Inside the Soap Box
Michael Moore often worries about being seen—and worse, dismissed—as the plump, ball-cap-wearing windbag who barges into company headquarters, demands to see the chairman of the board, then gets kicked out or even arrested. He frets about being reduced to a stuntman of shtick, Captain Ambush, the guy called upon whenever a TV talking head needs a pissed-off pundit to rant and rail against corporate corruption. He fears that appearing on too many episodes of Politically Incorrect or in too many films like Ron Howard’s silly satire EDtv or directing too many Rage Against the Machine videos will render him nothing but a worthless, two-dimensional caricature. Such are the curses of success, the price of fame and achievement in an age when even a million-dollar mannequin like Darva Conger is a household name.
At the age of 18, just as he was planning to leave his hometown for college, Moore was elected to the Flint, Michigan, school board on a single platform: Fire the principal at his high school. Within nine months, he had succeeded, though he would never go to college. Seventeen years later, in 1989, he made a film called Roger & Me, which documented how arrogantly and how easily General Motors disposed of 30,000 employees in Flint—and destroyed a city by doing so. For years after that, GM could not close a plant. The spotlight was too bright, the ignominy too overwhelming.
Then, in 1997, Moore made a film called The Big One, which shamed Nike CEO Phil Knight into abolishing child (i.e., slave) labor at his company’s manufacturing plants in Indonesia. And only last year, he used his television show—The Awful Truth, which began its second season on Bravo last Wednesday night—to shame Humana into giving a dying man a transplant after the HMO originally rejected his claim. He did so by inviting Humana’s PR flack to the man’s mock funeral—complete with coffin and hearse.
Stripped of the artifice of the hype machine, Michael Moore is perhaps America’s most triumphant activist—a man who shows up with his camera crew, then digs in his heels until the system cries “Uncle!” But Michael Moore—filmmaker, author, onetime editor of a small alternative weekly newspaper in Flint—is also an entertainer, a man who can be seen weekly on television stranded inside a tiny box. And because of that—because he has become part of an industry that can absorb, consume, and even destroy the most sincere and politically minded and render them vapid celebrities—Michael Moore suffers from the satirist’s greatest malady: the fear of not being taken seriously.
“I’m not a celebrity,” he insists, speaking hours before last week’s debut, waiting anxiously as Bravo’s legal department reviews the first of this season’s The Awful Truth. Moore is nervous, breathless, giving not an interview but a monologue.
“I don’t see myself that way, and, yet, once you put yourself inside the box—the tube—it’s very different. People come up to you on the street, and they think they know you. It’s a very, very odd thing. They have no idea who I am. But I don’t consider myself an activist, I guess. I’ve never used that term. I consider myself to be a citizen of a democracy, and a citizen implies activist…I am just one of many people in this country who is concerned about things that are going on. I want to use whatever bully pulpit I have here in the shape of the show or my books or films to make my contribution. But it’s only a small contribution, and if everybody else doesn’t make theirs—if they’re looking for their leader, if they’re looking for Michael Moore to come up with a solution or take them to the promised land—then nothing’s ever gonna get done, because I’m basically a pretty lazy person who doesn’t like to do a whole lotta work.”
To that end, Moore and his wife, Kathleen, the show’s executive producer, actually struggled with the notion of bringing back The Awful Truth for a second season. Moore would prefer to make another film or write another book—anything but be part of a medium he despises so vehemently. Indeed, his Web site, www.michaelmoore.com, contained an essay from Moore last week that began, “Dear friends, TV sucks.” He watches almost no television himself, save for news programs and a handful of shows, and abhors the notion that his mission in life is to “unsuck” the medium. But Moore also understands that reaching a little more than one million viewers a week—which is what The Awful Truth averages, since Bravo can ill afford to spend money promoting it on the major networks and in print—makes the show worth doing.
He also understands that television, unlike film, is a reflexive medium, the pastime of the lazy, the remote-control junkie scanning 170 channels in search of a quick, vacant diversion. Moore worries that The Awful Truth will be perceived by channel-changers as nothing but more empty, meaningless entertainment—a hollow chuckle. He will always prefer writing books or making films to doing television; they demand that people take time out of their lives to read or hire a sitter and drive to the theater. But how can he pass up the opportunity to address a million people each week, even when it’s from the confines of a 27-inch box?
After all, he says, “If I was gonna go out here and stand on a soapbox in Central Park, it’d be a long time before I could get a million people in front of me…We made a list of what things you are not supposed to have on a comedy show: AIDS, the Holocaust, school shootings. Then I thought, with our kind of humor, let’s do stories on the untouchable list, so we did that. We dressed up a guy like Hitler and sent him to a bank in Switzerland to try to get his money back. We had the Sodomobile go around the states where sodomy is illegal. I had a dozen gay guys fucking each other in the back of the bus. We did a thing called Teen Sniper School, which they did not air. We produced it before Columbine, and Bravo said they could not air it. It was a how-to if you want to have a school shooting.” Moore disagreed with Bravo’s decision to yank the segment, but he did not argue the point. “I understood how they felt.”
