Critical and Thinking: The Ian Harris Interview
Ian Harris is a Los Angeles–based comic who has performed at the Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles and at CSI conferences. Blending comedy and skepticism is nothing new—it’s been done on The Simpsons, South Park, and in Penn & Teller acts and TV shows for years—but a standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual. Amid his busy schedule of touring, conference calls with Daily Show producers, training UFC fighters, and auditioning for a dwarf sidekick, Harris agreed to answer some questions.
Benjamin Radford: How did you get involved in doing standup comedy, and how long have you been doing it?
Ian Harris: I actually started doing impressions when I was five. I was a huge boxing and football fan and I would replay fights and games to my parents in the voices of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. I used to listen to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal when I was a teenager and have just wanted to be a comedian since I can remember. Of course I had other things I wanted to do like play football and box, and I started out going to school to be an anthropologist. But I had tried to get on stage in San Francisco since I was seventeen and they would never let me. On my twenty-first birthday I went to the only place that had a legit open mic, a place called “The Holy City Zoo.” I signed up and then saw every comedian I idolized take the stage, including Robin Williams, and I chickened out. A few weeks later I moved to Los Angeles because I had written a screenplay and needed to give that a shot. I ended up auditioning to do a show at the Ice House in Pasadena (another iconic venue) and getting booked to close the show. I did fifteen minutes my first time on stage and it went amazing. Part of that was the fact that I was nervous and looked like I was fifteen, so there was a major like-ability factor going on. That was October 18, 1992. I did comedy for about thirteen straight years until I had my daughter in 2005 and took a few years off. I got back into it in 2011 because I missed being on stage and wanted to go back up to talk about things I was interested in. I no longer needed stand up to make a living so it became more about doing it for the love of it; it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Radford: How did you get involved in skepticism? What skeptical subjects are you most interested in?
Harris: I have pretty much always been a skeptic. I was a little less skeptical when I was younger as my mom is a New Ager, a self proclaimed psychic or “intuitive.” I grew up with the idea that ghosts and psychic abilities were just normal, however we never believed in gods in my house or anything like that and in fact thought of that stuff as silly, and we often mocked churchgoers and such, so I always tried to rationalize these ideas with scientific ideas. I would often explain things as scientifically as I could, but of course as I got older, learned more, and acquired more facts and knowledge, I began to realize that science did support those ideas and they were dropped. I remember thinking when I was about twelve, “Ghosts are real because everyone I know has seen them and my mom has tons of stories, but there is no such thing as a soul or afterlife, so they must be some sort of strange non-conscious energy that somehow gets left over and retains some sort of form.”
There was just this idea that there must be some logical explanation that people are overlooking, but in my world their existence was a fact, so I actually spent a lot of time trying to reconcile this in my brain. Then in my first year of college, I took a class that was called “Argumentation and Persuasion.” It was given by Dan Rothwell and was essentially a class in skepticism. The entire class was identifying logical fallacies and scams and looking at things like astrology, religion, etc. That was when I first realized that skepticism was a thing and began to identify as a skeptic. When I came back to comedy, it was with the idea that I was going to do comedy skepticism and make fun of much of the bullshit that people believe and give these things some public ridicule they deserve, and at the same time maybe make a few compelling arguments and make people think by making them laugh at the absurdity.
Radford: One of my favorite jokes of yours involves the homeopathic “cold preventer” Airborne, which, as you remind us, was “invented by a teacher who got tired of getting sick.” Can you take me through the genesis and process of developing that joke?
Harris: Funny, I wrote the germ of that joke years before I started doing comedy skepticism specifically. I never did it because I thought no one would think it was funny or that it would take too much explanation. Now I don’t care how much I have to spell it out to people. That being said, the first time I heard the commercial I thought “who gives a shit if a teacher came up with it? She was tired of getting sick? Aren’t we all? Is that all it takes? Two hundred years of medical research and all we needed was one chick who was mad as hell!” I love analogies. I used to love Dennis Miller (before he went [Bill] O’Reilly on us) because his analogies were so smart and clever. So I thought what other things could we do away with under that same formula? Cancer finally cured by a smoker who was tired of getting cancer. Then I tried to get even sillier, “perpetual motion finally invented by a hillbilly who had run out of gas.” Then I had a friend tell me that the joke was funny, but there is a cure for cancer and “Big Pharma” is keeping the cure down, so I had to address the absurdity of that and all those type of conspiracies. Now I have a five-minute bit that is one of my personal favorites.
Radford: You also had a stand-up TV special. How did that come to be?
