w. kamau bell is totally biased. and totally funny.

In 2010, I was the lead curator for terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA Arts Festival, which celebrates a variety of solo genres. It presents magicians, burlesque, storytellers, dancers and comedians. One of those comedians was W. Kamau Bell, a funny, smart, social activist from San Francisco.

If you haven’t heard of W. Kamau Bell, he recently procured a late night talk show on the FX Network by means of another little known comedian, Chris Rock. Mr. Rock (who seems to be everywhere these days), is executive producer on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. It premiered two weeks ago after one of my favorite shows, Louie.

Whenever someone I know gets a break, I really hope they knock it out of the park. I was eager to see what Kamau would do with this golden opportunity, and I’m pleased to report the show is wonderful. It’s not because the show is funny. It is, and if it weren’t, Totally Biased would be totally dead in the water. It’s great because at the center of his show is truth. The adage, “It’s funny because it’s true,” is elevated by a heart we haven’t seen in late night comedy for a while.

On the second episode, Rachel Maddow came through and talked about comedy entering a golden age. She emphasized how humor opens avenues that lead to important issues.

And that is precisely why “Totally Biased” is brilliant.

The strongest segment from the two aired episodes is Kamau’s man-on-the-street segment, “Stop & Frisk,” where he interviews people, including a representative of the ACLU, about the NYPD’s stop and frisk strategy, which violates individuals’ civil rights.

Kamau sheds a light on this racially charged strategy and ends the segment with a list of impractically funny items to put in your pockets “to make it a little more awkward for them, and a little more fun for you.” It’s truth mixed with absurdity as only W. Kamau Bell can do.

For me, a white man who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn – or someone who never gets stopped and frisked on the street – W. Kamau Bell pushed me to research the issue. The New York Times has a great analysis of the strategy, along with a documentary short featuring the neighborhood of Brownsville.

It’s super to see Kamau simultaneously making it in TV-land and making a difference. Here’s to many seasons of thought-provoking, hilarious comedy.

Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell – Thursdays at 11:00pm, after Louie.

Sources: NYTimes.com, Totally Biased YouTube

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the truth of the matter

“The ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences.”
– Noam Chomsky

“Truth is the most valuable thing we have, so I try to conserve it.”
– Mark Twain

“The Truth is more important than the facts.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

I’m going to say it. There’s a bloody carcass in the middle of the room, and everybody’s pouncing on it. Mike Daisey said and did some things. Things – from his world view – that didn’t jive with much of the rest of the world’s view. Journalists and theater practitioners alike have weighed in. I’m weighing in again, hopefully for the last time.

Let’s try to forgive.

I know. Too soon. Some will forgive. Some won’t. But what if we did?

There’s a line. Everyone has it. I have it. You have it. It’s that line you won’t cross. We assess how much collateral damage one is willing to leave behind after one crosses “that line.” For some, they’d do anything for fame, power, or money. They’d do anything to get ahead. Kill. Maim. Torture children. And I’m just talking about FoxConn. Others will go to war to change the world. Our own nation does it time and time again.

But we collectively accept those lies. Those ‘truths.’ We allow politicians to tell us one thing one day, and another the next. We watch television and call it reality. We accept cock-and-bull from pundits and players looking to get paid for stirring up the pot. And Mike Daisey stirred it up.

Let Mike do what Mike does, I say. The karma he’s created is strong. He knows this indiscretion will follow him, so let Mike wrestle with his own conscience. We need to focus on how we can be diligent and smarter theater artists and administrators. This event can strengthen our industry, if we learn from it. If we take our eye off the ball because we’re nitpicking at each other over the way one man portrayed “The Theatre” in the mass media, we’ve got deeper problems than I thought. We must continue endeavoring to change the world for the better with our work.

This is the purpose of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: To change the world. Its message deserves to continue. The working conditions at FoxConn are much bigger than Mike, his few fabrications, or the theater arts. Many artists are preparing presentations of Mike’s downloadable monologue. When these performances occur, I hope they are presented in context. By providing context, the truth of the story lives on, preserving the facts, while informing the audience of the monologue’s mendacity. It’s how Mike must contextualize the story now, and this framework imbues it with integrity.

As theater practitioners, we want the world to notice us. We want so badly to carve out a niche for ourselves because the slices are so small. There isn’t enough for all of us to eat, so when one of our own falls, we leap on the carcass in front of us. But what does it say about us when we cannibalize our own? Certainly, this is a great opportunity to reflect and discuss ethical and litigious issues, but shredding Mike Daisey does little more than throw fuel on an already raging fire. Let’s quench the flames and choose to rebuild.

We’ll be stronger for it. And that’s the truth.

______

If you are in the New York City or Washington D.C. areas, there are two panels this week and next about these topics. Every crisis is an opportunity. Let’s use it to learn and grow.

