Activism

Michael Moore's Secret Recipe for Success—How He's Managed to Stay in the National Limelight for Decades

He came to comedy from activism, not the other way around.

Photo Credit: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

If there is one thing that we can thank Donald Trump for, it is the extraordinary rise of political comedy his presidency has ushered in for our nation.  Even comedians who generally avoided engaging in politics, like Jimmy Kimmel, are now on the front lines, hurling snarky tweets and sarcastic jokes Trump’s way. After 9/11 it was the brave satirists like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert who dared to use political comedy to speak truth to power in a media landscape that was chilling and self-censoring. Today those legends are accompanied by a wide range of political comedians who are each offering their own satirical take on these crazy times.

But in this vast field of smart, ironic and sharp comedy, Michael Moore’s voice remains unique.  Moore was one of the major voices of 9/11 satire, but because he wasn’t regularly featured on TV, like Stewart, Maher and Colbert were, his contributions and impact are occasionally overlooked. While these days it is common for actors and celebrities to use their moment in the spotlight at an awards ceremony to make a political statement, when Moore was brazen enough to speak up against George W. Bush at the 2003 Academy Awards, when he won for "Bowling for Columbine," he was lambasted and accused of treason.

Unlike Meryl Streep, who got all sorts of media love for her anti-Trump comments at this year's Golden Globes, Moore’s anti-Bush comments at the 2003 Academy Awards left him “abandoned by skittish Hollywood liberals, vilified by angry conservatives and victimized by hate mail and death threats.” But rather than give up and go into hiding, Moore went on to release "Fahrenheit 9/11," a scathing, satirical look at the links between the Bush family, the Saudis, Osama bin Laden and U.S. corporate interests. Reaction to the film was so intense that Bill O'Reilly likened Moore to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Clint Eastwood threatened to kill him, and conservatives tried to block theatrical screenings of the film.

Comparing Moore’s satirical interventions in the Bush Jr. era and the Trumpocalypse is a useful way to illustrate how satire has changed with the times. When Moore went after Bush it was a gutsy move that led to death threats. Today everyone, including members of Trump’s own party, makes fun of the president. Mockery is not the bold move it once was, but satirical mockery that depends on the critical thinking of irony remains one of the most potent ways to criticize an administration that is built on narcissism, alternative facts and hubris.

Moore joins his comedic colleagues — John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Colbert, Maher and so on — using sharp wit and snarky insight to counter the stunningly stupid things that come out of the Oval Office. But where he differs from most other satirical comedians is in his passionate commitment to use comedy to inspire political action.

Well before Trump was elected, Moore released what I consider to be the most important film of his career to date, “Where to Invade Next,” which thinks deeply about how we can better our nation by implementing policies from a series of other countries. Turning the practice of U.S. military invasions on its head, Moore’s “invasion” strategy was to hunt for good practices and bring them back to the United States.

Released in the midst of the presidential primaries, the film was meant to be a call to action, an opportunity for the public to imagine ways to enact positive social change. And it was hilariously funny. It was a perfect example of how Moore uses his comedy to do more than educate the public. And, while other political comedians, like Colbert and Oliver, regularly call on their audiences to engage with social issues, Moore’s political comedy is never satisfied at just poking fun at a broken system.

Despite the fact that Moore’s work with satire on TV shows like “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth” may be the reason why we have such a wide range of political comedy on TV today, it is worth remembering that Moore is the only major political comedian on the national stage today who didn’t start his career in comedy; he started his career in political activism. And that different path explains a lot about what makes his particular blend of satire and politics powerful.

As the audience of his new Broadway show, “The Terms of My Surrender,” learns, from an early age Moore was a rabble-rouser and an engaged citizen. He grew up in a suburb of Flint, Mich., the son of an assembly line worker for General Motors. His uncle was one of the founders of the United Automobile Workers labor union. And while he was involved in drama in high school, his high school years are marked by a decision to enter a speech contest about Abraham Lincoln sponsored by the at-the-time Caucasian-only Elks Club.  He pounces on the hypocrisy, wins for best speech, and ends up drawing the attention of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Within a year, the Elks Club had integrated and private clubs could no longer discriminate based on race.

Then at 18 Moore decided to run for head of the school board on the simple platform that he planned to fire the principal and vice principal of his school, since they supported corporal punishment of students. When he won he became the youngest elected official in the United States.

Unlike political comedians who fret over whether their comedy can make a difference or who sidestep the issue of political impact, Moore has always been consistent in his interest in using comedy, pranks, sarcasm and satire to promote a progressive platform. For Moore, troping on Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is the message. Moore uses satire and comedy to blend humor with politics because it works.

And that is why his specific brand of political comedy is such an important feature of Trump era satire. The really impressive element of Moore’s satire, though, is that it works across a range of satirical styles.

