By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Groups once stigmatized can try to shed the stigma by morphing into a subculture or a "community," or, if politically oriented, a movement.
It's happening or has happened with old people, fat people, transsexuals and countless others. In that spirit, MTV's new "How's Your News?" show can be seen not as exploitation of people who have mental disabilities but rather as the expression of a subculture that has much to contribute to the mainstream but never had much of an opportunity.
"Can be" is the operative phrase, because some people might still see the half-hour program -- premiering Sunday night -- as some sort of condescending abuse, especially because the executive producers are Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the smart-alecky pair who turned children into foulmouthed cynics with their callous "South Park" cartoon. But "How's Your News?" is clearly not in the "South Park" vein; it's upbeat and moving and the disabled or disadvantaged people who star in the program appear to exert enough control over the content to dispel charges that they're being used.
An informational magazine rather than a true "news" show, the program offers a free-form mish-mash on random topics that seem to have popped into the heads, singly or collectively, of its unique cast of reporters, who ride around in a bus looking for suitable stories or waiting for stories to come to them. The premiere is made up mostly of celebrity interviews with the likes of Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana, of course), Jimmy Kimmel (who fantasizes about being a cable installer), comic Sarah Silverman ("you always make me cry," she tells one member of the troupe) and the rock group Plain White T's.
John McCain is glimpsed briefly, talking casually with one of the disabled reporters as if hobnobbing with any other constituent. Likable John Stamos pretends to be pretending to be a hitchhiker picked up by the "How's Your News?" bus. Surfers, skateboarders and the very available Ben Affleck also show up.
As viewers are invited to laugh with the reporters rather than at them, the non-disabled people who appear on the show have fun with them rather than make fun of them. Contrary to typical dramatic depictions of "special" souls in supposedly sensitive movies, these disabled folk have senses of humor even about their own situations and circumstances. They are in on the joke; they are telling the joke; they are part of the greater joke being played on us all.
One of the stars of the group is Bobby Bird, a man with Down syndrome who is in his 50s and who speaks in a private language that to others sounds very close to meaningless babble. He seems to know that's how people respond to him, however, and has fun with it, turning the tables in a way that makes a supposedly normal person feel isolated and out of it -- ostracized, as mentally challenged people often are.
Once he lights up, Bird isn't always easy to turn off. In a sequence taped on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, Bird charges up to anybody and everybody and lays some of his infectious gibberish on them, so that we hear one of Bird's colleagues saying "Bobby, stop" in an effort to get the interview back on track. A young man named Jeremy -- a born performer with an ebullient and guileless smile (as well the genetic condition Williams syndrome, which causes developmental problems) -- attempts to interview Cyrus during a Bird blitz. This is funny in ways that nothing else on TV is funny, just as the show is a genre all to itself.
"How's Your News?" mercifully was not tossed together after a brainstorming weekend at a Hollywood bar. It's the fruition of a project that goes back a decade or more to Camp Jabberwocky on Martha's Vineyard -- a place for those with physical as well as mental disabilities. Arthur Bradford, a video enthusiast who worked at the camp, introduced TV cameras into the curriculum, as it were, and was delighted when the campers responded energetically.
Seeing yourself on TV isn't like seeing yourself in a mirror. It's better -- and worse. Contrary to a ridiculous truism, the camera does lie, and can be made to lie a proverbial blue streak, but it also has a way of uncovering heretofore unnoticed angles and unrealized reality. When the disabled campers saw themselves on television, they were in some way liberated and empowered.
Taped sequences were turned into a documentary, which became a feature film, which was shown in 2003 on HBO, which has now evolved into this MTV series, albeit one with only six produced episodes so far; more will come if the show catches on. (According to a network spokesperson, the reporters are being paid for their work, and thus not being exploited in that way, either.)
Tony DiSanto, an MTV executive, has been quoted as saying, "The show fits the MTV brand because it really feels like it belongs on our network, because you can't imagine it anywhere else." That's baloney, and not only because "branding" is a concept that has been done to death several times over; it's also because the show can easily be imagined on Bravo, Lifetime, HBO, National Geographic or any of several other specialized cable networks.
On MTV, it's being lumped in with three other new shows that constitute a revised Sunday night block. "How's Your News?" should fairly easily outshine the others because it truly is different and because it offers a perspective unavailable anywhere else. Will some of the same kids who jeer at the disabled among them tune in to laugh at those appearing on the program? Maybe, but the last laugh will probably be the reporters'.
The show isn't really "about" mental disabilities; it's just a chance to look through someone else's eyes and see the world in ways you've never seen it before. It could be part of a course in the humanities, or just a course in humanity. It's also a wickedly entertaining half-hour, one you'll never regret having surrendered to your television set.
How's Your News? (30 minutes) debuts Sunday night at 10:30 on MTV.