Harris: When I came back to comedy I wanted to do a few things: give back to the community, perform a show designed for the skeptic community, and put something on film that I could show my daughter someday—just something to archive what I did and what I stood for. I originally just was going to do a charity show at CFI–West and tape it. Then the theater became unavailable so I had to move to a bigger theater. Then the idea came to tape it on December 21, 2012, and pitch it to SiriusXM as a live event; midnight if the world doesn’t end we go live to Ian Harris doing a new hour. It was originally called “Live from the Apocalypse.” It started growing. I had a distributor interested, etc., so I called a producer friend and it turned into a full hour special. CFI came in and sold drinks as a fundraiser. SiriusXM ended up backing out fairly last minute, but that was okay. By the time it got edited and released, we had moved away from the date and since I only really talk about the apocalypse at the beginning, I changed the name to one of my original ideas, “Critical & Thinking.”
I really love that play on words for what I do. It says comedy skepticism to me and sums up how I feel my persona is on stage. By the time it all came to fruition too, I was realizing that no one was or is doing what George Carlin was doing. Carlin was moving more and more toward comedy skepticism. His last special “It’s Bullshit and It’s Bad for You” was just that. I don’t see too many comedians, if any, doing that, so I certainly wanted to step up and be that guy. I really feel that if I had gotten wider distribution or had a bigger name, “Critical & Thinking” would have gotten a lot more attention. I have actually had comedians that I really respect tell me pretty much exactly that. I had a friend say that if I were famous, everyone would be talking about it. Not sure if that is remotely true, but that was my goal. Not that it can’t still, as I think the writing is solid. I tried to keep it smart, clever, original, and of course talk about subjects that are not talked about very much. I think I have one dick joke, no bathroom humor, no relationship stuff, nothing I would consider an easy subject in the entire special. I am certainly very proud of that regardless of whether or not it gets mainstream acclaim.
Radford: I’ve seen you perform live twice, once during your “Evolution of Comedy Tour” in Albuquerque and once when you were at a CSI conference in Tacoma. Your humor is unabashedly skeptical, filled with observations poking fun at the absurdity of the paranormal and pseudoscience. How has your act generally been received? Does it vary from state to state? Or do you find that it doesn’t matter because you have a sort of self-selecting audience, so hardcore religious folks won’t be there anyway?
Harris: I have different sets. They all include a lot skepticism and religious ridicule, but I know that my job is to entertain and make audiences laugh, so I always make sure I know my audience. If I am doing a self-produced show, I assume everyone who is there knows what they are coming to see. The more I get known, the more people come to see what I do. When I do comedy clubs, I still do what I do because I am not about compromising my ideas, but I will pick a set that is more universal and maybe change my set ups a bit to be more inclusive and less harsh. I just did a weekend in Seattle at a regular comedy club. I had quite a few people come to see me specifically, but I also had a ton of civilians just there for a comedy show. I had amazing shows! I am sure I pissed off a few religious people and in fact had an hour conversation with a nutty Christian lady who felt science and religion were compatible, but then misrepresented so much scientific theory and claimed studies proved prayer works, etc. It was an insane conversation.
But I feel no matter what a comedian does, someone will love you and someone will hate you. There is always someone who is looking to be offended. I can’t be responsible for their mental shortcomings. You cannot offend me because I choose not to be offended by ideas or words. If you do, that’s on you; maybe comedy is not your thing. If you never offend anyone, you probably aren’t saying much. I told a friend that every review I have seen of my special is either 1 star or 5 stars and he said “Great! That means you actually said something.” So I do my best to ride that line of doing my job as a comedian, saying something worth hearing, and doing comedy that doesn’t compromise my integrity.
Radford: Of course all comics get hecklers, but have you gotten the sense that your skeptical viewpoint and material has been unusually targeted by believers?
Harris: So far no one has heckled too much. I get people afterward wanting to debate or as I call it, “wanting to lose a debate.” If you do it while I am on stage you will always lose that battle. I have a mic and an audience behind me. You are a drunk asshole who is interrupting their good time and my job. I have had a few believers who have come out to see what I do, but so far they have been well behaved, polite, and most of them have told me they enjoyed the show and it even made them think. Though I tend to believe that if you are a believer coming to my show to see what I do, you might be doubting your beliefs to begin with.
Radford: Part of a comic’s job is to bring the audience along with you, but you’re not doing safe Jay Leno–type material, you’re doing edgier stuff that is likely to offend at least some people. If you just look at the demographics of belief, you find that between a third and half of Americans believe in ghosts or haunted houses and many believe in angels, miracles, psychics and so on. How do you tread the fine line between making your audience think critically and not making fun of them?
