A Conversation with Lee Papa, AKA The Rude PunditSatirist, Dramatist, and Political Analyst

Interview by Laura Ellen Scott

For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 4.4, December 2010

Since 2003 Lee Papa, a New York-based writer and performer, has been blogging as the ultra liberal, foul-mouthed persona The Rude Pundit, whose stated mission of “proudly lowering the level of political discourse” has spawned a CD, numerous live performances, a regular Monday morning guest spot on The Stephanie Miller Show , and now a book, The Rude Pundit’s Almanack, due out in January 2011 from O/R Books . Here’s a sample performance of one of the sections of the book, which includes poems based on transcripts of Representative Mark Foley’s messages to a teenage congressional page. (This is an audience video from Papa’s recent DC appearance).

LES: Your book, The Rude Pundit’s Almanack, is provocative, hilarious, and weirdly elegant—your best work yet. Tell everyone what’s in it.

LP: Add in “ruthlessly fragmented,” and you’ve pretty much described how I’ve attempted to live my life.  The book is an amalgam of a bunch of different kinds of works: prose, poetry, plays, charts, and fairly straight reportage, all centered around an attempt to describe how one becomes a liberal and stays a liberal, even during times when liberalism is condemned. So there’s autobiographical stuff about various right-wingers I’ve had occasion to meet or confront in my life, especially when I lived in the South. There’s pornographic and scatological sketches of media figures, like Glenn Beck. There’s even my own analysis of the potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates. And then there’s stuff like a poem based on the confession of meth-using, gay prostitute-employing fallen evangelist, Ted Haggard. We live in our technology-induced state of ADD. The book reflects that.

I didn’t want to write the typical snarky political book where I just say, “Hey, look at the stupid shit that conservatives do.” There’s enough of those. Instead, lemme demonstrate how the political is personal and vice-versa.

LES: Louisiana features significantly in The Almanack, and on your blog, the “Fucked New Orleans” series is an essential contribution to post-Katrina literature.

LP: The tragedy of New Orleans is that it really was a man-made disaster, and it was made up of so many pieces that liberals had been waving our hands about for decades: the cuts in poverty programs, the degradation of the wetlands, the failure to improve infrastructure. And the aftermath of Katrina was the climax of the utter goddamned incompetence of the Bush administration. You can bomb two nations back into the Stone Age, but you can’t rescue Americans from a highway overpass for days? No, that does not stand.

The tragedy is compounded by the stupidity of the people of the state I love. That they don’t understand their own complicity in the destruction of the city is frustratingly, gut-wrenchingly idiotic and so very expected.

LES: In the early days, The Rude Pundit blog had to post anonymously. What was that like, and of course, what was coming out like?

LP: The funny thing is that the blog was originally going to be a group effort, with five or so writers. That’s why the posts are signed “Rude One.” There was supposed to be a “Rude Two,” etc. There was a time in the wild and woolly early days of the political blogosphere (which would be around 2003-4) when anonymity was seen as simply the way it was done. You could cultivate a voice and persona without the navel-gazing and self-reflexivity of, say, a Live Journal account.

I came out for a couple of reasons. Anonymity was becoming an impediment to bloggers being taken seriously (although it was fun to constantly be accused of being other people). And I wanted to see what else could be done with the medium, so I put together the first stage show, The Year of Living Rudely, and it just seemed silly to have someone else play me.

Tell you what, though. My traffic declined after I was no longer anonymous. Mystery is good marketing, you know?

LES: You laugh when things get rough, and I don’t mean that metaphorically—how did your argument style develop?

LP: I grew up with a deep, deep appreciation for satirists of all kinds, primarily because my dad was into them. And I don’t just mean the usual subjects, like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce or Hunter S. Thompson (although, surely, they were part of it). I mean people like Bob and Ray, whose radio sketches were hilariously absurd, and the Marx Brothers. And I was into columnists like Art Buchwald and Mike Royko and, of course, later, Molly Ivins. You toss in Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and, a truly huge influence, Richard Pryor, and you develop a healthy disdain for authority and a healthy interest in political and social issues.

