Do you like socially incisive, often side splitting satire of The Onion? How do you rate the searing pranks and comically offensive impersonations Sacha Baron Cohen does as Ali G, or in hit movies like Borat or Bruno? Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum are The Yes Men, and though their satirical bent is often just as funny as other media entities, the core of their silly shenanigans is a true social mission. After seeing their HBO movie, The Yes Men Fix The World, I became a fan of these guys.
Simply put, they pose as big corporations who’ve acted professionally irresponsible, even criminally so, then offer a false, but hilarious scenario in which company reps come clean about what they’ve done. They operate like modern day Robin Hood muckrakers, but instead of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, they pose as the rich and turn media focus on the poor and disenfranchised, who can’t afford a pricey mouthpiece or legal team advocating on behalf of them.
It’s hard to do justice in describing their clever antics. They must be seen to be believed. Learn more about them, including future plans, in my interview with The Yes Men.
Was there ever a stunt you guys conceived of doing – then for whatever reason backed off before it went forward?
Yes, most of them! Especially during the Bush years, which were so infuriating that they filled the head with many unrealizable fantasies. But we only went forward with the ideas where we were not going to hurt anyone, so that really limited the number that went forward.
Have family/friends been supportive of your work? Did any disapprove, or has it been a real thrill for them to see you guys do what you do?
Everyone we know initially warned us that we would get into lots of trouble for doing these things. They were all wrong, and we are so glad that we did not self-censor based on fear. The parents, they approve. Friends, them too. I suppose there are enemies who are annoyed, but we tend not to know them very well.
In The Yes Men Fix The World, people or security seem close to getting too “familiar” – even physically hands on – was there a time when you guys felt physically threatened or ever even assaulted in some way?
We never really felt threatened – in the conference environment everyone is really rather polite. We have been in protest situations however that were a lot less friendly… like being tear gassed by the Italian police in Genoa at the G8 meeting in 2001. In our experience, they never use tear gas, clubs, or bullets in business conferences.
What do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen – of Borat and Bruno fame – is he a kindred spirit or inspiration to you?
We like him! Ally G. was pretty amazing at setting up some truly powerful people and making fun of them in revealing ways. Borat was funny. Bruno wasn’t so funny. He really went off the rails on that one. But we think that Cohen has done some great stuff.
In the same spirit, what of satirical sites like The Onion – are they just entertainment – or does satire inspire or influence you in more socially responsible or substantial ways?
The Onion is a great read. Good satire is important, we love it. In Berlin last year at the film festival we were complaining to a Russian journalist about how we were not sure if it was effective. She looked at us like we were nuts, and said, in a very serious way, “Humor and Satire brought down the Soviet Union.” She was convincing.
Have ‘institutionalized’ satire/comedy shows like Saturday Night Live become too soft/safe? Is there still room for sharp socially biting satire on shows like that?
Saturday Night Live is definitely soft. You know, anything on TV is soft. Take Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) – we love it! It’s great! But it’s all squishy, because the writers are constantly having to write around the idea of criticizing specific corporate targets. Seriously, check it out, and think about how many potential advertisers are in their cross hairs. I’ll wager that you can’t find many specific corporations that are singled out for ridicule. That is really one of the big problems facing us… communicating useful critical information to a mass audience isn’t easy when there are always market pressures causing de-facto censorship.
Would you ever want your own weekly satire/comedy show? Or would a more serialized format be too stifling?
We are doing a pilot with Planet Green, so I suppose the answer is, um, yes! And yes, it probably will be too stifling! But also liberating. Its fun to think of doing a half hour instead of making and entire movie.
As you guys become more known – is it harder to disguise your looks to pull off stunts – or are people you fool so focused on their own world, they’re not even aware of you?
Seems that so far it has not been harder. We know a little bit more about how to do it each time, and it seems like when people recognize us they usually keep quiet because they want to see the outcome!
What’s up next – branching out in other avenues? I heard about a comic book – is that still a go?
There’s a comic book put out by World War III illustrated. It’s funny. It really uses “The Yes Men” as characters in a really off-the-wall adventure. It doesn’t serialize our real-world actions, rather its wonderfully demented illustrated fiction that does stuff only a comic could.
We also have another book out there now that is more of an activity book. It has a bunch of fun things to do- like survivaball-building instructions, make-your-own press passes, etc.
But the main focus or our activity is something we are calling “the Yes Lab”- which is a way to get more people involved in these sorts of projects, and a way to spread the joy to organizations that want help using our techniques. It will be quite a ride.
Anything bothering you now that you’d like to tackle, or can you not comment for fear you’ll alert people and ruin a stunt before time?
There are so many things bothering us… but yes, we must keep it all secret… heh.