Writer, filmmaker and noted wit Michael Moore is as popular as he is controversial. His work is very politically-driven, and some of his critics claim that it's also more biased than a documentary-maker should be. Others accuse him of being a privileged, hypocritical 'limousine liberal'. However, to his many fans and supporters, Michael Moore is a powerful and much-needed voice against corporate corruption and political deception. This entry takes a look at Moore's TV work.
Pets Or Meat: A Return To Flint (1992)
A 23-minute, made-for-TV epilogue to Roger & Me, documenting the fates of some of the characters seen in Moore's first film. The title refers to a woman who was seen in Roger & Me, as a rabbit breeder, offering them for sale either as companions or as meals. When making Pets Or Meat, Moore found that she had retired from the rabbit business and taken up breeding rats and mice to sell them as reptile food.
Moore also found that Roger Smith had retired as CEO of General Motors. However, Smith had no need to take up a new occupation, as he was living on a pension of $1 million per year.
In 1992, while struggling to raise money to finance the making of his movie Canadian Bacon, Moore was surprised to get a call from the NBC television network asking if he had any ideas for a TV series. He hadn't previously considered the idea, and when he met the network's executives he expected his idea for a humorous, polemical, anti-corporate magazine show to be rejected. To his amazement, the executives loved the idea, and TV Nation was born.
The pilot show set the tone for the series. It included an investigation into whether it was easier for a white felon or a distinguished black actor to get a taxi in New York. TV Nation hired Louie Bruno, a white man who'd done time in four different prisons, and Yaphet Kotto, a highly successful black actor, to test New York's taxi drivers.
As a native New Yorker, Kotto probably wouldn't have been at all surprised by the outcome. Although a few cabbies stopped for him, the majority sped past to pick up Bruno, waiting a little further down the road. When this happened, Bruno asked the driver to take him a short distance to where a TV Nation crew was waiting to ask the driver why Kotto had been ignored. The driver would usually either claim not to have seen the actor, or say that he thought Kotto looked threatening; but the same thing happened even when Kotto tried to hail a cab while holding a baby and a bunch of flowers.
The TV Nation pilot show also included an item in which Moore travelled to Moscow to try to buy the missile that had been aimed at Flint during the Cold War. He didn't succeed, but he did get to drink a toast1 to peace with Sergei Sergovich, former missile site manager for the Kremlin. The pilot show got tremendously positive responses from test audiences, but plans for a series were put on hold simply because NBC couldn't find a space in their schedules for the show.
The TV Nation story might have ended there but for the intervention of Michael Jackson - not the singer, but a namesake who was then head of BBC2. He heard about the show, requested a tape of the pilot episode from NBC, and loved what he saw enough to offer BBC financial backing for a series. NBC accepted the offer, and the pilot show was finally screened on 19 July, 1994. It was followed by six more weekly episodes and a year-end special.
Highlights of the first series included an episode in which, to illustrate the power of lobbying groups in American politics, TV Nation hired its own lobbyist and got a motion passed in Congress officially declaring 16 August, 1994 'TV Nation Day'.
Another episode featured what the show described as 'communism's farewell tour'. TV Nation hired a huge truck, painted it red, added massive hammer-and-sickle emblems, filled it with communist literature and paraphernalia, and had it driven across America. Stops on the 'tour' included one right outside the White House, where the truck's driver disembarked to find himself immediately surrounded by Secret Service agents. Asked what he was doing, the driver uttered the immortal reply: 'I'm just haulin' some communism, sir'. He was allowed to go on his way.
Moore's co-presenters on the show included actress-comedienne Janeane Garofalo, film-maker/actor Rusty Cundieff and Louis Theroux, whose talent for interviewing unusual and extreme characters first came to the fore on TV Nation.
TV Nation switched US TV networks for its second seven-week series, which ran on the Fox network from 28 July - 8 September, 1995. The second series introduced a new star: Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken. Crackers was the show's very own superhero. He toured the USA investigating corporate wrongdoing, from a St Louis factory causing lead pollution to a Philadelphia bank making outrageous charges. The seven-foot chicken suit contained John Derevlany, one of the show's writers.
