Josie Long’s stage at the Barrow Street Theatre is hung with flags sewn with images and slogans that represent the show, an aesthetic that’s Wes Anderson meets suffragette protests outside the White House in 1919. One flag has the image of Jaiyah Saeluah—a soccer player for the famously losing American Samoan team and the first transgender player to compete in the FIFA World Cup. Another reads, “ADELE IS A GENIUS COME AT ME.” And in the center of the stage, there’s a banner with the name of the show, Something Better.
The name of the show was originally an answer to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, an appeal to optimism and finding hope even in troubling political times. She had planned to tour her show to the United States before she realized how relevant its message would be on this side of the Atlantic after our election.
“It was sort of a weird experience,” Long told me in a coffee shop, the afternoon before I’d see her perform. “When the conservatives first got in in the United Kingdom, I remember my friends saying there’ll be loads of good art. Okay, but I’d rather have schools and hospitals than good art. And now, one of my friends was like, Your show is so much more relevant! And it’s like; I’d rather have not a fascist elected, if that’s all right.”
I met Long in person the first time a little over a year ago, while I was on a trip to London with very few plans and very little money. After little more than a Twitter introduction, Long offered me and a friend free tickets to see her in a small theater show in a small act of kindness so genuine and generous that it made me feel better about mankind as a whole for a good 12 hours following it.
That show in London focused almost entirely on specifics of the British political system. I didn’t recognize 9 out of 10 of the politician’s names she mentioned, or any of the acronyms, but it was one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever attended. I may not have known the in-jokes about Ed Miliband, but what I understood, clear as anything, was Josie Long: effortlessly effusive and personable, self-deprecating and intelligent, biting but optimistic. She was the remedy to male comedians who are the human equivalents of the wank-off gesture, who believe saying the word “pussy” with a self-satisfied smirk is the same as a joke.
But political comedy in 2016 is still something of a question mark. “You feel worried that you’re adding to the problem and not helping. When you lose, it’s really easy to think, ‘Oh shit, did I make us lose worse somehow?’ Peter Cook, who was this amazing satirist in the United Kingdom, did [famous satire revue] Beyond the Fringe. And they asked him, ‘Do you think Beyond the Fringe helped changed British politics?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, very much in the way that the Weimar cabaret helped stopped the rise of Nazism.’ ”
But, in a time when politics has seemingly whooshed past satire and landed comfortably in an area that might be labeled “utter and complete panic,” it seems to be a comedian like Josie Long—who is earnest and honest and using comedy to make it all look so seamless—becomes all the more essential.
“With Brexit, they finished counting the election at 5 a.m., and then at 6:04 a.m. on television, Nigel Farage came out and was like, ‘Oh yeah, all of those things we said were lies.’ The idea of people who voted for it, in earnest, thinking this person will protect our health service, and then literally an hour later to have him be like, well, obviously that’s not true….” Long said in disbelief. “It’s just like, how is that allowed?”
“Ever since Brexit, what I’ve really taken heart in is there are plenty of people who are brave and bold and optimistic activists who have been working hard before the vote, and continuing to work hard since it. There are people you can support who are undaunted in the face of it.”
Because Long had experienced the crushing disappointment of the Brexit vote in the U.K. a few months before America would suffer similar trauma with the election of Donald Trump, she felt like something of the Ghost of Fascism Future, able to offer perspective and wisdom on how to move forward.
After losing the referendum, Long saw the Left in the U.K. begin to tear itself apart, a pattern that America seems to be following.
“Yeah, in some ways the campaign must have had flaws and must’ve not been what people wanted and such, but what also happened was a devious campaign that used the internet in ways that I definitely don’t feel like I can keep up with, that exploited people and preyed on people’s fears and, you know, they succeeded because they were liars and audacious and devious. They did like, an evil genius thing.”
At the coffee shop, Long took out her copy of Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit’s famous history of activism, to show me, nearly every page heavy with highlighter and pen markings in the margin.
“As the dust settles, you become even more determined in the face of what feels unconquerable,” Long said. “You don’t want to give up and you have to keep going. Ever since Brexit, what I’ve really taken heart in is there are plenty of people who are brave and bold and optimistic activists who have been working hard before the vote, and continuing to work hard since it. There are people you can support who are undaunted in the face of it.”
And so here we are, America and the United Kingdom: two countries with immigrant paranoia and a rising militant right, a shared sense of confusion and dismay. But we also share Josie Long and voices like hers, who remind us that terrible things are something to rise up against instead of to hide from. Optimism and comedy is by no means the only thing necessary to achieve political change, but it makes all of this, well, something better.
Something Better is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York until December 3.