Can touring comedians make jokes about New Orleans?

The Professor Longhair painting above stage at Tipitina’s. Comedian Pete Holmes made jokes about him at a 2013 New Orleans set. (Photo from wwoz.com)

During comedian Pete Holmes’ 2013 set at Tipitina’s, he turned around and noticed the mural of Professor Longhair that overlooks the stage. Exaggerating a startled reaction he asked the audience “Is that a ghost? Is this place haunted?” I could feel people’s lips purse. Professor Longhair is one of the most famous R&B musician in local music history, and is credited by many as the forefather of the modern New Orleans jazz sound. Tipitina’s is a music venue named for one of his most famous songs. New Orleanians were not going to laugh at Holmes’ joke.

Comedians often try to relate to crowds by riffing about their audience or the theater or the city they’re in. However, I’ve noticed that when touring comedians perform jokes that seems universal, fit for any city in the U.S., they don’t get laughs here. Context is everything in New Orleans. Maybe Holmes knew Professor Longhair’s relation to the club and thought we’d get a kick out of his reaction. What he may not have understood is that New Orleanians are so protective of the city’s culture that people here are rarely open to an outsider’s observation. However, it’s the touring comedians  who have shown they understand the city’s singular way of life that have struck a chord with audiences here.

Natasha Leggero, Moshe Kasher, Shira Pinsker,Chris Trew

A picture after Moshe Kasher’s 2014 set in New Orleans. (l-r) Comedian Natasha Leggero, Moshe Kasher, me, and comedian Chris Trew.

In his stand up, comedian Moshe Kasher pushes the comfort levels of his audiences. I discovered him in 2011, when The New Movement theater brought him here as part of Hell Yes Fest. During an improvised conversation with an audience member he made a very broad Katrina joke. The crowd went silent. I can’t remember the joke, but I do remember thinking that he might not know that the after effects of Katrina still haunt a lot of people. Kasher tends to exploit these moments, and went further into the joke. The audience was not on his side. I’ve seen Kasher perform in New Orleans several times since then, and it’s clear his time here has allowed him to hone in on details that would make any local laugh. A more recent joke he did about the ridiculous layout of shotgun houses got a huge response from the room. I think this gave him buy in to make more edgy jokes about the city, since the audience felt like he was doing it from a more loving place.

Hannibal Buress is a nationally known, touring comedian that can extract specific absurdities in New Orleans life and transform them into something palpable for both local and national audiences. He’s performed here with increased regularity over the past few years, headlining his own shows and popping up at local New Orleans comedy nights. (In fact, he’s performing 2 shows at tonight Civic theater!) Clearly, Burress’ time in the city has made him comfortable to comment on our culture to a national audience. Earlier this year, he performed a set on Jimmy Fallon entirely dedicated to his observations of NOLA.

He does a great job making the eccentricities of the city relevant to the rest of the country. What I think makes his humor “acceptable” to a local audience is that his affection for New Orleans is apparent. He accepts that its the city’s absurdities that can make it so loveable. And isn’t that what we all do?

Just like anyone else new to the city, comedians needs time to work out their feelings about New Orleans. Enough time to perfect a thought that resonates with people here. However, the comedians who have proven through their humor that they understand our culture have found acceptance and appreciation from audiences both local and national.

Are there any other national comedians who have NOLA-centric material that you like? Louie CK had some great material when he performed here. What do you think?

Kind of New Orleanian Interview: Life in Alaska with Adam Pinsker (Part 2)

My brother moved to Anchorage, Alaska over 2 years ago to take a job as a TV reporter for KTUU. Adam has lived all over the country, but Alaska was still a culture shock from him– after all, my family is from Miami! Last year, I had the opportunity to visit him there and we sat down for a Kind of New Orleanian interview.

This is part 2. Read part 1 here.

Adam Pinsker at the Yukon border, during a drive through Alaska. The Yukon is a Canadian territory that borders Alaska.

Adam Pinsker at the Yukon border, during a drive through Alaska. The Yukon is a Canadian territory that borders Alaska.