Other highlights of the second series included 'Payback Time' and 'Love Night'. In the 'Payback Time' segment, TV Nation repeatedly phoned the head of a leading American telemarketing company at home to 'tell him about their show'. TV Nation also took a dozen cars to the driveway leading to the home of the CEO of America's biggest car alarm company, and set their alarms off at 6am. The corporate chairman came on to the driveway in his pyjamas threatening legal action (which never materialised).
'Love Night' saw the TV Nation crew disrupting a Ku Klux Klan rally with the help of some very courageous cheerleaders and an equally intrepid mariachi band. They also sent a gay men's choir to sing love songs outside the home of Senator Jesse Helms, a politician infamous for his fierce denunciations of homosexuality. Sadly, Senator Helms wasn't at home when the choir called, but his wife came out of the house and thanked them for the music.
In between the stories in each show, the results of some unusual surveys of American public opinion specially commissioned by TV Nation would be announced. The polls results included the news that 39 per cent of Americans believed that guns were 'not as dangerous as they say'; that 29 per cent believed that Elvis Presley was right to shoot TV sets; and that 37 per cent agreed that while they would hate being British, they wouldn't mind having a British accent.
On 9 September, 1995, the day after the last episode of TV Nation was broadcast in the USA, the show won one of the country's most prestigious broadcasting awards: the Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series. Nevertheless, neither NBC nor Fox decided to commission another series. The main problem was a logistical one: TV Nation's in-depth investigations meant that each show took a month to create.
So TV Nation ended; but Moore would eventually return to television with an even harder-hitting show.
The Awful Truth
First broadcast in 1999 and 2000, The Awful Truth carried on from where TV Nation left off. It retained the magazine format of the earlier show, with a series of scathingly satirical items in each show. Even Crackers, the Corporate Crime-Fighting Chicken, made a comeback.
However, one key difference was that The Awful Truth went out on Channel 4 in the UK and Bravo in the USA. Both channels had a reputation for challenging the limits of acceptability in broadcasting, and Moore seized the opportunity to make his humour even darker and bolder. The Awful Truth didn't worry too much about being tasteful, but did take care to keep its humour pointed and powerful.
In one episode, Moore noted that George W Bush and his brother Jeb, then the Governors of Texas and Florida respectively, both presided over states where an exceptionally high number of judicial executions were taking place. Moore suggested that perhaps the two brothers were having a private competition to see which of them could preside over the most legal killings, and reported on the 'contest' as if it were a sporting event. The Awful Truth even sent teams of cheerleaders to stand outside Texan and Floridan prisons when executions were taking place, cheering as George or Jeb notched up another 'score'.
Another item, broadcast near Christmas, began with Moore announcing that as it was the season of good will, he was going to make a friendly gesture towards the corporate world. He was sending a choir to sing Christmas carols at the headquarters of the giant tobacco company Philip Morris.
Naturally, there was a twist. The members of the 'choir' were all people who'd contracted throat cancer due to smoking and lost their larynxes. They 'sang' via electronic voice boxes.
Campaigning alongside Crackers was a 'Gay Team' who travelled across America to fight homophobia in a pink car dubbed 'The Sodommobile'. After one of their escapades, Moore correctly remarked: 'We'll never get back on NBC now'.
The Awful Truth entered a ficus plant as a candidate for a seat in the US Congress, arguing that the plant was more environmentally friendly and less corruptible than most human politicians. The show also sent a pimp to Congress to 'organise' some Congressmen, on the basis that the politicians were apparently as available for hire as the pimp's usual charges, but might 'sell themselves' more efficiently given real professional guidance.
One item on The Awful Truth definitely made a major difference to the world. It focused on Chris Donahue, an American diabetic who had been told by doctors that he needed a pancreas transplant to save his life. Unfortunately, his health insurance company refused to pay for the operation.
The Awful Truth took Donahue to Florida's Palm Beach Post newspaper to write his own obituary. Moore then invited the insurance company to help their customer choose a coffin, and staged a funeral 'rehearsal' outside their offices. The pressure worked. Within a week, the company reversed their earlier decision and accepted the claim, paying for Donahue's operation. They also announced that they'd revised their policies on all claims for pancreas transplants.
An unusual feature of The Awful Truth was 'The British Minute'. Because of differences between the amount of advertising inserted into the show by Channel 4 in Britain and Bravo in America, Moore was obliged to provide an extra 60 seconds of content exclusively for UK transmission. Moore would announce the onset of 'The British Minute' during each show, and usually filled it by chatting directly to camera.