Truth and consequences

Michael Moore shows the snarky boys how it's done in "The Awful Truth."

Published April 19, 1999 7:53PM (EDT)

The rap against filmmaker, anti-corporate crusader and political humorist
Michael Moore (well, one of the raps) is that he wears his leftie,
pro-labor heart on his sleeve. Well, du-uh! You can't do political humor
without the politics, and by political humor I don't mean Monica jokes, or
phony newscasts, or knee-jerk naughty political incorrectness. I mean
politics as in belief, conviction, agenda. You knew where Richard Pryor was
coming from, and Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers.
But quick: Is Bill Maher a Democrat, a Republican -- or none of the above? Is Dennis Miller a
liberal or a conservative? Does Craig Kilborn really give a damn about
anything except how pretty he looks on camera?

Such is the sorry state of political humor on American TV that Moore's
latest series, "The Awful Truth," is partially funded by Britain's Channel
4 and airs on the Bravo cable channel, which, in terms of viewership, ain't
exactly NBC. Of course, NBC canceled "TV Nation," Moore's previous
satirical newsmagazine, even after it won the 1995 Emmy for best
informational series, so there you go.

"The Awful Truth," which premiered April 11, is basically a tighter, more
focused half-hour version of "TV Nation." Old favorites like the Widgery
and Associates opinion polls and the Corporate Crimefighting Chicken are
still around, but Moore now introduces segments standing at a microphone on
a stage in front of an audience. Moore and his writers only have time for
two taped pieces per show and, given Moore's tendency to pound the same
nail over and over, that's not necessarily a bad thing. As he did on "TV
Nation" (and in his films "Roger and Me" and "The Big One"), Moore confronts
authority with a camera crew in tow, a maneuver that's more NBC-era David
Letterman than "60 Minutes." As usual for Moore, "The Awful Truth" is half
right-on exposi of the powerful and corrupt, and half pointless humiliation
of anyone else who happens to get in the way.

Moore's ingenuous schlub in a baseball cap routine is pretty well-worn
(some might even say suspect) by
now, and the guy has certainly taken his lumps from critics who accuse him
of being a self-promoter and thin-skinned, but
those are peripheral quibbles. More to the point is that, with two films
and a series to his credit, you'd think he'd know when to edit a piece
before its sharpness disintegrates into mere prank-pulling, and before it
erodes the dignity of the Joe Average victim of corporate avarice he's
ostensibly trying to help.

In one of the April 11 stories, Moore took up the cause of Chris Donahue, a
Florida man with complications from diabetes whose HMO, Humana, denied
coverage for the pancreas transplant he needed to stay alive. The footage
of Moore and Donahue staging a mock funeral (complete with bagpipes and
mourners) in front of Humana headquarters, and running up against the brick
wall of corporate indifference in the form of an unyielding public
relations flack, deftly brought together guerrilla theater, muckraking
journalism and political satire. But why did Moore have to identify Donahue
as "husband, father, dying guy" in his narration, and let the camera linger
jarringly on Donahue's tears? (For the record, Humana reversed its decision
after Moore's visit and paid for Donahue's transplant.)

Moore is on much more solid ground when the well-being of "the little guy"
is an abstract concept he's fighting to uphold by going nose-to-nose with some politician or corporate big-wig as a representative of "The
People's Democratic Republic of Television" (as he proclaims in "The Awful
Truth"). The opening piece on the April 11 show, "A Cheaper Witch Hunt,"
was a well-crafted and extremely funny dismantling of Ken Starr's $50
million investigation of the president, and of the House impeachment

For just $560, Moore announces, he hired a troupe of actors to dress as
Puritans and join him on a "real witch hunt" for "adulterers, fornicators
and sinners" in Washington. As a scary-looking Puritan preacher read
from "the book of Starr," young women in white bonnets and black frocks
followed Moore through the corridors of the Capitol, pointing
their fingers and crying "Sinner!" at the backs of retreating congressmen,
falling down in swoons at the mere sight of Newt Gingrich's office door.
Ah, there were some satisfying moments here, like the long silence that
ensued when Moore, in a casual guy-to-guy tone, asked Republican Bob Barr,
one of President Clinton's harshest critics on the House Judiciary
Committee, about "the whipped cream incident in 1992, where you licked
whipped cream off the breasts of a young woman." On other episodes of
"The Awful Truth," Moore accompanies gay men through Southern states that
still have sodomy laws on the books, traveling in a Winnebago bearing the
legend, "Buggery on Board"; he also takes a choir of former smokers who've
lost their voice boxes to cancer a-caroling on the doorsteps of cigarette
company executives, and sets up a Times Square sex shop, just to get on Mayor Rudy Giuliani's nerves.