Harris: I think I don’t always succeed at this because I have been called mean spirited before. I think though that many people are not as adamant about some beliefs as they are about others. Religion is certainly tough, but when I talk about ghosts, miracles, psychics, or Bigfoot, I think even those who believe do so with some skepticism or at least a self-awareness that they are believing in magic or have suspended some logic for something that feels good. I think they will laugh usually, but sometimes they will try to rationalize their belief to me after. I get a lot of that “That Bigfoot stuff was funny, but seriously I have seen Bigfoot. You should check into such and such case...” that kind of thing. I also get people that love every joke except the one about the nonsense they ascribe to, but they laughed at the other jokes, meanwhile everyone else was laughing at the jokes that they didn’t like. They make the connection that maybe everything was equally ridiculous.
Radford: Do you feel any topics are or should be taboo, either in your comedy or in comedy in general?
Harris: I don’t think anything should ever be off limits. For me it is all about free speech. I personally wouldn’t do certain jokes for various reasons, but it comes down to: Is it funny, are you making a point, or are you just trying to shock people? Either way the shock comic should have the right to say what he/she says. If we don’t like what they say we can just not patronize them. This idea that using the word rape in a joke automatically perpetuates “rape culture” is insane. If I am ridiculing rapists, I am not supporting rape. People get upset over words. I don’t believe words can hurt. I think ideas or intentions can be hurtful, but either way it comes down to the person getting hurt. Why is it that I don’t get offended or hurt? And why is it anyone else’s responsibility to protect my feelings? Even if what I say is hurtful, so what? Something is hurtful or offensive to everyone. I can’t expect to know everyone in the room’s sensibilities and should not have to be responsible for them. Plus I think sometimes we need to be offended, we need to hear crazy, sick stuff; otherwise, we have nothing to compare it to. We have no spectrum of ideas to which we can compare. If we eliminated all bad ideas and words, it would not eliminate bad actions like rape and murder—and we would just make up new words to express those thoughts and ideas or vilify other words and ideas. We already do that. Every few years a new word that was common and not inherently offensive gets added to the “bad word” list. If we are really concerned about it I feel desensitizing is a better option, but even then, we’d still make up new “bad words.”
Radford: Who are some of your favorite comedians?
Harris: Richard Pryor, (early) Dennis Miller, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Johnny Steele, Robert Hawkins, Ron Morey, Doug Stanhope, Dave Attell—and surprisingly (because he is not a traditional stand up and did not start as a stand up) I really enjoyed Ricky Gervais’s journey into stand up. Being a guy who started as an impressionist, I like Billy Crystal back in the day and Dana Carvey.
Radford: I understand that your other interests include Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Three quick questions: Did you ever compete professionally? What was your stage nickname? And what happened to the last guy that threw down with you?
Harris: I train fighters in MMA. I have a team of about thirty-five pros and amateurs. I never fought MMA specifically. Back when I was at the age to do it, MMA was not what it is now. There were very little rules, no gloves, no weight classes, etc. I am not a big guy. I did not want to go in a no-rules fight with a 250-pound Olympic wrestler. By the time it got to where it is now, I was coming off a pretty major neck injury and pushing my late thirties. I have competed in all the various aspects my whole life though. I boxed, did karate, Muay Thai, wrestled in school, and still compete in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments. Plus I spar and train with my team and can hold my own. Funny enough though I started calling what I teach “Fight Science” back before the term Mixed Martial Arts was coined. I am very technical and I bring a very cerebral and scientific approach to my training and teaching. I have a reputation for that and I am often called “The Mad Scientist,” “The Fight Scientist,” and sometimes just “Scientist.” I never get in fights. I think I defuse things with humor and confidence. When a nerdy, average size guy laughs at your aggression and calmly discusses the situation, I think it is disarming and intimidating for most people. That being said, in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu being on your back is called your “guard.” I have a very good guard and specifically a triangle choke. I can pretty much catch anyone in my triangle choke.
Radford: What other projects are you working on?
Harris: I am working on three TV shows. They are all in development with different companies. One is a mock-reality show spoofing paranormal type shows like Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot called Super Normal Activity. One is a reality show where I dress up in character Ali G.–style and infiltrate various religious establishments and interview zealots, etc., tentatively titled either Ian Goes Looking for God or Fighting Faith. The third one is a clip show like Talk Soup but instead of talk shows paranormal shows. I am calling it Talk Soupernatural. I am also touring with my good friend Ty Barnett (runner-up on Last Comic Standing) doing a show called Divided where we each tackle various topics like religion, race, politics, etc., from our different perspectives.