Working-Class Clown: Michael Moore
Michael Moore is like a jester -- the only member of the royal court allowed to lampoon the king. No, scratch that: He's the kid in the back of the classroom with a big grin on his face who smarts off to the teacher and somehow manages to get away with it. But Moore is more than just a class clown -- he's a working-class one.From his years in the alternative press, to his savagely funny 1989 film Roger & Me, to his superb small-screen venture TV Nation, to his 1995 film Canadian Bacon, to his audacious new book, Downsize This!, Moore has emerged as an avenging angel of the working class. He's used his substantial skills for exposure and belittlement on behalf of the poor working stiff who finds out after years of loyal service that his company considers him expendable.Indeed, much of Moore's appeal derives from his adroitness at settling scores. Roger & Me was a perfectly executed docuvendetta against General Motors -- and, by extension, corporate America -- in response to its displacement of thousands of auto workers in his hometown of Flint, Mich. Roger Smith, GM's elusive CEO, later claimed not to have seen the film; much of the rest of America did, and Smith's reputation -- as anything other than a corporate slug -- will never recover.TV Nation, in one memorable segment, dispatched a roaring, beeping garbage truck to the home of a garbage- hauling executive in the early morning hours, capturing the hapless man rushing out in his nightwear, indignant. And, of course, there was Crackers, the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken -- a guy in a chicken costume who set out to take a bite out of corporate crime's bare behind. He'd show up at the headquarters of various corporations, demanding answers.Downsize This!, just published by Random House, takes the same irreverent approach. The book is a collection of short essays on topics ranging from Moore's efforts to get Rep. Robert Dornan of California committed to a mental institution, to his requests that Saudi Arabia and Norway send foreign aid to blighted areas in the U.S., to his starter set of Corporate Crook trading cards (listing salaries, number of jobs eliminated and stats on how they bat and wear their hair). The book's central theme is that the nation's structures for assigning and maintaining power -- political as well as corporate -- are deserving of ridicule, which Moore provides in ample measure.With this latest foray, Moore has established himself as a consummate clown -- as well as, ironically, a certifiable member of the nation's cultural elite. Why would a big firm like Random House publish a book that regards corporate America with complete disrespect? How has Moore, an unreconstituted lefty who dresses like a slob, managed to gain entry into the world's most exclusive club -- people who get to make movies? (He's currently writing two new screenplays -- a comedy about the collapse of the Soviet Union and a drama about race relations in Los Angeles.) And how long can it last?To find the answers, I put on a chicken costume and called Moore at the New York office of his company, Dog Eat Dog Films. Moore was champing at the bit."That's a question I often ask myself," says Moore, asked how he managed to join the cultural elite. "Actually, the question I ask more often is, 'When will they kick me out? When are they going to wise up?"Moore laughs deeply, mischievously, as though he's not supposed to be saying this. Then he gives two different answers, which are a bit contradictory. "In meeting with TV and movie executives, publishing people, I'm stunned by how supportive they are," he says. "Many of them -- secretly, in their own little closets -- really support what I'm saying and doing, though they wouldn't say so publicly."The other answer -- which Moore concedes is "the worst cynical answer" -- is that the executives are simply responding to an opportunity to make money. "Why does Columbia Records release rap albums?" asks Moore. "Is it because the executives at Columbia love rap music? I don't think so. I think they hate it. But they put it out there because it...s their job to put their finger on the pulse of the people -- to try and figure out what people like."I think it's the same thing with me. The head honchos of our media entities sort of know what corporate America has done to this country. They know they've created millions upon millions of dissatisfied, disgruntled and alienated people as a result of their assault on the American dream, and now they want to exploit that market." Gosh, that is cynical. But maybe he's right. Maybe Moore is accepted by the rich because he helps them get richer. Maybe his sense of humor makes him safer, more palatable. Here, Moore draws the line: "Actually, I think using humor is far more subversive and dangerous than writing a serious essay about what...s wrong with corporate America. It cuts a lot deeper, reaches a lot more people, and is very hard to respond to. I mean, this is a problem we've all had since grade school, when the other kid was making fun of us. How do you respond to ridicule?"The caretakers of corporate America, explains Moore, know how to respond to statistics and to critiques of capitalism. "But they don't know how to respond to a woman skinning rabbits because the pension from her dead husband who worked at General Motors isn't enough to put food on the table. They're totally discombobulated."Still, it's impossible not to feel the anger festering just below the surface in Moore's work. In Roger & Me, the audience identifies with the people whose lives have been shattered by GM. In Canadian Bacon, network newscasters are portrayed as compliant mouthpieces for the official line -- in this case, the notion that Canada has become The Enemy. And in Downsize This!, Moore resorts to words like "F#!