Truth in Theater: A Conversation (NYC)
The Public Theater

Thursday, March 22 at 8pm
Seating is free but limited; for tickets, call the Public at 212-967-7555.
(This is not a Public production)
Convened by TONY theater critic Adam Feldman, the panel will discuss questions of veracity, ethics and artistic license in nonfiction-based theater. Participants include writer-director Steven Cosson (This Beautiful City), playwright-performers Jessica Blank (The Exonerated) and Taylor Mac (The Young Ladies of…), and critic-reporters Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Jason Zinoman (The New York Times).

Discussion at Woolly Mammoth Theater (Washington, D.C.)
Tuesday, March 27, at 7pm
Reservations are encouraged; for tickets, call Woolly Mammoth Theater at 202-393-3939
(This is sponsored by Woolly Mammoth)
A free and open discussion to the public. It will be hosted by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director, and Jeffrey Herrmann, Managing Director. They aim to engage with the audience about this subject.

the transmedia and transgressions of mike daisey

Everyone’s always asking the question about Alternate Reality Games:

“Do you let your audience know it isn’t real?”

Alternate Reality Games or ARGs are common lingo amongst any of you transmedia folk who read this; however, to most of my theater colleagues and the general public, ARGs are something new. ARGs are interactive stories using real world scenarios with other media platforms to deliver a story that may be altered by participants’ ideas or actions. Often, in the beginning of an ARG, one cannot tell what part of the game is real and what isn’t.

Mike Daisey Photograph: Kevin Berne

Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has been a news sensation sensation since last year. It brought attention to the poor working conditions for Chinese laborers in FoxConn factories that make most of Apple’s devices. Yesterday, the story surged again. This time, the news was about Mike, himself. In an episode titled “Retraction,” Mike admitted to “This American Life” host Ira Glass certain portions of his monologue are fiction. Now, the issue of truth – not only in journalism but also in theater – is being called into question.

The monologue – whether by design or accident – became transmedia with Mike’s appearances on multiple television shows, news programs, and his blog. Mike also did something he had never done before: He wrote down his script. Famous for only performing with an outline, Mike transcribed the monologue and made it available for download so anyone in the world may perform the text royalty free. This act for a playwright is rare. It’s benevolent, and it helped spread the story.

Mike spurred countless to act. But as puppet master, the beast got to big for him to wrangle. I’m not suggesting Mike started out with a plan to fool the world, but once people became mobilized, everything changed. Sometimes, people tell the stories they want to be true because it will change reality.

Going to the theater, whether for a live performance or film, we suspend our disbelief. We do this with books, games, and even campfire stories. We know there’s not really a boogieman coming to slash us in our tent in the night, but we still might lose sleep as our imaginations run wild. Even with true stories, we all know there’s a little embellishment tossed in for flavor.

When I saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I never thought it was 100% true. I’ve worked with too many playwrights and solo performers to know personal stories are massaged, characters combined, and scenes interwoven to manipulate an audience’s emotions. I assumed Cathy, Mike’s translator who appears as a main character in the monologue, must be a composite of several translators Mike employed as he traveled China.

Still, I was converted. I became an evangelist for the cause. I did exactly what Mike wanted me to do. I posted Mike’s final plea to the audience on my blog. I emailed Apple CEO Tim Cook. I allowed the meme Mike dropped into my brain to grow into a belief and change me. That’s what good theater should do. It changes people.

But now, all the world’s truly a stage. Pundits and reporters are merely players spouting half-truths to advance causes. That’s what Mike did. He discovered a way to spill the story out from the theater and into the mainstream media to activate real change.

However, during the initial fact-checking of Mike’s monologue for “This American Life,” Mike continued the ruse, which was his horrible misstep. People are happy to be entertained by fiction. They’ll even be inspired by fiction to change the world, as I was. They just want to know whether they should suspend their disbelief or not. Mike didn’t offer that option.

In 2011, I saw another solo show based on a true story. When John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown played on Broadway, John included an author’s note in the Playbill about the authenticity of his stories:

“While based on truth, events within the play have been re-created for clarity. Some moments in the piece fall out of their original timeline to create a more streamlined narrative. One or two characters are an amalgam, but all are portrayed true to my remembrance of them. I had to change some names at the behest of my lawyer for litigious reason. Though all the dialogue is essentially true, it has been distilled and concentrated. I’m not a good liar, so it’s not dramaturgy, only lack of artifice.

I wish to transport you into my world as I saw it – rootless and undocumented. It’s my endless quest to examine my life, to create a history and legacy where there wasn’t one. I try not to judge those chemical and electric moments that have forged me as a storyteller as good or bad, but as stepping stones toward self-expression and self-fulfillment. I always felt that the more times I told my tale to as many people as I could find, I could exorcise the pain from my soul. I also felt that the admission of my culpability immediately absolves me of responsibility for the consequences. Being self-aware means one is not lying. And no one outside of politics likes a liar. Doing a live autobiography before one is dead is maybe an act of self-destruction and maybe an act of shedding an old skin. It’s an act of self-hate and self-adulation. It’s many contradictory elements combined to create an illusion of normalcy, which hopefully allows you to come with me on this journey toward a victory over those forces we don’t understand, called life.”

Mike has a two-line disclaimer in the Playbill for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in all caps:

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE SOURCES.

