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First Person

How Close to the Truth Is His Spoof?

April 06, 2002|HARRY SHEARER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the wackiest things about making motion pictures that fall into the wide categorization of "spoofs" is that you often end up doing the very thing you're making fun of. My colleagues and I in "Spinal Tap" felt this way when we started touring as, pardon the expression, an "actual" band. Running into jive promoters and weird hangers-on backstage, having frustrating sound checks and bounced paychecks, we would think, "Didn't we already do this movie?"

Similarly, in writing and directing my new independent comedy, "Teddy Bears' Picnic" (which opened Friday), I was making fun of the possible exposure of a deep, somewhat dark, secret. In promoting the picture, I'm helping to expose that secret. The clandestine knowledge is of a hidden society of movers and shakers, a summertime retreat of the richest and most powerful white men in our country. It sounds like a delightful conceit, except that such a secret retreat has existed for more than a century, about 450 miles north of where you're sitting right now.

San Franciscans have always--how it pains me to write this!--been ahead of the rest of us in their awareness of Bohemian Grove. They'd have to be; the headquarters of the club that sponsors that annual retreat in redwood country is right in the heart of what they still insist on calling The City. When a couple of producers came to me asking if I'd be interested in doing a project about a fictionalized version of the Grove, my brain contained nothing more than the factoid most known to non-Northern Californians--isn't that the place where Kissinger and those guys walk around naked and urinate on redwood trees?

Yes, as it turns out, it is. Not only Kissinger, but most, if not all, Republican presidents, heads of major corporations and universities and a sprinkling of the least Jewish of show folk have long availed themselves of the Grove's rustically lavish hospitality. The first thing that lured me into the project was the essential absurdity of the scene. Here you have grown men, awash in wealth and power, spending a precious week away from the burdens of care and commerce, and what's their choice in leisure activities? The aforementioned irrigation project, along with drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol and putting on amateur theatricals with many members in drag.

In short, a regression to the world of the college sophomore, conducted on an unlimited budget. But there's a subtext to the adolescent frivolity. Although the real retreat's motto is similar to the one in my movie, "Have no care, ye who enter here," the encampment features a few high-minded talks on subjects of import--sort of a lakeside "Nightline."

And, given the kind of folks who are both members and invited guests, protesters and conspiracy theorists have insisted for years that the world is being micro-managed from the lodges and cabins along the Russian River.

So, even though this fact is well hidden for much of the movie, I ended up making a political comedy. A senator from Rhode Island (played by Fred Willard) proposes that "we take the handcuffs off the nuclear power industry." An Air Force lieutenant general (George Wendt) sees no limit to the use of force to protect the retreat's privacy. An industrialist (Kenneth Mars) lobbies the senator for a tax break for firing workers.

It's hard to make a real political comedy in Hollywood. Well, it's hard to do anything in Hollywood; bringing "Dude, Where's My Car?" to the screen was probably a wrenching struggle. But the mainstream entertainment moguls insist that the main characters in their comedies learn Lessons About Life by the sixth reel.

Of course, politicians along with most of the people I see around me (as well as in the mirror) refuse to learn lessons about life, or much else. That's one of the things that makes us humans funny: Though we've got all the physical equipment to engage in continuous learning, we'd just rather do something easier, like memorize baseball stats. People who are as obtuse and self-absorbed at the end of a story as at the beginning (or even just people who know what "obtuse" means) are verboten in mainstream comedies.

But it's also hard to make a political comedy, as opposed to a political satire. In my mind, the latter work often involves the assigning of "good guys" and "bad guys" labels, based on ideology, and the audience is expected to root rather than laugh. In a political comedy, the following assumption is made: These people are behaving no differently than the way you and I would, if we were exposed to the same privileges and temptations. You can't turn that premise into a theme-park ride.

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