While plenty of political comedians draw on a range of tactics to use comedy to reach their audience, Moore has engaged in a full-on guerilla-style multimedia assault on Trumpism. He wrote an open letter during the campaign to Ivanka Trump, “Your Dad Is Not Well” -- calling on her to intervene and get him out of the race. He also presciently called the election, with “Five Reasons Trump Will Win.”

Not willing to stop there, Moore then released “Michael Moore in TrumpLand.” The film captures a one-man show shot from the stage of a theater in a small, predominantly Republican town in Ohio. What made the film brilliant was that rather than viciously attack Trump and praise Clinton, “Michael Moore in TrumpLand” begins by showing respect for Trump supporters and understanding their rage and frustration. The goal of the film was to validate those feelings but also to point out that if voters followed their rage and voted for a man who had promised to blow up government, they might later find themselves regretting it. As he put it, “You wanted to send a message. You had righteous anger and justifiable anger. Well, message sent. Good night, America. You’ve just elected the last president of the United States.”

As if to further drive home the point, in late October 2016, Donald Trump sent out a tweet that included a four-minute audio recording that seemed to suggest that Moore was endorsing Trump.

In response, Moore tweeted, “Look at this Orwellian tweet by Trump! Donald, u either haven’t seen my movie or u are conning your followers. The clip u show [u] doctored.”  But it gets even better, because Trump Jr. also tweeted the edited clip, to which Moore replied:

That, of course, is the key to all Trump-era satire. At one basic level all political comedians are using irony and wit to help our collective minds from turning into mush. Moore says something ironically, but the Trump team takes it literally. Then the Trump team says something outrageous, they are called out for it, and they say they were just joking. The comedians use irony to make sense while the Trump team scrambles any logical use of language into pure absurdity.

Any effort to use irony to keep us from turning into total morons is a welcome move, but Moore’s special art is using irony and wit to motivate his audience to do more.

Throughout his career, but especially in the Trump age, Moore has used what Srdja Popovic calls laughtivism — a merging of satirical pranks with political activism, designed to raise awareness of abuses of power using humor and silliness. Active in protests both in Washington, D.C ., and New York, Moore has also staged a Broadway show, is set to release a new documentary on the Trump election, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” and has a new series set to air on TNT early next year.

“‘Live From the Apocalypse' will be a raucous gathering place for millions of our fellow citizens in desperate need of a break from the screaming pundits and the purveyors of ‘alternative facts,’” Moore explained in a release announcing the series. “Our show will be dangerous and relentless. And it will be the destination for those who want to know what’s really going on and what they might be able to do about it.”

“The Terms of My Surrender,” which concludes its Broadway run Oct. 22, is not just a fun way for progressives to engage in collective self-help; it is a call to action.  Moore’s choice of staging the show on Broadway fits in with his ongoing commitment to use art to incite activism. As he explains it, “Theatre has long been used as a form of protest, a way for big groups of strangers to gather together in one space and feel like a part of something bigger than themselves.”

But more than offering fellow anti-Trumpers a place to mourn, Moore uses his show to illustrate that the only way things change is if folks get out and enact the change. Referring to “this little 12-step meeting I’ve invited you to,” he reminds the audience “the silver lining is, we are the majority.”

And yet Moore insists that before the majority can make a difference it is crucial to accept the facts. “Repeat after me,” Moore urges the audience, “Donald Trump outsmarted us all.”  At another point he refers to Trump as “crazy” — “crazy like a fox!”

The show uses humor to drive home the reality that Trump won but he doesn’t represent the majority. The only reason why Trump won, Moore contends, is because we let him.

Through a series of personal stories of his own increasing commitment to political action, he aims to show the audience that they too can make a difference. But the most powerful story is one about a librarian who heard that Moore’s book "Stupid White Men" was at risk of being censored because it made fun of Bush and its release date was right after 9/11. She mounted a protest and helped get the book released. Within days it was in its ninth printing — proof that even a librarian can have impact.

Some of the performances of "The Terms of My Surrender" have literally forced the audience off their butts and out on the streets. On one night double-decker buses were waiting at the theater to take the audience to Fifth Avenue in a ready-made protest delivered straight to the doorstep of President Trump. The production also furnished protest signs that included serious messages like “resist” and comedic jabs at the president, like “We shall overcomb” with an image of a Trump-like silhouette. The point was to show the audience how simple it is to get out and take a stand. As one member of the audience said, “He makes you feel guilty a little bit for sitting on your duff.” After the show, he realized: “I could be more useful.”

And that is the art of Moore’s comedy. It is fun, funny, smart and ironic, but it also won’t quit. Moore isn’t going to surrender and he is not going to back down, but most important, he isn’t going to challenge Trump alone. He knows that the only way to bring Trump down is to bring out the resistance.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclennen65.

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