What are the politics here like in the state?
I think people mistake it for being a very right-wing place. It’s definitely a solid red state, but there’s a Libertarian, progressive streak here. This is a very unionized state. They value hard work here.

People here are very civically minded, especially about local politics. People genuinely care about how things go here because there’s such a small population and the state hasn’t been around that long.

There’s a lot of pride in Alaskan statehood. Here’s a cup from the 49th State Brewery, near Denali National Park.

There’s a lot of pride in Alaskan statehood. Here’s a cup from the 49th State Brewery, near Denali National Park.

I’ve noticed people have a lot of pride in Alaska’s statehood.
They’re really passionate. There’s so many people here who were alive when the state was founded.

So you think that’s got a lot to do with it?
Yeah. Statehood was a long struggle. They actually tried to make this place a state in the 1920s.

People here seem very hardcore about being from Alaska. Do you think it’s because it can be hard to live here?
It’s a badge of honor if you survive 5, 10, 15, years here. People here have pride in weathering the tough climate. I’ve been in sub-zero temperatures and boy, it’s cold. You feel the difference from when it’s minus five to when it’s 25 degrees.

What kind of effect have the long days of darkness and light had on you?
You know what? The winter is worse than the summer. It doesn’t matter what time you go to bed, you can go to bed at 10 o’clock at night, fall asleep instantly and get up at 6 am and still feel like crap, even though that’s the best time to sleep.

I never have a problem falling asleep when it’s light out. I have a problem staying asleep. That’s always been the issue because you wake up, and your mind doesn’t understand what time it is. You don’t know if it’s 11:00 in the morning or if it’s 5:00 in the morning. It looks the same.

From a professional standpoint, working an evening shift is really hard. I had to do an interview in mid-November when the sun sets around 3:30. I got into work around 1:30 and we had to immediately rush up to this place, grab the person, and interview him on the spot because we’re literally losing daylight by the minute.

Anchorage, Alaska, 10 p.m., August 2013. In the summertime, there can be almost 12 hours of daylight in Alaska.

Anchorage, Alaska, 10 p.m., August 2013. In the summer, there can be almost 12 hours of daylight in Alaska.

Pictures from the spot in Healy, Alaska, just outside of Denali National Park. In the summertime, there can be almost 12 hours of daylight in Alaska.

Pictures from the spot in Healy, Alaska, just outside of Denali National Park. In the summer, there can be almost 12 hours of daylight in Alaska.

Is it depressing in the winter time?
I think that aspect of living in Alaska was a little overblown. But I’ve only done one winter here. I just kept myself so busy that I didn’t have time to think of it. But I live in a big city. If it’s a dreary, miserable winter day where the sun sets at 2, I can run out and go to a movie, rent a movie or go to a friend’s house. If I’m in one of these villages I might not have a movie theater or internet access. So either I read a book or I socialize. But you can only socialize with the same people so many times. It really depends, culturally.

So what are your favorite things about the state and what are some of your least favorite things?
Definitely the scenery. The mountains are just amazing. My least favorite things is definitely the distance from everything. I don’t know anybody who lives in Anchorage, beyond people I’ve met already here.

Adam Pinsker in front of the Kenai fjords, his top recommendation in Alaska.

Adam Pinsker in front of the Kenai fjords, his top recommendation in Alaska.

Do you think you would’ve ever come up here had you not lived here?
Honestly, probably not. Not because I’m closed off to it, but because it’s almost like travelling to Europe. You have to have the time, money and means to do it. And that’s one of the reasons I came here. Not only am I going to be working professionally, but I have a chance to see a side of things I’ve never seen before.

If there’s one thing that you would recommend people see in Alaska, what would that be?
I think if you could see one thing, it would just be the Kenai fjords. There, you get a sample of all of Alaska almost in one. You get the rugged wildlife and the mountains. Then you get out to the ocean and you see the finned animals and whales, all that within a 150-mile radius. Whereas if you go up to Denali you see Mt. McKinley, but you won’t see a walrus in Denali.

