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Why Is This Man Saluting? Will Durst is kind of like Will Rogers--with fangs.

Will Power

Political satirist Will Durst gets ready to kiss off this crappy year

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WILL DURST IS a man on the edge. Literally. The renowned political comedian is precariously perched on the barricaded periphery of a huge hole in the ground. Durst is in the midst of an afternoon photo shoot--using San Francisco, the city he calls home, as a background--and he's currently posing before the gargantuan American flag that hangs from a building at the opposite end of the hole that he's attempting not to fall into.

As a pair of hard-hatted construction workers stand warily by, a secondary stream of photographers--folks who either recognize Durst or merely want to snap a shot of a highly animated man falling into a pit--take turns coming forward to shoot their own picture. Finally one of the construction workers steps up to find out what's going on.

"Who's that?" she asks. Hearing the name Will Durst, she says, "Yeah? Who's Will Durst?" After it's explained that he is a comedian with a considerable degree of fame, she eyes him with renewed admiration. "A comedian? Well good, let him come over here and tell me some jokes. Because, these days, I could use a good laugh!" When Durst is finished, however, it's she who makes him laugh.

"Why did they kick an old lady with knitting needles off of the airplane?" she asks. The answer: "They were afraid she'd knit an Afghan." Durst's laughter is appreciative and seems genuine.

"Wow," he tells her. "That's a pretty good joke."

"I do think people want to laugh," Durst says later, over a tuna melt at Mel's Diner on Mission Street. "The good thing about comedy is that, when something seems heavy or overwhelming or insurmountable--when you just don't know if you're going to be able to carry it--comedy puts a handle on it. It doesn't lessen the weight or the pain of it. But it does make it easier to carry it around."

Durst is talking about Sept. 11. That horrendous day caused an initial downturn in the comedy business, during which club owners across the country waited to see if people were still willing, or able, to laugh. But now, comedians are returning to work--frequently to much bigger audiences.

Durst's own style, a unique blend of potent punch lines and whimsical political fact-checking, is in high demand. He's just returned from a weeklong stint in Milwaukee, and will be hitting the road again in a few days, working two more towns before returning to the Bay Area for his ninth annual Big Fat Year End Kiss Off Comedy Revue.

That six-venue event, in which Durst teams up with such comedians as Johnny Steele, Steven Karavitz and Debbi Durst, has become something of a New Year's tradition for many, a comfortingly irreverent way to say so-long to the crappiest parts of the previous year.

And 2001 has been an especially crappy year.

"Telling jokes about 2001," Durst says, "feels a little like chewing on the carrion of the victims. But hey, my act requires that."

Ticking them off on his fingers, Durst runs down the major plot points of 2001.

"In January," he says, "we were dealing with the whole election fiasco, which still isn't resolved according to some people, and then nothing happens until the Gary Condit shit hits the fan, which was really so bogus. I mean, the guy's only serious crime is having the personality of a rusty propane tank, which only egged the media on. So we had Gary Condit, and then in September, of course, all hell breaks loose with the terrorist attacks--and that's pretty much 2001.

"The election. Gary Condit. And 9/11. 2001 in a nutshell," he proclaims. "Of course, what we lose in quantity and diversity we've made up in sheer impact, haven't we?"

Durst, incidentally, was scheduled to perform at a New Orleans comedy festival the week of the attacks, but the event was canceled after 9/11.

"That's why I hate Osama bin Laden," he shares. "It was a paid vacation in New Orleans--and the son of a bitch ruined it. If we don't kill the guy, I'm planning to sue him in small claims court."

It's beginning to rain. The street is a gallery of wet American flags as Durst makes his way across the street toward the Metreon. Nearly every window he passes boast some patriotic enticement to buy something.

"I can't believe all the people jumping on the anti-terrorism bandwagon," he says, adopting a midway barker's tone of voice to shout, "The challenge is terrorism. The answer is a 40 percent off Patriot Sale on everything in the store!"

"It's weird," he adds, "how patriotism and shopping now go hand in hand. 'If you don't go down to Nordstrom's and buy me those shoes, the terrorists will have won!'"

Before taking his leave, Durst has a final thought regarding the future role of comedians in an unpredictable and fast-changing world.

"This is going to be very difficult, telling jokes about this stuff that's going on," he says. "As we get deeper and deeper and deeper it's going to be harder and harder and harder, because the more we learn, the less black and white it's going to be. It was all black and white right after 9/11. Now there're going to be shades of gray.

"And shades of gray are not as easy to laugh at."


For information about the Big Fat Year End Kiss Off Comedy Revue, visit www.willdurst.com.

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From the December 26, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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