Simon Sidi has spent the past three decades touring the world as a lighting designer for some of the world’s biggest rock and pop acts, including Depeche Mode, Kanye West and Roger Waters. But hearing a live audience respond wildly to a debate about a controversial Supreme Court ruling during an episode of the “Slate Political Gabfest” podcast made him realize that it was time to consider a career change.
He immediately set about gathering nearly 200 of America’s top political pundits, politicians and satirists for a huge event called Politicon, which debuted last October and packed 9,000 political junkies into the Los Angeles Convention Center for a two-day weekend of debates, discussions, interviews and comedy shows. With the current presidential election supplying more fireworks than anyone ever expected, Sidi and his team are bringing Politicon in bigger and better form this weekend to the Pasadena Convention Center.
(Full disclosure: this writer is hosting “The Koz Effect Podcast” from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday in the convention center’s Hamilton room, with special guest comic Paul Rodriguez.)
“I’ve always had a huge interest in politics and comedy and it just came to me one day, because the audience reaction was exactly the same as I heard in concert touring,” recalls Sidi. “I realized people want to see this stuff and see it live. Politics and entertainment have always been together, and all we’re doing is bringing them all together for one weekend of spectacular events.”
Realizing that waiting until October would place this year’s event too close to the election and would likely limit celebrity participation, Sidi and his team acted fast. They also opted for a move to Pasadena because it was a more pleasant environment than the cavernous halls of the LA convention hall, and its surroundings were also much nicer.
But once he picked the dates and location, the floodgates opened for an event that has a more surreal array of famous people than a “Simpsons” episode. Among the nearly 100 events scheduled across two action-packed days, James Carville will interview Sarah Palin, Jay Pharoah of “SNL” will headline an epic show of the nation’s top political comedians, and the most extensive reunion of “The Daily Show” alumni ever assembled will also take place in the Crown City. Amazingly, Sidi didn’t even have to pay anyone to take part.
“Money? What money? It’s all through the power of will and people love this stuff,” he says, nearly incredulous himself. “There’s not one person that’s coming who isn’t a political nerd, whether its Carville, Larry Wilmore, Barbara Boxer, or Pharoah. It was easy to talk people into this idea because it’s the only place to see all these people coming together to talk about everything under the sun politically.”
One of Politicon’s countless iconic guests is Carville, the veteran Democratic campaign strategist who made his name planning Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential run. He famously married his archrival, Republican campaign strategist Mary Matalin, and has spent the past 24 years becoming a worldwide election guru as well as a pundit on media outlets, including FOX News. Even with all those experiences, he’s excited to be coming to Pasadena for Politicon.
“I’m very excited about coming out to Pasadena, because it’s a place people want to go to,” says Carville. “Nothing like this has ever been done before in politics ’til last year. Politics is certainly the central theme. But whatever your ideology is, you’ll find something to fascinate you. It’s like Jazzfest in New Orleans, it’s a smorgasbord of politics. It’s a Las Vegas buffet, if you will, because anywhere you want to go, there will be laughter and serious analysis, a little bit of everything.”
Despite his legendarily contentious manner, Carville says he has no interest in arguing with Palin during their time together. He plans on discussing what it was like to have the 2008 vice presidential run thrust upon her and how it affected her life, as well as her in-depth opinions on Donald Trump and the state of the Republican Party, “rather than asking her who the president of Uzbekistan is.”
With Hillary Clinton poised to be the Democratic nominee this year en route to a predicted cakewalk over Trump to the White House, Carville isn’t heavily involved in her campaign. He notes that he’s a surrogate for her in media appearances, as well as in rallying Democratic Party leaders, raising money through Super PACs and offering her campaign advice on an informal basis.
“I think her chances are pretty good,” speculates Carville. “I’ve never been in any part of the country where anyone is remotely ready to have Trump be president. She ran a better campaign that played to her strengths and had superior resources compared to her 2008 run, so they did fine and now the trick is to get the party even more united. The question isn’t whether the Democrats are going to have a good year. The part we don’t know is the difference between a pretty good year and a really good year.”