What is one thing you want people to know about Alaska?
It’s not a backwoods. It does have a frontier atmosphere to it, but it’s part of the United States. It’s far away geographically, but it’s not some caveman-like tundra.

More Kind of New Orleanian Interviews:

Rachael Kansas, New Orleanian

Kind of New Orleanian Interview: Life in Alaska with Adam Pinsker (Part 1)

Adam thought life in Alaska would be living in a tundra. The state's greenery surprised him.

Adam thought life in Alaska would be living in a tundra. Here’s a picture I took driving through the Kenai peninsula.

My brother moved to Anchorage, Alaska over 2 years ago to take a job as a TV reporter for KTUU. Adam has lived all over the country, but Alaska was still a culture shock from him– after all, my family is from Miami! Last year, I had the opportunity to visit him there and we sat down for a Kind of New Orleanian interview. We talked about state pride, losing daylight, and the correct way to describe someone from Alaska.

What did you think Alaska would be like before you got here?
I thought it would be a frozen tundra, not as green as it is. I was surprised at how Anchorage is very similar to a lot of other Lower 48 cities.

What are the stereotypes of people in Alaska?
People imagine Alaskans are like hermits. Anti government or anti social. Someone told me when I first got here was that people come to Alaska for two reasons: they’re trying to improve themselves or they’re escaping something.

Have you found that to be true?
I don’t think a lot of people are here because they’re escaping. They’re here for opportunity or they just love the outdoors.

What percentage of people have you met are from here?
Very few. Maybe 20 to 30 percent. I think that’s because this is a very young state.

Did living here get you more into nature?
Absolutely. I’ve learned to appreciate animals much more. I don’t think you can live here without at least opening yourself up to nature.

A view of Anchorage from the airport. Adam says most people who live in Alaska move to Anchorage, the largest city in the state.

A view of Anchorage from the airport. Adam says most people who live in Alaska move to Anchorage, the largest city in the state.

In a lot of other states kids leave the rural cities to go to the “big city.” Is that accurate for Alaska?
Yes. There are a lot of people here that come here from villages and other small towns. If you’re going to stay in Alaska, Anchorage is the place to be (unless you have a family run business or a reason to be in another city.)

What kind of jobs do people have in the smaller cities?
It depends. In some of the villages, it’s fishing or mining. Or maybe you own a small business. Other people work for the city’s government or something with the natural resources.

How would you describe people from Alaska?
People here are pretty genuine. They’re very open and honest with you. They’re definitely a very tested people. They’ve been through a lot and they’re tough.

It’s interesting that you said genuine to describe Alaskans. Why does that stick out to you?
People seem to be less fake in Alaska. Like in South Florida, people have this fake persona. In Alaska, you may find somebody who drives a beat up truck, with a fishing rod hanging outside, wearing camouflage… and he’s like “It’s who I am. I’m proud of it. But I’m going to be nice to you if you’re nice to me.”

People here have varied interests. A guy that looks like a professional, works in the BP building and wears a suit and tie Monday through Friday could be out on the weekend shooting moose in the middle of nowhere.

So you’ve said you don’t call people from Alaska “Natives” not Indians?
I’ve never heard the word Indian used here, ever.

So what do they call them… Natives?
Actually, somebody taught me that you call people that are Eskimos—I hate using that word but I’m just using it for description sake—you call them Alaska Natives. You call someone who is not of native descent but was born here Native Alaskan. You do that to distinguish between what’s considered an actual Native American person and it’s sort of more like a formality thing, as a respect thing.

And then Eskimo is just one of the tribes, I’m assuming?
To say an Eskimo would be a really blanket statement. There’s different tribes here. And actually, I learned the people that build actual igloos are mostly Canadian Eskimos. They’re not really even in Alaska. People do build houses under the ground (from what I’ve heard) in some of the villages in the arctic, but they’re made out of bits of trees, skins of animals. Whatever they can forage out of nature.

So the Eskimo… are they a tribe?
No, that’s just a description of them. They’re more like a … um, there’s different ones. A Nupiak, Athobascan, Klincket… there’s a few more. I should know, but I don’t. It’d be like saying, “Christian.” Baptists, Methodists, Southern Baptists. They’re different descriptions. It’s not inaccurate to say someone’s Christian if they are but they may be Methodist.

