As the presidential election finally comes to a conclusion today, so too does the country get closer to (hopefully) a collective sigh of relief. No matter what side you are on, and there are certainly more than two sides this year, everybody seems to be ready for this spectacle of political campaigns to finally come to a merciful end. Or as the old saying goes, “Sometimes all you can do is laugh to keep yourself from crying.” That’s where the comedy world can present itself as a useful resource during such trying times.
Among those comedians inserting themselves and their funny friends into the political conversation are Mike Still and Paul Welsh, hosts of Earwolf’s Hard Nation podcast. On the show, Mike and Paul play fictional brothers Mark (Mike) and Pete (Paul) Hard, who have very opposing views but teamed up for a political talk radio show. Mike’s character is conservative, Paul’s is liberal, the guests play characters who are in the news, and most of the rest is improvised.
Politics can bring out the worst in people, which is what can also make it so hilarious.
How did Hard Nation come together in the beginning?
Paul: We originally did it as a stage show at UCB. We had like a writing team as if it was a late night show, pulled together a bunch of writers and wrote a show that was really based on current events. But we realized when we started to do the podcast that it felt a little bit stale. So it evolved from there to something that’s a little bit more improvised that feels more fun because there are so many people doing a take that’s prepared and satirized. This feels like more of a freewheeling universe where we take things based in reality and completely go off into left field.
How did you decide who would be on the left and right? Was that a long conversation?
Mike: No, I think we slid into them pretty quickly.
Paul: Mike felt more attracted to more of a Rush Limbaugh character and on my side, I feel like that the right has been parodied so well by so many people that I feel that true far-left pundits aren’t really satirized in any way. No one has a real take on them. So that was really attractive to me, someone who takes liberal mindedness to an extreme comedically.
Mike, how does it feel to get into the mind of someone like Limbaugh? Do you feel you have a lot of freedom to do whatever you want?
Mike: Oh yeah, I enjoy it. I am a pretty lefty person myself, but I think the thing about Mark Hard that I’ve discovered is that he’s the naive sort of Republican. He’s less of a Rush Limbaugh sort of jerk and more of the person who has been raised Republican, feels he should be supporting his team, and doesn’t necessarily have the intellectual ability to backup some of these ideas that are there. I enjoy that it lets me play around with some of these ideas that you’re not going to be hearing much from our liberal comedy world. He’s not like a super-right conservative Christian, even though he thinks he is, he ends up not being a total Ted Cruz.
What’s your opinion on comedy and being left or right? It seems that a lot of mainstream comedy does lean on the liberal side, what do you think causes that, if anything? Does the left have a better sense of humor?
Paul: I think that people are attracted comedically to what they don’t know, so I don’t necessarily think that it’s people taking an axe to conservatives and not really pillaring the left. But it’s that most of the people in our comedic orbit don’t have a lot of engagement with people on the right. So the things that they’re hearing seem so insane whereas the actual boiled down version of it might be tremendously reasonable. We are only exposed to the most extreme elements because that’s what makes the news.
Mike: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things we try to do in the show, which is to parody the communication between the left and the right. Not to get too deep about our silly show but you are only ever seeing the most extreme versions of both sides. And then people kind of become their own parody. “I have to believe this thing even harder because I just defended it to someone.” Does the left have a better sense of humor? As someone on the left, I think that we also think that we’re handsomer, and smarter, and have better taste.
Paul: I don’t agree with that. Mike thinks that.
Paul, I understand you have been a registered Republican. Do you feel you have a better sense of both sides?
Paul: Yes, I do feel like I have a sense of both sides and I feel there are reasonable arguments on both sides. They both do a lot of demonization of reductiveness of the arguments on the other side but to me, the argument for small government is not a bad one but also the argument for some meaningful welfare state is not a bad one. Most effective government and policy is finding middle ground but that doesn’t win votes. People aren’t interested in meaningful reasonable policy, it’s all or nothing.
Mike: It’s so all or nothing that people truly want to believe that their side is the truth. I saw a friend of mine who was like “Oh my gosh, someone was saying that this website was spreading bad information about vaccines or something among the left. I thought only Trump supporters spread bad info.” Yeah they might do that, but so do people on the left. We all do.
