Comedian Andy Borowitz on his roots, satire, America’s ignorance

Olivia Warren, Associate News Editor

Andy Borowitz and I have walked the same elm-lined sidewalks, sat in the same rusted bleachers and wrote articles in the same cramped newsroom, but our paths first crossed at the New Orleans Book Festival on March 11. 

The comedian spoke at Tulane about his new book,Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber,” as people packed the auditorium and scrambled for seats. 

Borowitz and I hail from Shaker Heights, a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. We grew up a few miles and decades apart, but the same high school halls and red-brick buildings raised us.

Before writing the Borowitz Report, a satirical column in the New Yorker, Borowitz was editor in chief of the Shakerite, our beloved high-school newspaper, where I spent many hours as a writer and editor.

“I mainly wanted to be editor so I could do an April Fool’s edition,” Borowitz said. “That was the beginning of my whole fake news thing. And then I went to the [Harvard] Lampoon, and I was still doing it. And now I’m still doing it, so no growth.”

Hailie Goldthorpe

Borowitz once described his childhood in Cleveland as full of “absurdity and surrealism,” a puzzling perspective of a Midwestern town where the restaurants close by 9 p.m. But his stories substantiated this claim.

Borowitz’s new book discusses former Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk. In 1972, Perk televised a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the American Metals Society. 

“They had a titanium ribbon, and they gave him a blowtorch to cut the ribbon,” Borowitz said. “So he set his hair on fire.”

This incident occurred three years after Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River set on fire

“Cleveland’s reputation for flammability started to be a problem,” Borowitz said. 

“That’s the kind of thing that I don’t think every kid in every city grows up with,” Borowitz said. “I started seeing the real world as being kind of a crazy place and a comic place, because people in positions of leadership who should know better were doing things like setting their hair on fire.”

“I’m still basically writing about that same thing,” Borowitz said, “except now I’m writing about Herschel Walker.”

Shaker Heights has become famous since the era of “white flight” for its voluntary integration plans that led to a diverse population

Shaker has changed a lot from the time Borowitz lived there. Our high school’s pride has shifted from Paul Newman to Machine Gun Kelly, and flammability is certainly on the decline. But Shaker’s attempts to face the issues that come with diversity have continued. 

“At Shaker in this very integrated community, I got used to the idea of being the only white person in the room … [it] was really an experience Black people go through, but white people don’t.” 

Borowitz was co-creator of the 90s sit-com “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” 

“I was white, and clearly not qualified to write about the Black experience,” Borowitz said on stage. “I sort of acted like a journalist. I hired African American writers, directors and the cast was all African American.” 

Borowitz engaged in what his book calls “intellectual humility.” 

“[It’s] just acknowledging that you’re ignorant,” Borowitz said. “And that’s where learning starts, right?”

“[‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’] was sort of like Shaker; it was tremendous collaboration between white and Black creative people,” Borowitz said. 

“I have a lot of beefs with my parents, but one thing that they did well was sending me to the Shaker schools,” Borowitz said as we discussed our heated rivalries against local private schools.

Now, he writes the Borowitz Report, which started as an email newsletter to his friends and snowballed into a comedic sensation.

“A lot of people when Trump was elected said, ‘Oh your job is going to be so easy, now the jokes will write themselves,’ and the exact opposite was true,” Borowitz said. “You can’t really exaggerate Donald Trump.” To make satire about Trump, Borowitz tries to “play out his logic to the logical extreme.”

For example, when the scandal broke that Trump paid adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to hide an alleged affair, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen alluded that no affair occurred, but that Daniels was paid so she wouldn’t lie about an affair. 

“I just thought to myself, ‘Well, I also have not had sex with Donald Trump. So where’s my $130,000?’” Borowitz said.

And so a piece was born: “Millions of Americans Demand $130,000 for Not Having Sex with Trump.”

In 2014, Business Insider named Shaker Heights the most liberal town in Ohio, with a resident being 88.7% likely to be a Democrat. Trump’s scandals led to anger, and satire like Borowitz’s allowed people to breathe and laugh instead of stew. 

Borowitz’s book discusses “performative ignorance,” in which politicians and the media pander to an appetite for ignorance while knowing better. 

Borowitz said that Rupert Murdoch, founder of Fox News, spearheads performative ignorance on Fox. “If suddenly there were billions of dollars to be made in being a member of the ‘wokerati,’ he would fire all those guys and Flavor Flav would have a show.””

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between the genuinely ignorant and performative ignorant,” Borowitz said. “The genuinely ignorant voters will be very suckered and taken in by a performatively ignorant person like Ted Cruz or DeSantis. And I think the results speak for themselves: people die.”

Borowitz calls this “trickle-down ignorance.” 

Borowitz’s pride for Shaker has followed him from The Shakerite to the New Yorker. He wears Cleveland shirts and often espouses his hometown but not always for the reasons the public did. 

In the 1950s television show “Leave it to Beaver,” Ward Cleaver represents a quintessential suburban father from Shaker Heights. “It shows us how Shaker Heights in the public imagination then seemed very white picket fence,” Borowitz said, but he believes this image is not a reflection of its complicated existence. Shaker’s town meetings about the racial achievement gap, the Jan. 6 insurrection and other societal issues have made it “confrontational in a good way,” in Borowitz’s words.

“If ignorance trickles down, then knowledge can rise up,” Borowitz said. “We get involved locally and we work to elect a good school board and a good city council and town council. Eventually, some of those people may actually like running things.”

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