Myq Kaplan holds the title of funniest vegan. I made up that title, so you’ll have to prove me wrong. Just give a listen to the combination of smarts and funny on his groundbreaking album Meat Robot. Kaplan was also part of Santa Cruz’s first Vegan Comedy Show in 2016.
“I became vegetarian in college when I was 19,” he says. “In high school I had the first inkling that I would want to live my life killing fewer animals, but I didn’t have the knowledge or resources or tools to implement that.” In college, Kaplan found there were different eating options in the dining hall. He found a vegetarian station, but he still lacked the psychological and emotional choices to stop eating meat.
“I read some Peter Singer, and that resonated and supported my goals to stop eating animal products. I learned the meat and dairy industries were inextricably linked, so I thought if it was harmful the way animals were treated to eat meat there was no way to separate the dairy,” Kaplan says.
No matter where you travel in America, there’s a well-worn sentiment you hear across all socio-economic cross sections that brings this divided country together, which is this: everybody hates vegans. But what is it about people who choose veganism or it’s less-militant sister lifestyle vegetarianism, which annoys people across the board?
According to Kaplan, “Meat eaters get upset by the word ‘vegan’ because they know the truth about how animals are harmed and of their complicit nature in it. There is suffering in the world and we are all connected. People don’t want to watch the documentaries that are full of images and information that they are aware of because they want to keep a remove, because they know if they saw it they would have to do something. It’s a reactive nature in that it comes from a place of knowledge and perhaps shame.”
Kaplan started touring America in 2006 and had no trouble finding vegan food on the road. “There are almost always Asian restaurants where you can get a vegetable dish, or a supermarket where you can buy some produce or a local park where you can graze on the grass,” Kaplan jokes.
Meat: It’s What’s Inside You!
What is it that has so many comedians turning vegan? From “Weird Al” Yankovic to Sarah Silverman to Bobcat Goldthwait to Tig Notaro, it seems to be a growing trend. Perhaps it’s because comedians, so used to exploring the complexities of life while holding out hope for humanity, find refuge in trying to bring more kindness and tolerance into the world.
Just as comedians challenge their audiences’ assumptions to get a laugh, vegans challenge the way we look at what we put in our mouths, the way we relate to animals and others and the way our diet contributes to climate change and animal cruelty.
Sometimes it’s for health reasons, or to support the ethical treatment of animals, or concern about the environment—or, in my case, a devastating dose of psychedelics.
My parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II. For them, meat was a sign that they had made it—they had achieved a level of success inching the family that much closer to the Boss Level of the American dream. Serving meat to their children was sharing the fruit (so to speak) of their labors—and besides, according to every commercial with James Garner throwing away a tomato, beef was “what’s for dinner.” To them, meat was the greatest and most important source of protein, next to milk, cheese and eggs.
And so we would eat meat three times a day. One time my mom made fish for dinner and my father dramatically pushed it away and said, “Bring me red meat.” But she was no less enthusiastic. If she could have cut off her arm and served it, she would have.
My parents might not have acknowledged it, but they were acting out a tradition that started a couple of million years ago when Paleolithic humans would leave the cave to hunt for dinner and return with slabs of wild bison. Meat is also intrinsically tied up with gender identities. Eating meat is a socialized part of masculine behavior. So it’s no wonder that vegans are as heavily stigmatized as weak intravenous drug users, according to an article written for the BBC.
So in 1977, when I took a dose of LSD too early in the day and found myself staring at a plate of duck that my mom had just served me, it was evident that the damn thing had previously been alive. I mean, it was still moving. The hairs on the duck were swaying like palm trees in a hurricane. That night, I became a vegetarian.
In suburban New Jersey, being vegetarian had no safety net. There was no Enchanted Broccoli Forest or Boca burgers. My sensitive sister bought me a How To Cook Lamb cookbook. She said in the back were a couple of vegetarian recipes.
Six years later, as my dad lay in the hospital with tubes going every which way, my parents had conspired to have the nurse greet me as I walked in the ICU door. Waiting to hear the second leather shoe drop, the nurse said that my parents were worried about my diet. My diet! My dad would drink shots of bacon grease that were still warm. The nurse asked where I got my protein from, and I told her I ate beans, a lot of beans. She said, “That’s totally fine, I have a brother in California who does that.”
In high school in Texas, Los Angeles comedian Virginia Jones used to go out on dates as a chaperone with her best friend who was gay. “His mom thought I would somehow keep him from having sex with men.” says Jones. “One night I’m sitting in the front room of a gay guy’s apartment as my friend is having sex with him in the next room and there was a copy of ‘Meat is Murder’ by the Smiths and I listened to it. It’s a terrible song, but until that moment I had never really thought about where meat comes from,” Jones said.
The next day, Jones became a vegetarian—who slowly moseyed into veganism. “As time goes on it became a lot easier to become a vegan as technology and accessibility grew. The only vegan I knew in Dallas, Texas would regularly eat a plate of fried tofu with soy sauce. We ate a lot of cheese pizza and French fries. I ate garbage, which led to a vitamin deficiency in high school. We didn’t have veggie burgers—we would make falafel burgers and fry it up,” Jones recalls.
With abundant low-budget college comfort food like Taco Bell, it’s easy to be a junk-food vegetarian. That changed when Jones went vegan. “It was only when I went vegan that it was pretty easy to see that whole grains, vegetables and a protein source made me feel best. I became more aware of making healthier choices when I went vegan,” Jones points out.
As a Buddhist practitioner, Bay Area comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan identifies culturally but not religiously as Hindu. Some 680 million Hindus eat a vegetarian diet, and growing up in a non-meat-eating household made it very confusing for her when it came time to rebel.