What do you think of Alec Baldwin’s Trump on SNL? There was some question of whether or not they could use UCB’s Anthony Atamanuik, who gained a lot of attention this doing a spot-on Trump on tour?
Mike: I think they should have hired Anthony, we’re good friends and I’d love to see him on SNL.
Paul: Anyone who’s seen Anthony do anything knows that everyone should hire him all the time. But as far as whatever went into that decision, Alec Baldwin is great.
Mike: Anthony was our first person we recorded with and he was our ace in the hole and then it was a bit of leap of faith to see if we could do it with other people. Luckily I think it worked, not to toot our own horn. Baldwin is great and Kate McKinnon is wonderful as Hillary. It’s a delight every single time she does it. She’s able to dig into this character in a way that people haven’t with other political impressions. I think that’s what is great about Atamanuik is the way that he’s able to tap into Trump’s id, the way that he thinks about things. What’s nice about Baldwin’s Trump is that it’s a very physical impression, Trump as the wounded bull, trying to lumber to the end, and he has all of the spears sticking out of him, and Hillary as the matador that I think has played really well.
What has Trump being the nominee this year done for the political comedy or even presidential characters in movies and television?
Paul: He’s obviously done a lot of things rhetorically that are completely out of bounds, inconsistent with the way you’d expect a nominee to run, but his numbers are not as low as they should be. He’s so much different than any other nominee, but people are responding so I don’t know that it changes it that much.
Mike: One thing it does do is let everyone who has a spec script about a true American Hitler coming to power, now people aren’t going to laugh that script off anymore. “Oh yeah, tyranny is just one election away.”
Paul: He’s the heightened third beat of a bad candidate. You’d give a note on that sketch of like “Ok, the audience is only going to come with you for two of these moves, you’ve gotta stop.”
Mike: No one’s gonna believe it. “The race won’t be competitive after 11 people have accused him of sexual assault, you can’t write that.” No, it’s still competitive and in fact the polls even tightened shortly after that. The presidents we see in movies will just get more insane now. It’ll be like “Bad Santa” but “Bad President” scripts.
Paul: What’s shocking about him is that he exists now, not that he exists. The fact that he exists in 2016 is what causes cognitive dissonance by a lot of people.
How does the podcast change after the election is over, if at all?
Mike: We’ve been having so much fun but we think that the podcast will shift a little bit more towards newsmakers vs just politics. Right now the news is all politics. We had such a fun episode about the olympics, with Drew Tarver as Ryan Lochte and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Gabby Douglas and we see ourselves moving into that realm of “Who is the big newsmaker this week?” We had a great episode that had Gilli Nissim as Lena Dunham, Dhruv Uday Singh as George Clooney, so we’re kinda pushing people more into, “What celebrity was the newsmaker this week?” The characters are politically-minded guys but who is making the news?
Paul: The evolution of it hopefully is the same thing that we do now; it starts from a grounded reality of what’s going on in the news and what’s interesting and funny talk about, then it goes wherever it goes.
Any favorite episodes or characters that people should check out if they’ve never heard the show before?
Mike: We’ve been very lucky, all the guests that we’ve had have been great. Jump in with whoever is a comedian you like, if you’re a fan of Fran Gillespie jump into that episode, Paul F Tompkins as Ted Cruz, People love Craig Rowin’s character Dwyane “Not The Rock” Johnson, who is a kid who joined ISIS because he was upset that his mom was buying too much fish. He joined ISIS because he wanted to learn how to hold a knife like Jean-Claude Van-Damme. That’s a fan favorite.
Paul: It’s dated time-wise but it’s a little bit irrelevant when it was recorded. Maybe something like the Paul F Tompkins episode was recorded when Ted Cruz was still in the race, but it’s still a very funny episode. We tell the guests that politics and views are not something they have to really concern themselves with. You don’t have to know anything about the person you’re playing.
Mike: Our producers Dana Wickens and Josh Richmond prepare a couple pages of bullet points for the guests. We have information, they have information, and then just having fun with it. This conversation we’ve had is probably more philosophical than the average show, that’s for sure.