I think one unacknowledged influence on a lot of us from the 1970s was Mad Magazine.  The kind of take-no-prisoners attitude of Mad is evident in the kind of freewheeling sarcasm of blogs.

LES: What about feedback? The other day as I was watching the comments roll by on Fox News while you were a guest on the Alan Colmes’ show, I wondered how intense the responses must get sometimes.

LP: Hate mail comes and goes. Sometimes I go months without it, but then I write something like “Terri Schiavo Must Die,” and the e-mail floods in. That one was especially bad. I got death threats. I got condemned to hell. I was called all kinds of nasty names. I’m pretty sure that it was exactly what Jesus would do.

But I get attacked from the Left as much or more. Jesus, during the 2008 primaries, I went in for Obama pretty much as soon as he was announced. The Hillary Clinton supporters fucking ripped into me. I was going to perform in March 2008 at a bloggers’ conference in Philadelphia and a friend warned me, “I’ve heard rumbles that if you attack Hillary, two angry lesbians have said they’re gonna rush the stage and beat you down.” Even though I was tempted to do something brutal (in a meta way, like “Here’s how a viciously sexist assault on Hillary might sound”), I opted not to because I didn’t feel that way.

Nowadays, I’m attacked for supporting Obama too much. I’m attacked for not supporting him. And I’m mocked on a couple of right-wing blogs. But if you’re gonna be sensitive, then you probably shouldn’t write for public consumption.

By the way, I always send a kiss and a hug to the hate-mailers.

LES: Anyone browsing through the memoir-ish sections of the Almanack can see you have spent just about all of your life in school. Is there a special challenge to being professionally rude and an educator?

LP: Jesus Christ, I guess that’s true. I have been in school my whole life. Shit. See? It’s because I’m lazy. I like summers off.

I try to keep the two worlds separate. For instance, I direct a play every year at the College of Staten Island, but I don’t announce it on the blog. And I don’t bring it up in classes, but the Google machine pretty much ensures that students find out the horrible truth.

Strangely, my department and the college administration have been immensely supportive of my work. The New York Times review of the first show pretty much legitimized my efforts. I even have a letter from a provost congratulating me. I’ve been open about the whole thing because, even with tenure, I ain’t springing any surprises on those who might, you know, promote me.

LES: How early did you get started in theatrical writing and production, and what do you think about opportunities for youth now?

LP: I started writing and directing plays in sixth grade. I was pretty much Max from Rushmore, except with less polished effects.  My first one was about a judge at the Salem Witch trials. I cast my classmates, and we put on a show for our social studies class.

At this point, the best bet for anyone starting out in theatre as a young writer/director, other than schooling, is to just start putting on plays. I directed two shows in high school, and that kind of self-motivation carried through to college and even to today. Most of what is done in theatre is not in the form of big productions where people are hired for jobs. Most theatre is really just individuals or small groups deciding they want to put on a play or performance and then figuring out how to do it.

If you’re willing to do the work, the world opens up a little bit for you. If you’re asking others to do it for you, the world is much more skeptical and is likely to spank you forcefully.

LES: I can’t tell if you are a multi-tasking artist or just really fast, but you’ve always got a new project ready to go, it seems. What’s in the pipeline? Anything not hard-wired to The Rude Pundit persona? —thinking of Heterosexuals, your play from this past summer. Also, are there projects for which you wish you had more time?

LP: Right now, I’m working on two plays, one of which is just a pure farce. It’s my relaxation. And I’ve got a more serious and seriously theatrical piece I’m trying to wrap up. That’d be the thing I wish I had more time to do. No matter what I do, I can’t escape the pull of theatre. The communal nature of the experience for an audience is impossible to duplicate in other mediums. It’s a space where the potential for change exists. I haven’t figured out how to achieve that change yet.

By the way, it’s not that I work fast. In fact, I think I’m kind of a lazy bastard. I just like distractions from the constant agony of existence. And pie.