But you wouldn’t call a Native American from Oklahoma an Eskimo? It’s more a description for Northern people? Is it common to meet Alaska Natives?
Very much so. Obviously more so out of Anchorage, but you can find a lot of them here.

Life in Alaska gets you more into nature, says my brother.

Life in Alaska gets you more into nature, says my brother.

I’ve split this interview into two parts. Click here to read part 2, with Adam’s thoughts on the long hours of darkness in Alaska and his number one recommendation in the state.

More Kind of New Orleanian Interviews:

Rachael Kansas, New Orleanian

The Politics of Parking: Saving Your Spot During Jazzfest

Photo Apr 27, 3 53 18 PM

Photo Apr 30, 10 41 55 PMParking is a hot commodity in Bayou St. John during Jazzfest. Most people in the area have off-street parking, and I’m struck by all the different ways people try to hold a spot for their cars.

Some residents have fairly conventional methods, like orange cones or your trash bins. Then there are those that rig more elaborate constructions, like a piece of wood balanced on two trash cans, weighted by a concrete block. Signs are common as well. Last year, I saw a sign that begged people not to park in front a house because this person needed quick access inside to help their elderly family member. The note was pretty detailed for something you would squint to see at 5 mph. Yet, I wondered if this person concocted an elaborate story just so they could park in front of their house.

Photo Apr 30, 10 33 22 PM

Is it Fair to Save a Spot on a Public Street?
Spot-saving isn’t limited to festival time. My neighbors regularly have cones out in front of their house, and it really annoys me. Although they are older, as far as I can tell neither person has difficulty walking. I always tempted to move their cones, but I worry they’d recognize my car and I’d some neighborhood drama on my hands. I just grumble and park around the corner.

I can understand why someone would want to block a spot on the street during Jazzfest. All these people descend on your neighborhood and you just want to go on with your life. I’ve considered it, but I just remind myself that  Jazzfest is only 7 days a year.

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Parking Anxiety
Why is it that my pulse speeds up when looking for parking during Jazzfest, when at the most I’ve park 3 blocks away? I don’t have a family, I’m physically able to walk and I’ve never not found a spot. Certainly, there’s a safety concern if I’m alone and trying to park at night, but I can’t explain the fear that I’ll just drive around for hours and find nothing.

photo 1photo 2I can understand if you’re driving to Bayou St. John for Jazzfest and feeling parking anxiety. Looking for a spot Uptown during Mardi Gras is not for the faint of heart. Parking is competitive and hostile and you have to dodge drunk people and oblivious kids in the dark. Finding a decent place to park feels almost as good as catching a Muses shoe.

photoGetting Boxed In
Jazzfest-related parking panic is nothing compared to those who worry about getting “boxed in” during Mardi Gras. A few hours before parades, the NOPD shuts down the streets surrounding the route. People who live within the boundaries of these routes are not able to drive beyond the closures until the parade has passed. You are literally boxed into your neighborhood. Some of my co workers leave the office early during Mardi Gras to ensure they can get to their houses. Talk about anxiety provoking!

Where do you stand on the politics of parking? Have you ever moved cones (or another setup) to park on a public street? Do you thnk it’s fair to save a spot for yourself if you’re not elderly or dealing with tons of kids?

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The Psychology of Hurricane Season

tskaren

Scary hurricane graphic from the news.

We are almost at the end of hurricane season and New Orleans has emerged storm free. A few weeks ago it seemed the city would be hit by Tropical Storm Karen. The power of a tropical storm pales in comparison with higher-grade hurricanes, but the memory of Hurricane Isaac last summer filled me with dread about the potential of another set of days without electricity or something far worse to disrupt our fragile city. This recent storm threat had me pondering the hurricane mindset accompanied with growing up in the South.

