Brian Jones Kraft
On a dark January evening, as the country’s airwaves were temporarily ceded so the American president could ramble in a vaguely threatening manner, possibly under the influence of an exotic cocktail of dementia, syphilis, and/or Mad Cow Disease, a small crowd was gathered in the bar above El Cortez for some Brooklyn style comedy courtesy of the Yoko, the monthly standup showcase hosted in the space by comedians Claire O Kane, Ian Fidance and Jake Flores.
A mix of alt-standup styles with a tinge of the outre, the January edition of the event featured moments like Austin Chardac relating a David Sedaris-esque story about his estranged French father’s efforts to bury a dead dog, Eudora Peterson acting out a cowboy drawled, performance art style monologue while covering her clothes in designer hand lotion, and Ian Fidance delivering an energetic, off-kilter routine laced with bizarro punchlines. The evening’s unnamed special guest turned out to be deadpan comic legend Todd Barry, who called the Ingraham Street address “a block where three murders are going on,” and expressed disappointment in Bushwick Daily’s picture snapping etiquette. (“I expected better from an empty bar above a Mexican restaurant.”)
The last set of the night came from host Flores, who riffed on subcultural detritus such as the mid 2010s underground fashion trend of healthgoth, polyamory, and amyl nitrate poppers with a laid back cadence before building to more topical rants about the weird hells of service industry lifer-ism and the surreality of everyday televised capitalism.
It was a typically low-key, but subversive set for the scruffy local comic, whose career took a turn for the strange last spring after an anarchic, absurdist Twitter bit juxtaposing cultural appropriation on Cinco De Mayo with killing ICE agents, summoned a visit from four Homeland Security personnel. An incident he has since recounted in various new articles and podcasts, including his own Pod Damn America, the self described “goth socialist” podcast, hosted out of the comedian’s Bushwick loft.
Named after Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s infamous anti-imperialist backhand of a sermon, Pod Damn America is a grab bag of occasionally bro-y leftist political riffing, more serious cultural deconstructions, and casual storytelling: a show where a listener is just as likely to hear a tale of Jake finding his stolen bike locked outside of House of Yes, as they are a history of neoliberalism.
In addition to wringing no shortage of material from the episode, his Twitter bio calls him one of “Homeland Security’s Comics to Watch.” Flores received a career boost from the free publicity, resulting in an increased audience for Pod Damn, and the comedian kicks off 2019 with a series of road dates culminating with some shows opening for Patton Oswalt in March.
After stashing an order of post-Yoko nachos, Jake took some time to talk to Bushwick Daily for an interview conducted on a freezing cold patio, amid the constant rumble of landing planes, with the cold light of a fresh office property looming across the way, in other words, standard Bushwick fashion.
How did you get into comedy? when I read about famous comedians, it seems like they all started when they were 11 or something.
Yeah, I mean I’m one of those types. The first time I did standup I was like 19, and it definitely felt like something that I had been sort of fixated on for a long time… I’m not good at music, I like being on stage and I like performing, but I would be in a very terrible band right now if I had pursued that, and something happened when I was curious and lurking around the Austin comedy scene when I lived there, where I did standup and I realized that “Oh, this is the thing that I am kind of wired to do.” Standup comedy is sort of a combination of writing and performing, and I think I’m way more of a writer, but I do like performing. I like the thrill of it, and that’s kind of how I came to that.
Does living in Bushwick in particular give you a different perspective?
Absolutely. When you’re doing standup, especially when you’re traveling, you’re kind of an anthropologist, kind of like an Anthony Bourdain type, so your job is to travel around and test the material and the thoughts you are having against different audiences, in different parts of the country… There’s a tendency among some people to sort of stay in a place like Brooklyn—I mean Bushwick is great—but it’s also a bubble.
One big lesson I’ve got from doing standup, is that a lot of people hate the South—you know, the country or whatever—it’s the punchline of a lot of jokes, and especially coming from a sort of a bougie, artistic point of view, which a lot of punk type people don’t like to think of themselves as, but they totally are, right? A lot of us are children of rich families and stuff like that. I think when you are able to take something that you wrote and then travel around the country, and observe how other people react to it, and temper it that way, I think you end up finding the further truth within what you are writing, as opposed to pandering to the five friends in your neighborhood… but both of those things have value in them.
How would you describe the Manhattan comedy scene in comparison to bushwick’s?
Well, what is going to be the defining characteristic that is different between the Manhattan and Bushwick comedy scenes, is the function of art and capitalism, not to get too heady about it. When your audience is a Manhattan thing, where it’s tourists who are from any place on earth and kind of just want to be entertained, then you’re going to write in a certain direction. Versus Bushwick, which is more a place where the concept of standup comedy has been taken from those old times clubs, and from these more normal venues, and reworked through the indie-rock or punk framework of how to put on a show. It creates a different system where the goal is art and not entertainment so much. There’s kind of a sliding scale between those two things.
