbands disrupted the panel to “Heil our Hitler!” giving their furious “Führer” the stiff-armed fascist salute. To the consternation of what appeared to be a majority of the crowd composed of Coulter acolytes, who started shouting “USA! USA!” and to the amusement of others, the ersatz Nazis shut the shrewish loudmouth up for about five minutes before they were peaceably ejected by security.

But as soon as Coulter started spewing her hate speech, “Refuse Fascism” leftists (presumably linked to the Revolutionary Communist Party) unfurled an anti-Trump red banner and shouted her down. After another five-minute pause that aggravated the righties in the audience, the two Reds were led out. As the saying goes, “The show must go on.”

Coulter boohooed about how her right to freedom of speech was short-circuited at Berkeley by far-left militants. This was rich coming from someone who’s made a career out of denouncing oppressed minorities for complaining about their “victimhood”—you know, little things like poverty, racism and other societal injustices Coulter has never had to confront. Now that she is being held accountable for her outrageous comments, Coulter’s playing the “victim card” herself. Poor little orphan Annie!

Fellow panelists, comedian Greg Proops and weblogger Xeni Jardin, begged to differ with Coulter. Jardin inconveniently reminded the rightwing ranter and raver that speakers are responsible for what they publicly say. Coulter pretending to be a First Amendment champion is rather hilarious, considering how she slimed anti-Iraq War notables as “unpatriotic”—hey, Annie-get-your-gun, where are them thar WMDs anyway?—and she wrote Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, lauding one of the most tyrannical U.S. politicians and tramplers of free speech rights of all time, Sen. Joe McCarthy, who to Coulter was just a poor misunderstood little boy.

Of course, now that it’s a rightwinger being charged with conspiring with Russia, Coulter doesn’t have much to say about the Trump camp’s alleged Kremlin cavorting and colluding: But when that shoe was on the left foot during the 1940s/1950s, it was them gosh darn treasonous liberals! Coulter and her campus censorship panel also had nothing to say about infringement of First Amendment rights for critics of Israeli government and military policies and restrictions of the rights of professors, students, guest speakers, etc., who support Palestinians and the BDS movement. Where’s your outrage, Ann?

At the end, Coulter was treated like a rock star by her fans as she dispensed autographs amidst Nuremberg-like adulation; but not everybody was buying it (or her books) or belonged to the Hitler-Jugend. Elizabeth Ortiz, journalism student at California State University, Long Beach, expressed anger at Coulter’s typically elitist, disparaging remarks about community college students.

Like a rolling Roger Stoned

Day Two of Politicon was also well attended, despite the fact that now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Trump mouthpiece The Mooch was, mysteriously, a no-show for his scheduled “Anthony Scaramucci ’Splains” appearance. (The Mooch has some ’splaining to do about his disappearance, but I guess “loyal” Donald told him “Scooch, Mooch!” and the pooch hit the road.) However, another professional Donald Kool-Aid drinker (apparently accompanied by bodyguards) was in the house for a talk titled “Roger Stone Holds Court.” Former MSNBC host/author Touré tepidly interviewed Trump trickster extraordinaire Stone, who jokingly compared the outgoing “Mooch” to comedian Andrew Dice Clay, interestingly, two fallen figures whom Stone seems drawn to.

The oppo research meister cut his political teeth working on Tricky Dick’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Stoner showed himself as a profane jumble of contradictions: He supports marijuana legalization, opposes “Americans [being] surveilled for strictly political reasons,” and ballyhoos Nixon as a great peacemaker and bastion of progressivism. Perhaps Stone was too stoned from imbibing all that wacky tobacky to remember Nixon’s mass murder of millions in Indochina and Chile?

In any case, in a similar fact-denying way, spinning like an out-of-control dreydl at Hanukkah, Stone, the apprentice’s apologist, praised his pal Donald. A young female Muslim questioner would have none of it, confronting Stone about Trump’s Islamophobia. A short-haired young man immaculately groomed in a suit and tie (was he en route to a funeral?) expressed admiration for Stone’s sartorial splendor and viewpoints but asked him to please refrain from using obscenities. Not without a sense of humor, Stone wryly replied, “I’ll take that under advisement.”

