Comedian Joe Wenke is the author of You Got to Be Kidding, described as a Bill Maher take on religion, shutting down myths and stories as he probably irritates the entire Bible belt. The very second I heard he referred to himself as a “culture arsonist,” I wanted to be one. As it turns out, I was sad upon learning setting random things on fire is not involved – the book description says it is actually about “causing trouble” – but pleased I can be at once angry-bitter and living in Hello Kitty Land.
What does a “cultural arsonist” actually do? Is this anything like a help wanted ad put out by Ann Coulter? Why did you want to call yourself this moniker?
A cultural arsonist is somebody who sets fire to stupidity and burns up bigotry, metaphorically, of course. That’s what I do, so that’s what I call myself. I have lots of rhetorical tools at my disposal, but the primary tool is satire. Ann Coulter? No, she is definitely not a cultural arsonist. In fact, she trades on stupidity and bigotry, so she’s the opposite of a cultural arsonist.
Did being a cultural arsonist derive from your years working as a speechwriter, sort of being silent while you told other people what to say, essentially? Or did it strengthen your opinions more so?
It didn’t derive from my having been a speechwriter. I’ve always been very outspoken and questioned everything since I was a kid. I have to say, though, that being a speechwriter is a weird job. You have to have a huge ego to deal with CEO types and other so-called big shots, but then you have to pretend to have no ego when they set about changing what you’ve written. But you do learn to be very persuasive and adept at arguing different positions. Being a speechwriter also helped me to become a very fast writer.
Is being angry required, or can I be a cultural arsonist too in a Pollyanna sort of way? I kind of want to crack jokes while I’m attacking culture and hand out healthy, low calorie cupcakes I decorated before I grill people. With Sanrio products somehow involved. What steps are involved in my path to being one?
My own style is playful rather than angry. My artistic models are the Beatles early press conferences and Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope. I mean, sometimes the best way to win a debate is to just let the other person do all of the talking. Actually, being a cultural arsonist is more about pushing limits and boundaries than being angry—sort of like, if you see a line, cross it, or if you think you’ve gone too far, go further. It’s also about how you live, how you present yourself to the world, as much as it is about writing. I’m very girly in how I present myself to the world. I have long hair, wear mascara, eye shadow, pink fingernail polish and girls clothes. That look definitely pushes boundaries and is very edgy and funny. It’s very disarming—like handing out cupcakes before grilling your next victim.
Your book info says it “tempts readers to more closely examine the stories they think they know about the Bible.” What is an example of a Biblical story that needs to be restudied?
How about Noah’s Ark? Scientists have identified more than a million species, so how big was that boat? It’s just a guess, but I’m thinking something along the lines of the state of Rhode Island. And just how did Noah round up all of the animals? I mean who went out and picked up the polar bears and penguins. And what about the kangaroos and kiwis? Also, was every insect species on board, or was there a cut off point? Did roaches and mosquitoes make it? How about bed bugs?
Why did you want to focus on Christianity? Why not other religions?
I wrote about the Bible, which is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, because that’s the belief system that I was brought up in. I wanted to expose the absurdity of the Bible. How is the Bible absurd? Well, the most absurd thing about the Bible is that in all probability nothing of importance described in it ever actually happened. Also, Old Testament morality is really more like tribal code like we get today from the Taliban. I also wanted to call out people who use the Bible to justify their own bigotry against gay and transgender people as well as their contempt for women. If God did write the Bible as the fundamentalists contend, then my message to them is just because God is a bigot doesn’t make it right.
And while we discuss other religions, what do you want to pick apart from Buddhism or other religions?
Absurd beliefs of any kind are worthy targets of satire. At the same time, I really don’t care about what people believe. People believe all sorts of crazy things. That’s fine with me. That’s what makes the world go round. I object when somebody thinks that their religion is the one, true religion or when they use what they view as scripture to justify their own bigotry against people who are different from them.
What are some great things people have told you about your book? What have the worst critics, or possibly a group of people you may call “haters,” told you?
There have been more than 40 reviews of the book, and almost all of them have been very positive. I love that people find the book to be very funny. I think that the humor of the book is very disarming. It opens up people’s minds to entertain new ideas. One reviewer said the book should be part of any library, particularly a religious library. I like that. One guy trashed the book, and said it was sophomoric. That was good too since it reminded me of how much I like the word “sophomoric.”
I like the book cover art interpretation. Somehow, it speaks a lot for being so subdued. How did you declare this to be what you were thinking? Because people really do judge a book by its cover in the publishing world.
I absolutely love the cover of my book! My good friend, Gisele Xtravaganza, who is a very beautiful and successful transgender model, is the nun on the cover. The original cover designer had proposed the idea of having a laughing, scandalized nun on the cover. I thought the attitude was a little heavy handed and obvious, but I liked the nun idea itself. I bought a nun costume online and gave it to Gisele. She tried it on and took a picture of herself. She looked so beautiful and angelic, very close to the image that we have on the cover, and I though, oh, my God! That’s it. Jeffrey Michelson, the ultimate cover designer and the designer of my website, loved the image too but said quite rightly that it also had to be funny. He came up with the idea of having a cartoon balloon with the book’s title coming out of Gisele’s head. So, to me, the cover art really captures the point of view of the book, which is very funny while at the same time calling out bigotry against gay and transgender people.
Other than religion, how can we find sarcasm, wit and humor in life?
Objects of satire are everywhere around us—politicians, celebrities, our family, friends, people at work—the list goes on. Life is crazy and difficult, but humor is very powerful. It exposes hypocrisy and absurdity, and it makes everybody feel good at the same time. We argue about everything, but if something’s funny, it’s funny. It’s hard to argue about that.