More and more, television basks in the blue glow of self-righteousness, from the smug Sunday-morning talking heads to such indignant prime-time and late-night fare as NBC’s The West Wing and Law & Order, CBS’s Judging Amy, and ABC’s Politically Incorrect. Sets are filled with high-minded moralists from the left and right who know what’s good for you. They preach and pout from behind coffee mugs and SteadiCams; they mug and moan without end, to no end.
Even Comedy Central’s still-entertaining The Daily Show has fallen prey to condescending smuggery. That show’s cast of deadpan correspondents exists only to poke fun at the freaks, the endless cavalcade of bizarros out in the sticks who set up garbage museums in their basements, chase lizards, or swear Bigfoot’s in the back yard. The correspondents deliver their pieces with a self-satisfied smirk behind which they’re laughing at the subject: Look at this yokel. Their stories are often meaningless, a sarcastic punch line to a joke that goes on forever. If The Awful Truth is a sassy 60 Minutes, then The Daily Show has become a live-action National Lampoon. One is smart; the other, merely smart-ass.
“When The Daily Show or any of these other shows go out with the camera and do these little things—the reality-based stunt to see what people’s reaction will be—they’re just doing it to piss people off,” Moore says, quite correctly. “Or they’re just doing it to be smart-asses or to go, ‘Look at me. Isn’t this clever?’ We’re doing it because I want this gun problem dealt with. I want better candidates on the ballot than these losers we’ve got this year. That’s what’s motivating me. I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘How can I piss off Al Gore and G.W. here?’ I’m thinking, ‘I deserve better. I’m an American, I live in a country of 270 million people, and I deserve better on the ballot than Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dumber.'”
The first two episodes of this season’s The Awful Truth have been brilliant, piss-off television—so much so, George W. Bush tells Moore to “go get real work,” to which Moore responds by calling his own dad and asking him whether he owns an oil company or a baseball team he can run. In the first episode, which aired last week, Moore took a traveling mosh pit to each presidential candidate (the segment was shot during the primaries), insisting he would endorse the first of the lot to jump in the pit. Al Gore, Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, George W. Bush, Gary Bauer, and Bill Bradley all refused to indulge Moore; as such, they come off as humorless dolts unable to give or take a joke. Only Alan Keyes would jump in the pit, prompting Moore to admit, “Keyes may be a right-wing lunatic…but he’s our right-wing lunatic.”
In another segment, Jay Martel—a former writer for Moore’s defunct show, TV Nation, which was canceled by both NBC and Fox—introduces a 7-foot-tall walking handgun he wants to offer up as the National Rifle Association’s new mascot: Pistol Pete, a self-proclaimed son-of-a-gun who likes to remind little kids that “every one of your friends is a potential sniper.” The NRA’s current mascot, Eddie Eagle, is a bird—and, as Martel wonders over footage of a slain duck falling from the sky, “since when are birds smart about guns?” Martel takes the purple, mustached Pistol Pete to the world’s largest gun show, held in Las Vegas; to the NRA headquarters; then, finally, to Capitol Hill. Each time, Pistol Pete is given the boot. “The organizers,” Martel mutters, “decide a gun show was no place for a big gun.”
In the second episode, which airs this week, Martel pits Texas governor George W. Bush against Florida governor Jeb Bush in a battle titled “Death Penalty 2000”: Which brother has executed more prisoners during his tenure in office? Martel first travels to Florida, taunting Jeb at a press conference: “George is kicking your ass! Are you jealous?” It’s no contest: George is the clear winner by some 115 executions—prompting Martel to go to Huntsville, Texas, with a cheerleading squad, a body-painted drunk waving a giant Styrofoam finger, and “a big-assed Texas-sized scoreboard” in tow: George 117, Jeb 2. “Here in Texas, every George W. victory gets its own monument,” Martel says, cutting to a sprawling, well-appointed cemetery strewn with white, unmarked crosses. “These Texas fans have taught me something about team spirit.”
Each segment is brutally funny—if, that is, you can manage to eke out a laugh in between pangs of shame. The Awful Truth offers satire at its most pointed and prescient: It’s the guilt-free guilt trip, humiliation as humor. And some of it comes from a most personal place: Moore was adamant about doing a gun-control segment after a 6-year-old Michigan girl, Kayla Rolland, was gunned down by a classmate last March. Moore has a relative whose daughter attended the same school as Kayla (she was across the hall when the shooting occurred). But, more to the point, Kayla was killed on her way to computer class—and Moore and his wife had bought the computers for the school.
“If you knew me personally, I’m not out to just fuck with people,” Moore says. “I’m really a very…” He pauses, then chuckles. “I know this is gonna sound like, ‘Oh, right, fuck you,’ but I’m serious. If you knew me, I’m actually quite introverted. We have a party tonight for the show, and I don’t wanna go. My wife says, ‘Why don’t we ever go out dancing?’ Oh, God, no. I just wanna stay home in the La-Z-Boy. I wasn’t cut out to do this. Remember, this whole thing started when I was 35 years old. Roger & Me happened when I just couldn’t take it anymore, and nobody else was doing anything about it. My town was dying, and I finally said, ‘Fuck it. I don’t care if I don’t know how to make a film, I’m just gonna make one.’ That’s just what runs me, I guess. I dunno.”