Changing names to protect the innocent is not the same as fabricating meetings with fictional FoxConn workers poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, used for cleaning iPhones. The difference between the two disclaimers is the lens through which the audience absorbs the stories.

One positive takeaway is the “Retraction” episode of “This American Life” is a solid hour of radio journalism. These days, when everyone is device driven and obsessed with retinal resolution, one of the earliest forms of media offered a riveting, revealing exposé. They shined a light on Mike Daisey’s betrayal of Ira Glass’ trust.

Ira even says to Mike: “I vouched for you.”

That means something. Especially to a journalist.

Context matters. Fictional stories can spread anywhere now and, too often, news organizations fail to vet them. One must be careful not to discredit one’s own cause. Even if Mike Daisey’s sprawling narrative wasn’t intentionally an ARG, there are many now who feel played. He stirred up the media, FoxConn, and the mighty giant, Apple. “This American Life” even continues to acknowledge this issue of poor working conditions in Chinese factories is not going away.

At the end of “Retraction,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg offered many facts about the working conditions. Then, Duhigg shifted to an editorial tone, impressing on Ira Glass:

“You are actually one of the reasons why it [the poor working conditions] exists.  If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.”

Sounds like Mike’s Agony Ecstasy meme survives, which is really the objective of his monologue. It’s also clear when telling stories based on truth, context matters. Whether it’s a stage play, film or ARG, letting the audience know a story isn’t 100% factual protects artists from a world of scrutiny and offers the audience an opportunity to go along for the ride with abandon.

No doubt, Mike will rise up to tell a new tale. He’s a storyteller. It’s what he does. I’m sure he’ll come up with a hum dinger.

::

To download the transcript of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs GO HERE

To listen to “Retraction” on “This American Life” with Ira Glass GO HERE

tax parable disciples stoke fire: #ows edition

This morning, I woke to read a post on Facebook. I debated responding, for I typically don’t like getting into disagreements about politics or religion on Facebook. These people are my friends, family and colleagues, and I don’t wish to alienate them.

However, the longer I digested it, the more upset my stomach grew. It’s clear the wealthy still do not understand the plight of the poor. Below, I’ve posted the “Bar Stool Economics” analogy I read on Facebook, and following, is my response.

The fights down at Occupy Wall Street and other Occupations around the world are not about “getting our fair share” or “beating up on the wealthy.” They aren’t only about taxes. They’re about holding big banks and businesses responsible for decades of abuse of honest, hard-working people.

Let’s not just assign numbers to people. Let’s look at both the haves and the have nots as real human beings. Then, maybe the change we desperately need will emerge.

BAR STOOL ECONOMICS

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100 and if they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something
like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1.
The sixth would pay $3.
The seventh would pay $7.
The eighth would pay $12.
The ninth would pay $18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.)

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.” So drinks for the ten now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free…but what about the other six men – the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’. They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay. And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before…and the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20,”declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,” but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man who was now paying nothing, along with the first four. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!”

“That’s true!!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got
only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first five men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmospheres somewhat friendlier.

David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics
University of Georgia

For those who understand, no explanation is needed…
For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible.

THIS WAS MY RESPONSE:

If only everyone would go out drinking together, we could all figure it out.

My guess, though, is the tenth man would never be caught dead at the same bar as the first man, since the tenth man put the first man there by gambling away the first man’s money in hedge funds and bad mortgages.

The second man is a woman, for it should be clear: not all poor or rich people are men. This woman lost her job in 2008 because she worked for the tenth man’s company and they had to downsize. It’s been four years since she’s held a salaried job, and she’s got two sons going to college. She doesn’t know how she’s going to pay outstanding medical bills after her husband died of kidney failure in 2009.

The third man is pushing seventy, unable to retire because his retirement money was tied up in the stock market, so he works at Wal-Mart to make ends meet.

The fourth man is just getting back on his feet after a couple years of unemployment. He temps in a corporate office but loathes his job and the people with whom he works because he watches them scheming to make more money off the pain and suffering of others.

Perhaps, the reason they’re all ganging up on the tenth man isn’t because he “gets all the breaks,” but rather it’s because the tenth man put them there in the first place and wants them to stay there while he continues to profit from poor people’s misfortune.

But maybe I’m over-complicating it.

I, as the esteemed doctor Kamerschen* says, will probably never understand.

* Upon further research, I discovered (after I posted this on Facebook) David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D. didn’t even compose this parable. It’s been clogging email boxes for almost ten years in different forms with spammers attributing it to various economics experts, including Thomas Davies, a Professor of Accounting at the University of South Dakota. While Professor Davies did share this with his graduate students, he did not write the analogy, and he maintains he shared it only to get students to “think outside the box” regarding tax laws.

As with many viral memes, this is inaccurate, overblown and downright destructive. If you see this parable, please debunk the misnomers within, or at least let people know David R. Kamerschen and Professor Thomas Davies did not pen it.

PS – If you’d like to hear an economist debunk this analogy in more detail, Professor Richard Wolff summarizes the problems in the parable with this video.