“You’re a coward.”

A bit more about that book about the club.

“You’re a coward.”

Last week I chatted with a scholar working on a book about comedy. She asked at one point if I think the industry’s right-wing elements will dissipate as its older generations retire. I tend to think they won’t, because cultural forces reproduce themselves: the Anthony Cumias and Adam Carollas inspire the Luis Gomezes and Andrew Schulzes. This is why I generally disagree with those who argue that the insularity of the traditional standup world renders its problems—the political ones and the labor ones—less pressing for the rest of the industry. Some of these reactionary comics have huge audiences, they’re not going away of their own volition, and the club world has quite a bit of overlap with the outside. The Legion of Skanks perform at the Stand, but so do Josh Gondelman and Emmy Blotnick. On one hand this means audiences who seek out more… normative comics are constantly exposed to the reactionaries. On the other it means those normative comics have some degree of leverage over how that world operates. Change is possible; it’s happened before.

The real problem may lie not in the transmission of ideology through successive generations of comedians, but through successive generations of comedy’s ownership class. This is one striking takeaway from Don’t Applaud, Andrew Hankinson’s forthcoming book about the Comedy Cellar. Part of the issue is that at a club like the Cellar, talent churns at a glacial pace. In one chapter Hankinson reproduces an early-oughts open letter to management whose signatories are overwhelmingly current Cellar regulars: once you’re in, you’re in, and the established comics get years to set social norms for the younger crowd. (See: Michelle Wolf’s journey from liberal feminist TV commentator/host to part of Louis CK and Dave Chappelle’s inner circles.) But this can only happen thanks to the people who decide which comics (and which norms) get tenure. Here are a few sections from a letter Greg Giraldo wrote to one of those people, Cellar owner Manny Dworman, in the early 2000s:

My dearest Manny,

I don’t quite know where to begin. You should know that as I write this I am sick to my stomach with shame.

Before I even begin to address the situation as Colin [Quinn] described it to me, I want to say some things that may be easier to express in writing and that hopefully will make clear that there was nothing underlying my moronic antics other than blind drunkenness.

First of all, Manny, you should know how incredibly highly I think of you. Our relationship has become, quite honestly, one of the most important in my life. You are one of the most interesting, intelligent and funny guys I’ve ever known. The friendship, support, inspiration and generosity you’ve shown me has affected me more deeply than you might even imagine.


Colin and I discussed the fact that you are likely to think that what I said and did must have come from some real place, that I must have feelings beneath the surface that came to light in my drunkenness. Again, after talking to Colin, I only vaguely remember the specific things I said. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say from the bottom of my heart that I have absolutely no unresolved issues with you. I have nothing but positive and warm feelings for you. I love the discussions that we have. I was so happy with this whole book thing that I was going to suggest we all make it a habit to read the same things at the same time, etc. I think you’re always willing to listen to all perspectives and in fact are only too often frustrated that no one is able to provide a sufficiently challenging argument for you. Colin told me that the word “Nazi” came up. The fucking stupidity of that is so obvious that I almost can’t think of what to say about it.

Colin also said that you felt betrayed, that there was something in my tone and demeanor which implied that I had anger toward you for some reason, or that I was trying to embarrass you, etc. He mentioned that I was essentially accusing you of racism. After the conversations we’d had about your feelings with regard to giving out the book, etc, I can only imagine how fucking hurtful and infuriating this must have been.

Hankinson does not describe whatever argument led to this letter, but there are ample clues. As I wrote earlier this month, the book describes Manny Dworman’s fondness for hosting debates between comics, for which he would buy them books representing two sides of an issue so they could debate it on shared terms. At least one of these was about the Israel-Palestine conflict, for which he bought everyone The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz (lol) and Righteous Victims by Benny Morris. Manny was an immigrant from Israel and this was one of his favorite topics. Here’s Jim Norton in the chapter contextualizing Giraldo’s letter:

Manny, he loved to argue about the Middle East. And good luck debating that with him. And somebody listening at the bar overheard. It might have even been me and Manny debating something, but not even that passionately because I knew Manny knew way more than I did about that shit. I only played devil’s advocate. And the guy at the bar goes, “I don’t agree with that.” And Manny goes, “What do you mean you don’t agree with it?” You know, Manny was drinking, and the guy goes, “I just don’t.” And Manny’s like, “Well, come over, defend yourself.” And the guy’s like, “Nah, I don’t want to get involved.” And Manny goes, “You’re a coward.” And he starts screaming at this customer, it’s his fucking customer, this maniac is yelling, and then Manny goes, “Oh, I’ll buy you a drink. I own this place.” And the guy goes, “Who the hell are you?” “I own this place.” So he gets the guy to come over and sit down and have a drink and in ten minutes they’re friends.

