Once you’ve done stand-up comedy, passing yourself off as a right-winger when you are in fact a citizen of the left must be child’s play. And Steven Brykman has done stand-up comedy.
When questioned about that, the former Valley resident offers an interesting wrinkle. He tries to downplay it. “Well, first of all, it’s billed as a Naked Comedy Show,” he says. “All the comedians are naked. It’s not like I just got up there and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God. He’s naked!’”
Which is, apparently, entirely different.
For Brykman, it’s part of an exercise in doing something few possess the fortitude even to withstand, let alone court. “As a comedian, you’re always looking for new venues, new audiences, new ways to make yourself uncomfortable in front of those audiences,” says Brykman. “What better way to do that than to be naked in front of strangers? I even like to double-dog dare it, and do the naked show without material, so that I’m naked and entirely unprepared as well. The funny thing about being naked on stage is, as soon as you start in with the jokes, you actually forget you’re even naked. Because clothed or not, the same pressure is still there—get these people to laugh.”
“At this point, my diminutive, hirsute middle-aged body is pretty ridiculous,” he adds, “so it’s not like being naked doesn’t already provide its own sort of comedic cheat sheet.”
But about that right-wing business—last year, Brykman pulled off something of a coup for a comedy writer. He infiltrated the Romney campaign as an IT guy. He apparently needed the job, but now he’s making it work for him on an even grander scale. A series of his writeups about the time he spent in a dingy building in Boston’s North End is now appearing at Huffington Post. He hopes it will end up netting a book deal, and maybe even an animated series.
Brykman completed the UMass-Amherst Creative MFA program in creative writing and worked at the National Lampoon. These days, he and his growing family live in the Boston area, and he runs a design company (gotyournose.com) with his wife. Brykman also teaches humor writing at the Grub Street writing center in Boston.
The Advocate recently caught up with Brykman to investigate the details of his past and his infiltration. We believe he was clothed while answering.
Valley Advocate : How did you end up at the National Lampoon?
Steven Brykman: Pretty simply, actually. I answered an ad in the Hollywood Reporter. They were looking to start up a new website. The magazine had just been shut down by the Harvard Lampoon. Apparently they had a contractual agreement to not let the magazine suck too hard, and by the late ’90s they were blatantly violating that agreement.
Their marketing person was writing all the articles and—you’ll have to take my word for it—he was the exact opposite of funny. Fortunately for me, the Internet wasn’t around when the contract between the two Lampoons was created. No clause against not making a sucky website!
What was working there like?
Each day at the National Lampoon felt like I was living in some wonderful dream. I could perform stand-up whenever and wherever I wanted, I appeared at marketing events with Playboy playmates. I worked on Van Wilder bits with Kal Penn and Ryan Reynolds. I even had a tune on our comedy music CD make it to number 4 on Dr. Demento’s Funny Five. At one point my boss actually complained that none of us ever brought weed to work. “You guys are a bunch of squares,” he said. “In the old days, you’d open the writers’ room door and a big cloud of smoke would billow out!”
Any similarities with your time working for Romney?
There are no similarities to my time with Romney save that both offices were totally disgusting. Wait—there is one other thing. At one point we were issued press passes to attend the 2000 Democratic National Convention. First of all, it was their own fault. Who gives out press passes to the National Lampoon? My boss and I went to the event together. We traded in our passes for floor passes, which we didn’t even know you could do, then we pushed our way to the very front of the crowd—I mean, Al Gore was right there—and were quickly thrown out for holding up signs, trying to score some free publicity for a “Virtual Candidate” piece we were running on the Lampoon website at the time.
Also, before we were thrown out, we were assaulted by a troop of girl scouts. Seriously. I’m not even making that up. You can read all about it on Elizabeth Searle’s blog, Celebrities in Disgrace [celebritiesindisgrace.wordpress.com/tag/steven-brykman].
Do you still do stand-up?
I haven’t been doing it as often lately, now that I have a bunch of kids, but I’m trying to generate some publicity for the Huffington Post blog, so I will be doing more shows in the future—the naked show again in April, along with sets at the Comedy Studio, where I’ll be telling stories about the Romney campaign and auctioning off Romney swag.
