Books of short interviews tend to be breezy, which often equals inconsequential. But the 60 Q&As Paul Provenza conducts with stand-ups, late-night hosts, writers, animators, musicians, and commentators for ¡Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians add up to more than the sum of their parts. (Dan Dion’s backstage portraits of the artists certainly help.) Individually, the conversations veer between casual, such as the reunited Kids In The Hall’s nonstop riffing on one another, and more obviously thematic, such as the long-retired Tom Lehrer discussing the pros of quitting early.
But Provenza’s canny sequencing is the real draw. ¡Satiristas! reads less like a series of monuments—the approach of some in-depth Q&As, such as Mike Sacks’ excellent 2009 book And Here’s The Kicker—and more like a constantly moving conversation. Frequently, the talks segue into one another thematically, as when Penn Jillette describes the impact Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” had on him growing up in Massachusetts (“It changed my thinking from ‘I know everything I need to… I’m totally okay on the racism thing all the way back’ to ‘Wow, I really don’t know jack shit about this.”) to Newman’s description of writing the song, which was based on seeing Georgia’s segregationist governor Lester Maddox being booed on The Dick Cavett Show. “[T]here’s racism everywhere,” Newman explains. “There is no basis for anyone anywhere in America assuming moral superiority over citizens of Georgia.” And befitting the topic, there’s lots of room for contrariness. In one sequence, Craig Ferguson defends Jay Leno, saying he “does not talk down to his audience.” Then Leno defends his own middle-of-the-road political stance. Then Janeane Garofalo chides Leno for his “fear of not being well-liked.”
Provenza himself is a stand-up veteran, as well as co-director of the 2005 comedy documentary The Aristocrats, and his basic understanding of how humor works, on the page or on the stage, clearly helps his subjects relax and open up. He’s also unafraid to voice his own disagreements, as when he thoughtfully counters Marc Maron’s assertion that atheists are control freaks. The title is shticky, but ¡Satiristas! has a lot to teach comedy fans about the history and structure of humor, and it offers illuminating glimpses into the inner lives of the people who make it.