“When your parents take away the thing you can rebel against, it’s not that great,” says Lakshminarayanan. “So if you have vegetarian parents and they say, ‘You do whatever you want,’ then being a teenager isn’t fun anymore. Telling your kids to make their own decisions is actually great reverse psychology. Sometimes parents have alternative beliefs. I have a friend who is a gay man who was raised by lesbian parents, and he ended up becoming Republican. All kids want to rebel.”
In this case, though, the lure of incredible smells and tastes at home made it hard for her to rebel. “Vegetables and lentils taste amazing, except for people who hate flavor. Outside of the home, I was eating pepperoni pizza and McDonald’s and the food was not as good. It wasn’t delicious,” says Lakshminarayanan. “Early on, I learned to have a palate that appreciated vegetables and spices. I grew up in the South, just going into the Cracker Barrel it was obvious so many people were going to fall over dead based on their food choices. There’s a direct correlation between cholesterol and animal fat. For all those reasons, I’m vegetarian and try to eat vegan for several meals a week.”
The stereotypical idea of vegans being “weak” is changing, with athletes like free agent and activist Colin Kaepernick and MMA fighter James Wilks going vegan. From Ironmen to long distance runners to weight lifters and figure skaters changing their diet, our culture seems to be embracing new ideas about what diet means.
Matt Gubser is a 3D sculptor and a vegan comedian based in the Bay Area. Gubser is also a tall, classically handsome human—picture Jesus, but funnier. It’s incongruent in our culture to see somebody who looks like the epitome of a meat-eater and find out they’re a vegan.
“It was my brother’s fault,” says Gubser. “I grew up in Salinas, and we would go on field trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Also, my grandparents would always take us to Sizzlers for the all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp. Well, on one field trip, my brother saw what real shrimp looked like and he went vegetarian.”
As Gubser got older, he began thinking about his family’s health history. “There’s a lot of heart disease in my family. Going back three generations, the men all died at 50 of a heart attack. So originally, I just wanted to get ahead of that and stay healthy and stopped eating meat,” he says. “One year into being a vegetarian I realized I was still eating a lot of dairy and cholesterol. It wasn’t very popular. I had a subscription to Vegetarian Times and other than that, I would look online. I didn’t have a community. My in-laws at the time were cattle ranchers and they couldn’t get it through their heads of why anyone would, or could, be vegan.”
The Meat Mafia
Ardail Smith is a 60-year-old Silicon Valley techie and comic. He spends his days working on computers, and on weekends rides a motorcycle in rallies to raise awareness about men’s health issues. Growing up in Alaska, meat was a constant reassuring pleasure, and Smith had no idea there was an alternative.
“I started out as a typical meat eater,” he says. “In my 50s I was dating a woman who was transitioning into being a vegan. I had an attitude about vegans, but I started eating less meat, because I could see that it was really bothering her,” says Smith. It was when Smith started considering the reality of factory farming that he had a realization: “I did a math problem and calculated out how many animals died just so I could have a hamburger or chicken and I got disturbed by those numbers.”
Even McDonald’s admits that a hamburger contains the pieces of over 400 cows. Smith began to consider the deeper implications. “My ancestry involves slavery and we were treated as cattle. We were looked at as subhuman. So I started to think how could I look at animals that were basically slaves and treated cruelly and inhumane as less than me? Because we can’t communicate? I didn’t like the idea of what happened to my family. I’m pretty sure pigs and cows don’t like what happens to their families. So, I stopped eating meat,” Smith says.
Husband and wife team Helbard and Camilla Alkhassadeh run Watsonville’s Little Hill Sanctuary, dedicated to creating a kinder world through rescuing animals from cruelty. They also were co-creators of Santa Cruz’s VegFest, an all vegan event. Their vision of a cruelty free world isn’t a joke.
Helbard became a vegetarian 25 years ago. Like so many, he was in a relationship with a person that wanted to eat less meat. He tried it and it actually made him feel better physically and mentally. It changed the way he felt, but it was a personal experience that opened his eyes. “I had a couple of run-ins with animals where I witnessed them suffer. One was with a dog that is considered a ‘pet’ and one with a wild boar that is considered a ‘pest,’” Helbard says. He saw the spark of intelligence in their eyes and how they reacted to death the same way when taking their last breath. He connected the two and started rethinking the way people think about animals. And it was this experience that led Helbard and Camilla to rescuing animals and starting a sanctuary.
“There is a way of thinking in this country where people say, ‘I have a dog, I have a cat, I love animals.’ And then they eat a burger or go to KFC and have chicken. But they insist they love animals. If you ask them if they love animals so much, why do they eat them? The answer is those animals are ‘food.’ So we have a way of categorizing animals as either food or pets, and we don’t find anything wrong with that. It’s not a stretch then to extend that philosophy to people. I like some people, but some people are a problem. To a vegan, the philosophy is to fight for all living creatures. That includes humans. If we can segregate people, we can segregate animals. If we can segregate animals, we can segregate people. They blend together. Your opinion on animals blends into your thought process and politics on how we treat people,” Helbard explains.
“Our philosophy is being a liberationist, having a consistent anti-oppression approach where you’re against all oppression for all beings, human, non-human and whatever species that might be,” Camilla says. “Speciesism is the idea that you can’t pick and choose. A pig and a dog are both sentient living beings that feel, that care and want to play, just as we do. It’s wrong to justify the destruction of their lives because of what I want, because at this point we know that eating meat is not a necessity, we can survive and be vegan without sacrificing animals.”