And here’s Colin Quinn a few chapters before that:

He’d be like, “Let me ask you something, why do you believe Palestine? Okay, now let me ask you this. What are you basing that on?” So he’d be very logical. He’d be, like, “Well are you talking about ...” And you’d be like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And he’d go, “So if you don’t know then why would you come to that conclusion?”

Given all this context, my reading of Giraldo’s letter—with its mentions of “this whole book thing” and “your feelings with regard to giving out the book”—is that the men got into some sort of argument about Israel and Palestine. There’s only one side Giraldo could have taken that would have put him so at odds with the boss.

So here we have a workplace purportedly committed to free speech, debate, and ideological diversity, where a comic like Giraldo nonetheless felt compelled to write his boss a groveling apology for crossing the line, that line being “calling someone racist.” This was almost twenty years ago. It will surprise no one to hear that sons inherit their fathers’ ideas, but let’s look anyway at just what ideas were inherited by Manny’s son and successor, and how seriously they figure into his politics.

In 2009, Noam Dworman—who once invited me onto his podcast to apologize for calling him racist—was considering running against Kirsten Gillibrand for New York’s open Senate seat. The following, per Hankinson, is from a letter he wrote to a longtime campaign operative outlining his platform:

In foreign affairs I support the president in his desire to have good relations with all foreign governments. Our president is a gifted man, and a wonderful ambassador to the world. Nevertheless I think we need to remember who are our friends, and who are our enemies. Let’s not forget who was crying when the towers came down, and who was cheering. 9/11, which was the defining moment of the twenty-first century, occurred only a year after Israel had accepted the Clinton plan for peace in the Middle East. It was the Palestinians who rejected it without so much as a counter proposal, and then initiated a bloody intifada. And as far as I know, they haven’t changed their minds or expressed regret at their decision. Yet lately we have come perilously close to blaming the Israelis for our problems in the Middle East. But how long should we expect Israel to tie up its flexibility, its freedom to act the way every other nation on earth can, in servitude of a lie — the lie that they have a partner for a two-state solution peace? It is a lie, and we should say so. I have spent my entire life socializing, playing music and working with Arabic people, and I have an admiration and love for them. Yet I think it’s clear that the Palestinians are not rejecting peace because Israel has plans to build some apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.
In the Middle East, we may be living in 1939 all over again. Iran has made its intentions every bit as clear as Mein Kampf, yet we seem to be drifting towards acceptance of an Iranian nuclear bomb. We can’t let this happen.

The belief that we could change Iran by talking to them more nicely was dangerously naive. We and our allies need to be prepared to impose tough sanctions against the Iranians, with or without the UN — and we must not appear to take the military option off the table. We need to set out what the consequences will be if Iran continues its policies, and those consequences need to be severe. We may not have any perfect options in Iran, however we should not forget that even imperfect measures can slow Iran’s nuclear progress. Iran is a politically unstable regime, and time may present us with future opportunities that are currently unforeseeable.

I know we’ve discussed this many times before, but I really find it fascinating how much of standup’s history was shaped by a small handful of people with the same basic personalities. Obviously there’s no secret to this—it takes capital to open a comedy club and capital tends to come with certain politics attached. Still, I don’t think it’s widely appreciated that all these institutions presenting themselves as neutral platforms for free speech—where all it takes to prevail is hard work and talent—have never been neutral at all. The people in charge had specific beliefs that very obviously influenced their tastes. The industry veered so far to the right in recent years because they steered it that way. That’s who they are, that’s what they wanted. This is extremely depressing and also a cause for hope: none of it was inevitable. If you can steer something in one direction, you can steer it in another. You can even build new models that don’t require bosses at all.

…But that’s a subject for another newsletter. For now I will leave you with a picture of the dog in one of his funny little postures. Enjoy!