@ing" to describe just how stupid union leaders have behaved."I feel very let down by union leaders, by Democratic politicians, all the things I was told to believe in," says Moore. "We no longer have a two-party system. We have a one-party system. It has two different faces to it, but it's the same party. So yes, I am very angry about a lot of this stuff, but my anger forms the foundation for Roger & Me and TV Nation."Like all comedians, Moore runs the risk of diluting his political message by going for laughs. In Downsize This!, for instance, he advocates replacing the presidential debates with monster truck races, issues a passionate appeal on behalf of "A Sperm's Right to Life," and encourages poor blacks in Los Angeles to loot and burn Beverly Hills. Isn't he afraid people are going to dismiss him as a stark, raving lunatic?"No, I think they'll love me for being a lunatic," responds Moore. "First of all, I think most people are smart enough to get the joke. And I think in telling the joke, we can then talk seriously about what's going on."Just as Roger & Me made fun not just of Roger Smith and the corporate robber barons at General Motors but also city officials, Bob Eubanks of Newlywed Game fame and Miss Michigan, Downsize This! takes aim at a sprawling array of targets. These include Moore's designated Corporate Crooks (CEOs whose companies have gotten in trouble for misconduct) and Corporate Welfare Mothers (those who have benefited from government handouts)."The lawyers went through the whole book," Moore assures me, unnecessarily. "Everything in the book is backed up. I had three researchers, including one who was an attorney, work full time on this book with me. So I've got files and files of stuff for every fact in the book."Moore skewers President Bill Clinton, recounting his various betrayals of progressive causes in a chapter entitled, "If Clinton Had Balls" ("He has embarrassed himself and those of us who voted for him," writes Moore. "Most people in this country find it hard to respect him.") Moore, though still undecided, is leaning against voting for Clinton again."Before the welfare vote, I guess I was joining the people who say hold your nose and vote [for Clinton]. But I think there are some issues that are bigger than any election, that are more important than any presidential race. And when you pull the rug out from underneath millions of poor children, you've crossed a line."And when you do it so cynically -- when you take advantage of my vote because your attitude is that people on my side of the political fence have nowhere else to go -- I have to kind of stand up and say, 'You know what, you've got another thing coming. And you just may have to be removed. And we just may have to suffer through four more years of Republican administration as a result of that.'"In another chapter, entitled "So You Want to Kill the President!," Moore goes after Sen. Jesse Helms for warning in November 1994 that "Mr. Clinton had better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He'd better have a bodyguard." Moore had an assistant call the Secret Service and ask why Helms was not prosecuted for the federal crime of threatening the president's life. The surprising response, reported in the book, is that the Secret Service's Washington office did seek to have Helms criminally prosecuted."I think there's two stunning things in the book, news-wise," says Moore. "That's one; I have a taped call of the Secret Service guy who made this revelation to us. And number two, that the campaign of Pat Buchanan endorsed $100 checks from Abortionists for Buchanan and the John Wayne Gacy Fan Club." These are names Moore put on mischievous contributions, the latter a deliberate misspelling of mass-murderer Gacy. A few days after we spoke, Moore's check-writing stunt made headlines in newspapers across the country.About the only public figures spared Moore's wrath in Downsize This! are O.J. Simpson, who he argues is innocent, and Hillary Clinton, whom he admits he has the hots for. Moore, in a chapter entitled "My Forbidden Love for Hillary," gushes that the First Lady "operates from a moral place in her heart." (Asked how this statement could possibly apply to a corporate lawyer of Whitewater fame, Moore demurs: "I know, I know. This is a place where I'm probably letting my hormones take