What was your impression of the Valley when you lived here?
I adored the Valley. I spent eight years there, as an undergrad and grad student. I lived all over—in Leverett in the middle of the woods. In a house in Belchertown that was literally condemned by the Board of Health while we were still living in it.
People used to say the Valley was this make-believe little world, that it wasn’t real life, and that we would would all be shocked once we graduated, but that’s bullshit. You think Los Angeles is real life? The Pioneer Valley is as real as life gets.
Was it tough to hide your political views? Were you tempted to “come out”?
It wasn’t tough at all. When I took the job, they only asked me if I would feel comfortable working for him, not if I wanted him to win or anything. His headquarters is in the North End, and they were having a lot of trouble just finding people who were willing to work for him at all. Of course, I had my own reasons for wanting to do so. I had a feeling it’d make a good story. I never dreamed it would turn out this good!
As a user experience designer, I worked in the art department, remember, and artists tend to be more progressive than not, naturally. There were maybe five or six of us who were pretty obviously liberals. Funny thing was, we had Fox on in the office pretty much all the time, and even the most diehard conservatives among us would still yell at the screen. So that was encouraging. Over time, we kind of “came out” to each other, over Skype and whatnot. One of my best buddies on the campaign was an ex-marine who made it clear from day one that he was an Obama supporter. I didn’t want to do that, since I thought it might hurt my book.
Do you think they overlooked obvious markers in your online presence that pointed to left-wing sympathies?
They didn’t. I took down practically everything I ever wrote. It took me a couple nights to privatize my Facebook, disable my Twitter feed. I had to call the editor of every blog I ever wrote for to ask them to pull everything down. By the time I was done, the only things left were the residual descriptions in the Google Results: naked stand-up, thrown out of the DNC, etc., etc., but they were dead links. I told them they were all just a big joke, which is easy to do when you’re a comedy writer.
Did you ever hope, even for a second, that “your guy” would win?
Not for a second. My dad had this weird suspicion that the Republicans would win me over, but that never even came close to happening. Also, this particular Republican Party was way more to the right than your average, so that was pretty scary. Then on top of that, the whole rape thing?
I asked Zac Moffat, the head of digital, about that. I said, “Why don’t we just say that rape is obviously an act of Satan, so therefore it’s actually our duty to abort rape babies since they are 100 percent Satan spawn?”
I said it mostly to see what his reaction would be, but my point was that the whole “rape babies are from God” concept was such a load of crazy bullshit that saying they’re from Satan really isn’t any crazier. It’s only just the flip side of the same bullshit coin. His response was this: “I want to kill those fuckers.” By which he didn’t mean the babies, but rather the Senators who couldn’t stop spewing all that offensive nonsense. So that was encouraging as well.
If anything, I was scared Romney might actually pull it off, and that I might have actually helped make that happen, all for the sake of a story. Thankfully, things worked out all right in the end.
Okay. I admit, at one point I did wonder, if Romney won, whether or not I’d be asked to work for him, which could be cool, right? Working in the White House? Besides which, at that point, you’re not working for a Republican or Democrat so much as working for the President. That’s what I told myself, anyway. When I ran into my UMass buddy on the campaign, I asked him the same question—if he’d take a job at the White House if Romney won. His response was, “I think if I did that, my wife would serve me with divorce papers that very day.”
Were you tempted to undermine the campaign with your work? Or did you do the best job possible on their behalf? If so, did you feel weird about it?
I was definitely tempted, but the campaign did such a good job of undermining itself that I really didn’t have to think about it much. Besides which, my job just involved designing the user interface, you know, telling them where the buttons should go and so forth. I felt Romney deserved good UI just as much as Obama did, so, no, I didn’t try to sabotage the website or anything. And again, I didn’t have to, considering the number of typos and gaffes that spewed out of that place almost on a daily basis.
Is it a relief to be open about your politics now?
