When Comedy is Political Activism: Interview with the “Throwing Shade” Podcast Hosts

Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi of the Throwing Shade podcast

Over the past decade, the reign of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" have shown that comedy news shows just might be America's favorite way to digest politics.

Beyond giving us a funny take on the issues that engage us or enrage us, recent leftist and progressive political comedy news programs—from Air America to Current TV's InfoMania—have shown that they can also work as a form of activism, effectively drawing attention to issues that fall outside the scope of mainstream media.

While there remain a few misguided folks who insist that modern feminists undercut their arguments by being funny, today comedy is increasingly wound into the DNA of feminist pop culture. Likewise, an increasing amount of feminist activists are utilizing humor as a weapon in their arsenal, reshaping the traditional leftist comedy news broadcast in their own image. This phenomenon is vividly at work in the "Throwing Shade" podcast.

Hosts Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi support social justice causes by utilizing the anarchic glee of improv comedy, creating an outrageous podcast that comes off like "Kids in the Hall" taking magic mushrooms with Rachel Maddow (but in a good way, of course).

"Throwing Shade" is an irreverent, breathlessly hilarious (and, on occasion, mind-bendingly vulgar) weekly comedy news podcast focused on women's and queer issues. As the show's intro promises, Gibson and Safi discuss issues "important to ladies and gays, and treat them with much less respect than they deserve." They mix passionate, personal, and pointed commentary about gay-bashing or the Facebook accountability campaign with whimsical comedic tangents about dating, life in L.A., tales from their Texan childhoods, and a cavalcade of bizarre improvised characters (like the mysterious "Yarn Tethers").

Gibson and Safi are both accomplished writers and comedians (Safi won an Emmy for his work on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and Gibson's Huffington Post blog has gone viral a number of times—most recently, with a post addressing the Onion's deplorable handling of the Cleveland kidnapping case) and are both alums of InfoMania and currently writers at the comedy website Funny or Die.

Since first recording in November 2011, "Throwing Shade" has picked up a 2012 People's Choice Podcast Award for Best GLBT Podcast and maintained a wildly busy schedule of live shows, including a summer 2013 tour. 

I talked with Gibson and Safi about their journey from comedy classes to political podcast titans—and in their irreverent answers, also learned something about Kid Rock, Baby Bjorns, and how hard it is to quit pretending to smoke French fries.

GABRIELLE MOSS: Given that you both have backgrounds in political activist-y comedy, which came first for each of you in your lives: politics, or comedy?

ERIN GIBSON: The comedy, but really, both at the same time. It was pretty clear there were fewer ladies in my Second City classes, and that discrepancy automatically becomes political, because I could see how everything was run by dudes. I had one female improv teacher, Susan Messing, and she was such a wonderful influence on me as far as making it okay to make jokes about periods and babies and cupcakes and manicures.

But then, when I started working at Current, I was slapped in the face by the amount of shit going on with women. All I wanted to do was be funny and make money and eat pot cookies. When I heard about the job, I jumped at it, 'cause—I'll be very honest—I just wanted to work with Bryan. I didn't know I'd have to care about women's issues, but now I do, and I wish I didn't cause it's, like, making me a good person or whatever. 

BRYAN SAFI: The comedy, for sure. But Erin makes a good point. When I started comedy and improv classes, I was the only gay person in there, and there were certainly no gay teachers. And, for the most part, any visible gay comedian, or even gay comedic actor, was portrayed as a joke themselves. It was all pretty disheartening. I think the politics came with the comedy in a bundle. 

GIBSON: You mean like in a baby bundle? Like a Baby Bjorn?

SAFI: The comedy and the politics came in a Baby Bjorn. That's why I wanted to start "That's Gay"—to ask questions about why we're still called "the gays," why we're only needed when discussing fashion, why it's still a bit of an issue for two men or women to make out hard on screen in a way that's not played for laughs. But I wanted to do it in a way that would be funny. The whole thing just unfolded itself right in front of me. Like a sun-kissed butthole.

GIBSON: That last statement is the ONLY reason I've never been to Ibiza. 

What made you decide to create "Throwing Shade?"

GIBSON: Well, our show "InfoMania" on Current was deleted—you know, how shows are deleted sometimes from TV?

SAFI: They just deleted it right in front of our faces. But the problem is, we didn't want to stop talking. So we talked and talked and talked, and finally decided to press record and voila, Throwing Shade.

Except we got to do a version that was completely uncensored and the message didn't have to be digested in 3 or so minutes, which gave us so much more room to play. We could now get downright crazy and disgusting and absurd with the points we wanted to make. We really couldn't be more disrespectful of the issues that we talk about, but we do take them seriously.

GIBSON: We do!  We keep building our audience of superficial men and women who care a lot. And I think there's a natural intersection between women's issues and LGBT issues. Especially with lesbians. Vaginas. 

SAFI: That's an incredible cross-section. Not to mention all the amazing straight dudes who listen to our podcast.

GIBSON: Like Kid Rock. He got into antiquing, and then an alternative comedy podcast about gay and women's issues was a natural next step. 

It feels like political activism in general has gotten a lot funnier and more open to using humor as a tactic for change over the past few years. Why do you think that is?

GIBSON: The Internet. Has to be. It's not like America's getting smarter as a country. I mean, the show "Splash." Right?  

SAFI: Cool it! Louis Anderson donates every dive to the troops!

GIBSON: Donates?

SAFI: Whatever, dedicates. That's the word. Dedicates.

GIBSON: What does he say?

SAFI: Whatever he wants I guess. Like, have fun or whatever.

GIBSON: Oh, okay. So he tells the troops to have fun. Did you want to add to this part?

SAFI: Oh sure. Yeah, people want to laugh more. And we all have more questions. And we all want to be heard. And comedy is the easiest way to facilitate that. 

GIBSON: Just so everyone is aware, Bryan has been fake-smoking a French fry during this entire process.

SAFI: I'm trying to fake-quit! But this interview has been very stressful on me!

 

Read the rest of this series, Women Aren't Funny, on feminism and comedy. 

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iGo Brian y Erin!

You two crazy kids are the highlight of my Tuesday evenings. And I mean every Tuesday. Don't make plans. Just listen to Throwing Shade.

Bryan and Erin are the best

Bryan and Erin are the best thing on the Internets. Love.