Yes, Moore walks a fine line when it comes to taste and judgment, and
sometimes, he falls off with an embarrassing thud. But his boldness (and
sense of mischief) is invigorating when you consider the rest of what
passes for political humor on TV these days. There's a dull sameness to the
"today's top story" approach of snarky boys Dennis Miller (HBO's "Dennis
Miller Live"), Jon Stewart (Comedy Central's "The Daily Show"), Craig
Kilborn (CBS's "Late, Late Show") and Colin Quinn, who hosts the granddaddy
of mock newscasts, the "Weekend Update" segment of "Saturday Night Live."
Kilborn's empty mean-spiritedness is especially depressing. On a recent "In
the News" segment of his show, he followed a joke about fleeing ethnic
Albanians being moved to refugee camps on American military bases in Cuba
("Refugees are looking forward to living in much warmer filth") with this
knee-slapper of a transition: "In other ethnic cleansing news, severe
flooding in recent days has left much of Bolivia under water."

As for Maher's "Politically Incorrect," his nightly gathering of mismatched
celebrities and public figures is not aging well. As the show drags through
its second year on ABC (after four years on Comedy Central), Maher seems
less and less engaged in the topical "debates" he presides over -- unless
the issue is sex. Then he's like human Viagra, awake, up and on the prowl
for the racy punchline that'll take him into the next commercial with a
bang. "Only 40 percent of college students believe in casual sex. This is so
disheartening to me," Maher lamented on a recent show. Maher's idolization
of Hugh Hefner and his free-lovin' free-for-all talk show "Playboy After
Dark" is well known; as "Politically Incorrect" heads into its dotage, it's
only a matter of time before Maher starts hosting the show in silk pajamas
with a blond massaging each shoulder. (Actually, Kilborn beat Maher to the
punch, recently donning a smoking jacket to conduct a worshipful interview
with Hef.)

Maher, Kilborn, Stewart, Quinn and even Miller, who's arguably the most
cerebral and best-informed of the bunch (he's like Kate Jackson on
"Charlie's Angels"), all seem to confuse contrariness with commentary and
equal-opportunity offensiveness with taking a stand. But maybe it's not their
fault. Maybe their vague glibness is just a reflection of the vague
glibness of politics in the '90s, and the way it's packaged by the
mainstream media. Political discourse has devolved into laughably partisan
name-calling; "political debate" now means screeching gasbags on MSNBC;
issues are portion-controlled sound bites. Nobody wants to risk losing
voters, or viewers, by actually saying something. So if Michael
Moore has the nerve to walk up to Rep. Asa Hutchinson, one of the
Republican members of the House impeachment panel, and ask, "Are you a
fornicator, Congressman?" -- I say more power to him.

There are only a handful of humorists on TV who can match Moore's political
fire in the belly. The list would include Chris Rock on his HBO specials, Robert
Smigel's point-blank cartoons for "Saturday Night Live" and the writers of
"The Simpsons," who keep the brave, forthright satire coming, even after
nine seasons (one recent episode took aim at the corporatization of public
education, with Mrs. Krabappel pointing to a Periodic Table of the Elements
donated by the Oscar Mayer company and asking, "Class, who can tell me the
atomic weight of bolonium?"). What sets these satirists apart from a Maher
or a Kilborn? Conviction. People like the Smothers Brothers and Pryor could
(and did) get kicked off TV for their politics; in our more enlightened
era, their TV path might have been like Moore's -- demotion from NBC to Fox
to, finally, the heartbreak of expanded-basic cable. Either way, it
illustrates the first law of political humor: You can't expect to rattle
cages without getting bit.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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