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Television

A Liberal Dose of 'The Awful Truth' From Michael Moore

May 22, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Satire is what closes on Saturday night," George S. Kaufman once famously quipped.

Kaufman's own theatrical career disproved that, as did later television programs, such as "The Carol Burnett Show" on CBS and "Your Show of Shows" and "Saturday Night Live" on NBC.

Besides, he said nothing about Wednesday nights, when TV's smartest, funniest, meanest, most subversive political satire now invades cable's Bravo from the dark, twisted warrens of Michael Moore's weirdly energized psyche. Smart and funny, that is, if you're a social liberal with a bent sense of humor and politics that coincide with those of Moore, who works tirelessly at being a royal pain from the left on his weekly magazine of short videos, "The Awful Truth," which he hosts, writes and orchestrates.

Now identifiable in his ball cap and rumpled, crumpled, glorious grunge, Moore first turned heads in 1989 with "Roger & Me," his celebrated documentary style film that wittily captured his efforts (presented with a spin) to personally inform General Motors Chairman Roger Smith of a Flint, Mich., plant closing's devastating impact on the community.

That led to "TV Nation," his short-lived series on NBC and Fox in the mid-'90s that extended to prime time his assault on corporatedom and other cloud-dwelling institutions that are rigidly indifferent to average Americans on the lowly pavement.

Moore is a thorn, a hangnail, a hair in the eye. Making trouble is what he lives for. He's poised to agitate. He's a ticking time bomb of ridicule. It's visible in the puckish smirk that you couldn't sandblast from his chubby face.

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Bravo and "The Awful Truth," now into its second season, are one of TV's odder couplings. Unlike Moore, Bravo not only doesn't kick ass, but probably wouldn't let him even say it. "The Awful Truth" is easily the spiciest thing going on this stodgy cable channel that reflexively bleeps coarse language and displays its respect for the arts by lethally ramming commercials through the hearts of its relatively highbrow films.

Coincidentally, much as Moore drives stakes through the hearts of his targets. Or are they pigeons?

Last season they included Clinton pursuer Kenneth Starr, whom he sought to torment by showing up with his own team of witch-hunting Salem puritans, and an HMO, whose representative he invited to a mock funeral (with hearse and coffin) of a client denied coverage for a pancreas transplant.

Clearly, Moore and his tiny band of co-farceurs take no prisoners.

That includes this week's bull's-eyes: "Compassionate conservatives," the gubernatorial Bush brothers and four New York City cops who fatally plugged an unarmed Guinea immigrant last year as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. On Wednesday, they're in Moore's cross hairs.

Moore is hardly the only satirist regularly working the TV circuit, where animated series such as Fox's "The Simpsons" and Comedy Central's "South Park" are driven by the impulse to parody, and "Saturday Night Live" remains in the spoof business. What are the late-night monologues of Jay Leno and others, moreover, if not litanies of jokes shrilly commenting on politics and other aspects of contemporary life reflected in the day's headlines?

Yet Moore's brand of lampooning--a hybrid of staged mischief, ambush journalism and tenacious muckraking--is unique on TV. And right-of-center flimflammers and hypocrites beware!

Take the business-suited "compassionate conservatives" that Moore's correspondent, Karen Duffy, assembles in a section of Manhattan for a game of ball-tossing "Dunk the Homeless," the target being an indigent man in a chair perilously suspended over a tub of water. Later she supervises so-called conservatives playing "Pie the Poor," their compassion evident when they allow their clobbered targets to lick the pie off their own faces.

See how awful the truth can be.

As it is when Moore takes to the street himself to organize "The African American Wallet Exchange," meant to memorialize Amadou Diallo being blown away by those four cops who were acquitted of criminal charges after testifying that they blazed 41 shots at him when mistaking the wallet in his hand for a gun.

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So here is Moore, with several of New York's finest eyeing him warily, distributing orange wallets that glow in the dark to a throng of African American men in exchange for those he says he is confiscating from them.

"Pull your wallets out slowly. Don't make any sudden move. Now place them on the ground. Step back from the wallets."

The centerpiece of the hour, though, is correspondent Jay Martel reporting in-depth on "who's the toughest Bush" when it comes to executions, Florida Gov. Jeb or his brother, George W., the Texas governor and presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

All of this is heavily skewed against both Bushes, of course, for "The Awful Truth" is as untrustworthy--you're ever dubious about what really happens, who is and isn't legit and how this is edited to fit Moore's agenda--as it is darkly funny.

Turning capital punishment into a macabre sports metaphor, Martel travels south for "Florida's big home opener," the first lethal injection of the season. At one point, he pushes his way into some big event featuring Jeb to excitedly gush his support ("I'm a great fan of Florida"), after which he is told by the governor to "chill out," forcibly removed, patted down by cops and driven off in a squad car.

Unchilled, Martel next surfaces outside a Texas execution, having brought in a big scoreboard and a team of chirpy, pompom-flinging cheerleaders: "George, George, he's our man. If he can't do it, nobody can!"

This appears to be one endorsement that George W. can live without.

* "The Awful Truth" can be seen Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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