“I misinform people and they complain about me!” Reprint of my interview with Andy Borowitz (2/14/14)
Back in 2014 I had the uniquely fun opportunity to help organize an ideas festival at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum in Miami Beach, Florida. I was mostly the ideas man, which I guess is important for an ideas festival? I had been at the museum on a residency type-fellowship conducting research on a monograph that I never ended up publishing about Czech avant-garde artists in the 1930s. The director of the museum at the time was a fascinating and I think visionary individual with great energy. Although I was a bit intimidated by her stories about hanging out with Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart, we hit it off pretty well. One day we were hanging out at an eco-farm (I’m not making this up) and she asked me: “If you could organize an ideas festival of your own, what would it be about?”
“Hm,” I replied, “how about complaining?”
She liked it. So I helped her organize one, and from the blueprint we came up with she worked with her colleagues at the museum to put together an amazing three-day ideas festival. We had a choir of complainers. We had a complaints confessional booth. We had a bunch of awesome panels, an urban design charrette, two different art exhibits, and I got to bust out a hilarious joke on a Miami party bus with Andy Borowitz, Michael Chabon, Todd Oldham, Kurt Anderson, Steve Heller, and a bunch of super awesome designers from a range of different practical and theoretical fields. It was the greatest audience of my life.
And through this whole three-day event, I attended the festival and chronicled everything in a museum-managed blog as the “court philosopher” who tried to bring the entire event into conceptual clarity. In essence I was both an observer and a participant — interviewing other participants, asking follow-up questions about topics they’d raised during events, publishing my interviews with them, and then releasing my own missives back into the blogosphere. I think it was a really cutting edge, interactive multi-media event with a lot of possibility.
Sadly, however, the festival blog is now offline. I felt compelled to re-visit the old site using the “Way Back Machine” to tell the tale of the Power of Design festival and salvage a few of my interviews. Below is one of my interviews with the legendary satirist Andy Borowitz, whose “Borowitz Report” was The Onion before The Onion. I’m republishing this one because I still to this day cite this article and tell a couple of the stories in it to people in conversation. I will include my original “introduction blurb” for the interview below, as originally published…
Andy Borowitz is a comedian and satirist best known for the popular fake news blog “The Borowitz Report”. He is the author of numerous books, such as Who Moved My Soap? — The CEO’s Guide to Surviving in Prison, and editor of the top-selling humor anthology The 50 Funniest American Writers. He also performs as a stand-up comedian. Andy will be at the Power of Design festival on March 22 to chat with Kurt Andersen about how humor can help get your complaints heard. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about satire, humor, and complaints.
Clybor: Do you consider yourself a “complainer”?
Borowitz: I don’t complain. I misinform people, and then they complain about me.
Clybor: The satirist complains by pretending not to complain. Does this form of complaining have an impact on society?
Borowitz: I don’t have any practical impact on society that I know of. That’s a good thing, too — if I thought I had a productive role to play, that would be too much pressure for me.
Clybor: Why do we complain so much? And why do we keep doing it no matter how good (or bad) life is?
Borowitz: There is a very powerful syndrome human beings suffer from called “hedonic adaptation.” It means that no matter how good we have it, we want something better. Apple has based its entire business model on this.
Clybor: One popular view of complaining is that no one likes hearing it. Do you agree with this? And if no one likes a complainer, why do we love Seinfeld?
Borowitz: When people are preached to or complained to, they tend to tune out. Laughter is an involuntary response — it sneaks past our defenses.
Clybor: “The Borowitz Report” emerged in 2001, around the same time as other popular “fake news” outlets (The Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report). There are many historical precedents for satirical news, but do you think there is something particular about the past fifteen years that is making the genre so popular?
Borowitz: As you point out, fake news has been around for centuries — in fact, Mark Twain wrote fake headlines when he was working for a real newspaper. I think the one thing that’s a little different now is that the real news outlets — I’m thinking especially of cable news — are in such disrepute. There’s a sense among some news consumers that people like Jon Stewart do a better job than CNN. It’s a compelling argument.
Clybor: Is there anything else you’d like to say about complaints? Maybe there’s something you’d like to complain about?
Borowitz: Any New Yorker who is spending March in Miami has nothing to complain about.
Caption: Pamphlet cover, Shopping Your Way Through Southern Europe, c. 1965. Sally Ann Simpson (pseudonym), author. Scandinavian Airlines System Inc., Jamaica, New York, publisher. The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of the San Diego Historical Society.