If you’ve been watching the news, then you’ve likely been exhausted with the upcoming presidential election since January of 2015. While the first official debate wasn’t held until September 26, the debate of Clinton vs. Trump has been going on for months, on Facebook and on Twitter and, God help us, even on Snapchat. Each side of the argument is inundated with misappropriated memes, out-of-date language, and logical fallacies. Let’s face it, debate is broke
And that’s where Seeso’s new series, Debate Wars, comes in.
With the simple promise to “make debate great again,” Debate Wars pits comedians against each other in classically moderated debates. Hosted by Michael Ian Black and written and executively produced by Aparna Nancherla, Debate Wars offers comedians a chance to perform outside of their regular stand-up routines. While the arguments focus on seemingly benign topics like “pie versus cake,” “cats versus dogs,” and “old people versus babies,” the standards of debate remain intact.
The first season of the show includes guests Janeane Garofalo, Judah Friedlander, Andy Dick, Gilbert Gottfried, Eugene Mirman, and Todd Barry, among others. “Hopefully our debaters will conduct themselves with exactly the same level of maturity as our presidential candidates,” explained Black, in a statement released earlier this year.
It’s obvious that Debate Wars is playing off the current political climate, and the idea of debate as comedy is certainly an interesting application of stand-up, which is why I was excited to catch up with Black and Nancherla to talk about debate, comedy, and politics in the United States.
What gets you the most excited about Debate Wars?
Nancherla: It’s actually based off a live show that’s done here in New York at a place called Symphony Space, and it’s called Uptown Showdown, which is like basically a version of what the show ended up being for Seeso, with a bit more live performance added to it.
That’s how I first started doing comedic debate, and it’s always so fun. What I love about it is that you really get to see various performers bring themselves to it in a really specific way, where you’re not just seeing them do their standard set or anything, but it’s their style in a different medium. It’s really fun to see people play off of each other.
You used the term “comedic debate,” and it’s interesting because “comedy” and “debate” seem to use the same parts of the brain. What do you think is the relationship between comedy and debate?
Black: Anytime you have conflict, you have potential for either drama or comedy, and what makes Debate Wars a comedy is that we’re arguing very passionately about the dumbest of subjects. So you can replace what we’re arguing about with, I don’t know, policy, and it will come off like a debate. We’re passionately arguing things like cake versus pie, and that’s funny.
Nancherla: I feel like a couple of comedians I know have a background in debate, I think Kristen Schaal might have started in debate too, but there is definitely the way jokes are crafted, or even bits or something, there is definitely this through line of logic that’s just like used the same way that you’d make an argument for a case, so I think in that way, strangely, having a legal background can lend itself to being persuasive in a funny way too.
The slogan for the show is “Make Debate Great Again,” which is obviously a reference to the upcoming election. Do you see Debate Wars as a reaction to, say, current politics?
Nancherla: I think it does feel like anytime you’re in an election season, or coming up on an election, that the country feels a little bit more divided in terms of who they’re going to vote for, and issues in general become more polarized as they become more clustered around a candidate or what the next four years is going to look like, so I think in that sense people are always a little bit more strident in their views, especially when we’re coming up on another voting cycle.
Would you say that Debate Wars is satirical?
Black: Sure, it certainly is satirical. We’re taking all the archetypes of televised debate and using them to poke fun at itself. So yeah, I would say it’s satirical.
Nancherla: Especially since the topics are a little bit more light hearted instead of being like, poking fun at how serious debates are taken, especially around election season. I think it also sort of points out how much — really with any two topics you can argue — make a case for either side in a compelling way, which is an interesting thing to notice. Regardless of what side you’re on, you know? Like, I think I argued pie versus cake for the first episode, and I am definitely a cake person, but I had to argue the opposite, and I found myself believing my own case. You just have to sort of believe it.
Do either of you have any experience with debate? Were you in debate club in school or in college?
Black: I don’t even think my school had a debate club. And I don’t know if I would have joined it anyway, but I know how to argue. I’m interested in arguing, I’m interested in strong opinions, and I’m interested in listening which I think is a primary weapon of a good debater or a good interviewer.
Nancherla: No, none. I actually consider myself a very non-confrontational person, or someone who is very intimidating, but something I like about Debate Wars is that you can very much just make it more silly than necessarily making the strongest case.
So, the comedians who come on Debate Wars are generally very prepared. How does that work? What’s the writer’s room like?
Black: The guests prepare their own arguments, and that’s it. That’s one of the nice things about this show. The guest will prepare, but they’re also obliged to respond to arguments that other people have made or questions that I have asked them. So basically they can say whatever they want, but they also have to be able to think on their feet.
Nancherla: Honestly it’s kind of funny to say that there are writers, because there are, but we’re not writing the bulk of the show. A lot of it is around the details that get people intros, and sort of the transitional parts of the show from segment to segment. And then there’s also some people, either because of time or we’re overbooked, they might have needed a little more fleshing out of their side or argument, so there’s like sort of an option if they wanted help formulating their argument, then we would step in.
There were definitely times when people showed up without having prepared anything, but it would still be fun and you wouldn’t know what was going to happen, but because it was filmed in a lot of times, we needed a more baseline idea of what people were going to do.
How did the two of you connect for this project?
Nancherla: I think [Michael and I] had just been on shows together in the past, but this was the first time working together on something more than a one-off.
Black: I was brought on to the show after it was developed and I think Aparna was already working on it when I came on. I like her a lot, she is very warm and very funny and we get along great.
Nancherla: I feel like [Michael] has this very specific persona, that’s a little bit professional and a little bit snarky, and I think there’s a grain of that in him, but it’s obviously heightened on stage. I mean, at first I didn’t want to rub him the wrong way, but in person he is very warm and certainly nice. He’s great.
Coming back to the idea of satire, looking at Debate Wars, and the current state of things, what would you say is the most absurd thing going on in the world right now?
Black: The fact that a circus peanut is running for President of the United States.
You know, that brings up a good point. Not the circus peanut, but Michael, you seem to be really passionate about politics.
Black: Yeah, of course. I’ve always been interested in politics, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to politics, and then every four years that bleeds over into my life in a more direct way. You know, it’s hard to get as passionate about gubernatorial races, or school board races, as presidential races. I’m certainly paying attention, and yeah, I do care. You know, this election is just absurd, the idea, I mean, for all the obvious reasons in itself, it’s absurd. And that any chance of Trump being elected is hilarious, and seriously, seriously crazy.
Okay, so that gives me an idea. I want to try something different to end this interview. Because Debate Wars is all about arguing one thing versus another, I think we should have a mini-debate right now. Donald Trump’s hair versus his hands. Which is more important?
Black: His hair. When we are talking about his hair, primarily it’s the brand of Donald Trump, not necessarily the person of Donald Trump. The person of Donald Trump is flexible and pliable. The hair, however, is inflexible and timeless. The hair itself is the Donald Trump brand. Picture, if you will, Donald Trump with corn rows, you can’t. Picture Donald trump with a mohawk, and you can’t. You cannot. It’s because Donald Trump’s hair is internationally known and, without it, he’s just a bloated, self obsessed person who doesn’t pay attention to fashion.
Nancherla: His hands, because those are the ones that would push the button for the bombs.
Wow. Well, I’m going to have to give this one to Aparna, if not but for cold, chilling honesty of her answer. Well done!