It is a huge relief, actually. Right after the election, some of the artists in the digital department came out to me over Skype. We came out to each other, I guess. Also, I could repost all the old articles I had to take down to get the job—the one about performing stand-up comedy naked, the one called “A Brief History of Masturbation in America,” things like that. They never found my story on Nerve, surprisingly, which was a story about a guy who has sex with a copy machine.
What happened when the video surfaced in which Romney talked about the 47 percent who are freeloaders?
Believe it or not, at the time, the right-wing diehards in the office actually defended Romney’s 47 percent comment. “Finally,” they said, “We get to hear how Romney really feels! I don’t know why he can’t tell the people the truth like this all the time!”
Was that when you knew it was truly a fait accompli that he would lose?
At first, I thought it was obvious he would lose, since he was bragging about the very things Obama said he was going to do as president. Day one, he said, repeal Obamacare, end funding to Planned Parenthood. Overturn Roe v. Wade. I figured Obama must know the majority of Americans don’t want [the president to do] those things. It all seemed pretty cut and dry.
But as time went on, poll after poll indicated Romney was going to win. My bosses all said Romney was going to win. They said it with complete conviction, said they had access to information the press was ignoring. So really, there was never a time that I knew it was a fait accompli until late into the night of the election. And then, of course, he lost by over a hundred electoral votes, so go figure.
What’s your current view of right-wingers in general? Have your ideas about them changed?
Well, there’s your traditional right-wingers and then there’s this new breed of right-wingers which I really don’t get at all. I mean, I can understand being fiscally conservative, and I can understand wanting less government and more personal liberties, but if all that’s true, why would they be so dead set against gay marriage? Why so dead set against abortion? Pardon the pun.
So right now there’s a major conflict in the Republican Party, and as a result, their BS is showing. The fact they want more pulpit control means they don’t really care about personal freedoms at all; they only care which magic combination of messaging results in the most votes. They literally told us in a big meeting that they will have the governor say whatever it is the majority of the people want him to say. That they have their own audiences watching the debates with their own “like/don’t like” knobs, and they’re spinning those knobs around all through the debates, and whichever messages result in the most positive knob spins, that’s the stuff they’re going to pursue. Didn’t matter what it was.
What was it like to meet Mitt Romney?
They say he’s a lousy politician, in which case he must be a truly good guy, because when I met him he seemed very warm and personable. He asked questions about my life, about my family. He acted as though he cared. Plus, dude’s got an incredible handshake.
What do you think of Romney now?
I’m sure Mitt Romney is a decent, down-to-earth guy, or as down-to-earth as one can be with an unlimited source of revenue. Okay, here’s a good story. One of the project managers’ kids came into the office on a day the gov happened to be there. Romney met the dude’s kid and everything, right? Shook his hand, how do you do? Couple days later, the project manager comes to work and there’s a baseball on his desk, signed by the gov to his kid.
Now, come on. That’s a classy move no matter how you look at it. There wasn’t any press attached to that act. There wasn’t anybody but us who were going to find out about it.
I think the real Mitt Romney is a good guy who unfortunately got some bad advice from his strategists, who simply had no idea what it took to appeal to the majority of American voters. Don’t forget, as governor of Massachusetts he basically created Obamacare. And he was much more liberal about gay marriage and abortion as well. Then he has to turn around and perform all these linguistic gymnastics to get around it.
Poor sap just got caught up in the wrong crowd is all.
Are there a lot of installments of this series? Are they destined for Huffington Post?
I have literally hundreds of pages of the stuff. And until someone comes through with a book deal, yes, my plan is to keep putting them on the Huffington Post. I might also start recording them as Podcasts or SoundClouding them or something. Maybe I’ll shoot some videos. It’s all about exposure, right? So far, though, all the comments have been very enthusiastic and supportive. People are saying they can’t wait to read more.
Are you planning to infiltrate anything else?
Probably not. I’ve infiltrated so many things already. Besides which, my wife and I are expecting our third child in May. We’re having a home birth, so with the possible exception of my wife’s womb, I’m thinking this is it.•