Andy Borowitz: From 'Fresh Prince' to Political Satire
The New Yorker writer and stand-up comic thrives on making people laugh
Andy Borowitz, writer of The Borowitz Report on The New Yorker website, has been making us laugh our way through the political scene for years. During the seemingly endless 2016 presidential election, he kept us from being serious all the time.
But when it comes to political satire these days, Borowitz says, “Our reality is so absurd now that I can’t make up anything that tops it. Once a game show host is president, where do you go from there? I’m really just reporting reality now, but stating it more bluntly.”
Since the election, Borowitz’s readership has doubled.
Borowitz has an extensive comedy writing background but first became involved in comedy to keep him one step ahead of the law.
The Comedy Pedigree of Andy Borowitz
Many comedians get their starts either in their teenage years or early 20s. But not Borowitz. He began writing comic books in elementary school and penning spoof detective novels when he was in the fifth grade. He jokes that his life has shown very little growth over the last 50 years or so.
A big fan of early Woody Allen movies like Bananas and Take the Money and Run, Borowitz also loved anything by the Marx Brothers. “I was always really drawn to comedy,” he says.
In middle school and high school, Borowitz began making parody movies using a Super-8 camera. While in high school, he became the editor of the school newspaper, but had an ulterior motive.
“That is the most serious journalistic position I’ve held in my entire career because I was actually publishing straight news,” says Borowitz. “But I only really wanted to do it because, once a year, we did an April Fool's issue and I kind of lived for that. I tolerated my career as a straight journalist for the other 11 months just to do that one issue.”
Borowitz took these skills to Harvard University, where he served as president of The Harvard Lampoon. In addition to publishing The Lampoon, “a half-baked, satirical magazine that we kind of threw together,” Borowitz says he really got excited about publishing a parody of The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.
“We would publish a fake issue on a day that they were not publishing [a real one]. It looked exactly like The Crimson, and we would distribute it to all the dorms so that people picking it up thought that they were reading a real newspaper, and by degrees, they would realize that something was amiss,” Borowitz says.
The same thing happens today. Online news outlets will routinely publish a piece from The Borowitz Report, not just as a serious story, but as their top political news story of the day. As a result, The New Yorker leads his column with “Satire from The Borowitz Report.” But as Borowitz says, that doesn’t seem to always help.
“We wanted to be very clear that we were not trying to perpetrate a hoax. There is a difference between being a satirist and working at a Russian troll farm, and we wanted to clarify that,” explains Borowitz. “Having said that, people still mistake my columns for real news. ‘DeVos Says Trump’s Forty-Per-Cent Approval Rating Means More Than Half of Country Supports Him’ was widely thought to be true … And I’m never writing news stories.”
Avoiding the Law When Hollywood Called
But since Next Avenue does publish news stories, we have to explain Borowitz’s desire to flee the law. That, too, is not what you think.
“My parents really wanted me to be a lawyer,” says Borowitz, who comes from a long line of lawyers. He did not want to be one. During his senior year in college, he even thought about applying for a fellowship.
"My main plan at that point had been to avoid law school,” quips Borowitz. He planned to do anything — even research 18th century English drama for a year — if he could avoid becoming a lawyer. Luckily for him, Hollywood stepped in.
Back then, the Lampoon would invite celebrities and others involved in show business to come to campus to speak. Bud Yorkin, who co-founded Tandem Productions, a TV production company with Norman Lear, and executive-produced shows such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Good Times, attended. While introducing him, Borowitz improvised a short stand-up routine and afterward, Yorkin said to him: “You’re a funny guy. Would you like to come out and work for me?”
“It was like one of those Schwab’s drugstore moments, where I was asked to do something amazing,” says Borowitz. On the same evening, a guy who had also worked on The Lampoon but was then working at Saturday Night Live, offered him a job as a writer. “I immediately threw out my fellowship applications and decided to work for Bud in L.A,.” Borowitz says.
For the next 15 years, Borowitz worked as a comedy writer for shows such as The Facts of Life and Square Pegs. He also created The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. When that show filmed, Borowitz served as the stand-up comedy warm-up guy who would keep the live studio audience entertained. That’s where he began to improvise. “No one wants to hear you only doing jokes about dating over the course of three hours,” he says.
In 1995, Borowitz left Hollywood for New York. He continued doing stand-up comedy in the alternative comedy world in smaller clubs and began writing funny pieces for The New York Times op-ed page. He also started submitting pieces to The New Yorker and began writing for it in 1998 — but not The Borowitz Report.
Borowitz’s self-titled columns started in 2001 when he began writing news parodies and emailing them to friends. A web designer suggested he do a bare-bones website and just blast the link out to his readers. “I honestly was not thinking that this was going to be a job someday,” says Borowitz. But his readership grew.
An Unexpected Political Beat
At the time, Borowitz wrote mostly about celebrities and pop culture. After a while, he decided to cover news, and then politics, instead.
“I have to confess that I am not that interested in politics. I know that’s kind of hard to believe,” says Borowitz. “[The Borowitz Report] has gravitated to that because it’s what the audience tends to be really into.”
In 2012, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, contacted Borowitz about publishing The Borowitz Report on its website. He’s been writing it there ever since.
“I’m really having a great time. I thought I’d be tired of it by now, but I’m not,” says Borowitz. “If I’m having a rough day, I say to myself, ‘Well, trying to make people laugh is really not the worst way to spend your life.’ Because when it works, it’s a good thing.”
Borowitz is currently on tour. “The shows are completely different from my columns. I do a little stand-up at the beginning and then the rest of the show is an improvised conversation. I’ve always enjoyed performing. It’s a nice change from writing, which is such a solitary activity. I decided to go on tour because there was an audience for these shows, and I thought it would be a good way to energize people about the 2018 election,” he says.
It’s also for a good cause. “I thought I could raise money for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which helps refugees around the world. I’m selling hats, T-shirts, and other merchandise with the name of the tour — Make American Not Embarrassing Again — on them.” All the profits from the merchandise go to IRC.
To find out about Borowitz’s tour, check out his Facebook page.