It’s ironic that Stone, who wrote the book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, is such a big Nixon booster. Stone is probably praying that when his buddy Trump makes his anticipated departure from the White House before the end of his term, he’ll do so the way Milhous did—instead of how JFK did. Roger that!

Young Turks vs. Young Jerks

In a spirited debate attended by hundreds, The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur debated reactionary provocateur Ben Shapiro in the capacious Civic Auditorium. Their respective supporters enthusiastically booed and applauded their respective champions, but nobody in the house came to blows. Closing out the têteà-tête, the lack of violence amongst a crowd with strongly differing opinions prompted moderator Steven Olikara, founder of the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project, to comment, “That’s what Politicon is all about.” And in referring to the fervor expressed by those leaning left and right for Uygur and Shapiro, Olikara added, “Now we know who the 2020 candidates should be” (assuming, of course, that the Republic survives long enough for another rigged presidential election).

Something for everyone: C – Comedy Two Nights!

Following the debate the Civic Auditorium was the site of Politicon’s grand finale, “Sunday Night Comedy,” featuring part-Mexican, former Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal (currently co-starring in Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here) and two current Daily Show correspondents, feminist Michelle Wolf and Roy Wood Jr., plus lefty Greg Proops, performing political standup that, among other things, excoriated El Presidente. Pro-GOP comic Adam Yenser, a writer for NBC’s The Ellen DeGeneres Show, also delivered a funny set.

Politicon had a heady dose of comedy, ranging from the right to the left ends of the laugh-o-meter spectrum. In addition to performances there were also comedy-oriented panels, including Sunday’s GOP-tilting “Conservatively Unplugged! Presents ‘Right Wing Comedy in These Trumptastic Times’” in “Equality Hall.” Panelists included comic Evan Sayet (who wrote for Bill Maher until he saw the “right”), Al-Sonja Rice-Schmidt, Eric Golub and Yenser, a Republican who was not a Trump supporter and stressed that when it comes to comedy, humor should trump ideology.

This panel was moderated by Judd Dunning, co-host of “Conservatively Unplugged!” a new righty weekly political entertainment news program that was screened prior to the “Saturday Night Comedy” program headlining Trae Crowder, the “Liberal Redneck.” I watched the 20-minute “Conservatively Unplugged!” video and found this wannabe righty counterpart to programs such as The Daily Show to be pretty droll. In it, Dunning comes across like a dunce and to tell the truth, I actually thought “Conservatively Unplugged!” was spoofing Republican-leaning comics. The following day, when Dunning moderated the “Right Wing Comedy in These Trumptastic Times” he actually called comedian Louis C.K. “C.K. Louis,” so maybe Dunning not only plays a doofus on TV but really is one offscreen, too.

Also on Sunday the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem Yousseff, Madrigal and other comics took part in the “Is It Funny or Offensive? Presents: ‘Humor, Satire & Speech in the Age of Trump,’” moderated by Norman Golightly, CEO and Founder of https://isitfunnyoroffensive.com/ at “Liberty Hall.” (For my similarly themed feature in the Progressive, which includes original comments by Yousseff, Trae Crowder, Stephanie Miller, Dean Obeidallah, etc., go to: http://progressive.org/magazine/follow-the-funny/.)

Chelsea handles the Prez

On Saturday Chelsea Handler merrily made mincemeat of The Donald in a hilarious interview with Jake Tapper at “Democracy Village.” The CNN reporter asked her about humor being less balanced since the Jay Leno era of late night comedy. The Netflix talk show host forthrightly replied: “Now if you don’t speak up you’re going to regret it later. We have to be held responsible. Trump scares the shit out of me. I’m authentic… [If I’m considered] ‘divisive’ I don’t care. I’m more informed and responsible—I have the Trump family to thank.”