The start of hurricane season on June 1 always makes the news and through the end of November, checking the weather requires a tertiary look at the tropics and the Gulf of Mexico for storm activity. I even know what times the National Weather Center posts their hurricane updates.  In Washington D.C. (where I used to live) it was the lack of conversation about activity in the tropics that made me realize that hurricanes are pigeonholed as regional news across the country. I didn’t miss the pre-storm shopping frenzy and drumbeat of doom fostered by the media, but unless a hurricane made landfall, the threat of a hurricane never made news up there. I moved to DC shortly before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and I didn’t even know a hurricane had formed until it came ashore in Miami.

Screenshot of Tropical Storm Karen's projected path. It's pretty depressing, but by wishing a hurricane changes direction you're essentially hoping it hits someone else.

Screenshot of Tropical Storm Karen’s projected path. It’s pretty depressing, but by wishing a hurricane changes direction you’re essentially hoping it hits someone else.

The morose biproduct of watching the path of a hurricane so closely is that you hope the hurricane shifts away from your city– essentially hoping it goes and hits someone else. In Miami, where I’m from, the hope was that it would turn and dissipate somewhere in the Atlantic. Here in the Gulf South, a slight turn is a sigh of relief for New Orleans. But if you really consider it, you’re just relieved you’re not in West Louisiana or Mobile Bay.

Growing up within this culture also helped me retain information about the science of hurricanes. I think this is unique to areas threatened by hurricanes, simply because we are inundated with news information about them from the time we are very little. I can barely tell you why it rains, but I know that warm waters strengthens a hurricane.

The branches of a downed tree in my yard, after Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

The branches of a downed tree in my yard, after Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

I wonder if this the same for other regions affected by severe weather? I assume not because earthquakes and tornados don’t have the same predictability. Do regional differences influence the way the weather is covered in your area?

My Favorite Rap about the Saints

The best $5 I’ve ever spent was on a two-song rap EP. It was 2011, and I was at the Howlin Wolf for Hot 8 Brass Band’s regular Sunday-night gig. At intermission the band introduced local rapper Bossman Superior and he performed this song:

Bossman’s song about the Saints contained all of the touchpoints of a classic fan anthem, complete with a call-and-response chorus and a shout out to nearly every player on the roster.

“Mark Ingram, Colston, Meachem, Sproles, Ivoryyyyyyy, Vilma, Moore–I can name everybody!”

I had been back in New Orleans for a few months, and although I followed the Saints from Washington D.C., I was eager to assimilate into full New Orleanian Saintsdom. Obviously, this meant I had to buy the album.

The two songs* on the album cycled over and over in my car throughout that football season. Every turn of the ignition was met with “The lock out over now babyyyy… OoooooHHHH OOOOOooHHHH, Send ‘em out there, Sean Payton!” Bossman’s thick New Orleans accent and his song’s references to local culture made my heart swell with city pride. Each year, I look forward to football season because it’s time to put “Black & Gold” on rotation.

Other Saints Raps
“Black & Gold” is just one of many rap songs associated with the Saints. Arguably, the most famous is the Ying Yang Twins “Halftime (Get Crunk),” re-recorded in 2009 by NOLA rapper K. Gates as “Black and Gold (Who Dat).” It’s become the unofficial anthem of the team.

I visited NOLA a few weeks before the Saints won their first Super Bowl title, and I remember hearing the song at a party. Everyone shrieked and started talking about the Saints chances for the Superbowl. “How does everyone in this room know this song? ” I wondered. “What does it have to do with the Saints?”

Do Other Teams Have Raps?
Is it common for NFL teams to have fan-penned songs that penetrate the local zeitgeist? Some meager You Tube searches reveal other fan bases certainly have songs about their teams, but is it as pervasive as it is here? Perhaps it’s the city’s ties to the team or the city’s strong musical traditions. (Although, I bet Steelers fans have put together some good raps.)

The only other fan song I know is the Dolphins cheerful fight song.. It written by a fan in 1972 and that still reeks of that time period. Growing up in Miami, this was the only song I ever heard about the Dolphins.

Does your NFL team have a fan song? Can you recommend any other songs about the Saints?

*The second song on the album is a ridiculous track about getting a girl in bed. It contains many quotable lines, but it deserves its own blog post.