For the past decade, Twitter has brought us breaking news, celebrity gossip, and memes upon memes upon memes. However, with the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, it has also brought us a new form of brinkmanship, of madman politics.
Thankfully, social media warriors such as Miami’s Billy Corben are busy fighting back, 140 characters at a time. Tuesday, October 17, the award-winning documentary filmmaker of The U and Cocaine Cowboys will step out from behind his cell phone and in front of a podium for a trio of good and noble causes.
Comic Cure’s Inside Joke: A Roast of Miami Politics With Roastmaster Billy Corben is both an evening of political awareness and an opportunity to raise money for a pair of charities. Engage Miami and Guitars Over Guns will benefit from the proceeds of the show.
As the host and roastmaster, Corben will have a chance to go full Don Rickles on not only the brave Miami politicians in attendance but also the ones too chicken to face him.
Slated to appear are Miami Beach mayoral candidates Dan Gelber and Daniel Kahn, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, City of Miami Commissioners Francis Suarez and Ken Russell, Miami Beach Commissioners Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Ricky Arriola, and Miami Beach Commission candidate Mark Samuelian.
On the phone, Corben is a whirlwind of energy. He crackles with ideas and opinions, barely pausing to breathe between criticisms, jokes, and his own laughter. He’s like Looney Toons' Tasmanian Devil, except when Corben gets spitting mad, every word is calculated and intelligible.
“A lot of these people I have called out many times before. You just gotta look at my Twitter feed or Facebook and know that I’m probably going to sue Ricky Arriola for breaking public records laws,” he laughs. “Again, I give them a lot of credit for showing up for the cause.”
The format of the show will see the audience vote for their favorite roaster. While those ballots are tallied, Corben will fill the intervening 15 or so minutes with his own set. Although he’s not a professional standup comedian, the gears are turning and have been for a long time — Miami politics provides plenty of material for his set. Asked if he will make an Arriola joke, he seems dumbfounded.
“Are you kidding? I’m going to eat him like a bag of Doritos after I smoke a bowl,” Corben quips, a direct gibe at Arriola’s backdoor attempt to ban medical marijuana in Miami Beach.
“The goal is to bring awareness to the upcoming election and some of the races,” he says. “Some of these races for Miami Commission, they’re not going to be [at the roast], but it’s like a rogues gallery of Dick Tracy villains. We’re going to be talking a lot about that I hope.”
In addition to savaging the names and reputations of individual politicians, Corben also wants real conversations to take place concerning the role local politics plays in the lives of everyday citizens.
“Last year, it was easier because it was right before the [presidential] election. Shit was about to get unfunny, but nobody knew how unfunny. Now, a year later, nothing is funny. It’s hard to make fun of the state of American politics when it’s as grim as it is. The most important thing people realize, the old adage is true: ‘All politics is local.’ People need to start paying attention. Our first and sometimes last line of defense against the Florida Legislature, who cannot be trusted, again the federal government, who can’t be trusted.
“We need to make sure now, more than ever, that our local government is effective and responsive and honest. Things like this are more important than ever before.”
When the local and national powers collide and collude, it makes for some very difficult situations. When Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez complied with Trump’s immigration orders, effectively eliminating Miami’s status as a sanctuary city, Corben was far from surprised.
“Pepe Billete is my second favorite Cuban puppet after Carlos Gimenez. That guy’s tenure is an embarrassment to Miami-Dade County. He does not represent and has never represented the values or the glories of this community.”
Still, Corben isn’t all gloom and doom. He’s hopeful about the future of Miami, a city long mired in corruption and shame. “I’m hopeful about a lot of these folks. They represent a new generation. That’s true of Francis Suarez; that’s true of Ken Russell. I wish it was true of Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. Gelber has been around for a while, but that’s kind of Miami Beach’s thing — old Jews are Miami Beach’s thing.”
This confluence of comedy and politics is important not only because of the awareness it promotes of candidates and issues, but also, Corben believes, because it can help change hearts and minds.
One man who was always unexpectedly at cultural cross sections with his brand of comedy was 45-year-old standup Ralphie May, who recently passed away. Corben saw May just before his death in Nashville. The father of two insisted Corben and his family stay at May's home during Hurricane Irma evacuations in Miami. During that visit, Corben saw May perform at a local comedy club, a quasi-monthly stint, where the comic tackled a variety of tricky subjects, including the dumbness and evils of Trump.
“I saw him afterwards and said, ‘Dude, I saw what you were doing, and it was amazing. It’s important.’ And you know he was going all over the country doing that — enlightening and opening the minds of some closed-minded people. He was doing gay marriage and racial issues, and he was being a little Southern with his language, down and dirty, but he was communicating. I looked around the room, and I could see some of these drunk motherfuckers, in the weeks and months and years to come, when some of these issues come up, will shrug and laugh and repeat some of Ralphie’s punch lines — treat the issue a little differently as a result of that. It figures that a guy like that would go when we need him the most. I’m not a standup comic, or a sit-down comic like Ralphie, and I’ll never be as funny as him, but that became my new goal for this.”
Though Corben remains antagonistic online and unable to cope with “willfully ignorant and hateful” people, he’s far from pessimistic.
“Ralphie made me understand that you can change shit through comedy a little bit. And if you’re not gonna change people’s minds, you can at least knock some of the bad ideas loose with laughter. And maybe if you chisel away at that enough, with comedy and laughter, maybe those bad ideas fall away and leave you with a more tolerant and enlightened human.”
Comic Cure’s Inside Joke: A Roast of Miami Politics With Roastmaster Billy Corben. 8 p.m. at the Flamingo Theater Bar, 905 Brickell Bay Dr., Miami. Tickets cost $18 via eventbrite.com.