Carville believes that Trump succeeded in wiping out a staggering GOP field of 16 other candidates because he brought out disgruntled voters who had given up on having their voices heard by more establishment candidates.
“He exposed a significant part of the Republican base that had it with free trade, liberal immigration, and lower taxes on higher incomes,” says Carville. “He basically came in and said, ‘This did nothing for you or the country’ and blew up the party in the process. He completely destroyed every tenet of the party and proved himself to be far superior to the candidates with the rank and file.
“Now the people who are supposed to make up the upper echelons of the Republican Party, by and large, these people hate Republican voters,” Carville continues. “They’re mad at them, don’t understand them, are flummoxed and Republican voters hate him least. That’s an unusual place for a party to be and what I want to explore with Palin. Usually the voters like some aspect of the party leadership and what they stand for, and in this case they can’t stand them.”
Among the most controversial topics of the weekend is sure to be a panel called “Is Trump A Psychopath?” led by British journalist Jon Ronson. Ronson rose to fame by writing a book called “The Psychopath Test” in which he analyzed whether corporate CEOs could be officially identified as psychopaths using official mental health standards.
“The reason I want to do it about Trump at Politicon is that as human beings we love nothing more than to declare someone else insane,” says Ronson. “I hope it’s not just about whether Trump is a psychopath, but wondering if attempting to diagnose him is psychopathic in and of itself.
“As a non-psychologist, I’m very reluctant to sit on stage and see that he is a psychopath,” Ronson continues. “Luckily, I’ll have a psychologist onstage who will dig in on that question for me. The truth is, there are some characteristics that seem straight even to an amateur like me that fits the checklist. But he’s a complicated man who doesn’t fit any labels, and he sometimes seems not the least bit psychopathic. He seems to be a pathological liar, yet raises his children well.”
Among the lighter highlights of the weekend is the most extensive reunion of “The Daily Show” veterans ever assembled. According to Madeleine Smithberg, who co-created the show with Lizz Winstead in 1996, Politicon is a natural outgrowth of her game-changing satirical show.
She recalled the genesis of the show, which was assigned to herself and Winstead by Comedy Central executives who had “The Daily Show” as a working title that was never supposed to last as an on-air name. The only parameter was to conceive a late-night show that would help the then-fledgling network compete with shows like Letterman and Leno. Smithberg recalls they drew their inspiration from former “Dateline NBC” host Stone Phillips in particular.
“’Dateline’ was on five times a week, and other news shows aired four times on CBS and twice on ABC, plus there were new 24-hour news networks launching and we saw journalists were making the story about themselves because there wasn’t enough news to fill it all,” explains Smithberg. “So we saw Stone Phillips always putting himself into the stories. We learned so much from him, the way he would furrow his brow, tilt his head and look very serious. He had a really terrific way of walking as he was talking for no particular reason in the studio. We had a tutorial for all our on-air talent to act like him.”
Smithberg continued with “Daily” until 2003, overseeing its transition from original host Craig Kilborn to its most famous anchor Jon Stewart in 2000. That year also marked when the show exploded into its hallowed status on the nation’s satirical scene, as Stewart used his well-honed outrage to demand answers about how the election was being stolen by George W. Bush and the Supreme Court.
“The world had gone crazy and politics was disgusting,” says Smithberg. “The ‘general media’ had to pretend it was normal, and it wasn’t normal at all. We went 34 days without a president until the Supreme Court gave it to Bush. We had hanging chads. The process stopped functioning. We wound up with Bush and everything that came after.”
With this weekend offering her the chance to dive into the current political scene with her former colleagues, Smithberg offers her own sharp take on the man everyone is talking about: Trump.
“Us being able to laugh at Trump is the only solace we can take,” says Smithberg. “I don’t blame comedy or satire on Trump; I blame something much more nefarious. He’s touching a chord that’s inflaming some very hateful and dangerous sentiment that has been a little bit dormant in our country. He’s woken a strain of bigotry and hatred that’s been sleeping. He’s a lying sack of shit and doesn’t believe half of what he said. I blame reality TV because it gave him a platform on television that made him seem a leader to morons.”
Politicon takes place from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Pasadena Convention Center, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $15 to $275. Visit politicon.com for tickets and more information.