over and cloud my judgment.") He bashes Hillary's GOP critics, suggesting that the strength and competence she conveys is more than their fragile male egos, among other things, can bear: "Does the image of the Strong Woman -- of 'The Hillary' herself! -- just pop into their heads without warning, ruining the Big Moment, and causing that special someone in bed with them to cry, 'TIM-BERRRRR!' as she crawls out from underneath their slimy Republican carcass?"Harsh, but funny. Moore says the point he was trying to make in this chapter and the ones on abortion is that "these issues are not really about Hillary or abortion. This is about a society essentially of men who still want to control women and have women in their place, and who are frightened by the fact that women would have control over their own bodies. Instead, the macho thing would be to really be attracted to women like this -- to not be threatened by them, to find them really engaging and challenging."Moore's work has never been met with universal approval, and his road to success has been boulder-strewn.He first came to national attention in 1986, when he was hired as editor of Mother Jones magazine after a decade producing the Flint Voice (later the Michigan Voice), one of the nation's feistiest alternative newsweeklies. Within a few months, he left the magazine after a messy internal spat over a preassigned article he didn't want to run. Roger & Me, which Moore cobbled together on a budget that couldn't cover most movies' catering costs, was a commercial and critical success -- named by some as one of the best films of the decade. But it was attacked for playing loose with the facts and spurned by Oscar, sending Siskel and Ebert into paroxysms of indignation.Canadian Bacon, Moore's hilarious spoof about how the United States' post-Cold War need for new enemies causes it to turn on Canada, was, by Moore's account, undermined by its own distributor. Moore says the film -- starring John Candy, Alan Alda and Rhea Perlman -- was released in just two theaters nationally, in New York and Los Angeles, because Polygram concluded that the public would not tolerate its leftist point of view or "go to a John Candy film after he was dead and laugh." (The film was Candy's last.) He adds that Polygram initially printed just 40,000 copies for video distribution, but a week before the December 1995 release had 120,000 orders. Since then, Canadian Bacon has been seen on home video by an estimated 15 million people, more than Roger & Me.Moore says that people came up to him after seeing Canadian Bacon, stunned that the film was not more widely distributed. "I mean, you may not think it's the greatest film you've ever seen, but it's a really good film, and we see so much crap."Moore has also encountered peculiar difficulties sustaining TV Nation. Although the show was a summer replacement series both years it ran -- 1994 on NBC and 1995 on Fox -- he says it got good ratings in its time slot and beat the other three networks in the 18-to-49 male demographic. That boosted advertising, and the show made a lot of money. Still, Fox has not committed to renewing the program, although Moore says the network has asked him to develop something similar for late night.Meanwhile, Comedy Central plans to rerun all the old episodes of TV Nation starting this December, and the British Broadcasting Corp. has raised the funding -- from foreign countries -- for 13 new shows. Moore is waiting for a U.S. network to commit before he does ("I'm not going to do a show that can...t be seen by my own people") but is optimistic. "Crackers will be back," he vows. "The chicken cannot die." (Moore says he had to cancel the 800 number listed to call Crackers to action because it got too expensive: "We had over 30,000 calls from people reporting corporate crimes in their communities.")Maybe it's a good thing that Moore hasn't met with more success. He seems, compared to some members of the cultural elite, remarkably down-to-earth."I'm still buying lottery tickets," he says. "I come from a working-class existence, so I still live my life in that way. I have my same friends as I did before Roger & Me. I'm in the same relationship I was in before then. I've not really altered my life. I make a hell of a lot more money now, but I give away close to half of it."Indeed, Moore reckons he's given away "close to a half-million dollars in the last five years" -- mostly through a foundation he's set up to support progressive causes.Moore hopes readers of his book come away with the idea that one person can change things. "And a number of one persons," he adds, chuckling at his own wit, "can change a lot of things."As for the political left, Moore has this advice: "Start listening to country music. Go out and go line-dancing. Buy some lottery tickets. Start watching TV. You know, don...t separate yourself from the American people, because the American people know you're a bunch of elitists, and that's why they hate you, that's why they don't trust you. You know, so get off your high horse and start living like a real American."