As for Trump’s tweets against transgender people being allowed to serve in the military, Handler snapped, “Please shut the fuck up. Take more Viagra.” When Tapper avowed that he didn’t “take Viagra jokes personally,” Handler quipped, “You will,” adding: “Trump should worry more about transfats than transgender. He’s unstable, he has late stage syphilis.” Handler proceeded to list symptoms of the venereal disease she attributed to Trump, claiming, “I’m an M.D. so I know.” When Tapper reminded Handler that she’d admitted to never completing college she laughed off being caught in her white lie (and could there be any other kind when referring to the white-supremacist-in-chief?). Chelsea also advocated in favor of allowing Syrian refugees into America, even offering to let them stay at her house—although humorously admitting she’d move out if they did.

The President’s Show of Shows

For me, the highlight of Politicon was Trump impersonator Anthony Atamanuik of Comedy Central’s The President Show, wherein “The 45th and final president” did an hour-long riff bluer than Lenny Bruce or George Carlin on Trump, ​Bannon, Mooch, Priebus, et al, ​culminating with him being interviewed by Bassem Yousseff. The in-costume Atamanuik’s impersonation of The Donald gives Alec Baldwin a run for his SNL money. Indeed, Atamanuik’s wickedly insightful lampooning and harpooning of the great white whale of comedy is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s spoofing of Hitler in the 1940 satirical masterpiece The Great Dictator and also of Hawaii comedian Frank De Lima’s mocking of Imelda Marcos in full drag during his Waikiki nightclub act after the Filipino tyrants fled to Oahu.

In person, Atamanuik’s no holds barred sarcasm is more risqué than on his Comedy Central Thursday night laugh riot. At the Civic Auditorium, dressed as Trump, he daringly joked about The Donald “trying to finger my daughter” (Ivanka, not Tiffany), then turning to the audience, dementedly saying, “I’m not sick, right? I’m the guy with the nuke codes. Me!… Can you believe it?” At one point Atamanuik’s character falls into a sort of trance, wherein he lays out a very, clear concise, sophisticated analysis of contemporary capitalism setting the stage for Trump’s rise. Then he snapped out of his momentary lapse into lucidity and seriousness and in a Q&A with Yousseff, under the Egyptian’s questioning, Trump reached the conclusion “I’m a secret Muslim!”

A splendid time was had by all

Politicon’s panoply of politics for news junkies featured much more during its Pasadena weekend. Many others notables participated, including Daily Show writer Lizz Winstead, America “Ugly Betty” Ferrera, Grace Parrara of Larry Wilmore’s Comedy Central The Nightly Show, actor/director Rob Reiner, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, etc. There was a cavernous exhibition hall with booths sponsored by ACLU, Muslims for Progressive Values (supported by Pakistani-American comedienne Mona Shaikh), MSNBC, Young Americans for Freedom, medicinal marijuana, etc.

If I have one “complaint” about Politicon it’s that in future, the gathering should also include panels, speakers and booths of the farther left to present a socialist perspective and alternative to liberalism and the Democratic Party. After all, libertarians, who are to the right of the Republican Party, participated—so why not Marxists, anarchists, Antifas and others on the left?

Despite the presence of thousands of liberal and conservative activists, while interactions were passionate, Politicon remained civil, with peaceful coexistence prevailing. Living in Los Angeles, I never saw so many Trump supporters, although the left-leaners may have outnumbered the righties. Yet, in the spirit of free speech and democracy, comity and tolerance won the day, bridging the partisan divide by allowing freedom of expression for all. Perhaps Politicon is a model for our divided nation.

Because while you may say “potato” and I say “potahto,” hearing all viewpoints in the free marketplace of ideas is a quintessentially American ideal. And if one side deprives the other side’s freedom of speech, we may find, in the Gershwins’ words:

“But oh, if we call the whole thing off
Then we must part
And oh, if we ever part
Then that might break my heart.”

As part of the “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the Russian Revolution’s centennial, film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s revolutionary poetic classic Earth on Fri., Aug. 25 at 7:30 pm at the L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, Los Angeles 90019. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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