Any New York comic will tell you the best comics in the world now that we have in these two competing scenes are the people that can do both, right, and I kind of agree with that. I don’t like to see someone whose extremely Manhattan or extremely Brooklyn. I’m impressed by people that can kind of read the audience and do what they’re going to do, but make it palatable to either Bushwick or Manhattan.
Is there anything you’ve noticed about the comedy scene in general, in New York or on a national level, that’s happened in the past couple of years since our current era of, uh, ongoing cultural meltdown?
Yeah, absolutely. Comedy changes with society and with the collective zeitgeist of what we’re understanding and allowed to talk about, so comedy absolutely changed, I think in 2016, in a way that we’re never going back to what was before that.
I think that in a lot of ways it changed for the worst, because people are so scared of what’s happening right now. We have a really bad political, and intellectual, and cultural understanding of what the problems are in America, and that a lot of comedy started to identify the wrong problems and attack them, and became very self congratulating, and is just suffering from a lot of the dementia of the political landscape right now. But I think because of that, also there’s now a burgeoning movement from below, of people that are kind of more on the right tip.
I kind of think that if comedy is supposed to be this thing that’s subversive, then I want to be a little bit more informed about it than just… I mean, Trump just destroyed comedy, and created a temptation for people to just go on stage and just talk about what is so obviously wrong about him. He’s so obviously bad, but intellectually you gotta look at it [more than] someone just going “hey, Trump sucks!” You go, “right, we all agree, but there’s gotta be more to it than that.”
In addition to the fact that he’s so obviously bad is that the phenomenon of him is inherently comical.
Yeah, he destroyed comedy!
How do you deal with the dichotomy of being a responsible person with a platform, versus just wanting to just be funny in a completely irresponsible way and just kind of spray diarrhea all over everything?
That’s such a good question, because I think about that a lot. There’s a certain level of responsibility that I unfortunately have to take. It’s interesting, I mean I do in my comedic stuff, kind of a lot of more absurdist and more vulgar styles of comedy, which is what I enjoy, and I think that they have a level of irony to them, that has a point. But because my show blew up in a certain way and garnered an audience that is, I mean, some people that listen to my show are really into that and some people aren’t. We have to temper the show to make it palatable to all the people that like it. So part of me really wants to have an outlet to be absurd, and offensive, and whatever, but standup is my main outlet creatively, standup is the thing that I will never edit or really temper. It’s more where my heart is. I think we have to kind of find a balance between who we are and saying the things we want to say, and then also being too over the top and too much a thing that people have already heard.
So what’s it like to have the “Homeland Security Bump”?
I think if I were to overly romanticize it, I would like to think of myself as like a Lenny Bruce type but… I think it’s kind of over, I think they kind of forgot about me. It was real fun, and it seems kind of dangerous and cool, but I’ve heard nothing [since], and I keep hearing stories from people that reach out to me online and say “Oh, the same thing happened to me.” There’s somebody I’ve been trying to get on my podcast: a person who said they were visited by the FBI over a tweet, where they were taking about mixing estrogen into the food of ICE agents, or police officers, or something like that. That stuff’s hilarious, but because of the sheer volume of how crazy everything is now… (laughs) I don’t know, the best thing that happened to me post this whole ICE story/scandal is it just helped my career. I have no remorse over it at all, if they are going to do that to me…
In terms of working in show business, are there guys who are like, “That lucky bastard, he had Homeland Security kick down his door”?
Yeah, there are a lot of alt-right types, it’s very funny because they are very resentful of me for having had this happen, I think because they think of themselves as the types of people who are actually having their free speech censored by America, whereas that’s not happening at all! Free speech is a thing where if the government gets involved it’s a way different issue than “oh, someone wrote a blog about you, or audiences just don’t like you, or you’re a shitty comedian” or whatever, so I think it’s a very funny counterpoint to the sort of white male angry comedian types that think their free speech is under attack. To look at them and then go, “No, this is actually happening, on a scale that you imagined, to people that you don’t agree with at all,” should say something, and we should all learn from it or whatever. But I’m pretty… I’ve made peace with it, I suppose.
What would you do if through some sort of a hilarious clerical error you were booked to perform at a USO show?
(Laughs) I don’t think that would happen.
Ok, but: hilarious clerical error.
Alright, I show up off of some Megabus that I somehow took to Fallujah, and I go “Ah, I thought this was the Looney Bin in Lafayette, Louisiana,” and it turns out I’m performing for the troops…
You’re in front of the troops, you’ve got your set that you’ve developed over the years…
I would do my best (laughs). But, I would also, you know, move what I’m talking about to be appealing to that audience… and I know a lot of veterans who are extremely leftist because of their experience in the military. So, I mean, it might be a detriment to my own personal safety at that point. But I think I would try my best to speak to the people that agree with me within an audience that is maybe not my people.
You would go for it.
Yeah for better or worse. I would do the Cher joke, the poppers and stuff.
Cover image courtesy of Tom Hemmerick.